Legacy of a Lynching

A lynching runs through my family, though not as I long imagined. Yes, my great-grandfather, Sheriff John Sullivan, failed to stop the lynching of Seymour Newlin. But the story is not so simple, nor is the telling of it that came down to me. The sheriff lived the rest of his life questioning his own role in it. That much I knew. The horror of it changed him. It affected his attitude toward his unborn children and, indeed, his community.

newlinWishful thinking changed the story. What I heard while quite young made palatable a decision that Sullivan surely regretted. What I heard was that a mob had surrounded the jail, torches flickering as though in the movie Frankenstein. To save his family—including my grandmother—living above, the sheriff gave up the prisoner.

The race of the victim was never mentioned.

No lynching, not ever, is an isolated event. Travesty resonates through the lives of everyone even tangentially involved. It resonates through friends and families and through the next generations—and beyond.

The basic facts, as I know them now: On April 15, 1894, just a few days more than a year before my great-uncle was born and four years and a few months before my grandmother’s birth, in Rushsylvania, Ohio—some eight miles from the Logan County seat, Bellefontaine—a black man was accused of attacking and raping an elderly white woman, Ann (or Eliza) Knowles. Newlin was apprehended the next day by neighbors, who incarcerated him in a “calaboose.” Before Sheriff Sullivan managed to get there, a crowd possibly as large as 2,000 people (more than inhabited the village) had surrounded the building. Even with reinforcements, the sheriff hadn’t the power to force the issue and remove the prisoner. He was warned that the jail would be dynamited, but that attempt was foiled.

After negotiating a truce to save face, getting agreement that Newlin would be kept safe until a judge arrived next morning, Sullivan retreated back to Bellefontaine, leaving local constables to guard the prisoner.

The crowd, angry and riled, did not disperse. Agitated by a small group, it eventually broke into the building, and Newlin was summarily hanged.

One of the clippings I have found, ones kept by my great-grandmother, tattered but clear, reads:

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.

Only a few newspapers today would publish such unverifiable details—at least, not without attribution. But this was several lifetimes ago and in an extremely different environment. Anyhow, Newlin is not “alleged” to have done anything in the article; the veracity of the unnamed sources is assumed. As if that were not enough, this follows:

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.

Cut and dried. No room for doubt. The way many attacks are portrayed even today (including the Central Park “rapists” of 1989, who were later exonerated). Especially if the accused is black:

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.

Few of the immediately subsequent words of the article are legible. Another fragment, though, looks like it belongs to the same article, only a little bit between having crumbled away. The first complete sentence, about the arrival of National Guardsmen that Sheriff Sullivan had summoned, 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.

From this, it sounds like the situation, at least when the sheriff left, was under control. That said, the sheriff obviously retreated to protect himself and his men—surely knowing that Newlin would not likely survive another day:

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.

The word of one, especially a black man, against the assumptions of the crowd—a white crowd? He could never be right.

The article continues with an attempt to walk a line between condoning mob violence and respect for the law:

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.

Following the story are addenda, probably added because information was coming in as type was being set:


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.

I suspect that the sheriff himself, or one of his close supporters, asked that the line about “judgment” be added. I know he was uncomfortable with what he had done but wonder what other course might have been open. Could he have faced down the mob? His own troops were volunteers from the same county. Could he have relied on them?

Even if the answers are “No,” my great-grandfather would carry to his own grave the knowledge that he had let a man die. That had an impact on every relationship he would ever have—including with his children.

Another article, more complete in terms of what remains of it but much less so in content (a result of its more evident bias), reads like this:

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.

I wish I could say that such passages don’t occur in news media today. We still summarily convict in the media, though—even if use of that final word has declined.

The depiction of the events goes on:

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 hang 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.

That Sullivan was able to call on the local National Guard unit, though small, does make it clear that this was a major—and slowly unfolding—event for Logan County.

Sullivan was a popular sheriff and was probably friends with the local newspaper editors. They tried their best not to make him look bad, as in the continuation of the above:

From the time of his arrival on the scene and up to this point, lots 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.

The passage that follows brings to mind images of the Klan, ones that have been seared into American consciousness since the time of Birth of a Nation at the very least. The passage would be a cliché if offered in a story or a television show or a movie today; we have seen every bit of it often:

A short time after their disappearance, and after night, a company of masked men appeared as from the spirit world. Their mission was understood, and the crowd of onlookers parted and let them pass. They 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.

Like the earlier one, this article wraps up rather strangely—given the way the rest of the story is presented—with a feeble attempt to decry vigilantism:

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.

This sounds a great deal like what I read in contemporary corners of the internet: sound the dog whistle—but then condemn the results.

This following article, the most complete I have found, tries to be a little more even-handed, but the guilt of Newlin is once more assumed:

A telegram was received yesterday, by the Sheriff, a little before one o’clock, notifying him that Seymour Newlin, a colored man, was under arrest at Rushsylvania, for outraging a lady 81 years of age, and that a mob was threatening to hang him.

The Sheriff, Prosecutor and Coroner, with many others, immediately left for the scene of the trouble in buggies, and about five o’clock a dispatch was received from the Sheriff, and Major Kautzman had a dispatch from the Adjutant General ordering out the military company—Company F., of the Second Regiment.

The company could only find 18 men, and these with Major Worthington Kautzman and Captain Lucius Bennett, left for Rushsylvania on a special train, and reached there in thirteen minutes.

Seymour Newlin, son of Frank Newlin, a colored man aged 30 years, had been arrested and was in the calaboose, charged with entering by a window, the dwelling of Mrs. Ann Knowles, a much respected lady, aged 81 years, about one o’clock, Sunday morning, and outraging her person, after he had choked her into insensibility.

Newlin was a man of notoriously bad character, who had been in the penitentiary once from this county and once from Hardin. He had been chased out of several houses in Rushsylvania, and was found under the bed, in one.

These facts led to his arrest in a livery stable, soon after the alarm was given, and he was locked up. But he was not locked up till Mrs. Knowles positively identified him as the man who assaulted her.

At the window where the man entered the house, an eyelet was found, that had been freshly torn from a shoe, and a track in the ground showed a peculiar heel on one of the shoes worn by the perpetrator of the outrage. One of Newlin’s shoes was found to have an eyelet freshly torn out, and the heel of one of his shoes answered exactly to the peculiar mark in the ground.

The identification of the man by Mrs. Knowles, and these points, together with the well known character of Newlin, satisfied everybody that he was the man guilty of the crime, and as the people became aware of the outrage, an intense feeling was aroused against as there would have been in any community.

As the news spread, people came rolling into the town in buggies from all parts, until fully 2,000 people, most of them excited, were gathered on the streets of the village.

There was a manifest determination and an avowed purpose to lynch the miscreant, but there seemed to be no leaders and no organization for that purpose; and it looked as if all were waiting for night.

Sheriff J. C. Sullivan and Prosecutor J. A. Odor used every effort to allay the feeling that threatened to bring about a lynching, and some few others worked to the same end. But almost the entire crowd seemed to be imbued with the felling that Newlin ought to be strung up to a tree, and the few officers could avail nothing.

The Sheriff, finding himself helpless, telegraphed the Governor, and the Governor instructed him to call out the military. If the Governor had ordered out a regiment, instead of a company of 95 men, half of whom could not be found on the spur of the moment, what followed, would not have resulted.

When the company of 18 arrived at Rushsylvania, they were marched down the railroad and up the back way to the calaboose. Just as they arrived there, a man was seen striking matches at the back end of the building—a small frame—and Major Kautzman jumped the fence and jerking the fellow back, took from him a box containing six sticks of dynamite and a fuse. These were passed over the fence to the Sheriff, who gave them to Deputy Flack. Had they been exploded, Newlin would have been blown into eternity, and scores of others with him.

As soon as the militia got upon the ground a crowd of a thousand angry men pressed around them, and they were virtually made prisoners. Had they attempted to fire, many innocent persons would have been killed, and the militia would have been murdered or captured. An organization was forming for this purpose, when citizens went to the Sheriff and protested against the presence of the troops, saying it was enraging the crowd, that serious loss of life would result, and that if he would send the company back to Bellefontaine, they would appoint a guard of citizens that would protect the prisoner.

The Sheriff felt that he was powerless to protect the prisoner; that a mere display of pluck would only cost the lives of many who were innocent of intent to violate the law, and of the militia, who had no power to enforce the law. He acted in the emergency, and decided to save lives and trust the promises of the citizens. He therefore sent the militia back to Bellefontaine.

His conduct will be openly criticized, but those who were not there are not competent to pass criticism.

The guard of citizens was at once place around the calaboose. A half hour after the militia had departed, about 9:30 o’clock, a mob marched to the calaboose from a barn, where they had been organizing, only one or two of them being masked, though it was a moonlight evening.

At their approach, nearly every one of the guard of citizens fled. One man, Constable Tom Kautzman, stood his ground at the door of the calaboose, with an iron poker in his hand, and kept the whole mob at bay. Knowing him to be a man of nerve, the mob surged around the little house and began upsetting it with rails, and as Constable Kautzman attempted to prevent this, he was seized and was carried off.

The mob hesitated a moment, after breaking in the door, and when they entered, Newlin made a desperate fight, hurling chunks of coal and other missiles, but was soon overpowered.

The calaboose was on the east side of the railroad, beyond the mill, but the crowd after putting a rope around Newlin’s neck took him to the center of town.

Soon after leaving the calaboose, Newlin got loose, by running faster than the mob, slackening the rope, and jerking the noose over his head. He was immediately seized, however, and the rope put around his neck again, and the mob hurried on to the centre of town.

At the old post office corner, on the main street of the town, just across the street north from where J. Q. A. Bennet formerly kept a drug store, stands a big cottonwood tree. The rope was thrown over a limb of this tree, and Newlin was hauled into the air.

There was no box put under him, or anything to give him a fall and break his neck, but he was simply pulled up by the neck and strangled. Neither his hands nor his feel were tied yet he scarcely moved a limb, except once he put up a hand to catch the rope, when some one cried “let him down and tie his hands,” when he dropped his hand by his side. In fifteen minutes he was taken down and pronounced dead.

After the mob got him out of the jail, and while under the tree there was a delay of some fifteen minutes, and he was given time to make a confession, but he declared he was innocent, saying “My God, this is horrible to hang an innocent man.”

The great mass of people took no hand in the mob, though nearly all thought the culprit ought to be hung. The hesitation that was shown on the part of those who did the hanging convinced many that if a few decided men, well organized, had appeared upon the scene, while they were under the tree, the man could have been rescued.

It is the common opinion that most of the mob that did the handing were from Bellefontaine, Marion, and other points than Rushsylvania.

A horrible crime was perpetrated by an execrable villain, and there is no sympathy for him; but there is great regret that the man was not rescued by the officers and given a trial by the courts, as sentence to the penitentiary for a third term would have given him a life term, and the sacredness of the law would not have been violated.

When there is an excited crowd, and an angry mob, at work after night, it is difficult for any one to see everything, and very difficult to get all the facts straight, and our report may be incorrect in some details, but we give it as the best we can gather from a number of eye witnesses.

Newlin’s was the second lynching in Ohio that year. There had been three recorded in 1892 and at least seven over the years before that. In all, some 26 lynchings in the state can be documented.

rustmaThe Newlin lynching was big news, statewide. Another clipping, undated and without venue but evidently published well after the fact and clearly by someone friendly to my great-grandfather, reads:

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 thinks 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. I am also uncomfortable with what my great-grandfather did not do. Having never stood in his shoes, however, 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 continues:

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 sanctimony expressed here is similar to a great deal of what one reads today, especially among those shouting, for example, that they want to ‘claim their country back.’ They want something they imagine, not something that was ever real; the rules their country has created for its own survival, rules that made the country possible, mean nothing by comparison to their thoughtless demands.

Another clipping I have 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 ery person who professes to be a law abiding citizen.

This was the divide over a century ago, just as it is today. Too many Americans believe that their own righteousness supersedes the letter of the law. Uncle Rastus is right: lynching is never justifiable, not even if one knows the truth of the crime—both crimes. It is never justifiable on the face of it, but also because its impact continues for generations, and even more generations when race is a factor in the event.

We’re living with that legacy today, amid events directly traceable to the lynchings of the century after the Civil War. Not just my family. Not just those of the victims or the perpetrators. All of us.

Logan County counts fewer than two percent of its population as black today and likely had fewer back then, has had just the one lynching. Not surprisingly (but sadly) the obvious omission from all of the accounts of that lynching is consideration of race as a factor in the event, the suspicion or the arrest. Some of the writers, as we’ve seen, do condemn lynching, but they neither describe nor condemn it as a racist act. The guilt of Newlin is assumed; his color is tacitly deemed irrelevant.

It is not irrelevant. Not now, not then. Newlin was a reviled outsider in as lily white a community as one could find. Whatever he did or did not do, the white folk of Logan County did not see him as human. And they did not see him so even before the crime that led to his lynching. He was lynched because he was black. All of those little details listed in the articles, details showing his guilt? They don’t establish it. For the mob, his race did that.

If anyone were to need proof that race was not irrelevant, they need only take a look at the record of lynchings: How many white victims do you find? In 1894, according to the archives of the Tuskegee Institute, 134 blacks and 58 whites were lynched in the overwhelmingly white United States.

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 white man would more likely have been allowed his day in court than a black man.

Were it not a tool of racial intimidation, the reverberations of the Newlin lynching would not still be continuing so strongly three generations later. My grandmother’s life was warped by it, at least in part—as was my father’s. Mine has felt the impact, too. Faulkner is right, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Newlin’s lynching changed my family for it changed my great-grandfather. Lynching changes America; the impact of is evident in the divide we see after each killing of a young black man today.

Some people, mainly white, say, ‘They deserved it; they must have been breaking the law, so who cares if they don’t get their day in court?’ Yet the shadow of summary “justice” looms, making many of us react as though to physical pain.

Black or white or any other American, lynching hurt us all—and continues to do so.

I have written about this before, but feel it deserves this longer treatment.

One thought on “Legacy of a Lynching

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