Sunday, November 23, 2014

November 23, 1887: John H. Bigus

Join me in a journey to a moment in history. We learn about this moment through the pages of The Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, Kansas) dated November 25, 1887:


A Popular Lady's Colored Assailant Lynched at Frederick, Md.—An Orderly Mob's Method of Procedure.


At the Preliminary Hearing—Heavy Bolts and Bars in the Jail Smashed in Short Order.

Negroes Infuriated Over the Lynching and Threaten Vengeance—Trouble Apprehended by the Authorities.

Swung Into Eternity.

FREDERICK, Md., November 24.—The corpse of a colored man dressed only in overalls dangling from a tree on Jefferson Heights is a spectacle that attracted thousands of people yesterday. It is the result of an assault that has excited Frederick City as nothing else has excited it since the war. The victim of the assault is Mrs. Mary Yeakle, who was in her youth the belle of the city, and who is now one  of the most esteemed ladies in this section of the state.

Last Friday she called at several houses in her neighborhood, and after making short visits started home. The street was well lighted and the distance was not great, and people were passing in the vicinity. She reached a part of the street where there is comparative isolation, and suddenly a negro sprang out and dealt her a terrific blow on the side of the face, knocking her down. She fought desperately and screamed. The brute then hit her with brass knuckles and mashed her face terribly. The screams brought assistance and the man ran off. He was promptly pursued, but his fleetness enabled him to escape. When the news of the assault spread the excitement became intense, and plans were at once laid to lynch the scoundrel if he could be caught. The result was the arrest on Monday of John H. Bigus, a medium-sized negro, aged about 23 years, who had acted very suspiciously and had arrived at a friend's house shortly after the assault, excited and breathless. He told many conflicting stories about himself, having stated to one person that he came from Harrisburg, Pa., to another that he came from Hagerstown, and he testified that he came from Woodville. When he was arrested he wore on one hand three heavy brass rings. While in jail he was visited by a friend and gave away the rings, evidently having been informed that they would assist to convict him, as it is known that the assailant used a metal weapon of some kind on the hand with which he struck her.


When the testimony was taken in the preliminary hearing of his case on Monday, Deputy Sheriff Mille secured his prisoner and proceeded with him to the house of Mrs. Yeakle. Just before the house was reached the negro was taken from the wagon, ordered to remove his overcoat and button up tightly the double breasted coat which he wears. He was then walked up and down the pavement in front of the house on the opposite side of the street several times. Mrs. Yeakle sat at the window in an armchair. The moment she saw the negro she signified to the officials that she recognized him as the man so far as his walk was concerned, his peculiar limp having been noticed by her on the night of the assault. Bigus was then handcuffed and taken to the room of his victim. As he entered and turned to face her she exclaimed:

"That is the contemptible scoundrel; take him from my sight!" and added:  "I am satisfied he is the man."

Then turning to Bigus she said:  "You are the fiend that assaulted me, and there is no mistake about it."

Bigus did not utter a word while in the room. On the outside was a large crowd wild with excitement, and a number of voices were heard to say:

"Hang him!" "Shoot him!"

Mrs. Yeakle's affidavit was taken and the prisoner, upon her evidence, was committed to jail for the action of the grand jury. The attempt of Bigus' counsel to prove an alibi was a failure.

Wednesday night crowds of men gathered mysteriously on the street corners.There were no outward demonstrations, but evidently something was in the wind. About 12:15 o'clock in the morning 100 men, who were well organized, gathered at the jail. When they arrived within a short distance the leader, who seemed to be a man of experience and courage, ordered them to halt. Pickets were at once thrown out to warn off any persons who might approach and others surrounded the jail. The leader called in clear tones to Sheriff Derr, who by this time was looking down on the crowd, to throw the keys of the building to him. The sheriff promptly refused.

"Then," said the leader, looking back on a number of comrades, "I want six men to follow me."


The invitation met a hearty answer in the action of the lynchers not on guard duty, each of whom showed a marked willingness to follow their commander. The required number, however, indicated in the request, originally made was only allowed to follow. Among them was a man who carried an ax. He set to work at once chopping the basement door, and in a few minutes the panels gave way before his blows. A passage was thus opened into the interior of the jail, but another door intervened between the masked men and Bigus. With celerity they attacked the second barrier, and disposed of it as rapidly as the first. This placed them in the corridor surrounding the cells. It was the work of but a minute to discover the location of the one occupied by Bigus. A big lock dangled in front of it from steel fastenings.  A few strokes of the ax and the lock fell with a ringing sound on the floor. The whole proceeding occupied comparatively a short time. The moment the rope was adjusted around his neck Bigus realized the fate in store for him, but showed no perceptible signs of weakness. Through the whole of the trying ordeal his exhibition of courage was remarkable. He loudly protested he was not the man who assaulted Mrs. Yeakle His pleas were interrupted by a member of the band, who ordered him to move along. Bigus was walked over the route taken by the lynching sextet in their search for him, and out into the jail garden. Here again he called aloud he was innocent, but his protestations met with no response from his custodians save a command to continue his walk. He marched with steady step between those who had taken him from the jail and others of the party who had joined them. When in front of the residence of Mr. Rider a halt was made and the leader asked Bigus to confess his crime. A change had come over him, not that he was less plucky, but that he evidently intended to adopt a different manner of speech.  He answered:

"I'll tell you all when we reach where we are going."

The journey to the tree on Jefferson Heights, about a quarter of a mile distant, was continued in silence, no one speaking until the spot agreed upon by the lynchers for the consummation of their purpose was reached. All this time a rope dangled from the neck of the colored man.


At the foot of the tree the masked man who held the rope gave it a jerk; the noose tightened with such effect on Bigus as to make him ask that it be loosened so that he might speak. His request was granted. At this juncture, by some means his hands, which had been tied behind him, became unfastened, and he made a grasp for the halter on his throat. Quick and surprising was his action but equally as rapid were the lynchers in their movements. Though he fought desperately, and begged for his life, his arms were pinioned promptly and the rope again adjusted. Finding all hope gone Bigus gave his version of the assault, in which he blamed Joe Hall, colored, for it, and contradicted a statement made when arrested by saying he stood close at hand when Hall attacked Mrs. Yeagle [sic], instead of being at a meeting of the Salvation Army, as he insisted when arrested. A prayer in tones so subdued that only those around could hear it, fell from his lips. No sooner had he finished speaking than the rope was thrown over a limb of the tree and Bigus, before he really knew what was to be the next move, was swinging in the air. His body swayed an instant and the convulsively swung from side to side. The death seemed rather slow for one of the lynchers, who drew a revolver and emptied three chambers of it into the suspended figure. On being satisfied that death had occurred the masked men moved of as quietly as they had approached. People have flocked to the city from all over the country. Public sentiment here seems satisfied that what was considered inevitable is accomplished.

The negroes are infuriated over the lynching and threaten vengeance. All day they marched through the streets, carrying heavy horsewhips and denouncing the whites. They promise to make it warm for the ex-policeman who was recently acquitted of the charge of murdering a negro. Not a woman has been seen on the streets, and at night the street looks deserted. Trouble is apprehended by the authorities. Quite a number of fights between whites and blacks have occurred, and but for the interference of the police there would have been bloodshed.   

Thank you for joining me and as always, I hope I leave you with something to ponder.

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