The circumstances of the original incident between Henry Caldwell and a Mrs. Peck on July 27, 1882, are unclear. An account of the incident can be found on Larry Wood’s admirable Ozarks history blog. Mrs. Peck, according to the original newspaper report, was more than sixty years old and Caldwell was thirty-seven; but we’re left to guess who Mrs. Peck might be, since her first name is not given in the Iron County Register story. But since the incident took place in Ironton, my guess would be Adaline Peck, who would have been 64 that year according to census records.
In any event, according to the Register story, on that Thursday morning cries for help were heard. Neighbors rushed to the scene and found Mrs. Peck and Henry Caldwell in the front yard of her home, struggling. Henry was subdued, taken to the jail, and charged with assault and attempted rape.
The next chapter in this grim story is dispiritingly familiar. Thursday night passed, Friday night passed, with Caldwell still in jail. Then late Saturday night, a mob of thirty to forty men assembled, broke into the jail, and dragged Caldwell to the railroad bridge over Stouts Creek a few blocks away, a noose around his neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a bridge beam and Caldwell was thrown off, but desperate to live, he clung to the bridge timbers until someone took a knife to his arm. When he fell, another gruesome miscalculation; his feet touched the ground. The mob ended his life with a fusillade of bullets.
In his book Witnesses to History: Stories from Park View Cemetery, which is available from the Iron County Historical Society, John M. Abney quotes a different version. The letter from which this quotation is taken is in the possession of the Historical Society.
Henry did something that frightened old lady Peck and it was construed by some as an intended attack on his part. I [the letter writer, Cora Chase Charlton, daughter of the prosecuting attorney at the time] – who have heard her minute account of what really happened more than once, did not think so. But a bunch of men who spent their time in the Schultz saloon inflamed themselves with liquor to the point of taking poor Henry out, hanging him on the railroad bridge, and riddling his body with bullits.
Thus occurred the only documented lynching in Iron County, Missouri.
I first became aware of this event many years ago, when I read the diary of a little boy growing up in Arcadia during that time. The boy’s name was Stephen Hinchey, and the diary entry (which I carefully copied down and filed away – this was in the days before computers) read as follows:
Sat July 29
I studied most of the day.
In evening father heard, while in Ironton, that a negro was to be hung by a mob when night came. Father and I went to home of Judge Emerson to warn him of the mob’s plan.
Sunday 30th of July
This morning we heard that the mob hanged the negro on the Ironton railroad bridge. About 60 shots were fired into his body.
A later entry reads:
Sat. August 12th 1882
Today is my 9th birthday.
A few thoughts:
Stephen Hinchey’s father was William Hinchey, an artist and teacher at Arcadia College, and a prodigious diarist himself. William Hinchey’s diaries, written in shorthand and transcribed by Stephen years later, described his travels to the West, his observations during the Civil War, and his life in Arcadia and elsewhere. The Arcadia Valley has drawn many fine artists over the years, and Hinchey was but the first.
Henry Caldwell, thirty-seven at the time of his death, was identified in the Register article as married with four children. Census records from 1880 confirm that his wife was Millie, and their children Stella, Peter, Edia, and Nettie. A man who was that age in 1882 would most likely have been born into slavery and lived in that condition until his late teens, nearly twenty. The Register describes him as a bit daft “and at times out-and-out crazy.” Whether there was truth to this description, or a connection to having lived half his life as a slave, cannot be determined, as news accounts of lynchings are notorious for their retrospective portrayals of victims as dangerous and mobs as honor-bound. But Cora Chase Carlton also believed something to be aberrant about Caldwell. The editor of the Register, Eli Ake, went so far to say in his article, “We are not an advocate of lynch-law, but if there ever can be a case calling justly for its intervention, this was one.” The entire account can be found in the Library of Congress’ records. I have been unable to learn what became of Mrs. Caldwell and the children.
The “Judge Emerson” to whom Stephen refers was another significant character in the history of that era: J. W. Emerson, Civil War colonel, war hero, circuit judge, and founding investor in the Emerson Electric Company, a name we still see on consumer products although the ownership of the company has long since passed into the stock exchange.
This lynching predates the horrific spate of lynchings across the Ozarks chronicled in Kimberly Harper’s book White Man’s Heaven by about twenty years. But the pattern is certainly familiar. I am left with a few unanswered questions. The newspaper account depicts the county sheriff, William Fletcher, as surprised and overwhelmed by the mob; but was he? According to the article he had made preparations for mob law the two previous nights, but was caught unprepared on the fatal night. How likely is that? The “colored servant” who usually slept in the jail overnight was conveniently absent. If he sensed something amiss, how did the sheriff not? As Harper’s book observes, a common tactic for law enforcement officials seeking to prevent a lynching was to move the prisoner to the next town or county, making it more difficult for a mob to form and disperse inconspicuously. Why that didn’t happen in this case is impossible to know at this late date.
It’s worth remembering, moreover, that Iron County was firmly Democratic by then, and as Aaron Astor points out in Rebels on the Border, one of the tenets of border-state Democrats of that era was the restoration of the prewar social order, which would include the firm subjugation of African-Americans. The racist language of the Register article and the perception of Caldwell as “dangerous” and “a brute” fit into this mindset. (It’s also worth remembering that Eli Ake, the editor, was a complicated figure who doesn’t pigeonhole easily; John Abney reminded me in correspondence that Ake opened the pages of the Register to African-American correspondents for many years and repeatedly took some risky stands against the Ku Klux Klan in the ’20s and ’30s.)
On a TV show the other night, I heard a historian refer to slavery as “our original sin,” with our meaning “white Americans,” of course. Americans tend not to believe in original sin, a stark doctrine that robs us of individual agency and casts us as largely helpless in deciding our own fate. I’m not a believer in it either, at least not in the religious sense, but it’s surely a powerful metaphor for the unseen forces that shape our lives and our thoughts. To avoid the theological implications, I think of it as “stain” more than “sin.” Some stains simply don’t wash out, no matter how much we scrub.
Caldwell was buried in Park View Cemetery in Ironton, a cemetery also known variously as “potters’ field,” “City Cemetery,” or “the colored cemetery.” It is obscure enough today that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps. Of the estimated 300 graves in that cemetery, only about thirty have markers. Stephen Hinchey, William Fletcher, J. W. Emerson, and Eli Ake are all buried in Ironton’s Masonic Cemetery. May they all rest in peace, and may we all eventually find some way to fully include that stain in our understanding of the social fabric of our lives. Because more than 130 years have passed and it still hasn’t washed out.