The Lynching of Mary Turner
Mary Turner's murder remains one of the most horrific crimes of racial terrorism in this country's history. She spoke out against injustice and it cost her life and that of her unborn child. 100 years after her violent death, her memorial plaque has been defaced.
The History of Lynching
"Throughout the late 19th century racial tension grew throughout the United States. More of this tension was noticeable in the Southern parts of the United States. In the south, people were blaming their financial problems on the newly freed slaves that lived around them. Lynchings were becoming a popular way of resolving some of the anger that whites had in relation to the free blacks.
From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. These numbers seem large, but it is known that not all of the lynchings were ever recorded. Out of the 4,743 people lynched only 1,297 white people were lynched. That is only 27.3%. Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes.
Was lynching necessary? To many people it was not, but to the whites in the late 19th century it served a purpose. Whites started lynching because they felt it was necessary to protect white women. Rape though was not a great factor in reasoning behind the lynching. It was the third greatest cause of lynchings behind homicides and ‘all other causes’.
Most of the lynchings that took place happened in the South. A big reason for this was the end of the Civil War. Once blacks were given their freedom, many people felt that the freed blacks were getting away with too much freedom and felt they needed to be controlled. Mississippi had the highest lynchings from 1882-1968 with 581. Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. 79% of lynching happened in the South..."
In May of 1918, Hampton Smith, a 31 year old White plantation owner in Brooks County, Georgia was shot and killed by one of his Black workers named Sydney Johnson. Hampton Smith was known for abusing and beating his workers to the point few people in the area would work for him. To solve this labor shortage, Smith turned to the debt peonage system of the day and found a ready labor pool. He used that system by bailing people out of jail, people typically arrested for petty offenses, and having them work off their debt (the bail money) to him on his plantation. Nineteen year old Sydney Johnson, arrested for "rolling dice" and fined thirty dollars, was one such unfortunate person.
After a few days of work on Smith's plantation, and shortly after being refused his earned wages and beaten by Smith for not working while he was sick, Sidney Johnson shot and killed Hampton Smith. What ensued after the shooting was a mob driven manhunt for Johnson and others thought to be involved in his decision to kill Hampton Smith. That manhunt lasted for more than a week and resulted in the deaths of at least 13 people with some historical accounts suggesting a higher number of persons killed. One of the people killed was a woman named Mary Turner.
Thirty three year-old Mary Turner (m.n. Hattie Graham), 8 months pregnant at the time and whose husband had been killed in this "lynching rampage" on Sunday, May 19th, publicly objected to her husband's murder. She also had the audacity to threaten to swear out warrants for those responsible. Those "unwise remarks," as the area papers put it, enraged locals. Consequently, Mary Turner fled for her life only to be caught and taken to a place called Folsom's Bridge on the Brooks and Lowndes Counties' shared border. To punish her, at Folsom's Bridge the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her and burned off her clothes. One member of the mob then cut her stomach open and her unborn child dropped to the ground where it was reportedly stomped on and crushed by a member of the mob. Her body was then riddled with gunfire from the mob. Later that night she and her baby were buried ten feet away from where they were murdered. The makeshift grave was marked with only a "whiskey bottle" with a "cigar" stuffed in its neck.
Three days after the murder of Mary Turner and her baby, three more bodies were found in the area and Sydney Johnson was killed in a shoot out with police on South Troup Street in Valdosta, Georgia. Once killed, the crowd of more than 700 people cut off his genitals and threw them into the street. A rope was then tied to his neck and his body was drug for nearly 20 miles to Campground Church in Morven, Georgia, 16 miles away. There, what remained of his body was burned. During and shortly after this chain of events it is reported that more than 500 people fled Lowndes and Brooks Counties in fear for their lives.
The Other Victims
In addition to the heinous murders of Mary Turner, her baby, and Sidney Johnson, the following people were also killed that week in May, 1918.
Will Head the first victim, was captured and killed Friday morning, May 17, 1918. When caught by the lynch mob, Mr. Head allegedly confessed to a multi-person plot to murder Smith. Mr. Head was taken to Troupville, Georgia, five miles west of Valdosta and hung from a large oak tree by a mob of three hundred men or more. One report stated that a rope secured to the tree was tied around his neck. He was then forced to climb the tree and jump from a limb. Sometime after the lynching a "court" inquest into his death decreed that he "came to his death by jumping from the limb of a tree with a rope tied around his neck."
Will Thompson was captured by a mob and hung at Camp Ground Church in Morven, Georgia on the evening of Friday May 17, 1918.
Julius Jones was captured and hung late on Friday May 17, 1918. The specifics of his murder were not documented and his body was left hanging for at least one full day so the public could see it.
Hayes Turner was arrested on Saturday, May 19th for allegedly being part of a plot to kill Hampton Smith and was shortly held in the Brooks County jail. While transferring him to the Moultrie, Georgia jail for his safety, Brooks County Sheriff Wade and County Clerk Roland Knight were stopped by a mob of 40 masked men who took Hayes Turner into the night. He was later found hung at the intersection of Morven and Barney roads.
Eugene Rice was captured and hung in the afternoon of Saturday, May 19th at the Camp Ground Church between Morven and Barney, Georgia.
Three unidentified men were found in the Little River south of Barney. Very little is known about whether they were victims of the active mob that week in May or some past lynch mob.
Chime Riley was hung and later thrown into the Little River with clay turpentine cups tied to his body (to weigh it down) near Barney, Georgia.
Simon Schuman was taken from his home near Berlin, Georgia and was never seen again.
Dr. Christopher Myers's article "Killing Them by the Wholesale: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia" pgs. 214-235 in Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. XC. No. 2. Summer 2006.
Walter White's "The Work of a Mob," The Crisis 16 (September 1918), 221.
Dr. Julie Armstrong Buckner's text, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching, Georgia University Press, 2011.
"Memorandum For Governor Dorsey from Walter F. White," July 10, 1918, Papers of the NAACP, Group I. Series C, Box 353, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.