Lessons from a Lynching

My great-grandfather was involved with a lynching.
Not as a participant, fortunately, or victim—but involved he was.
Though I had heard tales of this, I knew no details until my brother sent me a box of old newspaper clippings from our great-grandmother. From there, I was able to find a little more information online. Most of what follows, however, comes from those clippings.
On April 15, 1894, Seymour Newlin was accused of attacking and raping an elderly woman in Rushsylvania, Ohio, about 8½ miles from the county seat of Bellefontaine. He was captured by locals and held in a “calaboose.” Before the Logan County sheriff (my great-grandfather, John Sullivan) arrived, a crowd of some 2,000 had surrounded the building. The sheriff’s force was too small to force the issue and take the prisoner, and he was told that the jail would be dynamited if he even tried. He negotiated a face-saving truce (Newlin would be held until the arrival of a judge the next morning and given a speedy trial) and retreated. Of course, the crowd soon broke into the building and Newlin was quickly hanged.
One of the tattered clippings I have says this:

He [Newlin] effected an entrance through a window in the rear of the house, and removing his shoes, proceeded to the bedroom of Mrs. Knowles. She was aroused by his pulling at the bed clothing, and before she could utter a cry the villain clutched her by the throat, and with a threat to kill her if she made any resistance, proceeded to ravish her. Leaving his victim he escaped through an outer door.
After the fiend had accomplished  his hellish deed and  left, Mrs. Knowles made her way to the house of Mr. William Newland only a few feet away, and aroused him, when she was taken in more dead than alive. Dr. C. M. Fisher was at once summoned and gave much needed medical assistance. The shock is so serious that it may prove fatal.
Seymour Newlin is a colored man of about 30 years of age who has served three terms in the State Prison for sundry crimes.
He has been accused of several attempts to outrage women, and has been an all-around tough.
He was arrested yesterday morning and taken before Mayor Taylor who had him placed in the city prison until he should hear the case, Monday at 1 o’clock.
The news soon spread through the county and people began to arrive until they numbered many hundreds. Excitement was at fever heat all day, and the Mayor became convinced that the local authorities could not control the people.

Here ends the first fragment, with few words in subsequent lines legible. Another piece looks like it belongs with this, but with the little bit between crumbled away. The first complete sentence starts:

The Company arrived at 6:50, and were marched across the mill grounds to and in the rear of the city prison, and arrived there just in time to prevent the blowing up of the prison with dynamite, capturing James Shough with six pounds of dynamite and with about three feet of fuse, all capped and ready to ignite. Shough was immediately in the rear of the prison on his knees in the act of striking a match when he was arrested. Sheriff Sullivan took charge of Shough and placed the dynamite in safe hands.
The arrival of the troops had the effect to delay proceedings, and a parlay ensued in which the interested citizens called upon all good people to allow the law to take its course; that if the sheriff would withdraw the troops they would pledge themselves to place a citizen guard around the jail and keep the prisoner safe for trial Monday.
This was accordingly done. A guard of fifteen men were chosen and the local authorities took charge, the troops withdrawing and many of the crowd dispersing.
During the day groups of men could be seen standing here and there talking in subdued tones, and much anxiety was experienced lest the authorities should attempt to remove the prisoner to the county jail as they preferred to have him tried on the ground where the deed was committed. It was plain to be seen that while many did not want mob law to be carried out, there was an element which was only waiting for an opportunity to wreak vengeance upon the miscreant, and by 9:35 Sunday evening, the mob had gathered in such force that the guards were over-powered, the city prison, which was a small frame affair, was thrown over and broken into, and a rope placed around the neck of the villain, and he was led through the streets to the center of the town and there hanged, after he had been given five minutes to make a statement if he so desired. He however protested his innocence to the last, yet the proofs against him are so strong that there is but little but what he committed the deed, which is the most foul in the history of Logan county.
If there is any justice in mob law, surely this is a case where it would be justifiable, yet it is not always the safest mode to pursue, and the law should be allowed to take its course. Mrs. Knowles has been a resident of Logan county for more than 50 years, and has reared a family of several children, who are most excellent citizens, and she herself is a model Christian mother. To be so brutally treated by such a fiendish villain, in her old age, makes the crime doubly hideous. The affair is almost lamentable, and is one calculated to stir up a sentiment that is not always conducive to law and order.


   Newlin worked in West Liberty, several years ago, as a hotel porter.
Coroner Batch held an inquest on Monday, and rendered his verdict that “the deceased came to his death by violence at the hands of persons unknown.” Newlin’s body was then turned over to a sister, for burial.
Sheriff Sullivan did what in his judgment was best, to prevent mob violence, and did not withdraw from the scene until he had been promised by the best citizens of the town that the prisoner would not be molested.
The local officers wanted the management of the case, and objected strenuously to the attempted removal of Newlin to the county jail. The mob would have over-powered the Sheriff, and lynched Newlin had an attempt been made to remove him.

Another, more complete (in terms of what remains) story comes from a second clipping:

Seymour Newlin, a worthless, diseased colored wretch, was hanged by a mob at Rushsylvania, last Sunday night for committing an outrage upon the person of Mrs. Eliza Knowles, a highly respectable old lady of that place. She is eighty-one years old and lives by herself.
The wretch gained admittance to the house at one o’clock in the night, and after choking his victim into insensibility, committed the atrocious deed.
After gaining consciousness, the old lady dragged herself to the house of a neighbor where she dropped into insensibility again, and medical aid was summoned. After being revived she told the sickening story and gave the name of the person who she believed was her assailant. A peculiarly shaped footprint led to the suspicion of the colored man Newlin. His shoes were placed in the tracks and found to fit exactly. An eyelet with shoe leather attached to it was found on the porch of Mrs. Knowles’ house, and this too fit in one of the culprit’s shoes. Then the old lady again identified him He was arrested and placed in the calaboose, and as the news spread, crowds began to pour into town, and things began to look serious for the nigger.
Sheriff Sullivan was sent for and after arriving on the scene, soon made up his mind that with his small squad of deputies, he could not cope with the mob which threatened to hand their prisoner. On authority of Gov. McKinley, he called on Co. F (Bellefontaine), Second Regiment, and attempted to take the prisoner from the lockup, when he was informed that if an attempt was made to fix bayonets or fire a gun, a fuse would be lighted and the prisoner and building blown into atoms by dynamite already placed in position.
From the time of his arrival on the scene and up to this point, lost of grit was necessary for an officer with a few deputies to stand in the face of an excited mob of 2000 people, but he did it. He was promised that withdraw the militia, the prisoner would be given a hearing. Relying on this promise made by the best citizens of Rushsylvania, and not caring to barter the lives of innocent persons, and the militia, who were powerless to enforce the law, owing to the superior numbers against them—about 2,000 to 18—he ordered them back to Bellefontaine.
A short time after their disappearance, and after night, a company of masked me appeared as from the spirit world. Their mission was understood, and the crowd of onlookers parted and let them pass. The were not long in placing a rope about Newlin’s neck, and swinging him to a large cottonwood tree almost in the center of town. Fifteen minutes after, he was cut down and a physician pronounced him dead.

The article (without a date or indication of the newspaper on the clipping) ends with a bizarre paragraph, given the rest of the story:

   It is wrong to encourage mob law. It should be kept down. Officers should be encouraged to carry out their sworn duties, and every loyal citizen should back up a Sheriff and his deputies in an emergency like this, and from the best accounts we can get, they did.

There is another clipping, clearly written after the fact:

   The Cleveland Leader criticizes Sheriff Sullivan severely for his course and Rushsylvania, in the Newlin case, and says “His conduct in leaving the prisoner in the hands of the mob when he was backed by a company of militia, * * * can be explained only on the ground of cowardice.” This is unjust criticism. But it doesn’t require any more capacity to criticize than it does to pound sand. Everybody can do it; everybody does it. Sheriff Sullivan has been an officer in our county for several years, and he has gone single handed, and alone, after the worst of criminals, into all kinds of places, and always got his man,—including thieves, bullies and murderers. He always showed true grit. He may have erred in judgment; he may have been afraid to assume the personal responsibility of pitting 18 young men against a mob of several hundred enraged men; he may have erred in accepting the promise of Rushsylvania citizens that no violence should be attempted. He no doubt things so now. But “hindsight is always better than foresight,” and it is much easier to say now what should have been done, than to have said then, what should be done. Mr. Sullivan did not show cowardice there. He went with the military company to the calaboose and stationed them about it, to protect the prisoner, in the face of the mob. If he had been a coward, he would have left the company to fight the battle out, regardless of the consequences, while he kept out of danger. Unjust criticism will not correct abuses or mistakes.

That’s fair enough, I suppose, though I am also uncomfortable with what my great-grandfather did. Having never stood in his shoes, never having had to choose the certain death of one over the possible deaths of many (and, probably, without saving the life of that one), I dare not judge him. The article, however, continues, and gets a little sickening:

So long as the great State of Ohio allows criminals to challenge four jurors to the State’s one, and every advantage is given a criminal on trial, and a pardon is as certain in a few years as he can secure influence, the State is not in a position to complain of her officers if any of them make mistakes in their efforts to prevent lawlessness, which the laxity of the laws and their administration begets among the people under great provocation.

The last clipping is a column by someone signing himself “Uncle Rastus”:

Uncle Rastus was not in Rushsylvania on last Sunday, and therefore did not  see Seymour Newlin lynched, for which he is very thankful. But we have talked with a number of citizens of Bellefontaine and Rushsylvania, who were eye witness of the  lynching, and have concluded to write a little for the Journal about lynch law and lynching. In doing so we do not want to be understood to be expressing any sympathy for the victim of the mob, but simply to give a little history of the origin of lynch law, and make a few comments of the lynching at Rushsylvania on last Sunday. There are various accounts of the origin of this designation for summary vengeance upon criminals in cases where the law s considered too slow or too uncertain. Our American system of lynch law originated in what is known as the Piedmont country of Virginia, at that time considered the Western frontier. That section of the country at that time had no written law of its own, and being several miles from any Court that had criminal jurisdiction, controversies were by custom referred to men of impartiality and sound judgment, who resided in the district or locality. When a controversy was submitted to such men their decision was considered final. There was a man by the name of Lynch, who lived in the locality, whose decisions were always considered just, and in course of time criminals were brought before him, and he delt such punishment as he deemed just and right. There were other men in the district who acted as arbitrators, and who awarded punishment, but Judge Lynch was the most prominent, and the system took his name and was called lynch law. This was a compliment to his integrity and good judgment. But for the last fifty years the term has been considered a reproach, for the reason violent, depraved and unprincipled men have set the laws of the various States at defiance, and while they are inflamed and maddened with a great thirst for revenge, have usurped the prerogatives of our Courts of justice by taking the law into their own hands.
By the lynching of Newlin on last Sunday, the officers whose duty it was to enforce the law, if possible, were treated with contempt, and the laws of Ohio were defied. There is no one who has taken the trouble to investigate the matter, but will say that Sheriff Sullivan and Prosecuting Attorney Odor did all they could to quell the mob, and save Newlin from violent hands. The Sheriff went so far as to call to his assistance the militia. When they arrived on the scene of the trouble, they were met by the mob. It is true the militia soon left the scene of the trouble, but not until there was an agreement between the Sheriff and the citizens of Rushsylvania, that if the militia were sent home they would insure the safe keeping of the prisoner, and see that he got a trial. On this agreement the malitia [sic] were ordered home. But as soon as the Sheriff and the militia had left the scene of the trouble, the mob, contrary to what had been agreed upon, overpowered the officers who were guarding  he prisoner, seized him, placed a rope around his neck, dragged him through the streets and then hung him to a tree in the center of the town in the presence of at least fifteen hundred people. This, we say, is not only a disgrace to Logan county, but to Ohio and American civilization. There is no civilization that can stand such conduct, and  no organized society should tolerate it. There is no degree of provocation that will mitigate or justify it. Lynching is barbaric an anarchistic. It is classed with the darker and deeper of the two legal classes of human conduct into which human wickedness has been divided by the laws of our country. It is malum in se.
There are many people who say that lynching in some cases is justifiable. We think it is never so. Is there any just or fair minded man who will say that a past crime should be met with a present crime in order that future crime may be prevented? Is there any sensible man who will advocate the commission of crime as a check for crime? Lynching belongs to the same class of crime as murder and rape. Is there any sensible man who will advocate the commission of one as a punishment for the commission of either of the other two? Those who participated in the hanging of Newlin are guilty of murder under the laws of our State. They are guilty of a crime as much as the victim they hung, for they placed themselves outside of the law and followed their own will instead of obeying the will of society as expressed by the laws of Ohio.
No citizen has a right to overstep the law for any purpose. No citizen has a right to set up and act upon rules of so-called right in opposition to the binding laws of our country.
So in conclusion we think that lynch law is wrong in theory as well as in practice, and should be condemned by every person who professes to be a law abiding citizen.

There is a great deal about this that is disturbing—even sickening, even now, almost 120 years later. According to the site where I found mention of the Newlin lynching, there were 26 recorded in Ohio, the last being in 1932.
Logan County, which counts fewer than two percent of its population as black today (and likely had fewer back then), had just the one lynching. Not surprisingly (but sadly) the searingly obvious omission from all of the accounts of the lynching is consideration of race as a factor in the event. Some of the writers do condemn lynching, but they neither describe it nor condemn it as a racist act. The guilt of Newlin is assumed; his color, then, is tacitly deemed irrelevant.
But it is not irrelevant. Newlin was a reviled outsider in as lily white a community as one could find. Whatever he did or did not do, the white folks of Logan County did not see him as human. And did not, even before the crime that led to his lynching.
Need proof that race was not irrelevant? Just look at the record of lynchings: How many white victims do you find?
Would my great-grandfather have stood up to the mob if Newlin had been white? I do not know, of course. But the fact is that he probably would not have had to. The crime would have stirred the community, but the accused would have been allowed his day in court.
I am glad I came across these clippings in 2014, when way too many people are still claiming (even after the stream of racist events of the past year) that we Americans live in a “post-racial” society. The writers for the newspapers of Logan County in 1894 probably thought that they, too, were “post-racial” (though they would not have known the term), and that they were right to judge the lynching not in terms of race, but of inappropriate mob justice. Some of them might have been Civil War veterans, even, men proud of having helped “free” the slaves. So might have been some in the lynch mob. They felt justified in ignoring the role of race in America, though we know now that they were abetting the continuation of the racial problems that still bedevil American society. They felt justified in ignoring the role of race in the lynching of Newlin, though they should have been able to see (and probably did, but would not admit it) that race had everything to do with it. The same is true today for many of us.
Though actual lynching may no longer occur, attitudes behind them continue.
Can we learn lessons from this, even now?

5 thoughts on “Lessons from a Lynching

  1. Pingback: One Flew East

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