Friday, September 23, 2011

When Lynch Mobs Ruled

Every family has those stories.  You know what I mean.  Those stories.  Many genealogists refuse to include those stories in their reports:  the unmarried mother, the horse thief, the Army deserter.  Undoubtedly, the most famous story coming from our family archives involves the brother of my husband's great-grandfather who was one of the victims in the only lynching to ever take place in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  That isn't the way I would want to be remembered, but the story is definitely a true one.

The name Rufus is a Biblical name meaning "red-haired" according to my Funk & Wagnalls.  I have never seen a photo of Rufus Estep or read a description of his physical characteristics, so I have no idea what color his hair was.  He was the third child of Wesley and Mary (Polly) Pritt Estep.  Wesley had been a soldier in the Union Army during the recent unpleasantness, serving in Company E of the 8th Regiment of the West Virginia Volunteer Infantry. 

Rufus would have been completely anonymous if it had not been for the lynching.  Louis Harlan writes of the environment in Malden at that time in Booker T. Washington in Perspective.  The economy was depressed and not diverse, depending on the salt works and the coal mines on Campbell's Creek.   In the late 1870s the situation improved a little with the salt works working to fill some orders.  Child labor substituted for adult employees; there weren't enough jobs to employ the entire working population of the area.  Grown men with much time on their hands spent a great deal of it drinking which led to labor unrest and other violence.  "A week seldom passed without a violent death or maiming accident in the coal mines, a drowning in creek or river, or a scalding in the boilers and vats of the salt works."  Saturday was payday at the Campbell's Creek mines and that led to drinking and street fights on Saturday night in Malden.

The story has been copied and printed many times. The most often cited report about Rufus is found in the account given by George W. Atkinson's History of Kanawha County, 1876.  On Christmas Eve, 1875, a 40-year-old man named Thomas Lee was murdered on an iron bridge crossing Campbell's Creek at Malden, West Virginia.  No mention is made about how officials determined who the suspects were in the case.  I have my own opinion, but however the investigation developed, on Christmas Day the police arrested Rufus Estep and John Dawson and placed them in jail in Charleston.  Kind of ruins the family dinner on Christmas. 

Public opinion was so outraged by this unprovoked murder that a mob formed after Lee's family insisted they were not going to let the murderers get off in court.  Harlan writes that only one man in 25 years had been hanged for murder even though there were an average of two murders per year.  Because of the murmuring mob, the sheriff, Philip W. Morgan, enlisted the help of  John Lentz, John Perry, and Silas Morgan, waited until dark and then transported Estep and Dawson to the Cabell County jail in Barboursville.  In a version of three-card monty, two days later the prisoners were moved to the Wood County jail in Parkersburg where the prisoners were kept until their court date in January 1876. 

The Kanawha County court and the prosecuting attorney determined that there was no longer any danger of mob violence, so back to Charleston came Rufus Estep and John Dawson.  Exactly one month after the murder Estep and Dawson were arraigned in the Kanawha County court on the charge of murder.  Their attorneys, R. H. Freer and Abram Burlew, requested a change of venue, due to the armed mob knocking on the court house doors.  John Kenna and James Ferguson, attorneys for the state, strongly opposed the request, and Judge Joseph Smith adjourned court so that he could consider the request and render a decision the next morning.  Estep and Dawson were returned to their cells while a mob of about 450 men continued to assail the court house. 

On this same day, another murder occurred on Anderson Street where Thomas Hines, a white man, cut the throat of J. W. Dooley, a black man, in Dooley's shoe shop.  Hines was also placed in the Kanawha County jail.    That night the mob advanced on the jail and took Dawson and Estep.  At the same time a mob of about 50 black men joined in to take control of Hines.  The reasoning of the second mob was that Hines would get off his charge of murdering a black man because he was white. 

Both of these mobs and their prisoners travelled to the bridge over Campbell's Creek in Malden (the same site of the murder of Thomas Lee), a distance of about six miles.  In the minds of the first mob, I suppose it was justice that the lynching would occur at the site of the murder.  There was discussion, according to Harlan, that it wasn't right for black men to lynch a white man and that the white mob should lynch all three prisoners.  In an equal opportunity moment, it was decided to let the black mob take care of their own business.  Dawson and Estep were lynched at the bridge; Hines was lynched on a honey-locust tree about 300 yards above the bridge.  The next morning the authorities (unnamed in the narrative) cut down the bodies and buried them.  No mention is made of where the men were buried.

Now the story does not end here.  George W. Atkinson, the author of this version of the story, was a young lawyer at the time of the lynching and an eye witness to much of the action.  It is said that he tried to reason with the lynch mobs before they overran the jail cells.  Atkinson became governor of West Virginia in 1896.  While he was governor, he was requested to come to the bedside of a dying man in Campbell's Creek who confessed to the governor that he had murdered Tom Lee at the Campbell's Creek bridge.   Governor Atkinson did not reveal this information until a few days before his death in 1925.  He told a Charleston Daily Mail reporter about the death bed confession and said he didn't reveal it because he "lacked legal evidence".  According to the reporter, Atkinson said the dying man was within hearing distance when Estep and Dawson pleaded for their lives.  The dying man had held a grudge against Tom Lee and that is why he murdered him. 

So there you have it.  This is the story as it is told in various sources.  I've not reviewed every source or version of the story, and I have many questions.  Did Governor Atkinson keep mum because he had an attorny/client relationship with the dying man?  Why did that man call the Governor to hear his confession?  I'm curious as to what evidence existed that led to the arrest of Rufus Estep and John Dawson.  My first guess:  a witness who may have been the very person who later confessed on his death bed and was actually in the lynch mob in January 1876, but I'm an extremely suspicious person.  A look at the court records would be interesting.  Were Rufus and John on the bridge at all that night?  Did they perhaps discover the body after Tom Lee had been killed?  Where is Perry Mason when you need him most. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Tao of Facebook

After the earthquake on August 23, several witty comments made the rounds on the internet.  One of the more popular ones said, "MSNBC reports that the Washington Monument is tilting to the left; Fox News says it's tilting to the right."  I thought that was funny, so I posted it on my Facebook account where a friend wrote, "And somewhere in between is the truth."  Well, maybe not.  In this particular case, this would mean that the Washington Monument was perfectly straight and not leaning at all.  I think my friend missed the point that this was only a joke.

Logically speaking, my friend's thinking would mean that the moderate point of view is always correct.  It may seem that way to many people, but there is no evidence to prove that this is the case.  It is just as possible that the extremist left point of view is the truth, or that a conservative opinion is true.  It's hard work to sort through the facts to determine exactly where the truth lies.  Truth is what remains after all other possibilities have been eliminated. 

The concept of truth is like a bar of soap in the shower:  crucial to accomplish the task and clean things up; sweet smelling, and hard to hold onto.  Consider the voices calling out, each one claiming to have the truth.  It isn't possible that all of them speak the truth, yet each one says, "Believe me!  Trust me!  I can fix everything because I have the truth!"  If taxing the rich at a higher rate is more fair, regardless of what the outcome is, explain to me how that works.  Tell me what fair means.  If you come to a decision based on trite phrases you've heard repeated ad infinitum, you may want to gather and review more factual information to see if there is substance to the current talking points.

A friend on Facebook recently posted a quote from Walt Whitman.  "Whatever satisfies the soul is truth."  How existentialist!  The individual is everything, and there is no certain knowledge of what is right or wrong, or, in the terms of the 1960s, if it feels good, do it.  I agree that truth will satisfy the soul, but often we're tricked into thinking something is true because of faulty logic or misleading information, whether it's political, religous, or cultural.  The very things that we thought "true" or satisfying after a while induce pain in our lives.  I believe Whitman is wrong.  There is a cosmic truth, there are concepts of right and wrong to which we should strive.  There is a greater power than man.  And sometimes, the truth hurts. 

Facebook holds forth on almost any topic of which you can think.  Religion, politics, art, education and careers are all discussed openly.  Some statements are true; some are not.  On Facebook there is the freedom to post whatever is on your mind.  I've seen everything on Facebook.   Just today on Facebook the link to this site was posted:  The title of this post?  "Ponzi!  Ponzi!  Ponzi!  The Truth about Social Security".  I see.  This article may indeed hold the truth, but that cannot be determined until it is read, dissected, and tested. 

The income tax is the topic of discussions everywhere from Congress to Food City.  I think most people would agree that everyone needs to pay a "fair" share of their income for this tax.  But the definition of "fair" is complicated, and much like Walt Whitman, each individual has a different persepective on the truth of the matter.  The truth about the income tax should be clear-cut, concrete, and easily determined. 

The United States did not always have an income tax.  In the early days of our country, the government raised money by import tariffs, poll taxes, and excise taxes.  Abraham Lincoln implemented the first income tax in our nation to pay for the costs of the Civil War.  It was considered a temporary tax.  The United States again used an income tax to pay for World War I (top earners paid a rate of 77%).  In 1895 the US Supreme Court found the income tax to be unconstitutional, and in 1913 the 16th amendment was ratified to allow the government to implement the tax.  These are facts, but when the discussion turns to what is right and what is wrong, the truth flies out of our hands like that soap in the shower.

It would appear that by raising the rates the rich pay, more money would be paid to the federal government, but that isn't the case.  Larry Schweikart (48 Liberal Lies About American History) writes that federal income increased beyond economists' expectations when John Kennedy cut the tax rate.  When Ronald Reagan reduced the tax rate, federal income rose by more than 40 percent, with larger amounts coming from higher-income earners.  What should be logical (raise the tax rate, take in more money) turns out to be NOT true. 

The great truths of Facebook, unfortunately, feed the thinking of many people.  Is Social Security a ponzi scheme?  I think, by the strictest definition of ponzi scheme, that yes, it is.  Should we raise the tax rate on "rich" people?  I don't think the history of tax rates as they relate to actual federal income proves this is a good idea.  But, then again, my reading list is more extensive than Facebook.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life."  Jesus