Monday, August 8, 2016

May 22, 1917: Ell Persons

Today we learn about a lynching in Tennessee starting with an article found in The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) dated May 18, 1917:


Sheriff Returns With Memphis Negro After Mob Scare Blows Over.

Ell Persons, of Memphis, confessed negro rapist and murderer of Antoinette Rappal, 15-year-old schoolgirl, who was removed from the Davidson county jail Wednesday night and taken to Springfield for safekeeping by Sheriff Wright and several deputies, was returned to Nashville early yesterday morning and again locked up in his same cell.

The sheriff took the negro to Springfield in an automobile shortly before 8 o'clock Wednesday night, after hearing that a mob had organized in Memphis and was on its way to this city to lynch the negro.

The removal of Persons from the jail caused considerable excitement throughout the city, and for a time, it could not be learned where the sheriff had taken his prisoner.

The sheriff received several calls by telephone stating that the mob had left Memphis and was due to arrive in Nashville at some time during the night. Every precaution was taken by the county officials to protect the negro, and a number of deputies were called in to guard the jail while the sheriff was fleeing to Springfield with his prisoner.

Sheriff Wright kept in close touch with the jail by telephone while at Springfield and closely guarded his prisoner until he returned to Nashville yesterday morning, after it was learned that the mob had never formed.

The local authorities stated last night that they had not heard from Sheriff Tate of Memphis since he left Nashville Wednesday morning. The Shelby county sheriff has been missing since noon Wednesday, when he escaped from a mob at Arlington, near Memphis. The last heard from Sheriff Tate he was speeding away from the mob in an automobile toward Mississippi. Reports from Memphis last night said that the Shelby county sheriff was still missing, and that even his immediate family had not heard from him since his escape from the mob.


MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 17.—(Special.)—Sheriff Tate has not returned to Memphis, but the avengers of little Antoinette Rappel have disbanded, after keeping a watch upon every train and guarding every road leading into Memphis for twenty-four hours in a search for her slayer, Ell Persons. Two of the deputies who accompanied the sheriff in his hurried cross-country race from Arlington Wednesday, returned to the sheriff's office at noon. They are A. L. Kirkpatrick and Ira Williams. They have refused to give any information as to the sheriff's present whereabouts, even to their closest friends. A statement was given out by Hunter Wilson, attorney-general; the two judges of the criminal court, Mayor Ashcroft and Office Deputy W. T. Condon that the sheriff is in no danger. He is believed to be with friends in Mississippi. A report was started tonight that he is really searching for John Revinsky, escaped murdered [sic] of Mae Goodwin, wealthy underworld queen.

Our next article also comes from The Tennessean in the May 22, 1917 edition:


Ell Persons Taken From the Deputies on Train at Potts' Camp, Miss.


Captors in Autos Carrying Negro to Scene of Crime, Where It Is Believed, He Will Be Hanged or Burned—Police Prepare to Act.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 21.—Ell Persons, a negro, who is said to have confessed that he killed and beheaded Antoinette Rappal, a school girl, on the outskirts of Memphis several weeks ago, has been taken from sheriff's deputies who were returning him from Nashville, where he was taken two weeks ago to avert mob violence, to this city, and is in the hands of a mob which at midnight was reported en route to the scene of the crime to lynch him, according to advices received here late tonight.

A dispatch from Potts Camp, Miss., stated that the mob of several hundred men met the train there aboard which the negro was being brought to Memphis, and after overpowering the guard of sheriff's deputies, seized the prisoner and escaped with him in an automobile after declaring their intention of hanging him to a railroad bridge near where the headless body of the child was found two days after her disappearance while en route from her home three weeks ago.

Up to a late hour no official confirmation could be secured of the report that the negro had fallen into the hands of the mob, but preparations had been made by the police and sheriff's office to meet any eventuality.

Expected To Reach Memphis After Midnight.

Potts Camp is about fifty miles from Memphis, and it was not expected that the mob will reach the scene of the crime with the negro until several hours after midnight.

Persons was taken to the penitentiary at Nashville two weeks ago for safe keeping before details of his alleged confession was made public. According to a statement made by Sheriff Tate, Persons, a wood chopper, admitted that he had attacked the girl, a fifteen year old child, when she passed the thicket in which he was at work, dragged her into the underbrush after knocking her unconscious with his axe, and fearing that she would recover consciousness and accuse him of the attack, chopped of her head, which he concealed with her mutilated body in the thicket. When the alleged confession was published a mob formed and searched the county jail and police stations here for the negro. Since citizens of the community in which the girl lived have kept a close watch on all roads leading into Memphis in the belief that an attempt would be made to bring Persons here secretly for trial. Late today it was learned that the negro had been taken from the Nashville prison, and several hundred men went to Potts' camp to intercept the train aboard which he was being brought to this city.


MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 21.—9Special.)—A mob of a hundred men left Holly Springs, Miss., at 12:45 this morning with Ell Persons, confessed rapist and murderer of Antoinette Rappal, after having taken him from a Frisco train early tonight. Within three hours it is said they will have the black before the mother of his victim in the suburbs of Memphis and burn him to death.

A crowd estimated to be composed of more than a thousand people is gathered near the scene of the crime and is hourly growing bigger. Memphis authorities are reticent at a late hour regarding any plan to thwart the plans of the mob.

It will take three hours for the mob to reach Memphis.

Negro Is Taken From Frisco Train.

The negro was taken from a Frisco passenger train early tonight at Potts Camp, Miss. The mob separated at Holly Springs awaited the arrival of the part of the mob which went to Byhalia before proceeding northward toward Memphis with forces reunited.

It is understood at Holly Springs that little resistance was offered the mob at Potts Camp by Deputies Wilroy and Thomas, who left Nashville with the negro early this morning, as instructions have been received from Memphis not to risk their lives in defense of the black when it was learned that so large a force of men were informed of the negro's whereabouts.

It is believed the plan of the authorities was to rush the prisoner into Memphis and have him arraigned secretly and rushed back to Nashville or some other point of safety. The citizens of the community where the crime occurred, however, evidently informed from Nashville, were awaiting the black's arrival when Potts Camp was reached.

Mississippi Authorities Powerless to Act.

The plan tonight, it is said, is to come to the environs of Memphis by way of Slayden and Mount Pleasant, Miss., then to cross the state line to Colliersville, Tenn., and then to the scene of the crime.

Mississippi authorities were powerless before the mob at holly Springs at midnight. A call for troops was suggested, but it was believed that the black would be beyond the boundaries of Mississippi before any armed force could be brought to protect him. Authorities in Memphis would make no statement regarding plans to protect the life of the negro.


On a release signed by Sheriff Mike Tate of Sherby [sic] county Ell Persons, confessed murderer of Antoinette Rappal, 15-year-old Memphis school girl, was removed from Davidson county jail shortly before 3 o'clock yesterday morning in the custody of Shelby county deputy sheriffs, R. B. Wilroy and G. E. Thomas, and taken from the city in an automobile.

Jail officials stated that the Memphis deputies refused to state their point of destination.

Every precaution was taken to slip the negro from Nashville without letting anyone know of their departure. Sheriff Wright was requested by the two officers to keep the negro's removal a secret. At what point or station the officers boarded the train with Persons is still unknown. 

The release signed by Sheriff Tate to Sheriff Wright read as follows:

"May 20, 1917.

"Sheriff Joe Wright, Nashville, Tenn.:

"Please deliver to R. B. Wilroy and G. E. Thomas, my deputies, Ell Persons, negro, you have been keeping for me.

"Yours truly,           MIKE TATE.
"Sheriff of Shelby County."

Persons was brought to the Nashville jail for safekeeping on the night of May 8. He was first taken to the state penitentiary, but remained only a few hours before being removed to the Davidson county jail.

A few nights ago Sheriff Wright was forced to remove Persons from the jail and take him to Springfield for fear of a supposed mob which was said to be en route to Nashville from Memphis. The mob did not materialize and he was brought back to jail the following morning.

Our next article comes from the next day's edition of the same paper:


No Further Trouble Expected After killing of Ell Persons.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 22.—(Special.)—Within one hundred yards of the spot where a few weeks ago 16-year-old Antoinette Rappel was brutally slain and her headless body concealed in a wooded dell, Ell C. Persons, the negro slayer, was burned at the stake at 9:30 o'clock this morning at the end of the long bridge across Wolf river bottoms, on the Macon road.

A crowd of some 5,000 men, women and children cheered gloatingly as the match was applied, and a moment later the flames and smoke rose high in the air and snuffed out the life of the black fiend.

Seated in an automobile on the crest of the levee which commanded full view of the execution place, where but a moment before she had sat in solemn judgment and pronounced sentence upon the negro, Mrs. Minnie Wood, mother of the murdered schoolgirl, and other relatives witnessed the burning.

Mrs. Wood called upon the crowd to make the negro suffer "ten times a much as he made my little girl suffer."

"We'll burn him," the crowd cried back willingly and eagerly.

"Yes—burn him on the spot where he killed my little girl," the mother entreated.

It was an execution probably without paralled in the history of the south. The approximate hour and place of the lynching were advertised widely, but the organized forces or law and order, operating through the medium of the courts, dared not say nay to the outraged community in which Antoinette Rappel lived.

Yet, throughout the entire performance there was perfect order. Leaders of the execution pact time and again implored the hundreds of men so eager to lay hands upon the negro not to shoot. The crowd was dominated by the committee which had planned and executed the capture of the black slayer from the state authorities, and none offered violence not countenanced by the summary court.

Persons went to his death terrified beyond the power of expectation. His animal eyes rolled and shifted unceasingly and he frequently moistened his parched lips, through which speech was scarcely audible, but he did not flinch when led to the funeral pyre, nor cry out when the oil flames surged over his body.

His death was almost instantaneous. The negro drank deep of the first sheet of flame and smoke, and relaxed upon his hellish couch. When the body had been burned sufficiently to satisfy the lust of the executioners, one man in the crowd cut out the negro's heart, two others cut off his ears, while another hacked off his head.

In his dying statement to the crowd at the lynching, Persons confessed his own guilt, but shunted part of the blame of the fiendish crime upon two other negroes, Dewitt Ford, a deaf and dumb woodchopper, and Dan Armstrong, whom the "dummy" previously had accused of implication in the murder.

There was an instant cry for the lives of the other two negroes, any [sic] many in the crowd yelled pledges to the schoolgirl's mother that they would be burned. Leaders counseled against another lynching, however, because they did not place full credence in the dying words of Persons, whom they knew had lied in other respects. They professed to believe that Armstrong might know something of the crime, but were inclined to let the courts define his guilt. Few believe that the "dummy" was guilty of implication.

Nevertheless, some of the more radical members of the mob slipped away in automobiles to find Armstrong and Ford in the vicinity of the National cemetery. They succeeded eventually in locating both negroes. Armstrong was taken before the committee, but was released after he stoutly maintained his innocence.

The Tennessean's May 25, 1917 edition:


May Hereafter Take Hand in Moulding Public opinion.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 24.—(Special.)—Clergymen of Memphis representing the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, met at the chamber of commerce today, and not only denounced mob law, but confessed their dereliction of duty in not having warned an inflamed public mind against the lynching of Ell Persons.

The meeting may mark an epoch in the history of Memphis and henceforth the ministers may take their rightful place in moulding public opinion and awakening civic conscience.

The resolution follows in part:

"We, clergymen of the city of Memphis, met in solemn assembly, do hereby resolve that we, as clergymen and citizens, confess our dereliction of duty in not having warned an inflamed public opinion against mob violence, when it was apparent to every reader of newspapers that preparations had been made for lynching the brute who had committed an unspeakable crime.

"We furthermore resolve that it should be brought home also to the consciences of other representative men and leaders of this community, that they, too, had failed to do their duty, that it appears also that the constituted servants of the law had failed by subservience to the will of the mob, and by inadequate preparations to resist their anarchistic designs, to take the proper measures to defend the dignity and majesty of the law and our civilization:  that the conscience of the community had been dulled to the apprehension of the enormity of such lynchings and their accompanying degeneracies."

May 27, 1917 edition of same paper:


Inflammatory Article in Regard to recent Lynching.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 26.—(Special.)—Sale of the "Chicago Defender," a negro weekly newspaper, was ordered stopped this afternoon by Police Chief Perry, because of the highly inflammatory story of the capture and lynching of Ell Persons, the negro axe fiend.

The Defender, under today's date, ran an eight-oclumn [sic] head, which read:

"Horrible Memphis Lynching Astounds Civilized World."

A "drop head" from this read:

"Millions Prepare to Leave the South, Following Brutal Burning of Human."

Then followed the story itself. It laid the blame for the lynching at almost every door of every profession and calling. it charged connivance of "officials, editors, sheriffs, judges, millionaires and merchant princes." It charged that newspapers incited the riot and fed the flame of resentment with extras every hour.

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

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