Friday, April 24, 2015

April 24, 1893: John Peterson

Today we learn about an unfortunate lynching in South Carolina. The Charlotte Observer of Charlotte, N. C. April 27, 1893 edition is our source of information about this lynching:



A Graphic, Succinct and Accurate Statement of the Evidence in the Case.

Greenville, S. C., News.

John Peterson, a poor and friendless negro, evidently shrewd and apparently a wandering and rather shiftless fellow, heard that he was suspected of being the man who had attempted a criminal assault on a young white woman at Denmark, Barnwell county. He made his way to Columbia, surrendered himself to the officers of the law and sought and obtained a personal interview with the Governor.

The negro put himself in the Governor's hands and under his protection. Asked if he was willing to return to Barnwell and face the furious, blood-thirsty mob which had already with difficulty been prevented from hanging one innocent man, he replied that he would go. He was sure he could prove his innocence and only asked that certain witnesses whom he named should be collected for him.

The Governor sent a newspaper reporter to the scene to gather in the negro's witnesses. Then he sent the negro there unprotected and helpless.

Peterson bore himself well. He was sent to meet a furious, hostile, unreasoning crowd. Alone and friendless, he undertook to prove his innocence. The State newspaper prints a full stenographic report of the testimony taken before a committee. One or two of Peterson's witnesses of his own color disappointed him. Their evidence went to show that his account of his movements during five or six days before and after the crime at Denmark was untrue and that he was near Denmark on the day the crime was committed. He said he had other witnesses who could corroborate his story. Standing in the very presence of death, examined and cross examined by a score of men each eager to prove him guilty, the story he told was wonderfully straight and consistent and his slips were wonderfully few. His absent witnesses were not sent for—men who he claimed were with him at the very time the crime was done and who knew it would have been impossible for him to do it.

Then he was taken before the young woman who was the victim of the assault and her little brother who was present with her when it was committed. Peterson faced the girl without flinching, spoke so that she could hear his voice, arranged and rearranged his hat so as to give her every opportunity to observe him closely. Ex-Senator Sojourner then questioned her. Here is her statement:

"I don't know him, sir; that don't look like him at all. He is the same color, that's all. He don't talk like the man; he is thinner in the face, and as dark as this man, but his eyes don't look like him."

Mr. Mayfield—"Does this look like the right man?"

"No, sir."

"Could you tell him if you ever saw him?"

"Yes, sir, I could. If the right man was here I would know him."

The little boy who was with his sister at the time of the crime, and was nearly choked to death, was asked what he thought. He said "the other man looked more like him than this one. I would know him if I saw him."

"The other man" is the other negro who was arrested and whom the girl and boy had declared was not the guilty man.

Here was clear evidence that Peterson was not the guilty man. The only two eye witnesses of the crime acquitted him.

He was taken back where the mob awaited him and locked in the town calaboose—a frail building only strong enough to keep him until it was time for him to be butchered. He was left there an hour or two, alone, friendless, helpless. Then four or five hundred men took him out and murdered him—hanged and shot him—after jeering and insulting him and making frightful jokes  upon the one poor, ragged, ignorant, helpless man who could nothing but beg every now and then for "one more chance to see  Harve," the witness he had relied upon to prove his alibi. Just one more chance—just a few short hours of delay—just a little time to make plainer the evidence of his innocence of the crime he was to die for. He was answered with boisterous laughter and hurried on to die.

The Goth butchered in the arena to make sport for the depraved mobs of Rome, the victims whose heads dropped by scores under the guillotine blade before the jeering rabble of Paris; the prisoners bound, tortured and burned by the Apache and Sioux in the West, were not more brutally, cruelly or horribly murdered than this man was. He was hanged because a crime had been committed and he had been delivered over by the Governor of the State ready to be hanged.


Columbia People, in Mass Meeting, Pass Resolutions on the Denmark Lynching.

Columbia Special, 25th, to the Greenville News.

An arousing mass meeting was held here to-night to condemn the action of Governor Tillman in sending the negro, John Peterson, who was lynched last night for a crime of which he was probably not guilty, before the frenzied mob at Denmark to have his case adjudicated by Judge Lynch's court.

Many prominent citizens were present and the hall was filled with persons of all classes. Among the speakers was ex-Governor Richardson, who said that he had always believed the doctrines enunciated by the Tillman administration were of such a character as must eventually lead to the disregard of law. He charged Governor Tillman with recognizing the validity of lynch law and concluded by saying:  "God grant that such rulers shall cease to be in South Carolina." (Loud applause)

Solicitor Jervey said that if he had presided over the Denmark circuit he would indict the lynchers and would name B. R. Tillman as accessory before the fact. (Applause.) "And in my argument before the jury," said he, "I am very much mistaken if I did not show that he was more responsible than any of them." (Applause.)

Speeches were also made by Colonel John C. Haskell and W. A. Clark. The following resolutions were unanimously adopted:

"We, the citizens of Columbia, in mass meeting assembled, do adopt the following resolutions:

"Resolved, That in the lynching of John Peterson at Denmark, not only has the 'peace and dignity of the State' been offended, but a human life has been taken without even satisfactory evidence of his guilt. We therefore denounce the act as meriting the unmeasured condemnation of all good citizens."

The second resolution denounces Gov. Tillman as particeps criminis in the murder.

An explanation from Gov. Tillman comes to us from the Keowee Courier (Pickens, S. C.) dated May 4, 1893:

Gov. Tillman's Defence of the Lynching of John Peterson.

[Columbia Register.]

Gov. Tillman while feeling perfectly confident that everything he did in connection with the Peterson case was right, yet he evinces every desire to let the public know why he acted as he did, as he has been so severely criticised.

Much interest has been taken in what Peterson had to say to the Governor, and with a view of making it all public the Governor yesterday addressed the following letter:

"COLUMBIA, April 26th, 1893.

"Messrs. W. A. Neal and A. W. Clayton:

"GENTLEMEN:  Please give me a statement of what you know in regard to my conversation with John Peterson at the Executive Mansion on Saturday afternoon last.

"I ask it for publication, to give the public the whole truth and leave people at home and abroad judge the case fairly. Respectfully,

"B. R. TILLMAN, Governor."

In response to the above Mr. Clayton, who is a reporter for the Journal, makes the following statement:

John Peterson, accompanied by another negro, Wade Wylie, approached me last Saturday afternoon to know where Mr. Tillman (meaning the Governor) was. A few questions elicited the fact that I was being addressed by John Peterson, whom I knew to be wanted at Denmark as a suspect of the outrage upon Miss Mamie Baxter. I accompanied him to the Executive Mansion and told the Governor who he was and what he wanted.

Gov. Tillman, addressing Peterson, asked him if he was John Peterson, and he replied that he was, and that he wanted to surrender himself to him for protection, as he had heard they were hunting him for the crime committed upon Miss Baxter, and he feared that if he was caught he would be lynched.

The Governor:  "Are you guilty?"
Peterson:  "No, sir."
The Governor:  "Where were you on Friday a week ago?"
Peterson:  "I was at North's."
The Governor:  "Can you prove that and by white people?"
Peterson:  "Yes, sir."
The Governor:  Are you willing to go back there and let the young lady see you?"
Peterson:  "Yes, sir."

The Governor then turned to me and said that he had no right to hold a man who was simply suspected of a crime, but that if Peterson wanted protection I had better take him to the Chief of Police and get him to investigate the case. This I did. After having him locked up by his own request, i started out to find Mr. L. B. Jenkins and Constable Lambert, the latter of whom, I knew, was then looking for Peterson with a warrant for his arrest, to see if they would identify him, as he did not appear to suit the description given me of him.

They were found and Mr. Jenkins began the questioning of Peterson, which has already been mentioned, believing at the start, that Peterson was guilty of the crime, but at the finish that he was innocent. Peterson was then locked up, and after being returned to his cell, Mr. Jenkins asked him if he would be willing to return to Denmark and let the young lady look at him. He replied promptly that he would. He said that he was innocent and did not fear any recognition by her.

Upon leaving the guard house Mr. Jenkins and I determined that there was at least grave doubt of his guilt and that if he was taken back there by Mr. Lambert on Sunday morning, believing as we did that he would be lynched, we determined to go to Gov. Tillman and ask him to have him held here until he could get his witnesses together to prove his alibi, which he confidently claimed that he could do. We went, and after hearing us Gov. Tillman agreed to hold him under condition that I would go and try to get his witnesses together for him, which I did. He then wrote an order to Sheriff Cathcart, which I delivered to him, ordering him to take Peterson from the guard house and lodge him in jail until further orders.

I went to North's the next day and worked all day hunting up his witnesses for him. That evening I wired the Governor that they would all be on hand on Monday, and that they corroborated his statement.


"I heard the conversation between Gov. Tillman and John Peterson at the Governor's Mansion last Saturday afternoon as stated above.

"W. A. NEAL,

"Superintendent Penitentiary."

It will thus be seen that the negro expressed perfect confidence in being able to prove his innocence and that under the circumstances there is no blame to be attached to the Governor. The blame, if any, rests with the crowd that lynched him.

I call this lynching unfortunate for lack of a better adjective. There are many other words I could have used, but unfortunate seemed the closest to the point, though there is no denying that it was indeed tragic. Thank you for joining me and as always, I hope I leave you with something to ponder.  


  1. Thank you for this fine research, Ms. Anne Last. I am very interested in this lynching and would like to know if there are any documents from the living family relatives of Mr. John Peterson.
    Thanks ever so much Ms. Anne - this is CAL - DEC 21, 2017 - THURS

  2. Thank you for this fine research, Ms. Anne Last. I am very interested in this lynching and would like to know if there are any documents from the living family relatives of Mr. John Peterson.
    Thanks ever so much Ms. Anne - this is CAL - DEC 21, 2017 - THURS