A swarm of perhaps 100 White men forced their way into the Douglas County Jail in Lawrence to grab George Robertson, Isaac King and Pete Vinegar from their cells and force them to the Kansas River bridge.
What happened next may come as a surprise to residents of a city burnished by a legacy of free-state abolitionist sentiment and knowledge of the mass slaughter of men and boys by William Quantrill’s pro-slavery raiders. The three Black men, with tacit endorsement of local law enforcement, were at the mercy of vigilantes. The throng placed ropes around the neck of each man. They were hanged until dead from the old stone, wood and steel river crossing.
“Early one morning in June of 1882, a masked mob of 100 men broke into the city jail and pulled out three African-Americans who had been jailed just a day or two previously,” said Randy Krehbiel, a member of Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence. “Took them to the bridge, which was a short distance away, a bridge over the Kansas River, and hung them off steel girders.”
Two of the three had been arrested for murder of a White man, but no evidence tied Vinegar to that crime. Cindy Schott and Kathy Schott Gates wrote about the lynching in their book, “Boys, Let Me Down Easy.” The title came from reports of King’s final words. His killers apparently obliged by lowering him gingery to allow him to slowly strangle rather than swiftly cause death by snapping his neck.
Here are the stories of a few of the documented lynchings in Kansas. As in most states, the records of lynchings in Kansas and Missouri are incomplete. The names of some victims have been lost.
“But the goal of hordes who sidestepped the legal system to impose their version of justice did little to obscure their intent to kill people and send a message to others in their communities,” said the Rev. Rachael Pryor, board chairwoman of Kansas Interfaith Action.
William Godley, French Godley and Peter Hampton – Missouri
Since Missouri was a slave state, it’s not as hard to believe lynchings occurred in the state and it may not be hard to believe how violent these actions were. In Pierce City, MO., in 1901 the victim – a White woman – had a fractured finger but there was no evidence she had been raped. William Godley, a Black man, was arrested and charged with rape and murder. A conviction ten years earlier for the rape of a White woman, based on a questionable eyewitness identification, had given Mr. Godley a reputation as a sexual aggressor. On Aug. 20, 1901, Mr. Godley was seized from the city jail by a mob of White men and lynched.
Rumors circulated that a Black man had attempted to shoot at the perpetrators during the lynching, and the mob moved from outside the jail to the Black section of Pierce City, where Mr. Godley’s grandfather, French Godley, was shot to death and Peter Hampton was burned alive in his home.
The violence and terror lasted nearly 15 hours. African-American residents fled for their lives, and the Black population of Lawrence County declined from 400 at the turn of the century to only 91 people by 1910.
Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen – Missouri
Two African-American men, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, were accused of sexual assault in April 1906 in Springfield, MO. With protecting White women often at the core of lynchings, any interaction a Black man may have had with a White woman could be interpreted as seeking or desiring contact her. Local publications agitated racist sentiments by blaming rising crime in Springfield on Black residents. Though both men had alibis confirmed by their employers, a mob refused to wait for a trial. Instead, the mob used sledgehammers, telephone poles, and other tools of demolition to gain entry into the men’s jail cells.
Just before midnight on April 14, they hanged Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker from a light tower in the town square and burned and shot their corpses while a crowd of 5000 White people participated. Newspapers later reported that both men were innocent of the rape allegation.
Continuing their string of violence into the early morning of April 15, the mob chased after Will Allen, who had been accused of a recent murder without evidence. He tried to hide from the mob, but was kidnapped and hanged from the same tower in the town square. Police and county officials did not act to prevent any of these lynchings.
Evidence of lynchings in Kansas extend to Saline County, where a Black man was arrested in 1893 for allegedly injuring a White boy with a razor. Rumors of a possible lynching convinced the sheriff to arrange transfer of suspect Dana Adams to Leavenworth by railroad. Adams was placed in a Union Pacific passenger car, but vigilantes unhitched the car as the train pulled away. The crowd gained access to Adams and hung him a telegraph pole at the station. No arrests were made in the slaying.
Nat Oliphant, Topeka, KS
In 1889, well-known burglar Nat Oliphant was arrested in the death of A.T. Rogers of Topeka. A crowd gathered at the jail managed to punch a hole in the building’s wall and gain entrance to the cell block. They threw a rope around Oliphant to drag him down the stairs and out of the jail. He was hanged from a pole near First National Bank building downtown. His body was reportedly cut down and put on display by a local undertaker. After burial, the corpse was stolen.
John Lawrence, Crawford County, KS
The southeast Kansas county of Crawford was witness in 1885 to the lynching of John Lawrence, 17. He was suspected of assaulting a girl. About 20 men broke down the door to Girard’s jail and proceeded to hang the Black man from rafters of an unfinished home. News accounts say the girl’s father emptied a handgun into Lawrence before the crowd dispersed.
She said records of lynchings were incomplete in Kansas and the names of some victims have been lost. But the goal of hordes who sidestepped the legal system to impose their version of justice did little to obscure their intent to kill people and send a message to others in their communities, she said.