MAY 15, 1916 - Waco Texas

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Jesse Washington, a black teenage farmhand, was lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916 in what became a well-known example of racially motivated lynching. Washington was accused of raping and murdering Lucy Fryer, the wife of his white employer in rural Robinson, Texas. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime, but during his interrogation by the McLennan County sheriff, Washington signed a confession and described the location of the murder weapon. Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea, was quickly sentenced to death, dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco. The lynching drew a large crowd, numbering 15,000 at its peak. The crowd included the mayor and the chief of police, although lynching was illegal in Texas. Sheriff Fleming told his deputies not to stop the lynching, and no one was arrested after the event. The sheriff’s actions may have been motivated by a desire to deal harshly with crime to help his candidacy for re-election that year. Mayor John Dollins may have also encouraged the mob, owing to the belief that a lynching would be politically beneficial. As the lynching occurred at midday, children from local schools walked downtown to observe, some climbing into trees for a better view. Many parents approved of their children’s attendance, hoping that the lynching would reinforce a belief in white supremacy. Some white Texans saw participation in a lynching as a rite of passage for young men. Although supported by many Waco residents, the lynching was condemned by newspapers around the United States. Historians have noted that Washington’s death helped alter the way that lynching was viewed; the publicity it received curbed public support for the practice, and lynching became regarded as barbarism rather than as an acceptable form of justice.