Sunday, February 2, 2014
Laurens County Lynchings A Rarity in a Violent South
Lynching was a horrible and unforgivable part of our past from the Civil War until the end of World War II. While lynching was not as rampant as some have led us to believe, the number of documented cases of lynching in Laurens County is amazingly very low. In only three cases were Laurens County men lynched by Laurens County vigilantes. In one case, the victim was hung by men of both races. In one of the rarest cases of lynching ever reported, the victim survived the lynching. In three other cases, the victims were executed by outside perpetrators.
Henry Burney was charged with the robbery of Dublin merchant J.M. Reinhart. Having been found innocent of the charges brought against their client, Burney's lawyers sought to charge the prosecuting party with false imprisonment. A mob of forty-two men took Burney from the jail, led him out of town, beat him with fence rails and sticks and stabbed him repeatedly. The lynchers asked Burney if he knew the way out of town. Burney nodded in the affirmative. He was given two days to leave and never came back. Burney traveled to Oconee, Georgia, where he exhibited knife wounds on his face and the rope used to lead him out of town.
On or about May 23, 1894 Gus Thompson, a Negro, was caught in the bed room of a Mrs. W.E. Couey, who lived about 15 miles from Dublin. Mrs. Couey told law enforcement officials that she had retired to her bedroom when she felt a hand on her bed. She screamed and the person sprang through the window and escaped. Mrs. Couey alarmed her neighbors of the purported crime. After an all night torch light search and a nearly day long hunt, Thompson was arrested and charged with trespassing in a house with the intention of committing a rape or other sexual offense.
Following Thompson's admission that he was in the house, but not for the purpose that he was being charged with, the Justice of the Peace committed Thompson to the county jail after a brief commitment hearing. About midnight on the morning of June 3, 1894, without any disturbance or alarm, a band of twenty masked men approached the jail. Three men entered the jail under the pretense of bringing in a prisoner. When jailer J.M. Raffield came to the door, the trio struck him on the head, bound his hands and gagged his mouth. His son-in-law, J.M. Kelly escaped through a window in the jail and tried to alarm the town. The lynchers bound and gagged a kicking and screaming Thompson and took him from the jail. Thompson's dead body was found later in the morning about ten feet from the roadside, bounded to a small tree with approximately twenty bullet holes in his head and chest. There was some speculation by reporters that the lynching would have occurred earlier had Mr. Couey been in town at the time of the alleged crime.
In the most documented case of an apparent lynching, Andrew Green was killed by a mob composed of black and white men near Govett, Georgia on August 22, 1897. Andrew Green and his wife were having marital difficulties to say the least. It was said that they had lived "as a man and wife should" though he forbade Mrs. Green from coming to town. On Sunday evening, in direct disobedience to Green's commands, Mrs. Green traveled three miles from their home near Garbutt’s Mills to Lovett, Georgia. Finding that his wife was not a home, Green set out to ascertain her whereabouts. Upon his arrival at the Lovett depot, Green found his wife sitting on a pile of railroad cross ties and engaged in a conversation with a Negro couple. Mystifyingly enraged, Green drew his .44 caliber Colt pistol and fired three times in the direction of his wife. All three shots missed his intended target, though two of the shots struck and wounded Mrs. John George, who was sitting with her husband talking to Mrs. Green. Thinking that he had killed his wife, Green bolted into his mule driven cart and attempted to flee the scene.
Enter George Heath, a prominent Lovett merchant, husband and father of four. Realizing the depravity of the event which occurred before his eyes, Heath ran after Green, who was violently whipping his mule to sprint. Green drew his pistol again and fired at Heath, who was just a few feet away. The fatal shot struck Heath between his eyes. Heath slumped onto the tracks, just as the Wrightsville and Tennille passenger train was pulling into the station. The train engineers slammed on the brakes in order to avoid running over Heath's perishing body. News of the tragedy spread like a wild fire throughout the town. John George, husband of Green's first victim, joined a hastily formed posse composed of both black and white citizens.
Approximately fifty well armed and mounted men set out to the east toward Garbutt’s Mills in hot pursuit. An exhausted and justly terrified Green was captured in short order by his pursuers. In a matter of minutes, the murder of George Heath and the wounding of Mrs. George was avenged. Green's body was riddled with Winchester rifle bullets and pistol balls.
A series of fires galvanized the Caldwell area on August 26, 1919. Three Negro churches and a Negro lodge were simultaneously burned by a organized group of arsonists. There was a rumor circulating that the Negroes of the area were going to "start some kind of trouble" in the area. The normally quiet community in lower southwestern Laurens County was thrown into an uproar. Several white citizens made immediate announcements to help the citizens rebuild their buildings.
In the sixth lynching in the triangle between Eastman, Caldwell and Yonkers, Eli Cooper was shot and incinerated by a mob of unknown origin and size. It was alleged that Cooper had been talking in a manner offensive to the white people of the area. The source of the remarks appear to have come from a Chicago newspaper, which had been circulating among the Negroes of the community. It was rumored that the Negroes of Caldwell would stage an uprising within the next thirty days. Cooper reportedly said, "the Negroes have been run over for fifty years, but this will all change in thirty days." The lynching occurred twenty-three days after an unidentified Negro was lynched in Beckley County for similar utterances.
Eli Cooper was taken by fifteen to twenty men from his Laurens County home which was located two or three miles from Caldwell. As many as fifty bullets riddled Cooper's body, which was thrown into the flames which were engulfing Pathway's Gift Church sometime between one and two o'clock of the morning of August 28, 1919. When the smoke cleared, it was determined that Cooper's body was found among the ashes of the church, which had been given to the Negro people of the community by A.P. Pathway, whose plantation was located along the W&T Railroad between Caldwell and Plainfield. Dodge County Sheriff C.N. Mullis, Judge Joel F. Coleman, Dewey Mullis and John L. Crave visited the scene of the regrettable event. Sheriff Mullis was convinced that the lynchers were not from his county and promised to make an effort to determine the identity of the perpetrators. Eighty five years after the lynching, octogenarian residents of Caldwell were interviewed about what had happened. While some residents did not remember the story at all, others recalled that Cooper was lynched for making a pass at a white woman or actually raping the woman.