By Tim Bean
Ten thousand white men, women, and children came for the life of 24-year-old William “Froggie” James on a damp November evening in 1909.
These ten thousand people weren’t monsters. They were gamblers, shopkeepers, politicians, prostitutes, farmers, and schoolteachers. They were landlords and bankers. They were children in scuffed shoes, young mothers cradling babies, and old men clutching canes.
Some waited on the streets of Cairo’s bustling downtown. Some waited at the train depot or along Commercial Avenue at the town’s center. Some peered out from the shadows of doorways and windows. They awaited the spectacle of James’ death with little evidence and no mercy. In the brief moment when the approaching train slowed and then stopped at the Cairo depot, the people of Cairo hesitated under the weight of their lawlessness.
Then an anonymous old woman shrilly accused them of cowardice, and her words spurned them to action as quickly as an army bugle.
A cluster of white men kicked a stocky, young Black man from the train into the gravel, then yanked him by his collar to his feet. This terrified man named William James saw no mercy or kindness in the thousands of faces. To them, he was a thing. It was a look he had seen before—every Black man, woman, and child in Cairo had seen it before—but never like this.
William “Froggie” James, along with four other men, was wanted for the rape and murder of Mary Pelley. There had been no real procedure or method in the investigation, only a need to satisfy blood with blood. On nothing but the thinnest of circumstantial evidence (barking dogs and a common silk handkerchief), Cairo sheriffs arrested James and the others
The Cairo police tried to protect the men, but this didn’t last long. Cairo vigilantes disarmed the sheriff and his deputies, then left him behind.
The crowd lining the streets crashed over James in waves of enraged white faces, wetted lips, and gnashing teeth. The vigilante guards half-dragged, half-carried James to Cairo’s downtown. Rough hands tore at his dirty clothes. They pelted him with spittle and obscenities.
Fifty yards ahead, ten thousand participants whooped and cheered for the event to begin. Two perpendicular metal arches straddled Commercial Avenue, meeting high above its center.
A length of rope awaited him. As surely as a judge’s gavel or a cocked rifle, that rope pronounced the hard end of William “Froggie” James. An agile young man had shimmied up one arch to throw it over and the thick hemp flopped down into the dirt at James’. To illuminate the event, someone had switched on Cairo’s sulfur-yellow electric lights. This proud bit of technology blared down on James, spotlighting an older, crueler ritual. He squinted and lifted his hands to block the glare.
A white man picked up the rope and twisted and looped it in front of James. He made an S, pinching the bowtie, twisting the clumsy hemp around and around in a tight spiral and then bending the free end over this. A last tug and tightening and the rope was ready.
William James felt the noose slip over his head. It settled on his ears too tightly, the rough fibers burning. Someone cursed, then removed it, opening the business end more. The vigilantes had not accounted for the thick, corded muscles of James’ neck, earned with his years of work for the Cairo Ice and Coal Company. This strength did him no good now.
While they tightened the noose experimentally on him, they hurled questions at William James. The interrogation, the smell of beer and sweat, and the blanket of yellow light were a distant second to the pain of the hemp digging under his jaw. He pleaded. Cold sweat bathed his face, but his mouth had never been dryer. He pleaded, begged and wept, said he never killed anybody. He said anything and everything. James gave names. When his denial didn’t satisfy, he said he knew who killed the girl, but it wasn’t him. It wasn’t him, he insisted.
James cried out, “IT WASN’T ME. IT WA—”
The noose clenched around like a python, cutting his words off neatly.
William James’ neck jerked back. His head lurched up, dragging his body up and off the ground, pulled not by the strongest men in Cairo, but by a half-dozen crazed women, whose faces were twisted with venom. He rose into the air.
Higher and higher. Five feet, ten feet, twenty feet. William James dangled above the crowd beneath the steel arches where Cairo’s Eighth and Commercial Streets met. The ten thousand men, women, and children whooped and cheered as his body twitched like a tangled puppet. The women dropped his body in a short free fall, catching him just before he hit the ground. The noose tightened even more.
Agony became his world. Spittle and blood dribbled from the corners of his mouth. A fan of wetness stained his crotch as his bladder let go. He couldn’t scream anymore, but only bubble out gasps of pain and fear. Again and again the women dropped him, and each time the crowd applauded.
Just before a blanket of blackness floated him into oblivion, William James’ eyes fell upon the most savage sight of all. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of adults hoisting small children on their shoulders, as though they were at a zoo. With the approval of their parents, these children (who would one day become parents and grandparents and great-grandparents themselves) applauded and grinned. And learned.
James squeaked out one last gasp through his pinhole of a throat, and then he plunged into the merciful darkness of death, the one place curses and hate couldn’t follow.
With his body dancing with the involuntary spasms and jerks of death, William James did not hear the cheers shouts as his body rose and fell, rose and fell. He didn’t hear the collective shriek of rage as the hemp rope snapped under the weight of abuse. The ferocity of the crowd’s anger as William James collapsed into the dusty street below the arches was so sharp it was almost childish, like a toddler’s whose toy had suddenly been snatched away.
Hundreds of furious white men suddenly drew their pistols, rifles, and shotguns, then fired into the lifeless body of William James. The gunfire eclipsed the crowd clamoring, and James’ body jittered as hundreds of bullets tore through his clothing, skin, and flesh.
Gouts of blood fountained up, splashing and staining clothes, boots, and the dirt, but the reports continued until the guns clicked empty. The broken string of rope remained on his neck, but James’ body was now only loosely connected tendrils of meat.
The deed was done. William James the man was dead beyond all question. Whatever blood debt the crowd hungered for, had been paid, stolen without due process or the rule of law, but it was done now. What masqueraded as peace and decency could settle over Cairo again.
Only it didn’t.
Their nightmarish need was not satisfied. It clawed in the bellies of the ten thousand men, women, and children of Cairo on that November night and even James’ death hadn’t quieted it.
Several men took hold of the frayed rope, then dragged the bloody and tattered body of William James a mile. First down one street and then across two more, finally stopping at the alleyway where Mary Pelley’s ravaged body had been discovered only days before.
Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of sweaty white faces caught up and once again surrounded William James. They peered down on him, deciding that although they could no longer hurt the doomed man, they could still inflict indignities upon him.
The men bent down. Short hook knives flashed in their hands. They sliced the bloody clothes from his body. They cut the rope from his neck and one man backed away with the bloodstained rope in hand. He sliced small sections of the rope, some a few inches, some as long as a foot, then handed them out to hands hoping for a souvenir.
But the rope didn’t go as far as the vigilantes hoped. They improvised.
Two white men bent down again, one grasping William James’ hair and ears and the other man sawing the short knife through the skin, muscles, tendons, and bone of William James’ neck. He hacked and chopped, ignoring the still-warm bath of crimson blood covering his hands. They cut and pulled until William James’ head rolled off the ragged stump of his neck. They held it aloft to The awestruck crowd. Someone stepped forward with a sharpened pole and jammed James’ head upon it. Then the massed crowd parted as the perverse parade marched through, the mounted head like a drum major’s baton.
This done, they doused James’ headless corpse with kerosene, wanting to leave nothing of the man but charred bones and a sooty outline.
Before the body was lit, a vigilante stepped forward, raised his knife high in the air with both hands and brought it down with a grunt, plunging it deep into James’ chest. The white man scrapped and fouled it on the dead man’s ribs, but persevered, slicing and peeling until James’ white ribs were exposed. He worked his fingers under a few of the ribs and with another grunt snapping them open like a wet wishbone.
He plunged his hand in, feeling in the warm goo of the chest cavity, and then found the heavy mass of William James’ heart, still encased in the pale membrane of the pericardium. He tugged. The thick arteries held the heart firmly. The vigilante nearly lifted James’ entire body to work the heart free, its arms twitched and flopping in the dirty alley. But after a short struggle the arteries ripped and tore and the heart was lifted and displayed to the crowd, which once again cheered.
Once the hurrahs diminished, the vigilante stood back, the heart in hand, and began slicing slivers of the thick muscle and handed them out. Recipients carefully waded them into folded handkerchiefs and tucked them away. For the most part, these pieces of heart would be dried and then well-hidden, shown only to the closest friends and family.
The headless and heartless body of William James remained. Almost as an afterthought someone tossed a flickering hunk of kindling over the body. The kerosene took a moment to catch, but when it did, the lazy flame coursed over James’ skin and on the surrounding ground. The crowd of white onlookers tossed sticks on the body to keep the flames alive. Soon the meat began to sizzle and bubble. The legs and arms bent in as the tendons heated and shortened and then the flesh began to char. In the slippery scent of kerosene, the crowd could smell something heavier and meatier; the tang of a man’s roasting flesh.
No one spoke as the meat sizzled and charred and crumbled into hot gray ash and bone. There was no shame or regret, only the quiet weariness that comes after an ecstasy of violence. These weren’t murderers—at least in their minds they weren’t—but good Americans doing hard duty for justice.
It wasn’t enough. Their need for justice was not satisfied and tore at their bellies like the pangs of starvation. Back the Cairo jail, officials held a man named Henry Salzner as the chief suspect in the brutal murder of his wife, who had been whacked in the head with an axe and left to die in her bedroom. The crowd, still in the thousands, but now slightly diminished, moved as one entity toward the jail, to once again do their duty.
The death of William James would spread out into the newspapers, with only a handful denouncing as an abyss of humanity. None of the ten thousand citizens would ever be named, arrested, or tried, but would slip away into the obscurity of their lives, recounting the story only in the security of unmixed company. The only hard evidence of the event would be the collection of images sold as postcards by a Cairo photographer.
Between 1882 and 1968, the United States saw almost 5,000 lynchings. 70% of these lynchings were African-Americans. The number is almost certainly higher; lynchings were often underreported or categorized as “disappearances.” But people knew. Everyone knew.
Then and now.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.
~John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939.
Rather than sprinkling links throughout William James’ story, I have collected some contemporary clippings and analysis in a single pdf, which you can download HERE.