Race and Mob Violence: The Matthew Williams Case

Introduction

Lynching illustrationOn December 4, 1931, Matthew Williams, a 35-year old African American, shot and killed his employer, Daniel J. Elliott, a prominent Salisbury lumber dealer, over a long-standing dispute concerning Williams' wages. After shooting Elliott, Williams tried to commit suicide, but failed and was shot by Elliott's son while trying to escape. Williams was taken to Peninsula General Hospital and placed under guard. 

Later that evening, a large mob formed in the center of town and marched to the hospital. After tricking Williams' guards, members of the mob dragged him out of a hospital window, paraded the struggling man through the streets of Salisbury to the small green in front of the county court house. There, Williams was hung from a tall maple tree in the court house yard. As the crowd continued to grow, William's body was cut down from the tree, dragged to a nearby lot, and set ablazed. One eyewitness described the scene as follows:

We were in the fight club and several hundred persons were waiting for the first bout.... Suddenly the word came that they were lynching Williams. There was a stampede for the doors. I drove my car a distance of about a mile and a half to the courthouse green and they had just cut the negro down. As I walked around the courthouse here came the leaders, carrying the body along. As they stepped out into the street they let it drop and then dragged it by the rope down through the negro part of town. Later I saw the fire, but didn't want to go down there. We went back to the fight... And some of the fighters didn't show up and only about half the crowd. It was a quiet and orderly mob. I saw no drunks. There were many women.

Governor Albert Ritchie and Attorney General William Preston Lane were under tremendous pressure to identify and bring the mob leaders to justice. Newspaper reports indicate that local residents who witnessed the lynching refused to identify the men, even as they eagerly related gruesome details of the crime. 

The story was carried by newspapers across the country. Within Maryland, newspaper coverage illustrated the underlying cultural conflict between the urbanized Western Shore and the rural Eastern Shore. Although all Maryland newspapers condemned the lynching, Baltimore newspapers in particular viewed the mob action as a sign of a degenerating character common to Eastern Shore residents. The conflict was so inflamed by an editorial published in the Baltimore Sun by H. L. Mencken -- who, among other things, suggested that the mob leaders were well known to local law enforcement officers -- that prominent Salisbury residents advocated a boycott of the newspaper and the former town mayor demanded that Mencken and editors of the Sun and Evening Sun be subpoenaed before the coroner's jury as witnesses.

Despite the number of people who witnessed the lynching, police investigating the crime were unable to identify the ringleaders and no arrests were made. Although the Wicomico County grand jury examined 128 witneses, their final report indicated that there was "absolutely no evidence that can remotely connect anyone with the investigation or perpetration of the murder" of Matthew Williams. With that, the case was closed and no further action was taken.

SOURCES: See "Mob Described by Brockman" Baltimore News, December 5, 1931 for contemporary account quoted above.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930) 

STANDARD 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

Standard 3A: The student understands social tensions and their consequences in the postwar era. 

7-12: Examine rising racial tensions, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the emergence of Garveyism. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper Clippings and Correspondence Relating to the Lynching of
    Matthew Williams, Courthouse lawn, Salisbury, MD, December 4, 1931

    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1931-
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) 1931 Governor Albert Ritchie, MSA S 1048-1 & MSA S 1048-10.
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: "Victim Hanged From Tree and Body Burned"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Philadelphia Record, December 5, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. DESCRIPTION: "Maryland's Disgrace -- The Shame of the Eastern Shore"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Post, December 5, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: "Mob Described by Brockman"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore News, December 5, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: "Coroner's Jury to Investigate Slayer's Death"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Salisbury Times, December 5, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Editorial cartoon, "Maryland, My Maryland!"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Sun, December 6, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: "Lynching Shames State, Says Governor Ritchie"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore American, December 6, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  8. DESCRIPTION: Portrait, Governor Albert Ritchie
    ARTIST: Douglas Chandor (1897-1953)
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1929
    SOURCE: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property Collection, MSA SC 1545-1103
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  9. DESCRIPTION: "Comments of Eastern Shore Newspapers on Lynching"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Sun, December 6, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  10. DESCRIPTION: "Five Will Be Summoned in Lynch Quiz"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Post, December 7, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  11. DESCRIPTION: "Where Killer was Hanged by Shore Mob"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: [1931]
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  12. DESCRIPTION: Editorial cartoon, "In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Jeffersonian, December 12, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  13. DESCRIPTION: "Lynch Negro Near Baltimore: Drags Helpless Man to His Death"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Democratic Messenger (Snow Hill), December 19, 1931
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  14. DESCRIPTION: "The Lynching Shore"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Afro-American, February 27, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  15. DESCRIPTION: "Sho' Jurors Open Probe of Lynching"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Post, March 15, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  16. DESCRIPTION: "14 Lynchings in State Since 1885, None Prosecuted"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Salisbury Times, March 18, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  17. DESCRIPTION: "Call Mortician, Physician in Shore Probe"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Afro-American, March 19, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  18. DESCRIPTION: "Lynch Verdict Closes Probe"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Post, March 19, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  19. DESCRIPTION: "They Saw No Evil"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Baltimore Post, March 19, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  20. DESCRIPTION: "Lane Keeps Silent on Lynching Probe"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Evening Sun, March 19, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  21. DESCRIPTION: "An Anti-Lynching Law"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Sun, March 20, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  22. DESCRIPTION: "Shore Judges Plan Action in Berger Case"
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: In Sun, March 22, 1932
    SOURCE: GOVERNOR (Newspaper Clippings) Matthew William's lynching, 1931 [MSA S 1048-1; MdHR 8020-1; 2/31/3/14]
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

See also: Biographical Information of Lynching Victims in Maryland

Additional Media Resources

Judge Lynch's Court in Maryland: Mob Justice in Maryland During the Age of Jim Crow 1860s-1930s

Explorations: Lynching. From Digital History.

Additional Instructional Resources

Billie Holiday's Song "Strange Fruit"

Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit: Using Music to Send a Message

The Learning Page: Lessons by Themes, Topics, Disciplines or Eras

"Domestic Terror": Understanding Lynching During the Era of Jim Crow

Lynching in the American South: An Educator's Reference Desk Lesson Plan

A Strange and Bitter Fruit

Lynching in the American South: The Mobs and the Crowds

Secondary Resources

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 .  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Chadbourn, James Harmon.  Lynching And The Law.  Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Cutler, James Elbert.  Lynch-Law; An Investigation Into The History Of Lynching In The United States. Montclair, N.J., Patterson Smith, 1969.

Downey, Dennis B.  No Crooked Death: Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and the lynching of Zachariah Walker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gunning, Sandra. Race, rape, and lynching: the red record of American literature, 1890-1912. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd.  Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames And The Women's Campaign Against Lynching. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Court-House Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Moore, Joseph E. Murder on Maryland's Eastern Shore: Race, Politics and the Case of Orphan Jones. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006.

Moses, Norton H.  Lynching And Vigilantism In The United States : An Annotated Bibliography.  Compiled by Norton H. Moses. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Burning At Stake In The United States : A Record Of The Public Burning By Mobs Of Five Men, During The First Five Months Of 1919, In The States Of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, And Texas. Baltimore, MD : Black Classic Press, 1986.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Thirty Years Of Lynching In The United States, 1889-1918. New York, Negro Universities Press, [1969].

Raper, Arthur Franklin.  The Tragedy Of Lynching.  Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1933.

Sitkoff, Harvard. "Racial Militancy and Interracial Violence in the Second World War." The Journal of American History, Vol. 58, No. 3. (Dec., 1971), pp. 661-681. 

Smead, Howard.  Blood Justice: The Lynching Of Mack Charles Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B.  On Lynchings: Southern Horrors, A Red Record, Mob Rule In New Orleans.  New York, Arno Press, 1969.

White, Walter Francis.  The Work Of A Mob. Indianapolis, Indiana: College Division, Bobbs-Merrill Company, [19--?].

Wright, George C. Racial Violence In Kentucky, 1865-1940 : Lynchings, Mob Rule, And "Legal Lynchings." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

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Annapolis, Maryland
(410) 216-6180

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci. Bibliography extracted from African Americans in Maryland.

 

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