Monday, April 11, 2016

October 8, 1933: Bennie Thompson

Today we learn about a lynching in South Carolina through the pages of the Miami Daily News-Record (Miami, Oklahoma) dated October 9, 1933:


NINETY-SIX, S. C., Oct. 9—(AP)—Bennie Thompson, Negro, who had been arrested for threatening a group of whitemen with a knife, was taken from the jail here during last night, beaten to death and his body left on the roadside, where it was found early today.

The Robesonian (Lumberton, N. C.) dated October 12, 1933 gave a bit more detail in the following article:

Negro Lynched in S. C.

Ninety-Six, S. C.—(AP)—A coroner's jury Monday ordered 4 men held on a charge of murdering Bennie Thompson, a young negro who was taken from jail Sunday night and beaten to death. Burley Leppard, a textile worker, read a statement admitting that he and 3 white men—J. F. Morris, "Lesty" Mayes and "Toody" Webb—took the negro from his cell and whipped him with "automobile top tubes". Leppard said that he and the others had trouble with the negro at a cafe, the negro drew a pistol on them and was arrested and put in jail. That night Chief of Police Rush at their request left the jail door open and the lock hanging in the cell door and they took the negro out. Rush denies the charge. The negro's body, terribly scarred, was found beside the highway.

We learn more about the lynching through the pages of The Index-Journal (Greenwood, S. C.) dated October 11, 1933:

Widow Of Bennie Thompson Plans Suit Against County


Hicks & Johnston Of Greenville Say They Have Been Engaged

Ada Thompson, widow of Bennie Thompson, negro, who was beaten to death near Ninety-Six last Sunday night, has employed Hicks and Johnston, Greenville attorneys, to represent her individually and as administratrix against the County of Greenwood.

This information came in a letter to the Index-Journal this morning from the law firm. 

While the attorneys do not say that suit will be entered it is presumed that action will be taken under the state law which makes the county liable for not less than $2,000 to relatives of a person lynched.

When advised of the possible suit, County Attorney Rupert F. Davis said it would revolve around a question of fact as to whether Bennie Thompson's death was caused by "lynching" or by "murder."

The word "lynch" is not defined in the civil code providing for damages in lynching cases, but a definition of the verb is:  "To inflict punishment upon, especially death, without the form of law, as when a mob catches and hangs a suspected person."

"Lynch law" is defined as follows"  "Act or practice by private persons of inflicting punishment for crimes or offenses, without due process of law."

Beaten to Death.

It will be recalled that Burley Leppard, textile worker of Ninety-Six, in a voluntary statement at the coroner's inquest on Monday, said he, Kenneth Morris, "Lefty" Mayes and Howrd "Toody" Webb took Thompson from the Ninety-Six jail, carried him about two miles down the Chappells road and beat him with a tube from an automobile pump. Leppard said the party was not gone over 10 minutes and that Thompson was alive when they left him, about 7:30 Sunday night. the negro's body was found early Monday morning by a young negro walking to Ninety-Six.

Suit against the county in which a lynching occurs is provided for in Section 3947 of the civil code of South Carolina reading as follows:

The Civil Code.

"In all cases of lynching when death ensues the county where such lynching takes place shall, without regard to the conduct of officers, be liable in exemplary damages of not less than $2,000, to be recovered by action instituted in any court of competent jurisdiction by the legal representatives of the person lynched and they are hereby authorized to institute such action for the recovery of such exemplary damages.

"A county against which a judgment has been obtained for damages in any case of lynching shall have to right to recover the amount of said judgment from the parties engaged in said lynching in any court of competent jurisdiction and is hereby authorized to institute such action."

If suit is entered it will be the first of its kind ever brought in Greenwood county, but there have been several "lynching" suits in the state since the law was passed. Probably the last one instituted was in Oconee county in which judgment was obtained against the county, but the damages have never been collected, it is said.

The law firm of Hicks and Johnston is composed of J. Wilbur Hicks and John E. Johnston, the latter being a son of the Rev. J. E. Johnstone who for a number of years was pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist church in this county.


Judge T. S. Sease Issues Order For Release Upon Proper Surety

Judge Thomas S. Sease, who is presiding over court at Abbeville, this morning issued an order for the release of Burley Leppard, held on a murder charge in connection with the killing of Bennie Thompson, under $2,500 bond signed by not less than two nor more than five sureties approved by the clerk of court. The amount of bond was fixed with the consent of Solicitor Homer S. Blackwell and application for bail was made by Hugh Beasley, attorney for Leppard.

Clerk of Court Milling said the bond had not been signed up to 1 o'clock this afternoon.

The only other development in the case, in addition to possible suit against the county by the widow of Thompson, was the surrender to Sheriff E. M. White about 6 o'clock yesterday afternoon of Kenneth F. Morris and Howard (Toody) Webb, who were lodged in jail.

All four men implicated in the case by Leppard's confession are now in jail. So far as known Morris, Webb and Lafty Mayes have not employed counsel. Mayes has been in jail since Monday afternoon.

Our final article comes to us through the pages of The Gaffney Ledger (Gaffney, S. C.) dated February 20, 1947:

Lynch Record In State Confused In Recent Years

Columbia, Feb. 18.—Considerable difficulty was experienced in establishing the date of the last recorded lynching in South Carolina after a negro was taken early yesterday from the Pickens county jail by an armed band and later found dead.

The last case of a negro being taken from a jail cell and found dead was that of Bennie Thompson at Ninety-Six in October 1933, but four white men were acquitted of murder three months later. the quartet was charged with removing the negro from his cell and beating him to death.

Three months prior to Thompson's death, Norris Dendy, 35-year-old negro, was dragged from the small Clinton jail. his beaten and strangled body was found the morning of July 5 in a churchyard.

The death of Dendy, who was charged with striking a white man and resisting arrest, was described at the time by the late Governor Ibra C. Blackwood as "not a lynching, but a murder." If you are interested in reading more about the Dendy lynching, you can find my post about it here.

The negro janitor at the jail, which had no regular jailer, said four white men drove up to the building in an automobile, knocked the lock off the door and forced Dendy into the car. No charges were ever brought in connection with the case.

Before the Dendy case the last officially recorded lynching in the files of the Associated Press here occurred June 21, 1930, when Dan Jenkins, a Beaufort, N. C., negro, was shot to death by a posse on a roadside near Union. Two young white women were said to have identified Jenkins a having attacked and criminally assaulted one of them.

Two months before Jenkins was killed, Allen Green, 50, a negro, was taken from the Oconee jail at Walhalla and shot to death. He was alleged to have assaulted a young married woman.  

The Association for the Advancement of Colored People listed a lynching as having occurred in Horry county in 1929, but officers say a negro was shot to death while resisting arrest.

Probably the most famous lynching in South Carolina history was when at Aiken October 8, 1926, when two men and their sister, Demon, Clarence and Bertha Lowman, were taken from the county jail by a mob and shot to death on the outskirts of town. My post on the Lowman lynching can be found here.

The Lowmans were charged with the death of Sheriff Henry H. Howard. There never were any developments in the case despite a long, arduous investigation.

Tuskegee Institute listed a lynching in Georgetown county in 1941 but Sheriff Harris Cribb of the place denied this claim today. He said two men were convicted of manslaughter for  the death of a negro and that "no mob" was involved.

Tuskegee's claim was investigated at the time by a Columbia newspaper. The State, which found that no lynching had occurred. The paper said a negro was killed after a dice game in which he was playing with white men.

Negro leaders here claimed that negroes were lynched in Georgetown county in 1944 and at Elko in Barnwell county last year but court records failed to substantiate these contentions. Officers considered the killings simple homicides.

When researching lynchings, it is normal to come across cases that are continually referred to as murders. I think there can be no doubt when a person is removed from jail by citizens and killed. All lynchings are murder while not all murders are lynchings. I think counties discovered that claiming them as murders made them less liable to lawsuits. It also looks much better on record than a lynching. 

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

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