Ell Persons was a 50 year old woodchopper who were accused of the rape and killing of a 16-year-old white girl Antoinette Rappel in Memphis Tennessee.
Death of Rappel and Arrest of Persons
Rappel was a student at Treadwell School in Memphis. On the Morning of April 30, 1917 Rappel left school and did not return. On may 2, 1917 Rappel mother grew more concerned that her daughter did not return home, so she talk to her neighbors about her concern when one neighbor reminded Rappel mother, that Rappel always talked about wanting to join the war. Putting Rappel mother mind at ease she believed her daughter joined the war. Days later a other woodchopper was in the woods and found a decapitated body, he quickly got Sheriff Mike Tate. At the scene near the decapitated was a white coat, a white handkerchief, and axe dents in the ground. Persons lived an half of mile from the crime scene. The body was later identified as 16 year old Antoinette Rappel. she had been raped, beaten, and decapitated. After the arrest of several black men Tate brought in Persons. After being subjected to 24 hours of brutal treatment, the deputies said Persons confessed to the murder. Eager to prove Person’s guilt by using a theory developed by Alophonse Bertillon, a French police officer and biometrics researcher of that time. Tate believed that a photograph of Rappel pupils will show the last image she seen before she died. Despite being told by a eye specialist that this technique would be impossible, Tate exhumed the body of Rappel. Tate and his deputies claimed that they seen Persons in Rappel pupils, so he must be guilty of charged. Sheriff Tate was also told by an deaf mute man that he witness Persons committing the murder.
Lynching of Ell Persons
Person’s was to stand trial on May 25, 1917, but on May 21 an white lynch mob captured Person’s. The white mob found Person guilty in sham trial and Person’s was to be put to death the next day on May 22 at 9:00 a.m.
The morning of May 22, 1917 hundreds of men, women and children had gathered, and by 9.00 a.m. the road was packed with automobiles. One teacher at an all boys school told reporters that “50 boys were absent”. Parents excused their kids from school, some schools closed early allowing the kids to attend the lynching. Spectators brought soft drinks, sandwiches, and chewing gum. Two trucks of drinks sold out swiftly, and sales of sandwiches and chew gum were high. Women and men wore their best clothing. A total of about 5,000 whites attended the event. It was said the day of the lynching was like a Holiday and others said it had a carnival like atmosphere.
Rappel’s mother arrived a little after 9 a.m. and she gave a speech to the crowd before Person was lynched saying:
“I want to thank my friends who have worked hard on my behave… Let the Negro suffer as my little girl Suffered, only 10 times worse.” Sentiments which was echoed by the crowd.
Persons was chained down , and had a large quantity of gasoline poured over him. The leader of the group ask Rappel’s mother if she wanted to light it; she declined , but said:
“I wish Persons to suffer the tortures he dealt my child”. Person was then set alight.
Persons was recorded as calm and casual, and said nothing except a faint pig squeal when set alight. The crowed men, women, and children cheered while Persons was burning.
Persons’ body was decapitated and dismembered, and his remains was scattered and displayed across the town. Person’s head was thrown from a car at a group of African Americans. The parts of Person’s that did not burn was taken as souvenirs, and photographs taken with Persons head was sold on postcards months after the lynching.
After the lynching Newspapers reported that it was the first time a lynch party had operated in broad daylight and without mask, and others described the lynching as “orderly. There was no drunkenness, no shooting and no yelling.”
James Weldon Johnson field secretary of NAACP, investigated the case shortly after the lynching, and said there was no evidence Persons was guilty of the crime. Standing on the spot where Person died, he reflected:
“I tried to balance the sufferings of the miserable victim against the moral degradation of Memphis, and the truth flashed over me that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”
Ell Persons lynching played a part in the founding of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, one of the first in the South, by Robert R. Church Jr., Bert M. Roddy, and other black businessmen.
The Lynching of Ell Person was described as the worst in history.