The mob was met with little resistance from the hospital’s superintendent.
“If you must take him, do it quietly,” the superintendent of the Peninsula General Hospital told them, according to the Archives of Maryland Biographical Series.
“The men threw the bandaged Williams out of a window down to the crowd of approximately 300 people anxiously waiting below,” according to the biography. Williams was stabbed with an ice pick and then dragged three blocks behind a truck to the lawn of the courthouse in downtown Salisbury.
“At 8 p.m., the crowd strung up a noose and found a branch twenty feet above the ground, tied the unconscious Williams’ neck,” the report said.
Williams dangled as the crowd raised and lowered his body, several times, taunting him. Then, they finally dropped him.
“The mob allowed Williams to hang lifeless for twenty minutes,” according to archive records.
After they were sure he was dead, they cut his body from the rope, tied it to the back of a vehicle and dragged him through the black part of Salisbury.
“They then got about 40 or 50 gallons of gasoline, but before they threw this gas over him, they cut off his fingers and toes, threw them on the porches and in the yards of the colored people’s homes, shouting, these remarks, that (the colored people) could make N—er sandwiches out of them,” according to an eyewitness account published by the Crusader News Agency. “Then they threw the gas over him, set a match to him and while the human torch burned, they passed booze around, drinking and shouting.
The lynching was recorded as the 32nd in Maryland since 1882, according to the Maryland Historical Society Library.
In July, after Kelvin Sewell, a black police chief in Pocomoke City, Md., was fired by a predominantly white city council amid allegations of racism, attention has once again turned to the long history of racial tensions in the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, which has a sordid legacy of lynchings.
“Maryland’s Eastern Shore is one of those places where you remember Maryland is the South,” said Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, assistant director of African American studies and professor of African history at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. “I always say the Eastern Shore is the ‘Mississippi of Maryland.’ “
During the Civil War, while most of Maryland sympathized with the Union, the Eastern Shore, which was considered a slavery stronghold, favored the Confederacy.
“Socially and economically it was closer to the South than the rest of Maryland, particularly in terms of race relations,” according to Clarence Mitchell, a Maryland civil rights leader who was interviewed in 1977 for the Maryland’s Historical Society. “Isolated both geographically and economically from much of the rest of the state, the economic frustrations of poor whites in the area were often taken out on their African American neighbors. By the 1930’s, the increased economic hardships of the Great Depression caused simmering hostilities to boil over, with violent result.”
Several months after Matthew Williams was lynched, another black man was hanged.
On Oct. 16, 1933, George Armwood, was accused of attacking a white woman in Princess Anne, Md.
According to the Archives of Maryland biographical series, the woman, Mary Denston, who was then 71, said she was walking down a road in Princess Anne, when she said she passed a field and a “young black man jumped out and attempted to assault her.”
Somerset County police organized a search party to find the man the white woman had identified as George Armwood, 23. According to records, they found him hiding in a house, dragged him into a field and beat him.
Armwood’s mother was quoted in a local newspaper saying she thought her son was dead from the beating.
Police took Armwood to the Salisbury jail, “to avoid any violent reactions from local whites,” according to archive records.
An angry mob gathered outside the jail. To protect Armwood from the crowd, state police transferred him to Baltimore.
But he was soon returned to the jail in Princess Anne, after Somerset County officials promised then-Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood would be safe.
On the evening of Oct. 18, 1933, “a mob of a thousand or more people stormed into the Princess Anne jail house and hauled Armwood from this cell down to the street below,” according to Clarence Mitchell Jr., who was a reporter for the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore.
“Before he was hung from a tree some distance away, Armwood was dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed and had one ear hacked off. Armwood’s lifeless body was then paraded through the town, finally ended up near the town’s courthouse, where the mob doused the corpse with gasoline and set it on fire.”
Listen to Mitchell’s 1977 interview for the McKeldin-Jackson Oral History Project here:
Mitchell wrote in the Afro-American, describing the horrors of what he saw: “The skin of George Armwood was scorched and blackened while his face had suffered many blows from sharp and heavy instruments. A cursory glance revealed that one ear was missing and his tongue clenched between his teeth gave evidence of his great agony before his death. There is no adequate description of the mute evidence of gloating on the part of whites who gathered to watch the effect upon our people.”
Thousands of black people were lynched in cities and towns across the country, from the late 1800s to the mid 1960s, according to historians. But very few of those in the lynch mobs were convicted.
The eyewitness who wrote a letter to the Crusader News Agency, recounted the gruesome 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams then inquired, “We would like to know whether something cannot be done to punish the leaders of this crime?”
On March 18, 1932, The Salisbury Times reported that a grand jury, after hearing 124 witness statements, “in the lynching of Matthew Williams,” concluded that the jury “did not have sufficient evidence to return an indictment.”
The grand jury’s report read:
“After a thoroughly energetic and complete investigation of all the evidence, direct and indirect, rumors and every lead indicated by the evidence given by more than one hundred witnesses produced to us by the Attorney General and Assistant Attorney general, the State’s Attorney for Wicomico county and members of this grand jury,we find that there is absolutely no evidence that can remotely connect anyone with the instigation or perpetration of the murder of Mathew [sic] Williams.”