Coatesville, Pennsylvania, dozed fitfully in the oppressive heat of August. Then two shots rang out, and set off an ugly train of racial violence
The grim and vivid account which follows may strike some of our readers as a frightful fantasy. Unfortunately it all took place, detail for detail, in the year 1911. Since we believe, as this magazine regularly testifies, that the good in our past generously outweighs the bad, we never shrink from chronicling cruelty and rascality. Yet we might hesitate, even so, to print this unusually ugly story of racial violence long ago if it did not lay bare so much that lies dangerously hidden in the folk memory of the white man and the black, if it did not help in some way to explain some of the bitterness and guilt which presently afflict the two races, if it did not admonish us so powerfully—if, in short, good did not sometimes spring out of evil.
This article will form the first chapter of Eric F. Goldman’s book revolving around Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in this century, to be published under the title, Incident in Coatesville, by Alfred A. Knopf. Its theme is the racial crisis which came to America shortly before World War I and its meaning for our own day. The book is the result of painstaking research by Mr. Goldman, who is Rollins Professor of History at Princeton, a member of the Advisory Board of AMERICAN HERITAGE, and president of one of our two sponsoring groups, The Society of American Historians. He has been a writer for Time Magazine, a State Department lecturer, and the moderator of the intellectual television program, “The Open Mind.” He has won many awards, including the Bancroft Prize for “distinguished writing in American history,” on the basis of his book, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform (Knopf, 1952). In February he was appointed an aide to President Johnson, charged with “channelling the nation’s best thinking to the White House.”
Zachariah Walker had a few drinks of straight gin and felt good. He drank some more and felt even better. Now he poured the gin in quick spurts, his aim half missing the glass, and the world of here and now was racing away.
That evening, Saturday, August 12, 1911, everybody in Coatesville could use less of the here and now. The overgrown town, population about 11,000, lay thirty-eight miles west of Philadelphia in the trough of the Chester Valley, and the heat of the eastern seaboard hung over it dank and steaming. The discomforts nature did not bring, Coatesville managed itself. The town’s life centered in two sprawling iron and steel corporations, the Lukens Iron and Steel Company and the Worth Brothers Company. Any day or night the furnaces sent up clouds of soot. This Saturday evening, like all Saturday evenings, was the time for blowing the waste boilers, and great billows of dirty smoke, stirred along by desultory tufts of wind, kept drifting through the valley.
Most of the well-to-do of Coatesville, the steel executives and the more prosperous merchants along Main Street, had chugged off to the Jersey Coast in their high-fendered automobiles. The clerks and the skilled workers and the grocery-store keepers flocked to the nearby Pinto Kit’s Wild West Show where “real cowboys,” “absolutely guaranteed, money-back” real cowboys, did their fancy riding, lassoing, and shooting; or to Coatesville’s three movie houses with the hardworking big propeller fans; or to Davy’s Soda Garden, which offered oversize helpings of frosted fruit and Terry’s Orchestra playing “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” and “Dream Kisses” for the waltzing, and an occasional thumping march when the couples sat down, worked away with their bamboo fans, told each other fretfully that the hay fever had never been so bad and that something simply had to be done about the stray dogs.
Up on the hill to the southeast, near the dingy black buildings of Lukens and Worth, thousands sweltered away with no money for the downtown bars or a Wild West Show. Rows of wooden shacks housed some 3,000 eastern European immigrants brought over for unskilled labor in the steel plants. Further up the hill, huts still more ramshackle were the quarters for about 2,000 Negro workers imported from the South.
Zachariah Walker, a lanky, tan-colored Negro brought up from Greene County, Virginia, and now working as a water-wagon driver in the Worth plant, took the last swig from his bottle and shambled oft to a neighboring shack. A few more drinks, it was a boring eight o’clock or so, and Walker went back to his own place, stuck a hat on his head and a revolver in his pocket, and made oft down Youngsburg Road, which ran alongside the shacks through a patch of woods toward central Coatesville.
Shortly before 9 P.M. , two shots rang out from the woods. They were heard by Edgar Rice, a company policeman employed by Worth who had stopped into the grocery store of a Slovakian immigrant, Leon Miclcorck. Rice hurried toward the woods and met an immigrant fleeing from them. A Negro had tried to hold him up, the immigrant said, and when he ran, the Negro fired at him twice. The policeman went into the woods. Soon there was another shot, then two more.
Rice came staggering out, reeled along the road some sixty yards with his arms flung out before him, dropped face down near Miclcorck’s grocery. The terrified storekeeper and other immigrants carried the policeman into the store. One bullet had torn through his shoulder and another was lodged in the left side of his head at the base of the brain. In a few minutes Rice stopped breathing.
The immigrants had scarcely realized that the policeman was dead when the August skies broke into a torrential rain. One of the immigrants, a Hungarian, went running into town, sloshing through the mud and shouting the news in a frenzy of broken syntax. Coatesville heard of the killing with a gasp. Edgar Rice was widely known and just about as popular as anyone in town. Middle-class Coatesville thought of him as the middle-class ideal, a hard-working, church-going man, good husband and good father to his five children, properly proud of his oldest boy, Thomas, who was serving on the U.S.S. Chester. Working-class Coatesville knew him as a highly unusual company cop, a friendly, good-humored fellow who rarely used his pistol or stick and was more likely to take a troublemaker home than to jail him. All kinds of people remembered Rice as the victim of highhanded politics. For six years he had been a member of the regular town police force but two years before, he had had the temerity to run for the office of chief of police and, worse still, to come within forty-four votes of winning. Rice was promptly fired and had to settle for the lower-paying job of company cop.
As the news of the killing raced through town, bars, movies, and homes emptied and angry groups gathered on the street corners. Everybody was soon agreeing on much the same story: Edgar Rice, always the brave man, had gone into the woods with his pistol in its holster. He found the Negro, grabbed him by the arm, started leading him to the nearby Worth lockup. The Negro wrenched himself free, tripped Rice, and as the policeman fell, shot him in the back. The more the story was told, the bigger and the more restless the crowds became. The largest number gathered on East Chestnut Street, just off Main Street, in front of the boxlike, two-story, red-brick building that functioned both as borough hall and borough jail but served above all as the headquarters of Charles E. Umsted, Elk, Mason, Eagle, leader in the Washington Hose Company and the United Sportsmen’s Association, pillar of the First Baptist Church, constable, high constable, and chief of police of the Borough of Coatesville.
Everybody had stories of the Chief’s mastodonic law enforcement. Was there word that three New York pickpockets were arriving on the morning train to work the local fair? Umsted met the men as they alighted, bundled them together like so many bags of potatoes, deposited them back on the train. Had a steelworker in the Speakman Bar pulled a knife? Umsted arrived with an impatient glower, knocked the knife out of the man’s hand, removed him forthwith by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck.
But the roughhouse Chief also had his own deft sense of how to get along and get ahead. Starting out as a butcher, he had quickly tired of cleaving steaks and in election after election he kept winning the post of chief of police despite Coatesville’s endlessly intricate politics. Among the town’s steel executives, men used to smile and say, “Jummy knows what we want.” Ladies’ clubs passed more than a few glowing resolutions about the Chief; he managed to give his roughest manhandlings the aura of law and justice. Even the drunks of the town could find good words for Umsted. At the back of the borough jail was a square room, with concrete walls and narrow slits for a door and a window, that was known as “The Tank.” The man who had had too many would be put in the Tank, doused by the Chief with a hose and permitted to sleep it off, then sent on his way the next morning with a friendly, if paralyzing, shake of the hand. “Jummy was the most lumbering man I ever saw,” one Coatesville resident remembers, “but he always lumbered, clumsy as could be, to exactly where he wanted to get.”
Now, as the crowd milled outside his office, the Chief lumbered into action once again. All the policemen in the town—the seven men of the borough force and the company policemen of Lukens and Worth—were reporting in for emergency duty and Umsted growled his instructions: Get the killer of Rice—“I don’t care how you get him but get him.” Identifying the murderer was hardly difficult. By midnight of Saturday all kinds of clues were pointing to Zachariah Walker. Loosely organized posses, made up of eager volunteers from the crowds and armed with revolvers, shotguns, pitchforks, and sticks, were already fanning out in a farm area to the south of the scene of the killing. The problem was the darkness and the unremitting rain. At daybreak the posses were back, bedraggled and muttering that they would get some sleep and wait for tomorrow. The Chief sank into the big swivel chair in his office with a tremendous sigh. “More of it,” he groaned to a friend. “Always more of it. Nigger kills. Nigger gets chased. Well, it’s my job.”
About 10 o’clock Sunday morning the telephone jolted Umsted out of his sleep. A farmer who lived three-quarters of a mile from the murder spot was calling to say that he had just seen Walker running across his field. Once again the posses assembled and this time they were better organized. Of course one was led by Umsted; another by Alfred S. Jackson, chief of the Lukens company police; a third by Alfred A. Berry, who had recently come to Coatesville from Philadelphia and was making a living doing balloon ascensions and running dances at a nearby Negro amusement place, the 20th Century Park. Early Sunday afternoon word came from a second farm. A fourteen-year-old boy, Lewis Townsend, had gone out to the barn looking for eggs and had seen a tan-colored leg showing from beneath a loose pile of hay.
The three posses closed in, shotguns ready. Suddenly, from a cherry tree, came the sound of two shots and Zachariah Walker tumbled down. The closest posse leader was Berry and he, wondering whether the Negro had really tried to commit suicide or was attempting a ruse, approached cautiously. There was no doubt about the suicide attempt. Walker was unconscious and bleeding profusely from his lower jaw. Berry and his group improvised a stretcher by placing coats across the barrels of three shotguns and carried the Negro to an automobile.
As the car approached town it had to fight its way through increasingly large crowds. Four to five hundred men and women churned in the narrow street in front of the police station. Everyone assumed that Walker was all but dead and people squeezed a path for him to be carried into the building. Once inside, he regained a degree of consciousness. He refused to say anything; instead he made frantic motions to the policemen to kill him. Dr. Artemus Carmichael examined the Negro and ordered him to the hospital. The crowd made way again as Walker was brought out. “Well, that nigger sure saved us the trouble,” said one man, swishing his hands in a that’s-that motion.
About 4 P.M. the automobile carrying Walker, Chief Umsted, and several policemen reached the hill to the southwest on which stood the two-and-a-half story, red-brick Coatesville Hospital, a gift of the owners of Lukens and Worth. Dr. Carmichael arrived in his own car and immediately operated on Walker to remove the bullet. The Negro was plated in a private room at the right front of the building, his body strapped to the bed by a canvas restraint sheet, his right leg attached to the foot of the iron bedstead by a chain. Umsted assigned one of his patrolmen, Stanley Howe, to stand guard and he, Dr. Carmichael, and the rest of the policemen left.
Soon people began arriving at the hospital room, individually and in family groups. Mostly the visitors would stare at the Negro, whisper behind their hands, and ask Officer Howe the same question: Was there any chance Walker would recover? The Negro’s head was swathed in thick bandages but he gave every appearance of a man who was going to live. He had now regained full consciousness and was breathing normally and returning stare for stare.
During the supper hour Umsted returned to the hospital and started questioning Walker. The Negro agreed to make a confession but his admissions were decidedly limited. Stanley Howe took down the words: Walker had made no attempt to rob “a foreigner” or anyone else. He was simply “feeling pretty good” and when he saw a “Hunkey” in the woods, he fired into the air to whoop things up. Walker had killed Rice but in self-defense. The policeman “came over and placed me under arrest. I knew if he would take me I would serve time for carrying concealed weapons, and I resisted him. Rice told me to quit … , and if I didn’t he would hit me over the head with a club. I told him that if he did I would kill him. Rice then made a plunge at me with the club, and he dropped the stick and reached for his revolver. I was too quick for him. I had my gun out first and fired two shots into him. …”
As dusk fell, the news was all over Coatesville that the Negro was recovering and the town was stirring again. One crowd of men, women, and children milled fretfully on the long sloping green in front of the hospital. Another gathered closer to Main Street, at the Ashley & Bailey Silk Mill on Strode Avenue. The largest crowd, composed almost exclusively of men, formed on Main Street, outside the Brandywine Fire Company, which had long been a political and social center of the town and of which Edgar Rice had been a member. In all of the groups, middle-class people and old-stock workers predominated; there were few if any immigrants. In all of the groups, the talk ran rampant: “Let’s lynch that nigger.”
Before long the word was going out to the towns and farm areas surrounding Coatesville. Hundreds were in the same mood as Ambrose Boyd, a conductor for the Conestoga Traction Company on the five-mile run from Coatesville to Parkesburg. When Boyd reached Parkesburg shortly after 8 P.M., he went to the house of his crony, Joseph Schofield, a master mechanic and company policeman for Conestoga.
“Joe, come on along. We are going to Coatesville. There’s a big crowd down there talking about lynching that nigger.” The two men took the next streetcar back.
In Coatesville, Umsted had returned from the hospital and joined the crowd at the Brandywine Firehouse, where he kept talking about Walker’s confession. Mordecai P. Markward, assistant chief of the Brandywine, was worried by the mood of the men and tactfully hinted to the police chief that he ought to get off the subject. “I must be drawing flies,” Umsted chuckled and continued to go on about the confession. The crowd kept growing. It clogged the pavement and street outside the firehouse, overflowed in front of Braunstein’s furniture store and around First Avenue. Men would break off into little groups and hold whispered conferences, then mill back into the general throng.
There the enthusiastic buttonholed the reluctant, shook fingers in their faces, demanded, “Are you or aren’t you a man?” About 8:30 a much larger crowd started toward the hospital. Along the way men, women, and children joined the shouting, jostling mob. The evening services of the churches were letting out now and whole families moved along with the throng, some asking what was going on and then drifting off, more falling into line. As the crowd poured down Strode Avenue it met the group at the Ashley-Bailey Silk Mill, which promptly joined forces.
On and on the mob swept, into the hundreds already on the hospital grounds, into more hundreds converging on the lawn in all directions from neighboring regions. Soon some three thousand people were at the hospital. A scattering of the men were the local toughs and here and there somebody plainly had observed the Sabbath with a bottle. But for the most part the crowd was made up of the respectable of the Coatesville area, a mass of neat shirt sleeves and starched gingham and cotton wilting in the heat.
A horse-drawn ambulance drove up bringing Dr. E. A. Graves, a Coatesville physician, with an accident case from the Pennsylvania Railroad station. The crowd opened a way for the vehicle to pull up to the emergency entrance. When it started down the hospital drive determined-faced men, thinking it was taking Walker away, grabbed the bridles of the horses, told the frightened driver to mind his own business, and thoroughly searched the ambulance. Finding no one, the men ran back up the grounds, shouted and beckoned, and some of the crowd edged toward the steps leading to the porch of the hospital.
Inside Miss Lena Gray Townsend, the spinsterish superintendent who had taken over the post only the previous November, was decidedly nervous. “What is all that crowd doing down there?” she asked anyone who came by, and she was not reassured when told that the crowd would leave as soon as it discovered that Walker was not being taken away.
Now, with men moving toward the hospital steps, Miss Townsend turned in panic to Officer Howe. “Oh, what must I do?” she screamed.
Call up 19, Police Headquarters, said Howe.
Miss Townsend called 19. She called the Brandywine Firehouse and all other likely places and she reached no policeman. She begged Central to keep trying, to get her somebody, anybody, and she ran from the phone to lock the two tall screen doors leading from the porch into the hospital.
In Coatesville, Chief of Police Umsted was sitting in Magistrate Myer’s office, his feet on the table, swapping stories. About the time the Brandywine crowd started for the hospital, Mordecai Markward hurried into the office and told Umsted: “Things look desperate. … They are going to lynch that man sure.”
The Chief waved his hand impatiently. “That is all hot air; there is no danger.”
Umsted remained for twenty minutes or so and then ambled up Main Street. Across the street from the Stephenson Hotel he ran into Dr. Carmichael, who had stopped his car to chat with Jesse Shallcross, burgess of Coatesville, and two policemen, Robert Allison and Thomas Nafe. The Doctor showed the group a bullet he had taken from the body of Rice, and while they looked at it, Dr. Graves drove up in the ambulance.
The men who had searched the ambulance, Dr. Graves told the police chief, were in a violent mood. There was going to be trouble and Umsted had better get policemen over there.
The Chief’s face flushed with irritation. He was sick of all this gabble. He had been up the whole night before, he was tired, and to hell with it. Burgess Shallcross and Officer Nafe drifted off.
A few more minutes and the central telephone operator, still trying to reach somebody, got Richard D. Gibney, a livery stable owner who was a member of the borough City Council and chairman of its Police Committee. Gibney called Umsted’s office and reached Harry Downing, a friend of the police chief, who was sitting there.
Get Umsted, Gibney ordered. Tell him police are needed immediately at the hospital. And tell him that he has permission to call out the sixteen volunteer firemen.
Downing found Umsted still talking with Dr. Carmichael and this time the Chief was furious. He had heard just about enough of this business, Umsted exploded. He wanted to hear no more.
At the hospital several men were on the front steps. But no one joined them and the crowd churned without moving forward for a long few minutes. Just after 9 P.M. a neatly dressed man with a mask over the top part of his face ran up the stairs, turned, fired a shot into the air. People remembered his words differently. Some thought they were: “Men of Coatesville, will you allow a drunken nigger to do up such a white man as Ed Rice?” Others thought they heard: “Men, are you going to allow a white man to be downed by a nigger?” Or, “You are all cowards—will you let niggers ride over the whites?”
Whatever the exact words, they did it. “No-o-o,” the crowd chorused back. In seconds twelve to fifteen more men, some in half masks, some with handkerchiefs tied in triangles below their eyes, some with no covering, were up the steps and on the porch, wildly ringing the bell, rattling the screen doors, pushing and yelling.
Miss Townsend pleaded through the screen: “Oh, go away men and leave this man alone. There are very sick people in this house, some at the point of death; there are mothers and sisters here, and if your mother or your sister was here you would not do this thing.”
“You open up this door quietly and we will go in quietly,” one of the men replied, “but if you don’t we will batter the doors down.”
Miss Townsend checked the lock on the door. Then she hurried inside to try to rally her panicking nurses and to quiet her eighteen patients, most of whom were out of bed, shrieking and sobbing as they struggled to make their way upstairs.
Stanley Howe took over at the screen door, telling the men they ought to go away. Somebody hollered: “The nigger or Howe.” Another said: “Stanley, you might as well open the door. We’ll get him anyhow.” Suddenly a foot went through the window on the left side of the porch and Howe ran over to close the door leading from that room into the vestibule. Then the screen doors went crashing in and the mob leaders careened into the hospital. They turned toward Walker’s room at the right, pushing Howe ahead of them. The powerfully built officer went jostling along, unresisting, his Colt revolver, fully loaded, in its holster.
In Walker’s room eager hands tore at the canvas restraint jacket on the Negro’s body. A nurse started to intervene. She was pushed into a corner and stood there, frozen in terror. As the jacket loosened, Walker, fighting back ferociously, was hammered down by fists on all sides. The bandages came off his head and blood spattered everything. Outside the crowd roared impatiently: “Why don’t you get him? Bring him out!” Stones clattered through windows of the hospital and more of the mob poured through the front doors.
The men in Walker’s room yanked at the chain binding the Negro’s leg to the foot of the iron bedstead. Where are the keys? they demanded of Howe.
The officer, standing very much aside, said he did not have the keys. They were with Umsted.
Someone yelled, “To hell with the keys. Cut his leg off.” Instead, feet smashed against the bedstead. The men picked up Walker, chain, and foot of the bedstead, and carried, pulled, and dragged them pellmell. They brought the Negro out on the porch a bleeding, flailing, shrieking mass of flesh.
At the sight of Walker a tremendous noise went up from the crowd. Now and again a chant broke through the bedlam: “Lynch him! Lynch him! Lynch him!” The sounds rolled down the hospital hill, all through the sultry air of the valley.
Some fifteen to twenty men, as many as could lay hands on Walker, half carried, half dragged him down the hospital lawn and along the cinder path leading to Strode Avenue and to central Coatesville. The mob kept closing in on the Negro, then making way, torn between its zest to get Walker done with and its urge to curse and to jab at him. A female voice screeched above the din: “Niggers, you have been good but you are done for now.” A man broke to the head of the crowd, held a lantern high, led a response: “Right, right, right. Niggers you have been good but you are done for now.”
At the intersection of Strode Avenue, three arc lights overhead cut through the night with a purplish haze. Everything paused. Walker was dumped on the ground, a rope was looped around his feet, and he writhed and begged at the end of the rope while the leaders argued. Some said he ought to be weighted down and thrown in the Brandy wine Creek. Others wanted to take him the few hundred yards to the Ashley-Bailey Silk Mill and hang him from the electric pole there. One man cried out: “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!”
The cry produced an instant decision. Hands reached forward to get Walker, chain, and foot of the bedstead moving again, the opposite way from Coatesville, up the extension of Strode Avenue known as Ercildoun Road and leading to farms and woods. The decision went out to the crowd in the special, sure language of a mob. Most received it with a roar of approval. Little groups drew back, milling about uncertainly.
One person with no hesitancy at all was a woman who came running down Strode Avenue still adjusting her hood. The wispish, mild-mannered Mrs. Edgar Rice was now a tigress, fighting her way into the crowd. Men grabbed her and pulled her aside, insisting she could not go along.
Her laughter was shrill. Not going? she screamed. I’m going and I’m going to light the fire.
Four men seized her tightly by the arms and pulled her, struggling and weeping, toward her house on West Main Street. “I pleaded, I begged, I implored … [I] begged them on my knees … ,” Anna Rice remembered the next day. “Why would they stop me from avenging Ed? They took me back to the house and thrust me inside and slammed the door. Two of the men stayed there for a few minutes to see that I did not get away. But when I saw the men depart I sort of lost my nerve and fell into a chair. I was all unstrung and could only pray that he died in terrible agony.”
Further up Main Street a messenger from the Stephenson Hotel ran across the street to Chief Umsted and told him that there was an emergency call. Umsted went to the phone and a frantic voice sobbed that Walker was about to be taken out of the hospital. He rejoined Dr. Carmichael and Officer Allison and the three went in the Doctor’s car to the hospital.
When they arrived, the mob taking the Negro up Ercildoun Road could be plainly seen and heard. The chief of police made his decision. He ordered Allison to tell the people still on the hospital grounds that they were trespassing and to go home. He went inside the hospital, elaborately interviewed Stanley Howe and others, painstakingly examined the lock on the hospital door and the room in which Walker had been. Then Chief of Police Umsted emerged from the hospital—and went home.
The mob continued its way along the muddy ruts of Ercildoun Road, shouting, subsiding, shouting still more loudly. A heavy gray fog was moving in from the Brandywine Creek; the hundreds of lanterns came through with a dim, yellowish light. Shifting groups of men, some with masks, carried Walker by his arms and legs, swung between them like a bag of potatoes, the chain and the foot of the bedstead dragging along crazily. The leaders had their own rules of restraint. In the words of a local reporter who was with the crowd, “men in every walk of life, staid citizens and the town loafers, joined in heaping blows and execrations upon [Walker]. … though every precaution was taken by those having him in charge to prevent him from receiving a wound which would make him insensible to the flames. …”
Most of the route was uphill. Often the Negro was dumped in the road and men and boys forced him to crawl by kicks and the jabs of shotguns, pitchforks, and poles. When he collapsed, more kicks and jabs brought him to his hands and knees again. Walker resisted little now. Most of the time he moaned and begged to be shot. Occasionally, when being carried, he lay quietly, his lips moving in what seemed to be a prayer.
With every passing minute the mob increased in size. Men, women, and children—the total crowd was almost half female—came running from the hesitant group at the hospital, from Coatesville, and from surrounding areas. As the number mounted close to five thousand, the noise tore through the mists in great snarling waves. “Burn the nigger!” “Lynch the beast!” “Burn him! Burn him! Burn him!” Along the way somebody gave the mob its favorite. A voice rang out: “Last night you were in Coatesville and you murdered a policeman. Tonight you will be in a fiery furnace and tomorrow you will be in hell.” Over and over again the crowd chanted: “Tonight you’ll be in a fiery furnace, tomorrow you’ll be in hell.”
At the end of about half a mile, the leaders stopped. Here the farm lands of Mrs. Sarah Jane Newlin stretched on both sides of Ercildoun Road. A lane with a fence made of chestnut rails cut diagonally across the public road. Walker, the chain, and the foot of the bedstead were dragged left on the lane, about fifty yards in, and thrown across the fence into an adjoining field. A ring of men, with guns drawn, closed around the Negro. The crowd shuffled for positions behind the circle and most had to make their way up the hilly meadows rolling back from either side of Ercildoun Road.
For seconds—perhaps a minute—nothing happened. The mob hushed, the leaders stood silent, Walker lay still, very still. A flock of birds, fluttering away, sounded weirdly loud.
Then the cries went up: “Let’s finish him.” Men and boys tore fence rails loose and piled them griddlewise. The leaders, now mostly in masks, picked up Walker and heaved him on the pile. He groaned as the bedstead gouged into his body but he made no outcry and lay limp. Kindling was stuffed between the logs. Matches came out. Everything was still damp and the kindling did not ignite.
The mob stirred irritably. “Get straw! Get hay! Burn him!” Scores ran to the Newlin barn for dry forage. More fence rails were torn off and logs six to seven feet long were heaped around and over the Negro. At the touch of match to the straw and hay the fire caught on and Zachariah Walker found his voice.
“For God’s sake, give a man a chance. I killed Rice in self-defense.” A storm of jeers obliterated his words except for those close by. “Don’t give me a crooked death because I’m not white.”
The flames leaped up. The fierce glow made the masks of the leaders seem blood-red. They broke into a dance around the fire, whooping and flinging their hands up and down. The mob went into its own frenzy, backslapping, swinging lanterns wildly aloft, roaring a new chant: “Niggers, now you’ll learn. Niggers, now you’ll learn.”
As the flames crackled seven and ten feet high, the mood relaxed. The dance around the fire turned into a laughing caper, joined in by small boys and girls. There were cheers, pleasant cheers, like the cheering at “a baseball game,” people remembered. “Very much of a social affair,” “resembling a big carnival,” others said. On the outer fringes of the crowd, where farm roads cut in, automobiles pulled up with trimly dressed men and women, most of the women demurely holding motor veils over the lower part of their faces. The thousands just stood, chatting, pointing out this or that happening around the flaming mound, reaching across to shake hands with a friend.
There was camaraderie and thoughtfulness and chivalry too. Near the fire, the reporter of the Coatesville Record observed, “there was no loud talking, no profanity,” and the “utmost deference” was shown to women. The leaders would stop stoking the flames to doff their hats to some female friend they recognized. In the crowd men stepped aside to provide women a better position or led them to a place of vantage. Fathers and mothers hoisted children on their shoulders.
Suddenly there was a commotion down Ercildoun Road: “Police automobile! The police are coming!” People ran helter-skelter but soon everything relaxed again. The auto, a large touring car, was filled with young men and women arriving to join the occasion. “Hurrah for Coatesville!” the couples shouted to the crowd. “Hurrah for Coatesville!” the crowd shouted back.
With a desperate heave, Zachariah Walker burst up through the wood and started to drag himself off the pile. Charred flesh hung from his body; the foot of the bedstead had somehow come loose but the iron chain, glowing red, clung to his right leg. Pitchforks, poles, and shotguns jabbed him back. The crowd cheered.
Again Walker tried. This time the leaders let him get completely off the logs, work himself to the lane, and start fumbling to get over a broken part of the fence. Then, with hoots of derision, they looped a rope around his neck, half pulled and half threw him back on the flames. The cheers were louder than ever.
With a superhuman heave and a terrible scream, the Negro hurled himself to the edge of the pyre. Fence rails and gun butts went into action. Men bashed him in the face and across the body, and he fell back into the center of the fire. The cheers were thunderous.
Zachariah Walker was barely visible now. He lay a flaming crumple, shrieking. Soon the shrieks softened to moans. Then the moans stopped. Some twenty minutes after the first straw was lit, about 10:30 this summer Sunday evening, all was quiet on the pyre except the softening crackle of the flames.
Late Sunday night, officials began arriving from West Chester, the county seat of Chester County, in which Coatesville was located. Soon the arrests came. In all, twelve men from Coatesville or neighboring areas were indicted for murder in varying degrees. Police Chief Charles E. Umsted and Officer Stanley Howe were indicted for involuntary manslaughter. The governor of Pennsylvania, John K. Tener, took the unusual step of sending his attorney general and his deputy attorney general to aid in the prosecutions.
In quick succession six of the cases came to trial in the West Chester Court House. One after another the men were acquitted. Usually the juries deliberated only for brief periods. Most of the defendants left the courtroom heroes, cheered by crowds in their home areas.
Then the state brought to trial what it believed was its strongest case, that against Lewis Denithorne, who had signed a confession that he helped tear the restraint jacket off Walker and drag him out of the hospital. The jury got the case shortly before bedtime. The next morning, fifteen minutes after court convened, the foreman delivered the verdict: not guilty.
Late that morning the spokesman for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania rose in court to announce that the state was dropping all the remaining cases, including the ones against Chief Umsted and Officer Howe. It was useless to go on, he said, and further prosecutions would simply serve to bring the processes of justice into disrepute. Judge William Butler, Jr., who had presided over most of the trials, agreed. The Judge added that when the lynching first occurred, he thought it would be difficult to secure justice for the accused. The community would be up in arms against men charged with a crime that “we had been accustomed to look upon … as peculiar to people of a different character from ourselves, as something that could not happen in our midst. …” Now he was “absolutely convinced” that there was, “for some reason that I am entirely unable to understand, a sentiment in this County, a general sentiment, utterly opposed to the prosecution and conviction of anybody and of everybody who took part in this horrible affair.”
Judge Butler’s puzzlement was understandable. Chester County and Coatesville were part of a North where a few decades before such a lynching would have been highly unlikely and such a public reaction, still ^ more improbable. But this was 1911 and things had been happening that were none too visible to the aging, high-minded jurist.
The early 1900’s were a curious period in the life of the North. “Progressivism,” with its summons to greater opportunities for ordinary men, dominated the region and the lanterns of reform were lighting up a hundred areas of living. But the lanterns brought little glow into the Negro ghettos of New York, Chicago, or Coatesville. The Negro in the North was not only the outsider; he was further outside than he had been in previous, less reformist decades. The abolitionist fervor of the Civil War and the Reconstruction periods had burned itself out. The pell-mell industrialization, with its unremitting demand for cheap labor, was sucking unskilled Negroes into situations which neither they nor the whites could manage. All the while, the beginnings of a significant migration of southern Negroes to the North was exacerbating a peculiarly emotional concern.
The general outlook of many northerners included a mounting defensiveness, a sense almost of beleaguerment, a feeling that the sensible and decent way of life —the way of the white “Anglo-Saxons”—was being threatened by all kinds of people in and outside the United States. There were the “hordes” of “Slavs” pouring through ElHs Island; there was the “yellow peril” from the Far East. Perhaps most worrisome to a considerable section of northern opinion, there were the black men coming up from Alabama or Virginia with habits and attitudes “fit only for a cottonfield,” as people said, and the northern Negroes themselves, now starting to talk a weird doctrine of equality, even founding the dangerously “uppity” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In the year that Walker was lynched, one of the more moderate Negro newspapers, the New York Age , spoke of “a crisis in the Northern and Western states,” marked by a “perfervid sensitiveness” of the whites on the color question. The newspaper was hardly exaggerating. These were the years when the hero of northern progressives, President Woodrow Wilson, looked the other way while subordinates Jim Crowed offices, lunchrooms, and lavatories in federal buildings which had been unsegregated since the Civil War; when the fact that the black Jack Johnson knocked out the white Jim Jeffries in a prize fight produced a nationwide outcry for a “white hope” and brought on rioting, North and South, that killed nineteen and injured scores; when farmers in Kansas, aghast that a Negro postman had been appointed to their R.F.D. route, tore down their boxes and announced that they would rather travel to town for their mail; when Booker T. Washington, apostle of Negro patience and optimism, could only sigh, “I have never seen the colored people so discouraged as they are at the present time.”
Somehow—and just how is a long, tangled story—the North surmounted the crisis. The open clash between Negro and white did not come. Gradually the general trend toward greater opportunities for ordinary men came to include less hostility toward the Negro. In this critically important development, Zachariah Walker, who amounted to so little in life, was not without significance by the manner of his death. The brutal lynching served as an alarm bell—heeded by more than a few in the North—as to just where the mounting racism of the early 1900’s could lead.
In time the alarm was hearkened to in Coatesville itself. On June 3, 1938, a nineteen-year-old white girl was criminally attacked on South Hill in the city. Once again the posses fanned out from Coatesville and seized a young Negro; once again a crowd milled outside the jail crying, “Lynch him! Lynch him!” But this time the man in Umsted’s old post, Chief of Police Ralph E. Williams, stood up in front of the mob and told them to remember that justice required a fair trial. He added: Coatesville does not want “another blot on its fair name.” The crowd grew quiet, and began to drift away. The Negro was taken to a place of safety in another city.
Things had changed indeed—in Coatesville and in America.
—E. F. G.