LEGACY OF A LYNCHING
A lynching runs through my family, though not as I long imagined. Yes, my great-grandfather, Sheriff John Sullivan, failed to stop the lynching of Seymour Newlin. But the story is not so simple, nor is the telling of it that came down to me. The sheriff lived the rest of his life questioning his own role in it. That much I knew. The horror of it changed him. It affected his attitude toward his unborn children and, indeed, his community.
Wishful thinking changed the story. What I heard while quite young made palatable a decision that Sullivan surely regretted. What I heard was that a mob had surrounded the jail, torches flickering as though in the movieFrankenstein. To save his family—including my grandmother—living above, the sheriff gave up the prisoner.
The race of the victim was never mentioned.
No lynching, not ever, is an isolated event. Travesty resonates through the lives of everyone even tangentially involved. It resonates through friends and families and through the next generations—and beyond.
The basic facts, as I know them now: On April 15, 1894, just a few days more than a year before my great-uncle was born and four years and a few months before my grandmother’s birth, in Rushsylvania, Ohio—some eight miles from the Logan County seat, Bellefontaine—a black man was accused of attacking and raping an elderly white woman, Ann (or Eliza) Knowles. Newlin was apprehended the next day by neighbors, who incarcerated him in a “calaboose.” Before Sheriff Sullivan managed to get there, a crowd possibly as large as 2,000 people (more than inhabited the village) had surrounded the building. Even with reinforcements, the sheriff hadn’t the power to force the issue and remove the prisoner. He was warned that the jail would be dynamited, but that attempt was foiled.
After negotiating a truce to save face, getting agreement that Newlin would be kept safe until a judge arrived next morning, Sullivan retreated back to Bellefontaine, leaving local constables to guard the prisoner.
The crowd, angry and riled, did not disperse. Agitated by a small group, it eventually broke into the building, and Newlin was summarily hanged.
One of the clippings I have found, ones kept by my great-grandmother, tattered but clear, reads:
He [Newlin] effected an entrance through a window in the rear of the house, and removing his shoes, proceeded to the bedroom of Mrs. Knowles. She was aroused by his pulling at the bed clothing, and before she could utter a cry the villain clutched her by the throat, and with a threat to kill her if she made any resistance, proceeded to ravish her. Leaving his victim he escaped through an outer door.
Only a few newspapers today would publish such unverifiable details—at least, not without attribution. But this was several lifetimes ago and in an extremely different environment. Anyhow, Newlin is not “alleged” to have done anything in the article; the veracity of the unnamed sources is assumed. As if that were not enough, this follows:
After the fiend had accomplished his hellish deed and left, Mrs. Knowles made her way to the house of Mr. William Newland only a few feet away, and aroused him, when she was taken in more dead than alive. Dr. C. M. Fisher was at once summoned and gave much needed medical assistance. The shock is so serious that it may prove fatal.
Cut and dried. No room for doubt. The way many attacks are portrayed even today (including the Central Park “rapists” of 1989, who were later exonerated). Especially if the accused is black:
Seymour Newlin is a colored man of about 30 years of age who has served three terms in the State Prison for sundry crimes.He has been accused of several attempts to outrage women, and has been an all-around tough.He was arrested yesterday morning and taken before Mayor Taylor who had him placed in the city prison until he should hear the case, Monday at 1 o’clock.The news soon spread through the county and people began to arrive until they numbered many hundreds. Excitement was at fever heat all day, and the Mayor became convinced that the local authorities could not control the people.
Few of the immediately subsequent words of the article are legible. Another fragment, though, looks like it belongs to the same article, only a little bit between having crumbled away. The first complete sentence, about the arrival of National Guardsmen that Sheriff Sullivan had summoned, starts:
The Company arrived at 6:50, and were marched across the mill grounds to and in the rear of the city prison, and arrived there just in time to prevent the blowing up of the prison with dynamite, capturing James Shough with six pounds of dynamite and with about three feet of fuse, all capped and ready to ignite. Shough was immediately in the rear of the prison on his knees in the act of striking a match when he was arrested. Sheriff Sullivan took charge of Shough and placed the dynamite in safe hands.The arrival of the troops had the effect to delay proceedings, and a parlay ensued in which the interested citizens called upon all good people to allow the law to take its course; that if the sheriff would withdraw the troops they would pledge themselves to place a citizen guard around the jail and keep the prisoner safe for trial Monday.This was accordingly done. A guard of fifteen men were chosen and the local authorities took charge, the troops withdrawing and many of the crowd dispersing.
From this, it sounds like the situation, at least when the sheriff left, was under control. That said, the sheriff obviously retreated to protect himself and his men—surely knowing that Newlin would not likely survive another day:
During the day groups of men could be seen standing here and there talking in subdued tones, and much anxiety was experienced lest the authorities should attempt to remove the prisoner to the county jail as they preferred to have him tried on the ground where the deed was committed. It was plain to be seen that while many did not want mob law to be carried out, there was an element which was only waiting for an opportunity to wreak vengeance upon the miscreant, and by 9:35 Sunday evening, the mob had gathered in such force that the guards were over-powered, the city prison, which was a small frame affair, was thrown over and broken into, and a rope placed around the neck of the villain, and he was led through the streets to the center ofLegacy of a Lynching | One Flew East: