A lynching in Columbus: ‘Mystery’ mob leader known

Tribune News Service

Early in 1911, a convicted murderer stepped down off a train in Hamilton and was greeted by a cheering crowd. A dozen years earlier, Edgar Stripling had been sentenced to life in prison for killing his brother-in-law for the “crime” of insulting Stripling’s wife. Shortly after the sentence, awaiting word on a motion for appeal in the Hamilton jail, he escaped and disappeared entirely from the public eye.

Now he was back, in handcuffs and wearing a police uniform. He’d been apprehended in Danville, Va., where for nine years he’d served under an alias as chief of police.

Overnight Stripling was a celebrity, compared to Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-hero of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” Powerful men lined up to set him free. Petitions garnered 8,000 names, including those of the judge, the prosecutor and the jurors who’d condemned him. His story was splashed on front pages all over the nation, but none mentioned another more famous killing commandeered by Edgar Stripling — the gruesome June 1896 noonday lynching of two African American men in the heart of downtown Columbus.

It seems that, while many knew he’d led the mob that invaded the courtroom and snatched Jessie Slayton from under the nose of the judge and the prosecutor trying his case, an official silence descended on Columbus. A silence that has prevailed for the past 120 years.

After the mob strung up Slayton, who was an African American being tried for raping a white woman, they shot off his face. They then stormed the jail and took another black prisoner, William Miles, accused of intent to rape, and lynched him beside Slayton

This lynching was possible because those officials sworn to protect prisoners abdicated their responsibilities. Three days earlier, when the rape accusation was made, over a thousand men set out in search of the culprit. Slayton, who had allegedly escaped from a chain gang, was brought to the jail by policemen and the victim made a positive identification. By now the posse who’d hunted him had turned into a ravenous mob and thronged the stockade yard, demanding blood. The militia was called out and the mob threatened their lives.

Judge Burlington Butt tried to calm the crowd, assuring them of a fair trial on the coming Monday. He was shouted down. Next, a member of the victim’s family took the podium.

The crowd relaxed a bit, for this was an important man in Columbus. His name was Richard Howard. His wagons watered the city’s dusty streets. His extended family, which included Bickerstaffs and Flournoys, owned brickyards, banks, investment companies; they ran railroads and sat on prestigious boards. A cousin edited the Enquirer-Sun. Their names were used that day and the next in the paper as a magic wand to assure citizens the matter was in good hands. The mob went home. The militia was disbanded.

Three days later, hundreds of angry, drunken, armed men lined the path from jail to courtroom. The sheriff and eight deputies were assigned to protect Slayton, but only two carried weapons. Less than an hour into the trial, word drifted outside that the judge had called the rape victim to testify. That would not stand with this crowd, and so Stripling and his men — none wearing masks — charged the courtroom.

For days after the lynching, newspapers wondered aloud “whodunnit?” but produced no names. A grand jury came up empty-handed. The governor offered a $500 reward for each of 10 men named and charged. In a time of deep financial hardship, no one claimed it.

Stripling’s role in one of the most heinous public acts in Columbus history would be quietly mentioned a year later, when he was charged with shooting Billy Cornet, his brother-in-law, through Cornet’s bedroom window. The widow mentioned it in court, suggesting that her husband was killed because he was planning to tell it to a grand jury. According to an article in The American Lawyer by then-Gov. W.Y. Atkinson, Stripling confessed “that he it was who tied the rope around the necks of the two men who were lynched in Columbus in 1896.”

The article came out as Stripling sat in jail, his case on appeal. He escaped several days later, possibly fearing more charges now that the cat was out of the bag.

The most damning piece of evidence that Stripling was being protected at the top of county government is this: Muscogee County Sheriff Gus Bowles — the man who had called in the militia, then called them off, then failed to provide adequate protection in the courtroom — testified at Edgar Stripling’s Harris County trial, that Stripling, after killing Cornet, had gone to Columbus and turned himself in to him because they were “old boyhood friends.”

On the day Stripling carried a noose into the courtroom, he was on the city payroll as a substitute policeman. A year earlier he’d been fired from his job as a fire truck driver due to “cruelty to the horses.” Presumably he had left his police job for the safer climate of Hamilton after Gov. Atkinson’s sumptuous reward offering made him a target.

Once Stripling, the disgraced Danville police chief, was returned home in handcuffs, and publicity of his feats filled daily newspapers, nothing would be said publicly of his actions on Broad Street that day in 1896. But more items of evidence would emerge detailing this dark side.

One was a deposition sent to the Governor’s office by Henry C. Cameron, a prominent Columbus attorney who represented Billy Cornet’s widow. He told the governor that he had been in the courtroom that day in early June and saw “the man who held the rope.” That man, he confirmed, was Edgar Stripling. That assertion was seconded by another prominent Columbus man.

During this year of pleading for and against Stripling’s freedom, the parole commission twice voted to set him free. Gov. Joseph M. Brown, however, saw differently and stated succinctly that Stripling was a “coward among cowards” and deserved to spend his life in prison. So off he went, while lawyers continued their clemency campaigns and newspapers published tearjerkers of his family’s hardships and his failing health

He served four years at the state prison farm, but in 1915, a new governor — there to visit Leo Frank, who’d soon be lynched himself —broke down when Stripling’s six- year-old Bessie begged him to free her daddy, and issued a pardon. There his hero status ended and Edgar Stripling spent the rest of his life bumping around from city to city, job to job. He is buried at Riverdale Cemetery in Columbus.

The practice of powerful private citizens using their good names in tandem with a sheriff willing to prevent prisoners from receiving proper protection became a precedent used by my own ancestors in Hamilton to ward off the call-up of militia when another lynching threatened and was desired by the family of the alleged victim.

On Jan. 22, 1912, 10 months after Edgar Stripling received his hero’s welcome at the Hamilton train depot, four African Americans, including a woman, were lynched a short distance down the road. This past Jan. 22, my family held a memorial service at the town library to honor those innocent people.

For several years on June 1, a small group of Columbus citizens, black and white, have stood at 10th and Broad to commemorate the 1896 lynching. They carry a large photograph of the grisly scene, two dangling bodies surrounded by men and boys, some grinning; some of the men wear police uniforms. For this reason, the belief has grown up over the years that a police officer led the mob and for that reason the demonstrators, led by Johnnie Warner, founder of Columbus Black History Museum, have requested the Consolidated Government raise a memorial plaque on the site and make an apology for the lynching.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has conceded it was a horrible thing, among many horrible things that happened back then, but says to apologize is to admit the city’s complicity in the matter and she is not willing to do that.

But both the city and county were complicit. Edgar Stripling was a substitute Columbus policeman. When he marched, swinging a rope, into a courtroom in full view of a sheriff who revealed at Stripling’s trial he had known him as a friend since boyhood, he had to know he’d be protected. Had none of this been true, the fact the sheriff failed to provide adequate protection in a situation rife with danger is reason enough to consider the city and the county to blame.

Other Southern cities have erected memorials and made official apologies for racial wrongs. It is time, past time, for Columbus to do the same.

Karen Branan, Columbus native and freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C., is author of “The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth”; karenbranan@gmail.com.