The story of the Waco Horror begins with the discovery of a body. Just about sundown on the evening of Monday, May 8, 1916, near the town of Robinson, eight miles south of Waco, twenty-one-year-old Ruby Fryer and her brother, fourteen-year-old George Fryer Jr., returned home from chopping cotton on the family’s two-hundred acre farm. In the heavy heat and quiet of the late afternoon, they noticed that their mother, Lucy Fryer, was not in the house as usual. Just as George was going out to look for her, Ruby peered through the window and saw Lucy lying in a pool of blood in the doorway of the seed house, about thirty steps away. A neighbor, Cris Simon, had been away from home all day and had just come back through the big gate at the main road when he heard Ruby and George screaming and crying over their mother’s body. It was probably Simon who ran for George Fryer Sr., who had been working in a different part of the field from the children, about a mile from the house. The Waco Times Herald reported that when George Fryer Sr. learned that his wife was dead, he “was overcome.”....
Lucy Fryer lay in the doorway of the seed house “almost brained and criminally assaulted.” Her skull had been bashed in at several points and her clothing was disheveled. Dr. J. H. Maynard examined her and reported at the trial that “a quantity of brain had escaped from the cranial vault” and at least two of the six wounds on her head, made with a heavy, blunt instrument, could have killed her.
Deputy Sheriffs Lee Jenkins and Barney Goldberg arrived on the scene first and were followed soon after by Sheriff Samuel S. Fleming, Constable Leslie Stegall, and Deputy Phil Hobbs. Both Stegall and Jenkins were highly regarded peace officers. Jenkins began his career in law enforcement as a Texas Ranger in 1880 at the age of eighteen and was elected constable in 1883. Later he served as deputy sheriff, detective, and chief of police. When he died in 1929, he was described as “the best criminal detective the Lone Star state has known.”
About fourteen years younger than Jenkins, Stegall also began his career as a peace officer as a very young man when he became a deputy sheriff in 1897. He served Waco as constable from 1912 to 1922, and then was elected McLennan County sheriff for the next ten years. Stegall, like Jenkins, was described by admirers as “a detective type officer who used modern methods of detection in the days when strong arm methods were prevalent.” At this point in their illustrious careers, however, both men were subordinate to friendly, accommodating Sheriff Fleming. Although Fleming got most of the credit for solving the murder of Lucy Fryer, it was Lee Jenkins, according to at least one newspaper report, who immediately found evidence that pointed to a suspect. The “evidence” may simply have been the fact that Cris Simon had that morning seen a black farm laborer, seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington, planting cotton about 250 yards from the Fryer house-closer to the house than either Mr. Fryer or the children and close enough to know that after the noon meal no one else was around.
Jesse Washington, with his mother and father, Henry and Martha, and at least one brother, William, possibly about sixteen, had been living and working on the Fryer farm for only five months or so, since the beginning of the year. According to Elisabeth Freeman’s account of the lynching, there were also some younger children in the family. Jesse Washington was a large, strong young man, but was illiterate and possibly retarded. When Freeman went to Waco to investigate the lynching for the NAACP, one of Washington’s teachers told her that no one had ever been able to teach him to read or write.
One lifelong resident of Robinson, Thomas Hague, claimed in an interview that he was told by his father, Hugh Hague, who was a close friend of George Fryer Sr., that Jesse Washington was not retarded, but “a little bit thickheaded” and “just plain ol’ lazy.” The elder Hague tried to get Jesse Washington to help him with some carpentry work, but the task seemed to require more effort than Washington wanted to put out. Or perhaps carpentry was simply beyond Jesse’s abilities.
One of the best indications that Jesse Washington was “absolutely deficient,” as Elisabeth Freeman puts it in her report, is not, according to her reasoning, the fact that “he attacked an old woman of 53 when this young girl [Ruby] was in the family.” Enough is known about rape now to know that the impulse is not activated by the victim’s sexual appeal. The more revealing detail is, rather, the fact that, after Jesse Washington supposedly raped and killed Lucy Fryer, he went placidly back to planting cotton as if nothing had happened and made no effort to escape or to cover up his crime other than hiding the hammer that was later said to have been used in the attack. Freeman reports that when Jesse Washington was arrested, he was frightened at first, but then “curled up in the automobile and went fast to sleep...”
Whatever the intelligence or temperament of the alleged assailant, as soon as word of the murder of Lucy Fryer got out, a general hue and cry arose in the Robinson neighborhood. The male residents, “thoroughly aroused and greatly incensed over the terrible crime,” reports the Times Herald, organized to try to help the officers find the culprit.
From the first, the Herald seasoned news stories about the murder with incendiary language designed to make the tale more dramatic. Helpful asides include the following: “That Mrs. Fryar [sic] had made desperate resistance against the brute who assaulted her and then completed his fiendish crime by killing her, was unmistakable”; and, “That she was given no chance for her life is apparent, and the lustful brute waited until he was absolutely sure no help was in sight before he attacked his helpless victim.”
Fortunately for Jesse Washington, the officers found him before the men of Robinson did. He was sitting in his yard, unconcernedly whittling a piece of wood...
In April 1995, Lawrence Johnson, black city councilman from Waco, Texas, visited Memphis to attend the National Conference of Black Mayors. While he was there, he took the time to see the National Civil Rights Museum. Built around the remains of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, the museum is designed, like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to take the visitor on a journey. The museum leads visitors through the history of the abuse heaped on black Americans over more than three hundred years and the long, grinding struggle to win equal treatment. Visitors see the tarnished hulk of a burned Freedom Riders bus from the 1960s and a complete re-creation of a Woolworth’s lunch counter where young black students protested segregation by “sitting in” while they were beaten, taunted, and splattered with ketchup and mustard. One can even step into an actual Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and hear a recording of a bus driver angrily ordering black riders to “move to the rear.”
But in one corner of the museum, in a display about the lynching of almost five thousand Americans, most of them black, between 1880 and 1930, Lawrence Johnson spotted a photograph that sears the sight of the viewer. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw is infamous among historians who study early-twentieth-century America. It has appeared in many books about lynching and in at least one history of Waco. This photo is still not well known to most Americans, though it should be as familiar as the flag raising on Iwo Jima in 1945, the image of the Hindenburg airship bursting into flame over Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a naked, weeping Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm bomb in 1972. The picture Lawrence Johnson saw, taken by Waco commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve, is one of the few extant photographs of a lynching caught in progress rather than after the fact.
At first, the picture appears to be nothing more than a group of hundreds of men crowded into a city square, almost all of them wearing the flat-crowned straw “boater” hats that were popular in the summer of 1916. This ocean of flat-brimmed white hats is lapping against a scraggly little tree in the center of the square.
Only when you look closer do you see a fuzzy area in the center of the picture, below the tree, like a ribbon of smoke. And then, through the smoke, you can just make out . . . a leg, a foot, an elbow. A naked human being lies collapsed at the bottom of the tree on top of a smoldering pile of slats and kindling. Around his neck is a chain, which stretches up over a branch of the tree.
A man in a white shirt with a dark fedora mashed down on his head stands by the folded-up body, yanking on one end of the chain. He is wearing a heavy glove on the hand that holds the chain because it has been heated by the fire and is hot. This self-appointed executioner may have been caught in the act of jerking the blistered creature below the tree upright against the tree trunk in order to display him to the mob. Or perhaps he has just lowered his victim back into the fire. In the meantime, another man in white shirt and light-colored hat is poking and prodding the dying man with a stick or rod of some kind, almost as if he is trying to turn the body on the fire. The onlookers watch intently. Some appear to be smiling or shouting encouragement to the torturers.
After standing transfixed for a moment before the picture, Lawrence Johnson read the caption and learned to his amazement that this particular lynching had taken place in Waco, Texas, his hometown, on May 15, 1916. The caption also explains that the mayor of Waco, who watched the entire episode from an excellent vantage point on the second floor of City Hall, was concerned that the lynchers might damage the tree but expressed no concern for the human being who was stabbed, beaten, mutilated, hanged, and burned to death before his eyes.
Lawrence Johnson had lived in Waco all of his life but had never heard of the lynching of Jesse Washington. When he returned home, he went to the library and found the whole story on microfilm as it was reported in Waco’s newspapers of the day. He also found the tale of Jesse Washington, entitled “The Waco Horror,” described in detail in a July 1916 supplement to The Crisis, a monthly magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In May 1998, Johnson shocked the city of Waco and other city council members by reading the story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, as described at the time in unblinking detail in the Waco Times Herald, during his swearing-in for a fifth term as city councilman. He further stunned his audience by demanding that city officials formally denounce the 1916 lynching and commission some kind of monument or memorial that would describe and disavow what had happened. The lynching was a city-condoned event, Johnson said; the mayor and police chief watched and did nothing. It was up to the city to make amends.
To date, however, although Central Texas is sprinkled with historical markers of all kinds, although Texas history has enshrined the stories of other episodes of cruelty (the Alamo, for example, the sacred monument to the massacre of at least 189 “Texians” by Santa Anna’s army, is visited by about three million people annually), there is no monument, plaque, or marker anywhere commemorating or apologizing for the 1916 torture-murder of seventeen-year-old Jesse Washington before a crowd of ten thousand to fifteen thousand cheering Wacoans.
The sadistic nature of the crime and the enthusiastic participation of thousands as spectators are plain in the photograph described above and in others taken by commercial photographer Fred Gildersleeve that day. Even in the vast bloodbath of lynchings that washed across the South and the Midwest during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the Waco lynching stands out. There were so-called race riots in other cities, large and small, in which dozens of black people were injured or killed and whole black neighborhoods destroyed. There were also other supremely hideous lynchings of individuals and small groups of people, but most of these took place in small towns, rural areas, or out in the woods. The Waco Horror—public torture treated as a thrilling spectacle by thousands in a well-established modern city with some pretensions to culture and enlightenment—was unique.
Yet the story behind the killing of Jesse Washington has up to now been largely unexplored beyond periodic brief mentions in histories chronicling the mistreatment of blacks in America, a few scholarly articles, and the eight-page discussion in the July 1916 issue of The Crisis. How could such a medieval barbarity possibly have taken place in our own nation within the memory of persons still living, in front of many educated, middle-class people who enjoyed all the comforts of the modern age, including automobiles, ready-made clothing, telephones, and public libraries?
The true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, told here at length for the first time, is not a simple one. Villains appear in this tale, as do unsung heroes, although, unfortunately, no heroes stepped forward in Waco on May 15, 1916. One heroine, in particular, plays a major role in the story and undeniably risked her own safety to make sure that Jesse Washington’s tragic end and the circumstances around it were recorded and spread abroad. And there were genuine American heroes in the young NAACP-“cranks,” as Clarence Darrow styled them, mostly white, who simply would not sit down and shut up anymore and allow the abuse of black Americans to continue without raising carefully orchestrated hell about it.
In the summer of 1916, these three disparate forces-a vibrant, growing city bursting with optimism on the blackland prairie of Central Texas; a young woman already tempered in the front-line battles for women’s suffrage; and a very small organization of grimly determined “progressives” in New York City-collided, with consequences no one could have foreseen. They were brought irrevocably together by the public murder following prolonged torture of a black Waco teenager named Jesse Washington-the atrocity that became known as the Waco Horror.
While the newspapers and the journals chewed over the grisly story of the Waco Horror, the NAACP took immediate action. On May 16, 1916, one day after the lynching of Jesse Washington, Royal Freeman Nash, the white social worker who was then secretary of the NAACP, wired Elisabeth Freeman in Fort Worth, where she remained following the statewide suffrage convention in Dallas.
Freeman wired back that she was mystified as to the “nature of business” Nash wanted done-at least until she received Nash’s follow-up letter, also written on May 16. In the letter Nash tells Freeman that the evening papers had all carried a brief AP story on the Waco lynching: “Such a spectacle in the public square of a town of over 25,000 inhabitants, a young boy condemned to death and then taken from the court-room, affords one of the most spectacular grounds of attack on the whole institution of lynching ever presented.” Nash’s next remark makes it clear that the NAACP had been lying in wait for a lynch mob to strike again: “Mr. Villard of the Evening Post, our treasurer, asked me when I came back from Georgia to get the inside story of the next horrible lynching so that he can write it up and spread it broadcast through the Southern press over his own name.”
Nash advised Freeman that her suffrage work throughout Texas would give her a cover to investigate the lynching and an excuse for being in Waco. He suggested that she “locate liberals or Northerners” and contact the state secretary of the Socialist Party to put her in touch with “trusty radicals.” Local priests or ministers, he thought, might also help her get at the truth. “We want all of them,” Nash said, “the crime in detail, who the boy was and who his victim, the Judge and jury that tried the case, the court record, and the ghastly story of the burning.” He also wanted anything that could be used as “legal evidence” against the mob, since the intent was to try to bring charges against the lynchers. “Photos of the places mentioned,” said Nash, “the town, the courthouse, the square, the suspension bridge, the scene of the murder, and any of the actors will make the thing vivid for news purposes.” A cashier’s check for $100 was enclosed with his letter, against which Freeman was to render an account of her time and expenses.
Nash also sent Freeman a copy of his “findings in Georgia” to use as a model for her investigation. The “findings” Nash refers to in his wire were summarized in a lengthy story published in the March 1916 issue of The Crisis, which describes in detail how poor whites had driven every single black person out of Forsyth and Dawson counties in northern Georgia following the rape and beating of a white girl by three black men.
Even after she received Nash’s sample of comprehensive investigative journalism to guide her, Freeman was still puzzled about what, exactly, she was supposed to do in Waco. The first few letters she sent to Nash from Waco’s elegant ten-story Raleigh Hotel are full of confused and self-deprecatory remarks: “I am terribly ‘green’ at this work & scarcely know what you want to know . . . Of course, I am working in the dark-not quite knowing what you want me to get. Mayhaps I am not getting what you want. “Her uncertainties, however, did not slow her down. By the end of her second day in Waco, following a “Texas storm” on the first day during which she made phone calls and set up appointments, Freeman had already seen the newspaper editors, the “leading colored men,” the colored ministers, the head of one of the black colleges...and had also acquired newspaper clippings and photographs of the lynching, despite the fact that the photographer had been forced to “make a sworn affidavit not to sell—give—or show them to anyone.” Freeman thanked Nash for giving her the opportunity to do the work, declaring that the project was “terrifically interesting.” Because she had visited Waco before in her suffrage work, she said, she already had entrée to people whom she otherwise never would have been able to see.
In the process of acquiring the photos, Freeman reports in her full account of the investigation, she “made about five visits to the mayor.” She sweet-talked John Dollins with a line she would use successfully throughout her investigation: “I told them that I had been in Waco before and had been treated very nicely, that I had been in Texas four months and would like to go back North and see if I could not show the people that Waco was not as bad as they would expect.”
Freeman soon learned that she had to call on all of her considerable skills to extract the information she wanted from the people of Waco. It seems that, at first, the investigation of the Jesse Washington lynching was almost a game to her. She saw it as a challenging assignment, a departure from her customary work of making speeches and inspiring women to join the suffragist cause-an exciting new project which she attacked with her usual energy and optimism. But before long, the tone of her letters to Nash changed. As she gathered one hideous detail after another-first, the details of Washington’s crime, and then the details of the lynching-Freeman was clearly weighed down by what she had learned.
She also began to sense that what she was doing was dangerous. “Am being closely watched,” she scribbled upside down at the beginning of a long letter describing her activities in Waco. Elsewhere in the same letter she writes, “The net is tightening. Every one is closing up as tight as a clam.”...