A Nasty Skeleton in Waco's Closet

February 28, 2005
Written by: Jerry Turner, Tales from Early Texas

Waco is where most folks in this area go for shopping, entertainment, and most of their "serious" needs. It is a city that prides itself on being a center for religious thought, education, medicine, and activities of a higher sort. In other words, Waco seems to strive to be one of the better places in the universe. and in many respects it has succeeded. But when one begins to look into the dark corners of its history, a violent Waco begins to emerge. The First Waco Horror-The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP written by Patricia Bernstein published by Texas A&M University Press tells the story of the most violent and shameful event ever to happen in Waco and, perhaps, the nation.

"Jerusalem on the Brazos" is what Waco has been called because of its connection to Baylor and being the home to so many churches. Many other nicknames have been applied because of these connections, and one must admit that Waco is home to many, many good and decent people. The few that are fanatical and bent toward violence and lawlessness, has given the whole community, a sordid reputation. From William C. Brann, the newspaper publisher shot and killed by a disgruntled Baylor supporter to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Waco has endured its share of violence, but the most shameful was the lynching of a seventeen year old retarded Black boy named Jesse Washington.

On May 15, 1916 in Waco, a prosperous town of 30,000 often called "the Athens of Texas" because of its three colleges and numerous churches, one-third of its citizens gathered on McLennan courthouse lawn to stab, beat, hang, and burn Jesse Washington to death.

Washington, a farm laborer, was arrested only three hours after Mrs. Lucy Fryer, a fifty-three year old Robinson mother of three, was raped and beaten to death. He was found with blood on his person and clothes. He was immediately taken to the McLennan County jail. The sheriff realizing the gathering mob might storm the jail, moved his prisoner to Hillsboro, some thirty-five miles to the north. Later, Washington was moved even farther away from the threatening mob to Dallas. Men in the crowd left home with the encouragement and blessings of their wives to 'do their duty." They compared themselves to the patriots at Lexington and Concord. Washington was brought to trial and had several young lawyers for his defense, although apparently he had little to do with preparing for trial. The case was presented to the jury and after a four minute deliberation, Jesse Washington was found guilty. The sheriff slipped from the courtroom to allow what he knew was to take place. Washington was dragged into the street where a chain was placed around his neck.

According to one source, "he became a plaything of the crowd." Washington was cut by knife wielding men and was bloody before the mob reached the square. Along the way, flammable materials such as boxes and timbers were picked up for a bonfire. Washington was dragged to a tree where he was hauled up by the chain. When Jesse tried to hold the chain, his fingers were cut off. Several men held him, castrated him and passed his "manhood" around the crowd to cheers. Parts of his body were taken for souvenirs. "According to one report, children were occasionally even given these relics to play with and show their friends." Washington was beaten and cut more, then placed on the gathered material. People rushed forward to be the first to light fire. As Washington tried to escape, the crowd pulled back over the flames. The Waco mayor and Chief of Police watched from the mayor's office. Fred Gildersleeve had been advised the best place to set up his camera. The photos were for sale and, perhaps, the mayor was getting a "rake-off" from the sales. School children on their way home for lunch watched the event.

Washington's body was left to smolder, but the crowd searched for pieces of flesh and bone to sell. Links of the chain sold for twenty-five cents. While the crowd watched a rope was placed around Washington's neck and he dragged around Waco until his head came off. His remains were placed in a sack, taken to Robinson where it hung in front of a shop. Eventually a sheriff's deputy returned it to Waco where it was buried in a potter's field.

The event was investigated by Elisabeth Freeman, a women's suffrage leader. She sent her finding to W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. Du Bois published the pictures, kicking off the young organization's anti lynching campaign. The author used the national files of the NAACP, local newspaper files, and interviews with elderly Waco citizens who remember the event for her research. The First Waco Horror is a well-researched book. It will send shivers up your back, but it is necessary reading.

Caroline Garry