Jesse Washington was a young African American farmhand who was lynched in Waco, Texas on May 15, 1916.
Murder and Arrest
In Robinson, Texas Lucy Fryer and her Husband George Fryer were English immigrants who move to Texas to become part of the farming industry. The Fryer was well respected in their new community. The Fryers notice the work was too much for them to do alone and with knowledge that young blacks were excellent and hard working farmers, they hired 17-year-old Jesse Washington.
On May 8, 1916 while alone in her home 53 year old Lucy Fryer was killed by blunt-force trauma. Its not clear who found Mrs. Fryer, but news of her death quickly reached the McLennan County Sheriff, Samuel S. Fleming who immediately investigated with his team of law-enforcement officers, and a group of local doctors. The doctors concluded that Mrs. Fryer was in fact killed by Blunt-Force Trauma. The news of Mrs. Fryer’s death spread throughout the community. locals suspected it was the Fryer’s farmhand Jesse Washington. One of the neighbors stated seeing Washington leaving the Fryer’s home five minutes before the body was discovered. Washington had worked on the Fryer’s farm for six months and it was said that Washington was very responsible. Mr. Fryer at first was reluctant to believe that Washington was involved in the murder of his wife his only reasoning was that Washington was too illiterate to have done something like this.
That night the Sheriff and his deputies traveled to Washington home, finding him in front of the house wearing blood-stained overalls. When question about the stained overalls he said he had a bloody nose. Washington was then taken to the police station for further interrogation. Washington questioners in Waco reported that he denied complicity in Fryer’s death, but offered contradictory details about his actions. Rumors spread after his arrest that he had been in an altercation with a white man a few days before the murder.
On may 9, Fleming took Washington to Hill County to prevent vigilante action. While in Hill County Sheriff Fred Long took it upon himself and questioned Washington with Fleming present. Long and Fleming said Washington made an confession telling them he had killed Mrs. Fryer following an argument about her mules, and described the murder weapon location. Fleming said he left and went straight to the location that Washington described in his confession and indeed found an bloody hammer. Washington then signed an statement, a statement that described that Washington raped and then murdered Mrs. Fryer. The confession was published the next day in Waco newspapers. Newspapers sensationalized the murder, describing Fryer’s attempts to resist Washington’s attack, although the doctor who examined her body concluded that she was killed before she could resist.
That night a lynch mob assembled o9ut the County Jail but later dispersed after they did not find Washington.
On May 11, 1916 an all white grand jury was assembled in McLennan, County Courts and quickly returned an indictment against Washington; the trial was scheduled for May 15th. Washington was assigned several inexperienced lawyers. His lawyers prepared no defense.
Trial and Lynching
On the Morning of May 15 Fifty-Fourth District Court in Waco, Texas was quickly filled to capacity. Attendees were almost white, but a few quiet members of Waco’s black community were present. The presiding Judge was Richard I. Monroe. As Washington was led into the courtroom, when one attendee pointed a gun at him, but was quickly overpowered.
Jury selection proceeded quickly: the defense did not challenge any of the prosecution selectees. Newspapers described the trial as a Kangaroo-court atmosphere. The Judge asked Washington for a plea, and explained the potential sentences. Washington muttered a response, possibly “Yes”, interpreted by the court as a guilty plea. The prosecution described the charges, and the court heard testimony from law enforcement officers and the doctor who examined Fryer’s body. The doctor discussed hoe Fryer died, but did not mention rape. The prosecution rested, and Washington’s attorney asked him whether he had committed the offense. Washington replied, “That’s what I done” and quietly apologized. The lead prosecutor addressed the courtroom and declared that the trial had been conducted fairly, prompting an standing ovation from the crowd. The jury of twelve white men was sent to deliberate.
After only four minutes of deliberation, the jury’s foreman announced a guilty verdict and a sentence of death. The trial lasted about one hour. When court officers approached Washington to escort him away they was pushed aside by surge spectators, who seized Washington and dragged him down the courthouse stairs and outside where a crowd of about 400 angry white people was waiting. Washington tried fighting back even biting one man, but was soon overpowered by the angry white mob. A chain was placed around Washington neck and he was dragged toward City Hall. On the way downtown Washington was stripped, stabbed, and repeatedly beaten with blunt objects. By the time
Washington arrived to City Hall, a group had already prepared wood for a bonfire next to a tree in front of the City Hall building. By this time Washington was semiconscious and covered in his blood. The Angry white mob then doused Washington with oil, cut off his fingers, toes, and genitals, they then hung him with the chain on a tree and lowered him so they can set him alight. The fire was lit and Washington was repeatedly raised and lowered into the flames. His executioners attempted to keep him alive to increase his suffering. Washington tried to climb the chain, but was unable to, owing his lack of fingers. After two hours the fire extinguished allowing bystanders to collect souvenirs. Washington Charred bones were collect, his teeth, and one attendee kept part of Washington’s genitalia. No one was arrested after the lynching.
Even though lynching was illegal in Texas the Mayor of Waco John Dollins was present as while as the Presiding Judge Richard I. Monroe and the Chief of police. Sheriff Fleming told his deputies not to interfere with the lynching of Washington. Schools let children out earlier to attend the event. Many parents approved of their children’s attendance, hoping that the lynching would reinforce a belief in White Supremacy. Some Texans saw participation in a lynching as a rite of passage for young white men.
In days after the event the lynching photographs were printed of Washington lynching and sold as postcards. Newspapers fiercely condemned the event. Within a week, news of the lynching was published as far away as London. A New York Times editorial opined that, “In no other land even pretending to be civilized could a man be burned to death in the streets of a considerable city amid the savage exultation of its inhabitants”. In the New York Age, James Weldon Johnson described the members of the lynch mob as “Lower than any other people who at present inhabit the earth”. A writer for the Waco Semi-Weekly Tribune defended the lynching, stating that Washington deserved to die and that blacks should view Washington’s death as a warning against crime.
Some of Waco’s residents condemned the lynching. The judge who presided over Washington trial later stated members of the lynch mob were “Murderers”, and a jury’s foreman told NAACP that he disapproved of the lynch mob actions. Some people who witness the lynching recorded persistent nightmares and psychological trauma.
Although leaders of Waco’s black community gave public condolences to the Fryer’s family, they complained about Washington’s lynching only in private.
One exception was the Paul Quinn Weekly newspaper, of Texas’ Paul Quinn College—an all-black institution—which published several articles that criticized the lynch mob and city leadership. In one article, the author proclaimed that Jesse Washington was innocent and George Fryer was guilty. A. T. Smith, the paper’s editor, was subsequently convicted of libel. George Fryer also sued the college for libel; his vehemence caused some Robinson residents to suspect that he played a part in his wife’s death. One local states that it is “highly unlikely” that George Fryer played a role in Lucy’s murder, but notes that there is the “shadow of a possibility” that he bore some guilt.
The NAACP hired Elizabeth Freeman, a women’s suffrage activist from New York City, to investigate the lynching. She had traveled to Texas in late 1915 or early 1916 to help organize the suffrage movement there. After attending a suffrage convention in Dallas in early May, she began her assignment in Waco, posing as a journalist and attempting to interview people about the lynching. She found that almost all residents were reluctant to discuss the event. She spoke with town officials and obtained pictures of the lynching from Gildersleeve, who was initially reluctant to provide them. Although she feared for her safety, she enjoyed the challenge of the investigation. When speaking with city leaders, Freeman convinced them that she planned to defend Waco against criticism when she returned to the north. Some journalists soon grew suspicious of her presence and warned residents not to talk to outsiders. Local African Americans, however, gave her a warm reception.
Fleming and the judge who presided over the trial each spoke with her; both argued that they did not deserve blame for the lynching. A schoolteacher who had known Washington told Freeman that Washington was illiterate, and that all attempts to teach him to read had been futile. Freeman concluded that white residents were generally supportive of Washington’s lynching, although many disliked that his body was mutilated. She determined that the mob was led by a bricklayer, a saloonkeeper, and several employees of an ice company. The NAACP did not publicly identify them. Freeman concluded that Washington killed Fryer, and that he was motivated by her domineering attitude towards him.
No memorial was put in place for Jesse Washington.