In the early years of the last century, on the first Monday of every month, a group of old men, Wacoans, sat on iron benches under a tree and discussed the Bible. On all sides they were hemmed in by a loud crush of horse traders and vegetable hawkers, moving about in a city square that would in a few days accommodate thousands of transfixed souls. The tree hanging over these men, out of respect to the group’s weighty subjects, became known as “the Tree of Knowledge”. A small box containing a Bible was lodged permanently in a hollowed-out space of the tree, and it was referred to as the discussion demanded. This spot might have been the Jerusalem of Waco, but the city itself was commonly referred to as the “Athens of Texas.”
It was home not only to Baylor, but also to two black colleges. In addition, Waco was the second largest producer of cotton in Texas and, situated at the intersection of seven major railroad lines, considered itself the largest market for cotton in the entire country. So when the old men on the benches looked past each other they would have seen a city full of advancement and commerce. Their eyes would have admired the Alico Building’s prominence on the skyline, the first skyscraper ever built in Texas.
On Monday, May 8, 1916, at sundown, hours after these men would have gone to their separate homes comforted by good company, Lucy Fryer, 53, was found dead in a pool of blood inside the doorway of her seed barn, about thirty steps from her house. A neighbor, one Cris Simon, was the first to supply the police with any direction. He had seen a black farm laborer, seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, heading in from the fields and toward the seed house only a few minutes before Lucy’s two children found their mother’s body.
Jesse Washington was large and strong, but illiterate and perhaps retarded. The reports afterward are not clear as to whether Washington was actually retarded, but one of the most significant indications, according to the investigator Elisabeth Freeman, was that he made no effort to escape after supposedly killing Lucy Fryer. He was found planting cotton, right where he should have been. He was frightened when arrested, but soon “curled up in the automobile and went fast to sleep.” Although his guilt remains in question and, without any other suspect, the evidence seems to weigh against him, his behavior after being detained is at the least highly abnormal.
Initial reports from the press precluded any possibility of a fair trial. Newspapers wrongly reported that Lucy Fryer had been assaulted (raped). They drummed up hatred for Jesse Washington among their white readers using language like: “That Mrs. Fryar [sic] had made desperate resistance against the brute who assaulted her and then completed his fiendish crime by killing her, was unmistakable.” This from the Times Herald was in tune with the two other major Waco newspapers in portraying Washington as a brutish rapist, a detail which, far from being harmless but unsubstantiated, contributed significantly to the riotous fervor surrounding Jesse Washington’s murder trial.
There is evidence that points to Washington’s guilt, but nothing conclusive. His guilt, however, is not relevant to this story, so suffice it to say that he may very well have killed Lucy Fryer, and he may well have been mentally unstable. He did in fact sign a confession admitting guilt, but he was illiterate and the language of the document, we can imagine, is quite unlike the language he would have used. But that is irrelevant; his trial and its aftermath are the only thing at the heart of this story.
Prosecutors tried to rush through his sentencing so that public opinion would not have time to foment and issue in a violent lynching, an experience not unfamiliar to an area notorious for mob violence. Jesse was indicted on May 11 and his trial was set for the following Monday morning, May 15, 1916, one week after Lucy Fryer’s murder.
Six inexperienced lawyers were chosen to represent him on that Monday. Not one of them spoke to their client before the trial. As Bernstein points out about the nature of these speedy trials, “the practice of lynching was to be ended by hustling defendants through fast-paced trials and straight on to eternity in record time — in effect, converting illegal lynchings into legal ones.”
The Sunday before the trial hoards of people starting streaming into Waco from outlying cities on the railroad lines. People came from every town within twenty miles to come see Washington’s trial. On the morning of the trial, according to the Times Herald, as many as twenty-five hundred people crowded into Judge Monroe’s courtroom, “churning around the chamber for an hour, flooding the balconies and standing two persons high wherever a railing or a bench permitted.”
The trial started at 10 a.m. Were the old men under the tree speculating or were they fighting for a view of Jesse Washington? The prosecution presented their evidence and the crowd boiled. Washington’s defense declinded to make a final argument. Four minutes after the jury retired they came back and at 11:22 foreman W.B. Brazelton read the verdict: “We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder as charged in the indictment and assess his penalty at death.”
All of a sudden, as the court officers were preparing to take Washington away, a young farmer in the back cried, “Get the nigger!” A man standing by the judge said, “They are coming after him”, and then the thousands of bodies started rushing in unison to get their hands on Washington. The sheriffs had already silently exited the courtroom to avoid a confrontation with the wave of people. The mob tackled a terrified Washington and carried him by the collar down the back stairs and out into alley, tearing off his clothes as they went. Once outside they strapped a chain around his neck and proceeded to drag him down Washington street. One of the most chilling descriptions came from an observing reporter, who said that Washington “became the plaything of the mob.” As they dragged him down Washington street, which now holds Waco’s shame in its name, the young black boy cried out, “Haven’t I one friend in this crowd?” He didn’t. The crowd had already begun slashing him with their knives and “he was covered in blood long before the square was reached.” Every man had his turn at the plaything, with shovels, bricks, clubs, and anything that could inflict pain.
The chainholders turned on Second Street to take Jesse to City Hall to burn him alive, in the direction of the iron benches and the tree of knowledge. At City Hall they threw the chain wrapped around Washinton’s throat over a tree limb and pulled on it to hoist him up and dangle him before the crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 that packed into the city square. Washington grasped at the chain around his neck; the men closest grabbed his arms and cut off his fingers so that he would stop. The Times Herald: “Fingers, ears, pieces of clothing, toes and other parts of the negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob that had crowded the scene as if by magic.” At least one onlooker testified later that the mob swept in to “unsex” Jesse Washington. Stories abound from later years in which residents proudly show off parts of Jesse’s body to the young like souvenirs, saving them in attics or in jars of formaldehyde.
The hanging and the knifing were not enough for the incensed mob though. A box of kindling was placed under the tree, just below Washington’s feet, and set on fire. The man holding the chain dipped Washington’s body, “half alive and half dead”, in and out of the blazing box for the enjoyment of the packed crowd. The mayor watched from the window of his office in City Hall. Coal oil was poured over Washington’s body to intensify the fire and as it overwhelmed his red body “shouts of delight went up from thousands of throats.” Astonishingly, Washington was still not dead at this point; he was very strong.
As you will see in the pictures below, after two hours nothing was left of Washington’s body but a skull, torso, and stumps of his former limbs. Everything else was either smoldering on the ground or tucked greedily away in coat pockets or hats. After these several hours, reported the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune, “the worst happened.” To avoid needless rephrasing, I will quote Bernstein:
“About mid-afternoon, a horseman came along, lassoed what was left of Washington’s body and began to drag it around the square and then through the streets of town while waving his hat in the air. Somewhere along the way the skull bounced loose from the rest of the body and was placed on the doorstep of a prostitute on “Two Street,”, where it was picked up by a group of small boys who extracted the teeth and sold them for five dollars each. The rest of the body, now tied behind a car, was dragged all the way back to Robinson (Washington’s home town), and hung from a telephone pole in front of a blacksmith’s shop for everyone to see. Toward the end of the day, Constable Les Stegall went out and picked up the sack and brought it back to town, where the little that was left of Jesse Washington was buried in the local potter’s field.”
It is hard to add anything to the unutterably gruesome details of this lynching. I can’t help but wonder whether the crowd, by accident or intent, draped the chain over this tree of knowledge. I wonder whether that Bible in that hollowed out place was inches from his body, what it would mean if it was. I wonder what those old men said about God that morning if they met before the trial. Or if they could still look each other in the face next week when they started in on Scripture. Whatever tree Jesse Washington died on, there is a kind terrible irony that inches or feet away that Bible was hidden, watching while thousands huddled together with their backs turned away from it.