William "Froggie" James
William "Froggie" James was a former laborer in Cairo, Illinois. James was lynched and mutilated on November 11, 1909 by a mob made up of townspeople after James was charged with the murder of 24-year-old shop clerk Mary Pelley. James was denied his due process, after the judge had delayed his trial. The townspeople of Cairo formed a mob and murdered James, along with a second prisoner from the town jail. The lynching drew crowds of thousands, and led to the Illinois State Legislature passing 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 the State. The lynching also mobilized advocacy groups in the state to push for more legal protections of African-American communities in smaller towns.
The town of 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. Underground liquor establishments were common in the town, and prostitution brought in a considerable amount of income. Most of the crime of the city occurred in "low-dens" of the city, and involved organized crime. The racial tension before the lynching had been relatively peaceful before the crime wave began. With the police force acting very slowly, the mob assembled and took justice into their own hands. The mob had been the harbingers of the justice process while the town police force struggled to handle the regular vice-work that occurred along the river, as well as the crime wave rolling through Cairo, and finally the task of patrolling the black community.
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. In 1901 alone, there were 135 lynchings in the state alone. 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 the drafting of 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. Deneen gained support from the black voters who saw him on his side. While most of the state supported lynching laws, smaller towns did not support these laws. Lynching was seen as a sort of peoples justice, as river towns began to become more and more embroiled with vice related activities. The laws were laxly enforced in the areas where lynchings ran rampant. Police were overwhelmed with regulating the influx of organized crime mostly revolving around prostitution and smuggling of alcohol. Mob justice took precedent when police action failed to keep pace with the sentiments of the community.
Stacy Pratt McDermott's 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. After Pelley was murdered, authorities immediately centered on James as the prime suspect. Even though James denied the murder, and had an alibi backed up by his sister and neighbors, a handkerchief that resembled one near the crime scene was found on his property. Mobs began to form across the river, and citizens started to "investigate" the crime scene and James' home. The mob began to carry out their own due process of James, since the police force did not align with the desired time frame. Hearing plans of the assembling mobs, the police force began to increase security by the jail house, and even dismissed several groups of would-be citizen investigators from the crime. While the security was effectively keeping the jailhouse secure, the history of social disorder proved 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 James into the dark woods on the night of the 9th as the mob began to plan their attack on the town. To avoid the even further inflamed racial tensions in nearby towns, the three stayed in Karnak, Illinois, about twenty-seven miles north of Cairo. Hearing of the officers and James fleeing, three hundred 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 took custody of 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 wo- man, 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)
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 ax. Salzner's sentencing was scheduled to be held later that month, but the mob decided to serve their own justice first. Salzner was lynched and shot in the public square similarly to James. After the second lynching, shouting matches and minor looting gripped Cairo until the next morning when the Illinois National Guard implemented martial law and restoring order in the town.
In the aftermath of the event, many prominent figures and groups denounced the melee. Governor Deneen responded to the Cairo lynchings by calling the mob violence "an outrageous proceeding and a disgrace to the state of Illinois." Deneen relieved Sheriff Davis and Deputy Fuller of their positions. The recently founded National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) was used as the first advocacy group to use William James's case as an example of the ineffectiveness of anti-lynching laws. The group sent civil rights activist Ida B. Wells down from Chicago to Cairo when Sheriff Davis was applying for reinstatement. Well's presence caused quite a rift in the Cairo black community, mostly because of the conflict of allegiances tied with Sheriff Davis. Davis hired black men to his police force, and the black community respected the sheriff for granting their homes and families a relative safety not often afforded to other small river town black communities. Plus, members of the black community believed that James did in fact commit 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. Davis was not reinstated, and Deneen passed an order mandating that presiding officers would be relieved of their job if they failed to protect their prisoners. These laws effectively led to the end mob driven lynchings in the state of Illinois. While similar laws like this nationally didn’t work as well, these laws ended lynchings in the state.
- 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.
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- 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.
- B, Wells-Barnett, Ida (1902). "To the Members of the Anti-Lynching Bureau". gildedage.lib.niu.edu. Retrieved 2017-11-02.
- 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.
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