Lynchings: A stain on our past

WAY BACK WHEN

May 05, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Even though public executions in Maryland ended when Gov. Albert C. Ritchie signed the Death Chamber Bill, passed by the General Assembly in 1922, the awful spectacle of lynchings continued around the state.

Between 1882 and 1933, there were 32 lynchings in the state, but no lynchings took place between 1911 and 1931, until Matthew Williams was lynched on the Salisbury jail lawn.

Curiously, Marshall E. Price of Caroline County was the only white man to meet his fate at the hands of a lynch mob in 1895.

In 1911, a mob of white men stormed the Brooklyn jail, then in Anne Arundel County, which was without police protection, and dragged King Johnson out and shot him. The four men were arrested but later found not guilty.

The last victim of a lynching, in 1933, was George Armwood, who had been charged with attacking a 71-year-old white farmer's wife near Princess Anne. Held in jail in Princess Anne, Ritchie refused to have him moved to Baltimore as rumors circulated that he might be lynched.

On Oct. 18, 1933, a crowd of some 5,000 whites, many of them well-dressed, gathered in Princess Anne. Intent on taking the law into their own hands, they made way for the jailhouse that was under the protection of 20 state police officers.

An unidentified eyewitness account published in The Sun said: "The way I looked at that mob, if one shot had been fired by the cops they'd have been lucky if one of them got out of there alive. That mob would have massacred them. It meant business. There wasn't any laughing at the crowd."

Illuminated by the headlights of a car parked nearby, they began see-sawing a huge battering ram back and forth and eventually succeeded in battering down the jailhouse door and capturing a terrified Armwood.

"I can't describe the kind of howl-like noise that went up from the mob when the jail door gave way," the witness reported. "I guess the best description would be - it was something like the noise in the cat house at a big zoo when the keepers begin passing out the day's meat."

Armwood was then dragged through the streets at the end of a rope while spectators gazed upon the scene.

"When they strung the Negro to the tree they kept yanking the body up and down, up and down, letting it strike the ground, and then yanking it up again. Each time they yanked that howl would go up again and somebody'd yell, `Is he dead yet?'

"I can't tell you how it made me feel, I know I looked up there and saw the Negro hanging from the rope in the darkness and I said to myself, `Are you living in the year 1933?' I don't ever want to see anything like it again," the witness recalled.

An eerie quiet fell over the town as the mob dispersed. For several hours, Armwood's body laid in the road after being cut down. An endless procession of men and women walked up to it and gave it several swift kicks. Others gleefully displayed pieces of the rope, which suddenly become cherished relics.

By the next day, "You think nothing had happened at all," a resident told The Sun. "It's business as usual and there was nothing crest-fallen about the people you saw on the streets."

"Well," observed another citizen of Princess Anne, "it would have cost the state $1,000, I guess, to hang that man. It only cost us 75 cents."

"The result is that through the efforts of the Princess Anne mob, the name and fame of Maryland have been stamped upon the consciousness of the country in such a way that they will soon not be forgotten. When a man says he is from Maryland today, people raise their eyebrows," said an Evening Sun editorial.

"Again, a mob has been permitted to disgrace the Eastern Shore and the State of Maryland. ... The Negro is taken from the officers of the law by the lowest element of Somerset County and is lynched. He is lynched in the most bestial manner and his body is burned," read an editorial in The Sun.

While the case shocked the nation and became the focus of a 1934 investigation by the U.S. Senate, which held hearings on the national epidemic of lynchings, the federal anti-lynching bill that came out of its hearings never became law.

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