At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

By Philip Dray
Random House. 528 pp. $35
Friday, March 8, 2002

Chapter One

"A Negro's Life Is a Very Cheap Thing in Georgia"

Smartly dressed, with his walking cane in hand, W.E.B. Du Bois left his home in Atlanta on April 24, 1899, and began walking downtown along Mitchell Street. He was carrying a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, the white author of the Negro dialect tales known as the Uncle Remus stories and an editor at The Atlanta Constitution. At thirty-one, Du Bois was himself an acclaimed author, with degrees from Harvard and two years' study at a prestigious German university to his credit. In addition to his teaching duties as a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, he also supervised an ambitious program of social research there.

Although he had lived in Atlanta since 1897, he had never bothered to seek out Harris, even though they had mutual friends; Du Bois rarely left the university to go into downtown Atlanta because he refused to ride the city's segregated streetcars. But a sensational rape and murder in rural Georgia in mid-April had caused an uproar, and a black farmhand, Sam Hose, said to have brutally killed his employer, Alfred Cranford, and to have "outraged" Cranford's wife, Mattie, had been lynched.

Du Bois had studied the lynching phenomenon and he knew that in such instances things usually weren't as they seemed. "It occurred to me," he said later, "that I might go down to the Atlanta Constitution and talk with Joel Chandler Harris, and try to put before the South what happened in cases of this sort, and try to see if I couldn't start some sort of movement." In addition to his letter of introduction, Du Bois also carried a letter he'd written protesting the action of the lynch mob.

The crime that had "dethroned the reason of the people of western Georgia," as the Constitution put it, had occurred on Wednesday, April 12, 1899, in the small farming town of Palmetto, just southwest of Atlanta. The Cranfords, who were in their mid-twenties, were descendants of two of the area's most established families. Alfred's family owned extensive land, and Mattie (née McElroy) had been known before her marriage as "one of the belles of Newnan," the historic courthouse town that was the seat of Coweta County.

Alleged murderer Sam Hose, twenty-one, had grown up on a farm near Macon and had come to work for the Cranfords only six months earlier. The fact that he was unknown in Coweta may have enabled him to disappear more readily after the assault on the Cranfords, but it also made it more certain he would receive no quarter from the hundreds of lawmen and self-appointed guardians of the community's well-being tracking him along the back roads of west-central Georgia, in what was called the largest manhunt in the state's history. This "monster in human form," explained one much-reprinted account of the Cranford murder given by Georgia congressman James M. Griggs,

. . . crept into that happy little home . . . with an ax knocked out the brains of that father, snatched the child from its mother, threw it across the room out of his way, and then by force accomplished his foul purpose. [He] carried her helpless body to another room, and there stripped her person of every thread and vestige of clothing, there keeping her till time enough had elapsed to permit him to accomplish his fiendish offence twice more and again!

Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, widely known to endorse lynching as a method of controlling black criminality, termed the Palmetto murder "the most diabolical in the annals of crime" and declared the details of the Cranford murder "too horrible for publication." In truth, the newspapers found them quite suitable for publication. Turn-of-the-century news accounts of incidents such as the Hose-Cranford case constituted a kind of "folk pornography" that made for welcome, titillating reading. Stories of sexual assault, insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins, and manhunts led by "determined men" that culminated in lynchings were the bodice rippers of their day, vying in the South's daily newspapers with exposés about black dives and gambling dens, drunkenness and cocaine addiction, and warnings about domestics who stole family heirlooms. The cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes.

The Sam Hose affair offered no end of lurid details—Hose, the "fiend incarnate," had crushed Alfred Cranford's skull with an ax "until the brains oozed out," then "snatched Mrs. Cranford's baby and dashed it to the floor," before forcing the poor woman "to submit to the most shameful outrage which one of her sex can suffer." And as it gave the public information about the case, the Georgia press also whipped up expectations that a huge spectacle lynching would be held when Hose was captured. As early as April 13, the day after the crime, the Constitution's front page headline read "Determined Mob After Hose; He Will Be Lynched if Caught," while a subhead suggested "Assailant of Mrs. Cranford May Be Brought to Palmetto and Burned at the Stake." On April 19, with Hose still at large, the Constitution assured readers: "When Hose is caught he will either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or he will be burned at the stake . . . the mob which is in pursuit of him is composed of determined men . . . wrought up to an unusual degree."

Georgia authorities were cautioned not to attempt to interfere with "the people's will," because as the Newnan Herald and Advertiser pointed out, no punishment existed under law adequate to match the crime against the Cranfords. "The black brute, whose carnival of blood and lust has brought death and desolation to the home of one of our best and most worthy citizens," must be "run down and made to suffer the torments of the damned in expiation of his hellish crime." A few days later the paper couched the need for Hose's lynching in tones of civic necessity, insisting that Hose's punishment "be made summary enough to serve notice upon those who sympathize with him, that there is protection in Georgia for women and children."

"No community in Georgia has been more ready, at all times and in all circumstances, to show respect for the law or yield obedience to the mandates of the constituted authorities," an editorial in the Newnan paper said, "but in the present instance the provocation is so unbearably aggravating that the people cannot be expected to wait with patience on the laggard processes of the courts." The Constitution added that no law officer in his right mind would attempt to protect Hose from a mob. Even though he had not yet been apprehended, Sam Hose's fate was firmly sealed.

Born in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the foothills of the Berkshires, where, because of New England's relative leniency on matters involving race, the established, if modest, reputation in the town of his mother's family, and his own precociousness, he managed to participate fully in the life of the community and attend school with white children. As a result, he later wrote,

I very early got the idea that what I was going to do was to prove that Negroes were just like other people. . . . [I]n the first place I was very much annoyed because nothing was ever said about Negroes in the textbooks, while, on the other hand, I, as a Negro in this school, seemed to be looked upon as unusual by everybody. Now, if I was unusual in this school, and a sort of curiosity, then the Negroes must be so in the world. And if I could easily keep up with and beat these students in the high school, why didn't the Negroes do it in the world?

Graduating from Fisk University in Nashville in 1888, he took a second bachelor's degree at Harvard in 1890 and an M.A. in history there in 1892, then went to Europe for two years' study at Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin, concentrating on economics, history, and sociology. Returning to the United States in 1894, he taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio and the next year became the first black to be awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1896, when his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade was published to critical acclaim, Du Bois was at the University of Pennsylvania leading a comprehensive sociological study of Philadelphia's Negro population, the first such analysis ever made of an American black community.

In fall 1897, he joined the Atlanta University faculty and took charge of the "Atlanta Conferences," annual meetings designed to guide scientific research into the conditions affecting black Americans. Little if any data existed on this subject, sociology itself being a new discipline. Du Bois published the results of these conferences with the long-term goal of ultimately assembling a compendium of data and information about all facets of black life in America—urbanization, the black church, crime, health and physique, mortality, and the family, as well as black morals and manners. The Atlanta Conference papers were widely quoted and commented on, and Du Bois was increasingly seen as a respected authority on what was coming to be called the "Negro Problem," the question of how 8 million black Americans were to coexist with a white society that consistently rejected them as partners and obstructed their efforts at assimilation and self-improvement.

Just as Du Bois knew that the "problem" with black people was white people, he knew that the odds were good that Sam Hose had not raped Mattie Cranford. His doubts arose, to a degree, from some intelligence he had received about the case from black acquaintances, but chiefly from his familiarity with the writings of Ida Wells-Barnett, the Chicago-based journalist who was the nation's preeminent antilynching crusader. In her many articles and lectures on the evil of lynching, Wells-Barnett had shown that in the majority of cases the charge of rape was untrue, and had either been added to a complaint about a black suspect in order to incense local whites or, in some instances, to obscure the fact that the black man's real sin had been to have consensual sex with a white woman. Du Bois, in his own informal study of the subject, had found that despite the generally held tenet that black men were lynched for assaults on white women, in only 25 percent of lynchings was that crime even alleged. He found that disputes related to wages and work conditions were more typically to blame in cases like Sam Hose's, where a black worker was accused of killing his white employer. Du Bois intuited that Hose was probably guilty at worst of committing an act of violence against a white in the course of defending his right to disagree, or in refusing to be physically intimidated. The rape charge, Du Bois believed, had been "trumped up to arouse the worst passions of the countryside." The scenario of the crime as presented by the newspapers—that Hose had first killed Cranford, then methodically raped his wife—sounded illogical. Du Bois later wrote:

They started then to find Sam Hose and they couldn't find him. And then, suddenly, there was the accusation that Sam Hose had raped his wife. Now, everybody that read the facts of the case knew perfectly well what had happened. The man wouldn't pay him, so they got into a fight, and the man got killed—and then, in order to arouse the neighborhood to find this man, they brought in the charge of rape. Even from the newspapers you could see there was no foundation to it.

By definition, lynching denies a suspect due process under law, and so the kind of information that due process generates—lawyers' arguments, a judge's rulings, testimony, evidence—is not available to assist the historian in understanding the instigating deed. In the Hose case, there was no police investigation made of the crime scene, no evidence gathered, and Mattie Cranford was neither interviewed by any official or reporter nor examined by a physician. Most of the details were simply provided to the sheriff and to reporters by the Cranford family or their close friends.

According to the family's account, Alfred Cranford had reprimanded his hired hand for sloppy work habits shortly before the murder. Hose, in turn, had been heard to mutter threats against his boss, leading Cranford's father, G. E. Cranford, who lived on an adjacent property, to give his son a gun with which to defend himself. On the evening of Wednesday, April 12, Alfred and Mattie and their children were just sitting down to dinner when Sam Hose suddenly appeared outside, barefoot and wearing his work garb. Alfred called out to him—whether in greeting or to further discipline him is not known—at which Hose entered and immediately attacked Cranford with an ax, striking him before he could rise from his chair. The white man fell to the floor and Hose swung the ax again, this time with tremendous power, splitting Cranford's skull open to the level of his eyes.

Grabbing the terrified Mattie, the family's account continued, Hose then forced her to lead him through the house with a lantern, during which time he stole several small items, including a wad of Confederate money (a detail probably added as an insult to the killer, since it was a standing joke among Southern whites that blacks did not realize the currency was worthless). He then forced her back to the room where her husband lay dead or dying and, batting the Cranfords' four-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old infant boy out of the way, raped Mattie before making a hasty getaway.

Sobbing hysterically, Mattie then found her way to her father-in-law's house to raise the alarm. A round-the-clock search for Hose began almost immediately, inspired by the shocking details of the crime and, a short time later, by the generous reward monies offered for Hose's capture. In addition to the Constitution's reward of $500, Governor Candler offered $500, Coweta County put up $250, the town of Palmetto $250, and a wealthy Atlantan, Mr. Jacob Haas, $100, for a total of $1,600—a small fortune in 1899. The Constitution described Hose in bold type on its front page as a mulatto with an unusual ginger-cake complexion, five feet eight inches, with two black teeth, close-cropped hair, a black mustache, and a habit of shaking his head while speaking.

As days passed without any sign of him, rumors circulated of the fugitive's invincibility. Hose, it was said, was in Florida, in Alabama, in Savannah, was hiding in a swamp, was heavily armed, was a superb marksman, had not eaten or slept in days, had vowed to kill more whites. The New York Times reported that most businesses in Palmetto had closed so proprietors could join the search parties, and that the three hundred or so men combing the area had such regard for the mulatto (in an age that placed great faith in theories of racial determinism, mulattos were thought to be more deviant than other Negroes) they could only "hope that he will be compelled to seek rest, and that they will be able to come upon him while asleep."

Seventy-five miles southeast of Palmetto, Sam Hose's mother lived and worked on a farm owned by two brothers, J. B. and J. L. Jones, near Marshallville. Sam had been employed there himself until 1896 or 1897, when he was accused of assaulting another worker, an older black woman, and instead of waiting around for his punishment had run away. Sometime after April 14, 1899, a black worker on the place informed the Jones brothers that Hose had returned and was laying low, taking meals in his mother's cabin. The white men at first assumed Sam was keeping out of sight due to his earlier trouble, but they became suspicious when they learned he had gone to the extent of disguising himself by darkening his face with lampblack. Aware that a man was being sought for a killing up in Coweta County, they double-checked the newspaper's description of the fugitive "ginger-colored Negro," then offered their informant a small amount of money to lure Hose out into the open. On the night of Saturday, April 22, Hose was persuaded by his acquaintance to attend a "frolic" at a nearby farm, and en route, at a prearranged signal, the Jones brothers leaped out of the bushes and took him prisoner. Hose offered no resistance.

Only upon turning Hose over to the authorities would the Joneses qualify to receive the reward money, and this meant somehow delivering him to the authorities in Atlanta without being intercepted by a lynch mob. The brothers decided it best to try and run the gauntlet early the next day by train. It would be a Sunday morning, and the manhunt, which was for the most part concentrating on the region's swamps, wooded places, and waterways, might be negligible on the railroads. After all, who would expect so wanted a criminal to buy a train ticket? They worked to improve Hose's disguise, powdering his face a shade darker, and forced him to wear an old raincoat so his bound hands would not be visible.

Their plan almost worked. Early in the morning they boarded an Atlanta-bound train at Powersville, just south of Macon, and by ten o'clock had safely reached Griffin, one of the last stops before Atlanta. But at the Griffin depot a fellow passenger became suspicious and alerted railroad workers. Shouts were heard—"The Palmetto murderer! The nigger's here in the cars!"—and men came running down the platform. In moments the Jones party was surrounded and taken off the train at gunpoint.

Excited telephone calls were made to Newnan and Atlanta. After complex negotiations involving the Jones brothers, the sheriffs of two counties, the railroad, and other interested parties, it was decided a special train would be assembled at Griffin to return Hose to Newnan. This train—it was really not much of a train at all, consisting only of a single coach car attached to a locomotive and coal car—was quickly loaded. In addition to Hose and the Joneses, numerous deputies and railroad officials got on board, as did about 150 unofficial "escorts," all armed, who crammed into the coach, hung on to the sides of the engine, and even crouched or stood precariously on the cowcatcher.

At Newnan, word of Hose's arrest had spread rapidly and dozens of men welcomed the train. A delegation came aboard and marched Hose and the Joneses through town to Sheriff Joseph L. Brown's jail, which within minutes was surrounded by curious townspeople. As they had arranged by phone from Griffin, the brothers agreed to surrender Hose to Sheriff Brown if they were given a receipt certifying that they had earned the right to the reward money. But a disagreement took place over what constituted the complete and satisfactory delivery of the fugitive to the authorities. The Joneses felt they had honored their part of the deal by bringing Hose to Newnan; Sheriff Brown said he could not consider himself to have custody of the prisoner so long as there was a mob in control of his jail. They finally agreed on a script in which the town jailer would lock Hose in a cell for a moment before handing him over to the mob. But the members of the mob grew alarmed when they saw the murderer being led into a lockup. They surrounded the jailer, held a pistol to his head, and took possession of Hose.

One of the leading residents of Newnan was William Gates Atkinson, a former governor of Georgia (1894-1898) who had supported a state antilynching law that had gone into effect in 1893. Under his administration an average of only fourteen lynchings a year occurred in the state, compared with twenty-eight per year under the prolynching Governor Candler, making Atkinson something of a progressive. Informed that a mob had Sam Hose and was about to lynch him, Atkinson came from his home near the courthouse square and, stepping up onto the seat of an open buggy, appealed to be heard. Out of deference the mob halted, although one man reportedly kept a pistol trained on the former governor as he made his remarks:

My fellow citizens and friends, I beseech you to let this affair go no further. You are hurrying this Negro on to death without an identification. Mrs. Cranford, whom he is said to have assaulted, and whose husband he is said to have killed, is sick in bed and unable to be here to say whether this is her assailant. Let this Negro be returned to jail. The law will take its course, and I promise it will do so quickly and effectually. Do not stain the honor of this state with a crime such as you are about to perform.

Atkinson cautioned his neighbors that if a lynching occurred and an inquiry was later held concerning it, he would have no choice but to testify against the mob's leaders—a fairly empty threat, since everyone knew no such inquiry would ever take place. The governor received a respectful hearing, but when Judge Alvan D. Freeman followed Atkinson in pleading for Hose to be returned to jail, the mob stirred impatiently. "Think of his crime!" someone yelled, drowning Freeman out. "Burn him!" "On to Palmetto!"

Atkinson and Freeman were not the only Newnan citizens eager to avoid having their community associated with a lynching. Newnan was a relatively affluent town and enjoyed a certain historic cachet. Its antebellum mansions and tree-lined avenues had come through the Civil War virtually unscathed, and the town's demeanor seemed derived from a more genteel Old South past. It thus came as a relief to many onlookers when the crowd bearing Sam Hose, which had grown to more than a thousand, headed away from Newnan's courthouse square with their captive.

The one stop the mob was compelled to make was at the Newnan home of the McElroys, Mattie Cranford's parents, to allow Mattie, who was recuperating there, a chance to positively identify her attacker. This was a ritualized aspect of a Southern lynching. The woman who had been outraged was, when possible, asked to confront and identify her assailant and could, if she chose, participate in killing him, although in the actual bloodletting she was usually represented by a father, brother, husband, or other male relative, whose honor was deemed also to have been besmirched. That she be made to face her attacker and identify him was a somewhat curious tradition, considering that one of the frequent rationales for lynchings was that summary execution of rapists spared humiliated women the distress of having to answer questions in open court about the outrage they'd suffered.

In Mattie Cranford's stead her mother came out to the road to tell the lynch mob that her daughter was too ill to identify the accused man. Mattie, whose condition in the crime's aftermath had been variously described as "crazed," "deranged," and "unbalanced," never did confront or identify Sam Hose. (One later account even claimed she had been "unconscious" for weeks after the traumatic assault on her family and person, a claim belied by her presence at her husband's funeral three days after his death.) Her mother and a sister, however, did identify Sam Hose to the mob as having been a hired hand on the Cranford place. Someone in the crowd declared it would be fitting to lynch Hose on the spot, an idea that was greeted with cheers. But the ladies asked that the lynching not take place on their property, and as the mob was obliged by custom to respect such a request, it resumed pushing Hose along toward Palmetto.

The lynch mob hadn't traveled far, though, when word came that unscheduled trains from Atlanta were approaching Newnan. Concerned that soldiers might be coming to separate them from their prize, the mob's leaders decided they could wait no longer. An area of scraggly farmland and pinewoods alongside the Palmetto road, known as the old Troutman field, was accepted as a likely location for the execution. It had several large trees set back off the road and would afford views to a large number of spectators.

Now that the lynching was at hand, men began carrying out prearranged duties. Those who had been toting kerosene and small pieces of lumber began building the pyre, while others secured Hose to the trunk of a pine tree. Young men and boys raced through the adjoining woods seeking added kindling; old fence posts, railroad ties, and dead tree limbs were piled around Hose's feet. The captive's clothes were cut or stripped away. A heavy chain was wound around his upper and lower body, then closed and locked in front of his chest. Word went out that the lynching was about to commence, and the occupants of a column of buggies and wagons stretching back almost to the Newnan courthouse abandoned their vehicles and swarmed into the field.

The trains en route from Atlanta carried no soldiers but only more spectators. Word of Hose's capture had arrived in the metropolis that Sunday morning just as many Atlantans were leaving church, and there had ensued a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage. To cope with the demand, the Atlanta and West Point Railroad announced that a special excursion train for Newnan would depart at one o'clock. When the six coaches of the train pulled in, pandemonium broke out. Passengers who had been unable to purchase tickets clambered on board and clung to every available part of the train. Friends helped one another climb in the windows, while vendors made quick profits stuffing sandwiches and coffee into outstretched hands. Police had to be called to clear those perched on the sides of the cars. In order to win the cooperation of those ejected, the railroad announced immediately that a second "special" was being assembled. This train, with ten coaches, was then drawn into the station and within moments it, too, was rushed and boarded, the railroad having by now abandoned all thought of selling or collecting tickets. Both trains sped south at full throttle.

Most press accounts concur that Hose evinced little fear during the march through Newnan. But whatever composure he was clinging to was lost completely when he glimpsed a flash of sunlight on a knife brandished by a member of the mob. He shrieked at the sight, it was reported, began "shaking like a leaf," and quietly urged his tormentors to kill him swiftly. This was a plea none was inclined to heed, as the mob's act of retribution would be considered something of a failure if Hose did not die a prolonged, painful death.

The torture of the victim lasted almost half an hour. It began when a man stepped forward and very matter-of-factly sliced off Hose's ears. Then several men grabbed Hose's arms and held them forward so his fingers could be severed one by one and shown to the crowd. Finally, a blade was passed between his thighs, Hose cried in agony, and a moment later his genitals were held aloft.

From the crude incisions he'd suffered, the bound, naked man was soon covered with bright crimson blood from head to foot, and must have appeared at last to be the "black devil" the newspapers had made him out to be all along. It was the last clear glimpse the crowd had of him, for with the command "Come on with the oil!" three men lifted the large can of kerosene and dumped its contents over Sam Hose's head, and the pyre was set ablaze.

"Sweet Jesus!" Hose was heard to exclaim, and these were believed to be his last words. As the flames began licking at his legs and smoke entered his nose, eyes, and mouth he turned his head desperately from side to side. To the crowd's astonishment he somehow managed to reach back and, pushing with all his might against the tree to which he was chained, snapped the bonds around his chest, bursting a blood vessel in his neck with the strain of his exertions. For a moment it appeared this writhing, half-dead apparition might break free and stagger into the crowd, but the whites rushed forward and, using several large, heavy pieces of wood, pushed him back into the fire and pinned him down. One of these logs was near his head, and with a last desperate effort Hose grimaced and sank his teeth into it, then died.

The Atlanta trains had brought four thousand visitors to Newnan. Hundreds more had walked or hitched a ride over from Palmetto, where many had camped until the last moment, certain that Hose's execution would take place on the Cranford farm. Having missed the main event, the frustrated thrill seekers could only gather around those witnesses willing to narrate all that had occurred, or search for a suitable souvenir. Trophies of the occasion were instantly prizeworthy. When literally nothing remained of Sam Hose, the pine tree against which he'd died was chopped down and pieces of it were carried off. A man then came forward with a sledgehammer and separated the links of the chain that had been used to bind him, so that these, too, could be given out or sold.

"Overtaken by the wrath of an outraged community, burned at the stake, and his very ashes scattered to the winds, there is nothing to remind us that such a monster in human form ever had existence save the bitter recollection of his infamous career while on earth," The Herald and Advertiser noted with satisfaction the next day. It was the closest thing to a eulogy anyone cared to offer Sam Hose.

The Constitution reporter who had accompanied the crowds from Atlanta noted, "The excursionists returning tonight were loaded down with ghastly reminders of the affair . . . pieces of flesh and pieces of the wood placed at the negro's feet. . . . Persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."

Before W.E.B. Du Bois could reach the Constitution office to discuss the Sam Hose lynching with Joel Chandler Harris, he learned that Hose had been "barbecued" and that his knuckles were for sale in a grocer's window a few blocks ahead on the very street he was walking. Du Bois would allude to the moment numerous times during his long life as the shock that "pulled me off my feet." He stopped and slowly reversed his steps back toward the university. "I did not meet Joel Chandler Harris nor the editor of the Constitution," he later recalled, but walked home in a distracted state of mind, having had the sudden recognition that "one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved; and secondly, there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing."

© 2002 Philip Dray