Monday, Oct 19, 2020
In 1901, a series of attempted lynchings and the courageous stands by a Georgia sheriff prompted Mark Twain to denounce the rise of mob violence.
By Warren Pritchard
This article is shared here with permission from the Winter 2017 issue of Georgia Backroads Magazine.
In the decades between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Great Depression, thousands of southern blacks were lynched. The terror engendered by lynching prolonged the economic, political, and social control established by the institution of slavery and perpetuated it into the 20th century. Old photographs showing white faces staring up at the lifeless bodies of black victims gave visceral testimony to Billie Holiday’s song about “strange fruit” hanging from southern trees, and the sheer scale of this aspect of mob violence was enormous. In 1995, a comprehensive study by Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck found that between 1882 and 1930, almost 2,500 blacks and just under 300 whites had been killed by white mobs in ten southern states.(1) Later, in 2014, the Equal Justice Initiative, counting only African Americans, documented the murder of almost 4,000 black men, women, and children in twelve southern states between 1877 and 1950.
This meant that on average, a black man, woman, or child was killed nearly once per week for almost fifty years.(2) During the lynching era, mobs frequently seized their victims and—without formal investigation or charge, without presentation of evidence or indictment, without trial—proceeded to kill them. The Equal Justice Initiative called these “terror lynchings,” distinct from the lynchings that interrupted an ongoing legal process. In the latter cases, a mob would assault a jail or courtroom, taking a suspect away from a frightened or complicit state official, often a jailer or sheriff. Both forms of lynching were unlawful; all were murders. This reign of terror drew condemnation from some white Americans, none more sharply than Mark Twain. In his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” written in 1901 in response to a lynching in his native Missouri, Twain observed that “this epidemic of bloody insanities” was increasing in frequency and spreading beyond the Deep South.(3) “Then perhaps the remedy for lynchings comes to this: station a brave man in each accepted community to encourage, support, and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching in the secret places of its heart.”(4) Twain’s faith in his fellow man proved short-lived. “No, upon reflection, the scheme will not work,” he concluded. “There are not enough brave men in stock. We are out of courage material; we are in a condition of profound poverty.”(5) Twain’s “morally brave man,” though rare, was not unheard of. During the first six months of 1901 in Carroll County, Georgia, the white sheriff—Joseph L. Merrell— stopped three attempts by angry white mobs to kill his black prisoner. Groups numbering as many as 500 attempted to lynch Ike Williams, a 21-year-old laborer who was being held on murder charges in the jail at Carrollton, the county seat. During each attempt, Merrell and his deputies defeated the mob, twice by deft and narrow escapes and finally with deadly gunfire, followed by the state militia’s intervention.
Mark Twain paid tribute to Sheriff Joseph Merrell in his powerful essay against lynching written just weeks after the incident in Carroll County.
The story began on New Year’s Day, 1901, in the community of Victory in western Carroll County—a section that borders the Alabama state line. Otis Word, a 13-year-old white boy, went missing. White witnesses reported that he was last seen in the company of Ike Williams, a local farm and construction laborer. Three weeks later, the boy’s body was found, submerged in a pond, his throat slashed. Williams was promptly arrested by Sheriff Merrell and placed in the county jail.(6)
As word spread pointing to Williams as the chief suspect, a mob gathered in Carrollton. Two mob members came to the jail and demanded Sheriff Merrell’s keys, but he refused to turn them over. He then helped one of his deputies place Williams in a buggy and flee. The two narrowly escaped the mob, hiding in a river swamp overnight and then continuing the next morning ten miles to Bremen, where they boarded a train for Atlanta. Late that day, January 27, 1901, the lawman and his prisoner reached the Fulton Tower, a large and secure jail in the state’s capital city. “If I had not left the swamp when I did,” the deputy told a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, “Ike Williams would have been swinging from a limb.”(7)
A grand jury soon handed down an indictment against Williams. He returned to Carrollton for the trial, which had been scheduled for February 11. But on the day the trial was to begin, the prosecutor announced a postponement. He said that he lacked sufficient evidence to convict Williams and needed more time to investigate the crime.
The postponement inflamed the community. Soon the sheriff discovered new plans underway to seize and lynch Williams. He decided to return the prisoner to safety in Atlanta by train. But by the time the train had arrived at the Carrollton station, several hundred men had gathered there, their leader with a hangman’s rope, surrounding the train and preparing to seize Williams. The sheriff and his posse turned and dashed cross-country to a point two miles outside town, where they stopped the Atlanta-bound train and boarded it with their prisoner. The mob, outwitted, failed in its subsequent pursuit. Williams was safely jailed in the Fulton Tower until the trial, rescheduled for April.8
As Williams was taken from the Tower on April 9, he expressed fear that he would be killed in Carrollton, but there was no immediate trouble.(9) Once underway, the trial took several days. From the outset, Williams proclaimed his innocence. But witnesses, almost all of them white, testified that he had been the last person seen with the victim, and the prosecutor argued that the defendant had robbed and killed Word. The prosecution provided evidence of money and handkerchiefs owned by Word and allegedly in Williams’s possession when he was arrested. There was also a report of blood found on his clothes. The all-white jury found the black laborer guilty of Word’s murder. He was sentenced to hang in Carrollton on June 7, 1901.(10)
The two Atlanta daily newspapers covered the scheduled execution, and the two days that followed, in front-page stories with pictures on June 8 and June 9.(11) Crowds from throughout Carroll County began arriving early on the day of the hanging. Many spent the morning in the town bars, readying themselves for the event. Then came news that the execution had been postponed so that the Georgia Supreme Court could hear a petition by Williams’s attorneys for a new trial.(12)
The gathering crowds were infuriated. Sheriff Merrell sensed trouble as he tended to some business at the courthouse. He made his way back to his family living quarters in the jail and was followed there by a rapidly expanding group of men. George Bennett, a farmer from Victory, and Charles Word, father of the murdered boy, were the mob leaders. On the street an hour earlier, Word had promised the sheriff that there would be no trouble. Now he was at the head of the angry group, closing in. As they got closer to the sheriff, Word explained, “My friends got too wrought up; I could no longer restrain them.”(13)
The group grew still larger and soon numbered 500. Inside the jail were the sheriff’s brother-in-law, J.L. Fletcher, and state Senator W. D. Hambrick who, having heard about the threat, had stopped by on his way to lunch. The sheriff handed out weapons to the two men, preparing for what was rapidly shaping up to be an assault.
Using a sledgehammer, the mob leader, George Bennett, moved in and broke down the massive exterior jail door. Then the group pushed inside and on toward the narrow stairway that led up to Williams’s cell and the passage where the sheriff and his posse stood ready. The sheriff’s wife stood behind her husband, ready to reload his pair of pistols. Senator Hambrick spoke to the crowd, telling them that the sheriff was their friend but warning that he would protect his prisoner and pleading with them to back off lest someone be hurt.(14) Sheriff Merrell called out to the group to stop or be shot. Then, as the mob leaders pressed on toward the stairs, the sheriff and his men opened fire. Bennett was shot in the abdomen. He fell back. Another man, shot in the shoulder, also fell back. The mob began to retreat, firing six or more rounds at the lawmen, but no one else was hit.
The father of the murdered boy stopped, turned back toward the sheriff and shouted, “You might as well kill me now, Mr. Sheriff; I don’t know any better time to die.” Then he watched his neighbor Bennett being carried off to the drug store, where he would die before a doctor could be summoned.(15)
Fearful that the mob would mount another assault after nightfall, Merrell, along with Carrollton Mayor H. W. Long and Judge Sam Harris, telegraphed the governor in Atlanta and asked for help. In response, Governor Allen Candler issued a proclamation, read by the mayor on the courthouse steps, vowing that the entire military and civil forces of the state would be used to keep order if necessary and calling on all citizens to disperse or be charged with rioting. Many people obeyed the order and left town.
In Atlanta, Governor Candler ordered the state militia to commandeer a train and proceed to Carrollton, 60 miles away. Seventy officers and soldiers boarded a train at 4 p.m. for the trip. Meanwhile, the mayor and other town leaders organized armed patrols to protect the jail from the mob’s return.
By 7 p.m., the militiamen arrived at the station in Carrollton. The troops formed up and marched the half mile to the jail, where the sheriff had brought Williams out. The troops arranged themselves around the pair and marched them directly back to the waiting train. There had been threats and rumors of an attack on the train, but there was no immediate trouble, and the party returned to Atlanta and the Fulton Tower before midnight.
In his cell that night, Williams spoke to reporters from the Atlanta newspapers, reflecting on his experiences of the day, from escaping the gallows to escaping the mob. He spoke of hearing the mob and seeing them approach the passage up to his cell. He had heard the gunfire and felt relief as the assault was repulsed. He impressed the Atlanta reporters, who expressed surprise at his confidence and clarity in relating the details of his trial and his persistent claim of innocence. “I did not kill that boy. I never saw him but once and never was with him in my life,” he told a reporter from the Atlanta Journal. (16)
In late July, the Georgia Supreme Court granted Williams a new trial. It was a unanimous decision based on his lawyers’ claim that his conviction had relied too heavily on circumstantial evidence.(17) But the legal reprieve did not save his life. Ike Williams died in jail later that year of “dropsy,” most likely congestive heart failure. He was still awaiting the new trial.(18)
On June 8, 1901, the Carrollton incident made the front page of the New York Times, and newspapers across the country reprinted the story. Editorials throughout the state of Georgia united in praising Merrell’s actions, emphasizing his courage and devotion to duty. The governor reiterated Twain’s idea, that “if we had more such sheriffs, mob violence would be much less and human life would be much safer.”(19) The Georgia Supreme Court, in reviewing the trial, referred to “this noble man” who “taught the mob that the law could shoot as well as hang.”(20)
The Georgia Association of Sheriffs, holding its annual meeting in Columbus in July 1901, unanimously adopted a resolution “heartily commending the brave devotion to duty shown recently by Sheriff Merrell of Carroll County in risking his life to protect the life of a prisoner in his county jail from an infuriated mob.” The chairman, who had worked to get the resolution passed unanimously, decried a general lack of respect for the courts that allowed lynchers to take men on trial from a courtroom in the presence of a judge and lynch them in front of the courthouse in open daylight (as had happened previously in Columbus). Merrell had done “far more than protect a prisoner—he protected a principle,” the association chairman said.(21)
The reaction in Carroll County to the sheriff’s actions was mixed. At least a dozen men, sympathetic with or having participated in the mob, made public vows to lynch or shoot him. Merrell steadfastly refused to bend. “I don’t believe any of those in the crowd would, upon serious thought, make an attempt on my life,” he said, “but if they should I would not be wholly unprepared.”(22) When friends and family urged him to move away from town, he reminisced several years later, “I just figured out that if they wanted to get me they could get me at home as well as anywhere else, so I went right on as usual.”(23)
But standing up to the mob did bring economic and political consequences. Merrell’s brother-in-law was promptly fired from his retail clerk job. His employer feared that keeping him on the job would be seen by customers as a reward, prompting them to take their business elsewhere. Then, in the spring of 1902, Merrell was soundly defeated for re-election, 1,979 votes to 994, a referendum on his actions the previous summer.(24)
From his secluded lake house in upstate New York, Mark Twain paid tribute to Joseph Merrell in his powerful essay against lynching written just weeks after the incident in Carroll County. Twain referred to Merrell and to a Sheriff Beloat of Indiana, writing:
“A Savonarola can quell and scatter a mob of lynchers with a mere glance of his eye; so can a Merrill [sic] or a Beloat. For no mob has any sand in the presence of a man known to be splendidly brave. Besides, a lynching-mob would like to be scattered, for of a certainty there are never ten men in it who would not prefer to be somewhere else—and would be, if they but had the courage to go.” (25)
Twain called these men “seasoned great braves…with the Savonarola glance which withers mobs with its stern rebuke and disperses them in shame and fear.”(26)
Most of the praise for Merrell spoke in terms of his having done his duty and not so much about upholding the rule of law. He himself did not describe his actions in such lofty terms but simply as having done his duty.
And it was because he had done his sworn duty, Merrell asserted in a 1902 job application, that Theodore Roosevelt should consider him for a position at the new federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Roosevelt, initially informed of Merrell’s action in 1901 by west Georgia Congressman John Adamson, did appoint the former sheriff to the post, but a few years later he could not save Merrell from a 50% pay cut made by his successor in the White House, William H. Taft.(27)
A few other lawmen of courage like Joseph Merrell’s emerged in the South during those dark years: a sheriff in Alabama who informed a mob that they would have to kill him before they could take his prisoner; instances in Georgia where imperiled prisoners were transported to safer locations away from an angry citizenry; or this same Georgia governor who dispatched the militia to eight similarly riotous counties in 1899.(28)
Some Georgia newspapers, much of the national press, and a few
nationally known celebrities, including Mark Twain, reacted with outrage
to the increased number of lynchings in America and especially in the
South after the turn of the 20th century. As depicted by this cover of
Puck magazine, locally elected law enforcement officers sometimes
took stands against their neighbors to protect potential lynching victims.
But the Carroll County story from 1901 was so exceptional and the resistance to the mob so sustained that it stood out and drew the favorable attention of the president and Mark Twain. Publicly opposing an extralegal execution was sufficient to mark a white southerner as a progressive or liberal on race and as a traitor in the view of a substantial number of his neighbors. The targeted victim, Ike Williams, belonged to only the second generation of freed slaves, who by 1901 had witnessed the disappearance of liberties granted after the Civil War, replaced by disenfranchisement, tenant servitude, and vulnerability to mob rule.
The Carroll County story is uncommon in the context of regional history. This sheriff, these deputies, these lawyers acted unlike thousands of their peers across the region and over the years. The far more common story had the mob having its way unimpeded; taking a suspect ahead of any lawman; spreading the word that there was to be a killing at a set time and place; assembling a crowd; sometimes mutilating the captive’s body; sometimes strangling the captive with a carelessly tied noose (rather than more mercifully breaking his neck); and sometimes constructing a pyre and setting fire to a victim. Too frequently, it was the lawmen and other community leaders who arranged for and carried out the murders.
Despite Sheriff Merrell’s efforts to protect the rule of law, the criminal justice system failed in the case of the murder of Otis Word. On August 22, 1902, the Atlanta Constitution reported that William Mote—a young white man who had been a star witness in the trial that convicted Ike Williams— had been arrested as a primary suspect in Word’s murder after confessing to his wife and others. By then, Merrell had been replaced as sheriff and Ike Williams had died in jail.
1. Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995).
2. Lynching in America: Report and Summary (Montgomery: Equal Justice Initiative, 2014)
3. Mark Twain, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 25 (July, 2009):7.
4. Twain, “Lyncherdom,”
5. Twain, “Lyncherdom,”
6. “Boy Murdered For His Money,” Atlanta Constitution, January 26, 1901.
7. “Escaped the Fury of Frenzied Mob,” Atlanta Constitution, January 26, 1901.
8. “Race For Life With Wild Mob,” Atlanta Journal, February 12, 1901.
9. “Murderer Gone Away for Trial,” Atlanta Journal, April 9, 1901.
10. Report of Cases Decided in The Supreme Court of the State of Georgia at the March Term, 1901, Volume 113, Atlanta, The State Library, 1901. Pp.721-724. The most complete record of the trial is in this review of the case.
11. There are gaps of several years around 1901 in the archives of local Carrollton and Carroll County newspapers. Thus local sources for this story are scarce. See Georgia Newspaper Project, University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Georgia 30602.
12. Report of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court, p. 721.
13. J.F. Lewis, “Three Men Hold Carroll Jail Against a Mob of 500,” Atlanta Constitution, June 8, 1901.
14. “Georgian’s Courage Wins Him Good Position,” Atlanta Constitution, December 29, 1906.
15. Lewis, “Three Men,” Atlanta Constitution, June 8, 1901.
16. Thomas R. Jones, Jr., “Carrollton Is Quiet Today and Negro Is Safe in Atlanta,” Atlanta Journal, June 8, 1901.
17. Report of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court, P. 724.
18. “Georgian’s Courage,” Atlanta Constitution, December 20, 1906.
19. “Sheriff Merrell’s Course Commended by the Press, Officials, and the Public,” Atlanta Constitution, June 10, 1901.
20. Report of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court, P. 724.
21. “Praise for Carroll’s Sheriff by Law Officers of Georgia, “Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, July 12, 1901.
22. “Sheriff Merrill [sic] Threatened by Mob,” Atlanta Constitution, June 9, 1901.
23. “Georgian’s Courage,” Atlanta Constitution, December 20, 1906.
24. “Official Result Is Confirmed: Joe Terrell Secures 196 Votes,” Atlanta Constitution, June 8, 1902.
25. Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), Italian monk and religious reformer, reputedly cowed a band of assassins sent to his jail cell and faced down several larger mobs.
26. Twain, “Lyncherdom,” 8.
27. “Georgian’s courage,” Atlanta Constitution, December 20, 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to his Attorney General, Charles Boneparte, on December 17, 1906, recalling his effort on Merrell’s behalf three years earlier.
28. Donald L. Grant, The Way It Was in Georgia: The Black Experience in Georgia, (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2001) 167.