Sunday, March 8, 2015

March 8, 1905: Ronce Gwynne

The Daily News-Democrat (Huntington, Indiana) dated March 9, 1905:

Tennessee Negro Lynched.

Tullahoma, Tenn., March 9.—Ronce Gwynn, a negro, was lynched here Wednesday by unknown parties. He was taken from the calaboose, where he was held on a charge of larceny, and hanged to a tree near the center of the town. The colored population is greatly excited over the lynching.

Today through the pages of The Evening Bulletin from Maysville, Kentucky we have an article of interest. The following article was printed in the May 4, 1883 edition:

A Ghastly Witness

A Lynched Man's Hand Indelibly Imprinted

On the Back of the Tree to Which It Was Nailed—Atrocities for Which All the Perpetrators Have Suffered Retribution.

Denton, Md., telegram, May 3.

The correspondent of the Philadelphia Press telegraphs his paper the following account of the lynching of Jim Wilson for the murder of Ellen Plummer, and the ghastly reminder of the tragic event, which was one of the most atrocious affairs of which even a frenzied mob could be guilty, is described as actually existing in the shape of an indelible impression of the lynched man's hand on the tree to which it was nailed. The correspondent says:

I drove out yesterday to a tree, four miles from the village, which still bears the imprint of the hand of a negro, which was nailed there by one of the mob which hanged, quartered, mutilated and burned him nearly twenty years ago. This singular freak of nature or sign manual of divine displeasure, as many residents of the county esteem it, is generally treated with such contemptuous disbelief by strangers visiting Caroline County, that it is difficult now to find one who has seen it willing to talk about it, but an official of the county, who did his full duty in an endeavor to stay the fury of the mob, consented to show me the remarkable tree. It is a giant swamp poplar, quite three feet in diameter, standing close by the road which opens up Tuckahoe Neck, the garden spot of the country. About twelve feet from the ground, on the road face of the tree, is a seeming scar, which might attract a casual glance on account of its marked difference in color from the other bark. Probably a stranger would not notice the singular tracing  of what it is in the frame, but to one looking for it the outline of a human hand, somewhat elongated by the growth of the tree, grows as one looks until it takes almost the very similitude of the withering hand which was nailed there two decades ago. Even the nail is still visible, even though the bark has grown beyond so that it is half an inch below the surface. The tracing of the hand appears in much smoother as well as lighter-colored bark—the palm through which the nail was driven being clearest in shape, with the thumb and spread index and little finger scarcely less perceptible. My guide said that the appearance grows more and more noticeable with each year, and it would be difficult to persuade him that it is due to other than providential design.


The story of the crime, criminal and mob fury, of which he was the victim, is remarkable and worth recalling. Ellen Plummer, the twelve-year-old daughter of Edgar Plummer, did not return from school one Monday evening in the Fall of 1863. Her way home led past a dense wood, just entering which she was last seen alive. A searching party next morning found her corpse under a heavy log deep in the forest. It was evident that Jim Wilson, a bright mulatto of twenty-three years, who was known to have been in the woods about the hour the girl was last seen, was connected with her disappearance. Wilson had been held in extraordinarily high esteem for politeness, industry and fidelity. He was the foreman and trusted protector of two maiden ladies who lived on a small farm in the neighborhood. No suspicion attached to him, when the persons investigating the crime questioned him, merely hoping that he might have observed something that would throw light upon the tragedy. When the subject was mentioned, the man turned pale, trembled violently and seemed on the verge of fainting. He could scarcely articulate his protests that he had not been near the wood and knew nothing of the crime. He protested too much, and suspicion fastened at once upon him as the murderer. He was arrested, and, after a brief examination, hurried off toward the county jail. On the road thither many wildly excited farmers joined in the procession, and even then lynching the prisoner was discussed. It was urged, however, that the proof of his guilt was not yet certain. As a speedy way of obtaining this he was swung up by the thumbs to a tree limb, and after an hour's suspension, confessed that, prompted by the devil, he had done the deed. His confession cooled, rather than increased the fury of the mob, who, listening to calmer counsels, carried him away to jail to answer in the due form of law. Many persons even yet believed that the confession, although repeated afterward in the jail, was only the expression of a man too terrified to know what he was saying. Each day after his incarceration, a few young fellows, who were regarded almost with terror by law-abiding citizens, became more open in their threats that Wilson should not live to grace a legal gallows. Just at dark on the Saturday following the crime, twelve men, without masks or other concealment, and accompanied by, perhaps, fifty men and boys who took no part in the proceedings, attacked the jail. They made no formal demand for the prisoner, but Thomas Lockerman, with wedge, ax and sledge, broke the outer door down in a very few minutes. Wilson was in a cell on the upper floor. Between the beating of the axes and sledges on the cell door the negro's voice  could be heard in terrified prayers to God and man for mercy. The mob found him on his knees, too overcome with fear to make resistance.


They brought a rope fifty feet long, and one end of trailed far out into the jail yard. The noose end was fastened around the victim's neck. He was carried, praying for mercy, not struggling, to the stair landing, and, at a signal, the rope tightened with the jerk of ten powerful arms and it is more than likely that Wilson was dead before his body reached the foot of the stairs. Through the jail portal and yard into the street, and thence through the court-house yard he was trailed at the rope's end, his murderers yelling so like savages that timid citizens shuddered behind the barred doors. A large sycamore tree stands at the foot of the court-house yard. The rope was run over a convenient limb and the corpse swung off the ground. The mob had brought shotguns and pistols, and for a brief time amused themselves with riddling the body with bullets and small shot. One load from a shotgun severed the rope and the body fell. The fury of the mob intensified. Another noose was closed around the neck, and their victim was dragged another hundred yards to a tree in front of the negro church, where it was to be suspended as a warning to the race. The tree, however, was in full view of the mob's favorite saloon, the proprietor of which bribed them with four gallons of whisky to forego this purpose and take it elsewhere.

A Delaware butcher, named Greenwell, arrived about this time, and, at his suggestion, the most atrocious manifestations of the mob's malignity were enacted.

The body was taken to a valley on the outskirts of the village. Greenwell had brought with him the tools of his trade, and, to the accompaniments of frequent drinks, ribald songs and horrid imprecations, the butcher chopped up the body into small pieces, which were heaped in a funeral pile of brush and logs and burned. The orgies enacted around the blazing fagots would have been deemed disgraceful by savages.

One of the foremost of the mob was George W. Vincent, who lived close by the poplar tree before mentioned. He had saved from the burning the two hands of the negro, and after the embers had died out proceeded homeward with his trophies. The notion of nailing the hand to the tree seems to have been a sudden impulse. He had carried a hatchet for use in breaking into the jail. It served to "skelp," as woodmen say, a place on the tree, in the middle of which he nailed the hand. His wife receiving him in shrewish humor, he threw the other hand into her lap. She tossed the gruesome object into the fire, where it was burned.

Now follows one of the most singular features of the story, and one which many youths of Caroline county have learned as a pointed lesson of the certainty of retributive sufferers.  First in line of sufferers the wife of George W. Vincent suffered paralysis of her right arm the next day. Vincent, himself, a few months afterwards, while endeavoring to rob a negro near this village, was shot through the lungs and died of pneumonia.

Greenwell, the Delaware butcher, was deserted by all his customers. "He may butcher his meat  with the same knife with which he carved Jim Wilson," they said, and he sold no more meat in Caroline county. Taking to drink, he fell one day under a train at Seaford and lost his right arm. During another spree he fell into the creek at Seaford, and, although help was near and the man never sank below the surface, they took him out dead.

Marcy Fountain, uncle of the outraged girl, a man who had made a fortune as a slave trader, saw his fortune disappear, and died almost in penury. James H. Barrick and Thomas Lockerman died in the agony of delirium tremens. Everyone known to be an actor in the lynching died in agony or penury excepting Jim Long, who lives yet, the object of the pity and scorn of all who know him.

Vehemently as good citizens denounced the atrocities, not one of the actors felt the hand of human justice. Grand juries were willing enough to indict, but witnesses could not be prevailed upon to tell what they knew.

It is worthy of remark, lest the imprint in the tree be attributed to some action of decomposing animal tissue, the lumbermen working in the vicinity made up a purse, and hired a man to take the hand down within a week of the time it was placed there.

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

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