William "Froggie" James

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William "Froggie" James was a laborer in Cairo, Illinois, who was lynched and his dead body mutilated on November 11, 1909, by a mob of townsmen after he was charged with the rape and murder of 24-year-old shop clerk Anna Pelley.[1][2][3][4]

James was denied due process and lynched before the police investigation had been completed. The townspeople of Cairo formed a mob and murdered him, along with a second prisoner from the town jail whose trial had been delayed. The lynching drew crowds of thousands, and led the Illinois State Legislature to pass a series of anti-lynch and anti-mob laws that led to major reforms throughout the Midwest involving the sentencing and protections for African American people in Illinois. The lynching also mobilized advocacy groups in the state to push for more legal protections of African-American communities in smaller towns.


Cairo, Illinois, had been experiencing a surge of racial tension due to a crime wave at the end of 1909. The town police force was lethargic due in large part to the town economy being primarily based on vice-related activity.[5] Underground liquor establishments were common, and prostitution brought in considerable income. Most of the town's crime occurred in "low-dens" of the city, and involved organized crime. Racial tensions had been relatively low before the crime wave began. With the police force acting very slowly, the mob assembled and took matters into their own hands.

Anti-lynching legislation[edit]

Years before James's lynching, the Illinois State Legislature implemented a series of anti-lynching laws to curb the racial tensions that had been brewing throughout the state.[6] In 1901 alone, there were 135 lynchings in Illinois.[7] Anti-lynching bureaus formed to assemble political capital to pass anti-lynching laws. While anti-lynching proponents met considerable resistance, civil rights leaders in Chicago, such as Ida B. Wells, gained significant ground in drafting anti-lynching laws. These leaders were able to gain the support of Illinois Governor Charles Deneen, who was imperative in drafting the 1905 anti-lynch laws passed in Illinois.[6] Deneen gained support from black voters, who saw him as being on their side. While most of the state supported lynching laws, smaller towns did not. Lynching was seen as a sort of "peoples' justice", as river towns became increasingly embroiled in vice-related activity. The laws were laxly enforced in areas where lynchings ran rampant. Police were overwhelmed with regulating the influx of organized crime, mostly revolving around prostitution and smuggling of alcohol. Mob action took precedence when police action failed to keep pace with the sentiments of the community.


Stacy Pratt McDermott's 1999 article "'An Outrageous Proceeding': A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905–1910" analyzes the events leading to James's final moments. Pelley's twisted and bruised dead body was found gagged with a cloth in an alley on the morning of November 9. The police chief sent for bloodhounds and used them that day. The dogs led authorities to arrest five people: James, Arthur Alexander, Sam Mosby, Georgia Cooper, and another woman identified only by the surname Green. James and Alexander were the primary suspects.[8]

"James had no alibi for the hour between five and six o'clock on November 8, the time which the coroner's jury thought the murder to have taken place. The flour sack that Green had allegedly been washing upon her arrest matched the gag found in Pelley's mouth. Cooper's alleged statement that she washed James's bloodstained clothes on the night of the murder and James's muscular build added to the limited evidence."[9]

Mobs began to form across the river, and citizens started to "investigate" the crime scene and James's home. The mob began to carry out its own "investigation" of James, since the police force did not align with the mob's desired time frame.[10] Hearing plans of the assembling mobs, the police began to increase security by the jailhouse, and even dismissed several groups of would-be citizen investigators from the crime scene. While the security was effective in keeping the jailhouse secure, the history of social disorder suggested that the mob was only gaining strength and would eventually overpower the guards. Alexander County Sheriff Frank E. Davis and Deputy Thomas Fuller attempted to keep the detainees in the jailhouse safe from the impending invasion. Knowing the mob was targeting James, the two officers took him into the woods on the night of the 9th as the mob began to plan their attack on the town.[5] To avoid the even further inflamed racial tensions in nearby towns, the three stayed in Karnak, Illinois, about 27 miles north of Cairo. Hearing of the officers and James fleeing, 300 men from Cairo boarded a freight train to Karnak. The trio were quickly found and offered little resistance to the mob. The officers were disarmed and the mob kidnapped James. The next day, James, accompanied by the mob, arrived to a waiting crowd of hundreds at the Cairo train depot. McDermott describes his final moments,

The judges, jury, and executioners lifted the rope to avenge the dead woman, but the rope broke and threw James roughly to the ground. As he stood, several people in the crowd riddled his body with approximately five hundred bullets. William James was dead. [...] The mob ran with his bleeding body to the murder scene in the alley. One man chopped off James's head, put it on a pike, and lifted it up for the cheering crowd to see. The mob then set James's body on fire and roasted the remains while men, women, and children shouted and cheered. When the fire died out, the horror continued as people moved in to dismember the body. Some took out their pocketknives and cut off ears and fingers and broke up bones to take as gruesome souvenirs.

— "An Outrageous Proceeding"[1]

Henry Salzner[edit]

After James was dead, the mob returned to the jail and kidnapped Henry Salzner, a white photographer who was charged with murdering his wife with an axe. Salzner's sentencing was scheduled to be held later that month, but the mob decided to murder him first. Salzner was lynched and shot in the public square. After the second lynching, shouting matches and minor looting gripped Cairo until the next morning when the Illinois National Guard implemented martial law and restored order in the town.[1]


In the aftermath of the event, many prominent figures and groups denounced the murders. Governor Deneen responded to the Cairo lynchings by calling the mob violence "an outrageous proceeding and a disgrace to the state of Illinois." He relieved Sheriff Davis and Deputy Fuller of their positions. The recently founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) was the first advocacy group to use James's case as an example of the ineffectiveness of anti-lynching laws. The group sent civil rights activist Ida B. Wells from Chicago to Cairo when Davis was applying for reinstatement.[5] Wells's presence caused a rift in the Cairo black community, mostly because of the conflict of allegiances tied with Davis. Davis hired black men to his police force, and the black community respected him for granting their homes and families a relative safety not often afforded to other small river town black communities. Members of the black community also believed that James had committed the murder, and saw him mostly as a "worthless sort of fellow". Nevertheless, Wells continued her campaign to prevent the reinstatement, arguing that if Davis were to remain in his position, it would set a negative precedent for other towns to condone these kinds of attacks.[6] Davis was not reinstated, and Deneen passed an order mandating that presiding officers be relieved of their job if they failed to protect their prisoners. These laws effectively ended mob lynchings in Illinois.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

The television series American Gods, set partly in Cairo, depicts the lynching of James in its episode "The Ways of the Dead" in its second season.


  1. ^ a b c McDermott, Stacy Pratt (1999). "'An Outrageous Proceeding': A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905-1910". The Journal of Negro History. 84 (1): 61–78. doi:10.2307/2649083. JSTOR 2649083. S2CID 150209743.
  2. ^ Weiser, Kathy (July 2019). "Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism". Legends of America. Retrieved 2019-08-05. Will "Froggy" James, an African-American man, was charged with the rape and murder of white 22-year-old Annie Pelley
  3. ^ Beasley, Frank (2006). "PELLEY MURDER, Part 1". Alexander County, Illinois Genealogy Trails. Alexander County Illinois Genealogy Trails. Retrieved 2019-08-05. It was raining last night when 24-year-old Anna Pelley got off the streetcar at 28th and Sycamore
  4. ^ Niederkorn, William (2009-11-12). "One Lynching in Cairo, Ill.; Then, Another". Times Traveler, New York Times Blog. Retrieved 2019-08-05. James was accused of the murder of Anna Pelley, "a white girl,"
  5. ^ a b c Stepenoff, Bonnie. Working the Mississippi : two centuries of life on the river. Columbia, Missouri. ISBN 9780826220530. OCLC 910847819.
  6. ^ a b c 1905-1982., Chadbourn, James H. (James Harmon) (2008). Lynching and the law. University of North Carolina (1793-1962). School of Law., Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange. ISBN 9781584778295. OCLC 244222992.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ B, Wells-Barnett, Ida (1902). "To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau". gildedage.lib.niu.edu. Retrieved 2017-11-02.
  8. ^ McDermott, Stacy Pratt (Winter 1999). "An Outrageous Proceeding: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905 -1910". Journal of Negro History. 84:1 (1): 63. doi:10.2307/2649083. JSTOR 2649083. S2CID 150209743.
  9. ^ McDermott, Stacy Pratt (Winter 1999). "An Outrageous Proceeding: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905 -1910". Journal of Negro History. 84:1 (1): 64. doi:10.2307/2649083. JSTOR 2649083. S2CID 150209743.
  10. ^ Philip., Dray (2003). At the hands of persons unknown : the lynching of Black America (Modern Library pbk. ed.). New York: Modern Library. ISBN 9780375754456. OCLC 51330092.
  11. ^ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells-Barnett.