Escaping the Noose: A Near-Lynching in Late-19th Century Boone County

An 1878 illustration of the Boone County Courthouse where Frank Hall was tried in 1894 (image Historic Indiana Atlas Collection, IUPUI)

On the morning of February 5, 1894 a crowd “of seven hundred or more Boone county farmers struggled and battled fiercely in the courthouse yard” in Lebanon Indiana eager to exact justice against Frank Hall. The 22-year-old African American was being held in the Boone County jail accused of an assault on a White woman on the evening of February 3rd. Hall protested that he had been at a watch raffle with scores of witnesses at the time of the assault, but the Sheriff arrested Hall the next morning and brought him to the jail. A crowd instantly gathered intent on hanging him, and as Hall was taken from the jail to the adjoining Courthouse the crowd got him in the noose three times. Hall and the Sheriff fought them off each time, and when Hall reached the Courthouse he was half-conscious, bloodied by the mob’s assault, and “several chokings had given his skin the purple hue of a grape.” Hall hastily agreed with the Prosecutor “to enter a plea of guilty and take the maximum penalty of the law for such offenses, twenty-one years in prison. He was afraid that he would be taken from jail and summarily executed.”

Boone County 1904, with Sugar Creek Township and Thorntown in the upper left (northwest) and Lebanon at center (image Indiana Historical Society)

The nightmarish scene in Lebanon was repeated in many places in 19th and 20th century America where anonymous White crowds routinely intimidated, attacked, and murdered African Americans. Like many other places, Boone County was a landscape of contradictions in which progressive causes and a history of abolitionist sentiments existed alongside anti-Black racism, segregation, and violence. On the northwestern outskirts of Indianapolis, Boone County was colonized by Europeans in the 1820’s (see the 1887 Early Life and Times in Boone County, Indiana). Indigenous peoples had lived in Boone County for millennia, and Eel River Miami Indians settled in Thorntown in 1818 as one of six reservations that the Miami subsequently relinquished in an 1828 treaty. Boone County lay along a well-documented Underground Railroad landscape. An 1880 history of neighboring Hamilton County outlined the railroad connections north of Indianapolis and indicated that “another branch of the route was via Thorntown in Boone county, also a ‘friendly place.’ Scores of colored people have traveled over this line. In answer to our inquiry the old ‘pilots’ and ‘engineers’ still living say there were hundreds of them.” Perhaps some 21st-century observers would dismiss Frank Hall’s near-lynching as an aberration in an otherwise settled history of color line relations. However, the episode reflects the ways the threat of violence and terror lynchings punctuated life across the color line in even the most commonplace and seemingly settled places.

A scatter of very modestly populated African-American communities dotted antebellum rural Indiana. In 1850 the census recorded 15 Mulattos and five Black residents in Boone County, an infinitesimal fraction of the nearly 12,000 residents of the county. The possibility that the community might grow on the eve of the Civil War was dampened by an article in the 1851 Indiana Constitution specifying that “No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” The Constitution required Black residents to register with the state, but counties unevenly enforced the constitutional segregation. Nevertheless, between 1850 and 1860 Indiana’s Black population grew predictably little. Less than a hundred African Americans lived in rural Boone County in 1860 (the 1851 state Constitution article was declared null and void in 1866).

In the wake of the Civil War a host of newly freed African Americans migrated north. Many of the new arrivals had been captives in agrarian communities, and some of them settled in farming communities like Boone County. Most of the African Americans who settled in Boone County lived in the northwestern reaches of the county in Sugar Creek Township around the little community of Thorntown. A sufficient number of African Americans settled there that an African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in Thorntown in 1866 (page 17-19), and an African-American cemetery was established just north of Thorntown in 1869.

The 1870 census recorded 242 Black/Mulatto residents in Boone County. They included Emeline Derickson, who married Levi Hall in Boone County in September 1871. Emeline’s father Charles Derickson and her mother Matilda Stout Derickson had been among the earliest African Americans in Boone County. Charles was born into captivity around 1818 (though some primary sources suggested he was born as early as 1806), and he was living free with his father Job Derickson and mother Phebe Huston Derickson in Nicholas County, Kentucky in 1830. Charles indicated later in life that he purchased his own freedom and then Matilda’s, and he and Matilda were living in Nicholas County next door to his parents in 1850.

Charles and Matilda appear to have had a daughter born in Indiana in 1852, perhaps moving to Indiana just as the 1851 Constitution took effect; if they were not living in Indiana in 1852, they certainly were in 1860 when the census recorded them living in Boone County. They lived in Boone County alongside Charles’ brother Elijah. Born around 1827, Elijah joined the United States Colored Troops, serving in the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Infantry and subsequently living out his life in Boone County. Frank Hall’s maternal grandfather Charles Derickson was a fixture in Boone County for over a half-century (cf popular accounts of Derickson in American Thresherman [1907] and Bascom Clarke: The Story of a Southern Refugee [1913]). The preacher was distinctive for his long-term support for the Democratic Party (cf Crawfordsville Review September 1891), which was openly hostile to any measure of African-American civil rights.

Frank Hall was born in Kentucky in about 1871 to Levi Hall. Frank and his older brother Alfred may already have been born when Levi married Emeline Derickson in September 1871. Alfred, Frank, Herbert, and an unnamed four-month-old son were living with Levi and Emeline in Boone County in 1880. In 1900 the census indicated Emeline had borne nine children in her life, but only two were still alive: those two children were Herbert (1878-1983) and Clinton (1882-1913), and in 1900 the two brothers and their grandparents Charles and Matilda were living with Levi and Emeline at their Boone County farm.

In even the most lightly populated rural places African Americans were the targets of racist surveillance. In January 1880, for instance, the Indiana State Sentinel was among the Democratic newspapers complaining that African Americans from North Carolina were being imported in a “Negro exodus” to sway elections to Republicans’ advantage. Jill Weiss Simins found that such rhetoric fanned anxieties in small communities like Whitestown southeast of Lebanon, where in 1880 an African-American migrant’s home was attacked. After a child was injured by the mob the family apparently moved away. After African-American migrants arrived in Hancock County east of Indianapolis in 1880, White residents reportedly “proceeded to notify the colored people to leave, burned some of the property they occupied, and cut the throat of a horse belonging to a gentleman who rented the property to a colored family.”

A 1909 postcard of the fountains in Thorntown Indiana (image Indiana Historical Society)

In December 1886 Frank Hall’s brother Alfred and their half-brother Charley Cason were accused of getting drunk in Thorntown and then firing guns and attempting to steal a horse-and-sleigh. The Indianapolis Journal reported that “Hall, alias `Bull,’ was shot twice, once through the arm and once through the body, the last shot passing entirely through his body. Cason received one ball in the calf of his leg. … `Bull’ is a well known desperado who has given the authorities of this and adjoining States considerable trouble. He has had a number of narrow escapes from death, and has served two or three terms in the penitentiary. He is suffering terribly from his wounds, and swears dire vengeance on the shooters.” Alfred was admitted to the Indiana State Prison along with Cason in February 1887; Cason was released in February 1888, and Alfred would remain there until July 1891.

Frank Hall had no brushes with the law before he was accused of assault in February 1894. Hall indicated he did not know victim Mary Akers, who by most accounts lived about a mile away from the Hall farm. Akers indicated that Hall had attacked her at 10:30 on the evening of February 3rd, and her brother and a neighborhood posse surrounded the Hall home on the morning of February 4th, where the Sheriff arrested Hall and brought him to the County jail in Lebanon.

Merchants Day in Lebanon at the Boone County Courthouse in 1895 (image Indiana Historical Society)

A lynch mob almost instantly gathered at the jail, and Hall was moved to Indianapolis for safekeeping on the evening of February 4th. He was returned to Lebanon for a Court hearing the following day, where an increasingly frenzied crowd had gathered. Mary Akers handed over a rope to a crowd that marched on the jail, and out of the mob Aker’s friend Harriet Taylor stepped forward and “threw herself toward the officers, clutching savagely at the prisoner. The marshal tried to push her back. `Are ye all cowards?’ she shrieked. `Get him for me! I’ll fix the rope!’” The Indianapolis Journal reported that Taylor “put the rope around Hall’s neck three times, screaming like a maniac and clawing past men to lay her hands on the negro and help strangle him with the rope.”

After surviving the beating outside the Courthouse, Hall was dragged into a courtroom with an audience of mob members including one holding the noose. Hall “was ordered to stand up and plead. In a trembling voice he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twenty-one years in Northern State’s prison [i.e., the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City].” The Indianapolis Journal admitted that “the prisoner knew that if he did not plead guilty he would be strung up by the mob. It was a case of self-preservation with him to plead guilty …. He was very glad to escape with his life.” By the afternoon Hall was being prepared for transport to Indianapolis, but 1000 people continued to mill about angered with what they considered a lenient sentence. It was rumored an attempt would be made to stop the train “at Whitestown, the negro taken from it and strung up to the nearest tree.” A handful of people did intercept the train south of Lebanon at the Whitestown stop, but they were unable to spirit Hall from the Sheriff, and Hall was successfully transported to Indianapolis.

On February 8th the Indianapolis Journal cryptically suggested that “Mrs. Akers had been a party to the crime.” There was suspicion that Akers had misrepresented or even orchestrated the crime, and she was friends with Hattie Taylor, who had led the lynch mob. Two weeks after the near-lynching, it was reported that “Mrs. Hattie Taylor, the woman leader of the recent mob which came so near lynching the negro Hall, has come to grief over the part she took in the affair. Soon after the occurrence a great deal of indignation was aroused by the better class of citizens that such a disgraceful attempt at outlawry had been made in this city. Mrs. Taylor came in for a good share of the criticism. Her character was assailed, and some sensational stories reached her husband’s ears, and the result was he left her and refuses to again live with her.” The Journal implied that Taylor’s wrath was a result of her own experience of assault, indicating that “Barely three months ago Mrs. Taylor’s daughter was assaulted in a somewhat similar manner by `Doctor’ Cotten [sic], a traveling quack, who is now a fugitive from justice.” In November 1893 it had indeed been reported that Taylor’s nine-year-old daughter had been “criminally assaulted by a traveling doctor, named Cotton.”

In March 1894 a grand jury convened in Lebanon to consider charges against the mob. Judge Stephen Neal instructed the Grand Jury that “he wanted a thorough investigation of the actions of the mob which came so near lynching the negro Hall, Feb. 5, and that if the evidence introduced during the investigation was of such a nature as to warrant it, he wanted indictments returned against every person who was a member of or in any way aided the mob.” While some residents may have opposed mob justice, the Indianapolis Journal acknowledged that “There is much feeling against the Judge for this action, as it is claimed that lack of confidence in the court alone inspired the mob to such action.”

Five days later the Prosecutors and Grand Jury were anonymously threatened: “the Lebanon grand jury investigating the mob that tried to lynch the negro, Frank Hall, Feb. 5, received a notice that if indictments were returned against any member of the mob each juror would be severely dealt with.” The two Prosecutors received an anonymous message indicating “`You two had better let that mob alone, or we will fix you. Take warning. COMMITTEE.’ The notices were all written in blood and had a large skull and cross-bones at the top.” The Indianapolis Journal implied that the instigators of the near-lynching were known in the community and perhaps even among the “better class of citizens,” reporting that “no one thought it possible to secure an indictment against the participants, owing to the prominence of the would-be lynchers.” Nevertheless, Judge Neal “instructed the grand jury to return an indictment against each and every one who was found in any way to have agitated or encouraged the mob. Within the last two days, there having been about three hundred witnesses subpoenaed and the indications pointing toward indictments has aroused the farmers who were in town that day. It is believed it will cause a bad state of things if the farmers should be indicted.”

The Indianapolis News attributed the anonymous letters to “White Cap” vigilantes but dismissed them and complained that they “were not written in blood, but in ordinary black ink, and in a decidedly school-boy `hand.’ The matter has caused much excitement, but it is con.” “White Caps” referred to a broad range of loosely associated vigilantes who anonymously inflicted violent attacks and threatened a wide range of people who violated community morals, which ranged from “loose women” to criminals to “shiftless” men. The White Caps had much in common with the subsequent 1920s Ku Klux Klan, but in many communities their moral vigilantism was much more pronounced than their racism. Nevertheless, an 1892 analysis of White Cap vigilantism by the Indiana Governor’s office concluded that they modeled their anonymous violence “somewhat after the manner of the Ku-klux of the South.”

The News wrote on its editorial pages that Hall’s lynching was prevented “by the bravery of the self-respecting people of the town,” concluding that the “good people of Lebanon attracted to themselves all praise when they prevented mob law.” Buoyed by the notion that the mob was driven by a few aberrant people, on March 4th following four weeks of investigation the Grand Jury did not return any indictments in the Hall case.

While Frank Hall waited in Indianapolis for his train to the Indiana State Prison he told the Indianapolis Journal that “`I was so terrified that I thought that if I pleaded not guilty the trial would be prolonged and then possibly the mob would by that time have overpowered the sheriff and his men and then I would be at their mercy. In this way I hoped to live and in due time get a pardon.’” Hall was admitted to the Indiana State Prison on February 7th, and while he did not receive a pardon he was paroled in February 1900. After serving six of 21 years, it was reported that “His prison record is said to be perfect.” His family was still living in the same Boone County home, but Frank did not live in Thorntown again.

Frank Hall’s Thorntown family would stay in Boone County, but they would be part of a gradually dwindling African-American community in Sugar Creek Township. Hall’s grandmother Matilda Derickson died in 1906, and his grandfather Charles Derickson died two years later; Frank’s parents Levi and Emeline died in 1913 and 1922 respectively, all laid to rest in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery. In 1940 Boone County had 75 Negro (and two “Colored”) residents living along 24,854 residents identified as White, reflecting the decreasing Black community in the county. In 1975 Boone County historian Ralph W. Stark wrote that the “once large colony of Negroes living in Thorntown and the surrounding communities is now completely disappeared; today the town and its Sugar Creek Township is without a single black resident.”

An 1878 map of Thorntown showed the Thorntown Colored Cemetery at the small cross at the red arrow (image IUPUI)

Nevertheless, there is thoughtful grassroots scholarship going on in Boone County that is preserving and documenting the rural experience of life along and across the color line. By the time Emeline Hall was buried in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery in August 1922 there were very few African Americans choosing Thorntown for their eternal resting place. In February 1928 George Cosby Tapp was buried in the Thorntown Cemetery; in August 1935 Jane White’s death certificate indicated she was buried “Boone Co (Sugar Creek),” which was certainly the Thorntown Colored Cemetery where her husband William H. White was buried in January 1906. There is no evidence of subsequent burials in the cemetery, and when historian Frank W. Stark visited the site in 1975 he noted that “only four small weathered-granite stones still stand in the cemetery” (PDF here, page 17-19).

After he was paroled Frank Hall spent several years living in Indianapolis and was living on Indiana Avenue in 1904. In August 1916 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Frank Hall had died in Columbus, Ohio, and the Recorder indicated that Hall “would be brought to Thorntown for burial.” Frank Hall almost certainly was buried in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery alongside his parents.

In 1975 the Society for the Preservation of Indian Heritage placed a marker at the cemetery. Stark described the local group as being “primarily concerned with the era when the Thorntown area, and all of Boone County for that matter, was the home of the Red Men.” Stark’s research identified 22 African Americans who died near Thorntown between 1882 and 1915, providing a starting point to identify the people who are likely buried there. Local genealogist David Lee Guinn extended Stark’s research with an inventory of 27 people buried in the cemetery between 1882 and 1914, and Shannon Mitchell subsequently conducted research on many of those individuals. In 2013 IUPUI student Adam Oswalt conducted a magnetic gradiometer study of the cemetery to assess its boundaries and the number of likely burials. Four years later in 2017 a Ground Penetrating Radar survey identified between 46 and 49 likely burials. The GPR survey was conducted alongside a restoration project directed by Reece Thompson, who conducted research and physical restoration for his Eagle Scout project. A fence was built around the cemetery and the Indiana Historical Bureau sign erected at the cemetery in 2019.

Like many other episodes of racist violence, Hall’s story is difficult to reconcile with celebratory histories or a contemporary community that sees such xenophobia as a historic artifact rather than a structural reality. Some communities seem to fantasize that descendants and neighbors will somehow forget these episodes or see them simply as momentary aberrations in contrast to otherwise settled color line relations, but histories of racist violence fester in public memory when their heritage is unaddressed. Frank Hall’s experience may indeed be mostly submerged in the memories of his descendants or the lynch mobs’ families, but there are almost certainly many more experiences of life along the color line that are part of descendants’ heritage. Today Boone County remains 92% White, with just 1.61% of the county’s roughly 63,000 residents identified as Black. Those contemporary patterns reflect histories that many residents even today may not recognize, but avoiding their discussion risks heightening longstanding anxieties and decreases chances for sober and reflective discussion.

 

References

Michael Newton

2016 White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina.

 

Paul Musgrave

2006 “A Primitive Method of Enforcing the Law”: Vigilantism as a Response to Bank Crimes in Indiana, 1925–1933. Indiana Magazine of History 102 (3): 187-219. (subscription access)

 

Madeleine M. Noble

1973 The White Caps of Harrison and Crawford County Indiana: A Study in the Violent Enforcement of Morality. Phd Dissertation, University of Michigan.

 

John Howard Ratlliff

2007 “In hot blood”: White-on-white lynching and the privileges of race in the American South, 1889–1910. Phd Dissertation, the University of Alabama.

 

Maps

Boone County Courthouse 1878, Historic Indiana Atlas Collection, IUPUI

Boone County Map, George Ogle 1904, Indiana Historical Society

Combination Atlas Map of Boone County Indiana, Sugar Creek Township, originally published 1878 reprint 1901 from Indiana State Library

Map of Boone and Clinton Counties 1865 from Library of Congress

Merchants Day Lebanon Indiana, 1895 image from Indiana Historical Society

Thorntown Fountain Postcard 1909 image from Indiana Historical Society

Posted on July 23, 2020, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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