A Lynching in the Sunflower City

In April of 1893 the reputation of Salina, Kansas, as the “Quiet Sunflower City” and “center of culture and refinement[1]” was besmirched by a lynching. Lynchings for horse stealing had been fairly common earlier in the century: of 206 recorded lynchings from the 1850s on in Kansas, almost half were for horse stealing, all before 1880.[2]North Santa Fe Ave Salinas

After 1880, as African Americans migrated to Kansas to escape racism and violence in the South, lynchings of African Americans increased, although whites were also lynched for various crimes, including murder, and whites were not the only perpetrators of summary justice.  In December, in Kansas City, Kansas, two African American boys were nearly lynched by a “mob of colored citizens” for assaulting an African American girl.[3]

Still, Kansans did not like to see their state in the same light as Southern states, so the lynching of an African American citizen in Salina was a shock, not only because it occurred but because of how it happened. At the same time, the lynching revealed the growing influence of an organized African American polity in Kansas and the U.S.

On April 9, John Hudson, an African American, was arrested and jailed after a Salina woman, Mrs. J.M. Frost, was attacked and “terribly maltreated[4],” according to a report in the Star. Mrs. Frost identified Hudson as her assailant. At the investigation two days later, four reputable witnesses – two farmers and an African American couple – testified that Hudson was at a farm house miles from town on the night of the crime. Nevertheless, Mrs. Frost continued to declare him guilty: “She understands fully the importance of her statement, and unhesitatingly says… that Hudson is guilty and should be hung,” reported the Journal.[5]

National Hotel, Salina, KansasAccording to the Star report, “A majority of the best citizens” opposed lynching Hudson, believing there was clear doubt about his guilt, but “the lower elements seemed to thirst for blood. No mob would perhaps have been raised in Salina sufficient to break the jail so strong was the law-abiding sentiment, but when large crowds from Niles, Bennington and other towns arrived in the city shortly after dark they found plenty of encouragement.” The Journal story says that a “mob of 200 came on a special train from Abilene.”[6]

A crowd of about 1,000 gathered around the jail on the night of April 10. In its midst, reports the Star, were a number of courageous African Americans “who begged the whites to have patience and wait for further evidence before taking the law into their hands, but this only served to increase the excitement.”[7] The mob was at least briefly held back by the “combined action of the colored people of the city… [who] believe Hudson innocent and threaten to resist any attempt to harm him.”[8]

Then a contingent of the mob made a rush for the jail door; the guards were overrun, the iron door of the jail battered down, and Hudson removed and taken before Mrs. Frost, at the National Hotel, where she was staying. Again, she insisted he was the assailant.

After Hudson was taken to the street to be hung, he was allowed to speak. He was, said the Star report, “remarkably calm and his voice could be clearly heard as he declared himself innocent. He said that he realized that he was about to die and wished to take an oath in the face of death that he was innocent….He spoke no word of bitterness on account of his impending fate and all he said with regard to the woman’s statement was: “The lady is mistaken and, if you had given me a trial I could have proved it.”

But, said the Star, the “best citizens were beginning to realize the disgrace it would bring to the city to hang a manJoseph Bristow with a preponderance of evidence still in his favor. Half of the mob was drunk and in no condition to consider their action, and the others were of the vicious element which is always ready for reckless work.” A group of those opposed to the lynching surrounded Hudson, removed the rope from his neck, and fought the mob off in an open stairway for more than an hour. The mob was armed with revolvers and clubs and several of Hudson’s defenders were injured, including J.L. Bristow,  who fifteen years later would become a U.S. Senator from Kansas.  Finally, Mayor Cravens ordered the mob to disperse and Hudson was taken to a place of safety: “Much rejoicing is felt to-day,” concluded the Star report, “over the saving of a man’s life, for all realize the disgrace the lynching would have brought upon this city.”[9]

The reputation of Salina was only briefly saved. Ten days later, on April 20, Dan Adams was pulled from a train and lynched at Union Station. Adams, “a notorious character” in the Journal’s words, had attacked Troy Shout, “a popular young baggage agent” at the Union Depot: “The assault was unprovoked,” said the Journal, “as Shout had simply ordered Adams, who was loafing in the waiting room, to leave.” The Times had a slightly different story, saying that Shout came upon Adams and three companions sleeping in the waiting room and ordered them to leave; Adams “started to argue the point, and bitter words passed between them.”[10]

Both stories agreed Adams had attacked Shout with a razor, fled, was arrested and taken to jail, tried, convicted, sentenced to seven years at the penitentiary and put on the train for the state prison at Lansing, all within twelve hours. Clearly the authorities wanted to get Adams speedily out of town, but just as the train was about to pull out it was discovered that the last car, in which Adams was held, had been uncoupled. In an “incredibly short time,” the Journal  reported, “fifty men surrounded it, while a delegation entered, and having overpowered the officers”[11] tied a rope around the prisoner’s neck.  

Union Station Salinas Kansas“The attack was so sudden and unexpected that the officers were powerless to act. There was no yelling or demonstration of any kind on the part of the mob,” reported the Journal. Adams was taken to the Union Pacific Depot where the attack had occurred. “One end of the rope was thrown over a step of the telegraph pole at the hack stand and the negro was speedily hanged. Life was extinct in a few seconds,” said the Times report.[12] The Star report adds that several shots were fired into Adams’ body.  Hundreds visited the scene of the hanging, carrying away most of the victim’s clothing as souvenirs, until the coroner ordered the body cut down.

The Times story initially represented the lynching as “swift and severe justice” on the part of a crowd “maddened by the recent outrage upon Mrs J.M. Frost” and by the “unprovoked assault” on the station agent. Adams, said the paper, was “a worthless negro” and “decidedly tough character” who “should have been sentenced to the penitentiary for depredations committed heretofore,” since he had “terrorized this community on several occasions.”

The story headline suggests he was lynched “as a timely warning” by friends of Shout “who were so angered that a worthless negro dare attempt the life of a law-abiding citizen that they organized and quietly performed what they thought to be their duty….Many people realized that a portion of the colored element was overstepping its rights and an example would have to be made.”

The Times story was not alone in promoting a connection between the character of the victim and the lynching and between the failed attempt to lynch John Hudson and the lynching of Adams, though the participants were different: those who’d attempted to lynch Hudson were described as being from nearby towns, while Adams’ assailants were local railroad men and other “sympathizers of Shout’s.” 

The Star’s report on the lynching characterized Adams as “a notorious negro ruffian,” and presented the lynching as the doing of a “rough element which thirsted for human life and was not satisfied until it had indulged its brutality.” The Journal likewise opined that the “passions excited” by the Frost case “led to the reckless action of the mob to-night in the hanging of Adams for a comparatively small crime…. The bitter feeling which has prevailed against the negroes since the assault upon Mrs. Frost began to manifest itself in a decided manner at once and talk of a lynching was freely indulged in.”Santa Fe Avenue Northview Salinas

The Journal offered an additional explanation for the lynching: “The common feeling, although among members of the mob who were defeated in their attempt to hang Hudson last week, has been that some negroes ought to be hung on general principles, and the hanging of Adams has satisfied that feeling.” Added the Journal, “Great excitement prevails among the negroes, and some fear is felt that they will resent the bold action of the mob in some really desperate acts.”

The next day the Times published an editorial on the Adams lynching in which it made an ambivalent retreat from its position of blaming the victim: Adams “did not have a particularly bad record as negroes go,” the paper wrote, “He did not commit a crime that calls for capital punishment in any State in the Union…. The name of Kansas has received a stain from Thursday night’s lynching. At best summary punishment is wrong. In the Salina case the lynching was inexcusable. Governor Lewelling should see that the affair is probed to the bottom, and the leaders of the mob punished. This is not a Southern outrage, but Kansas should vigorously assert its disapproval.”  

On the same day the paper published a story on its interview with the mayor of Salina, R.P. Cravens, who insisted that his city, “one of the best and brightest cities in Kansas,” he said, is not to blame: “Had it not been for the Hudson matter, Adams would not have been lynched…. Of course there are some who will say that Adams got what he deserved. But they are very few…. Whether the men who composed the mob will be discovered is doubtful.” [13]

Circus Day in Salina, KansasThe Journal’s editorial on the same day accused unnamed journalists – no doubt thinking of its rival Kansas City papers, the Star and Times -  of undertaking “to excuse this lynching on the ground that it was but a few days ago that a mob in the same town was thwarted” in its attempt to lynch Hudson. The editors argued that the two events weren’t connected: the earlier mob had come from surrounding towns, yet those who lynched Adams were from Salina: “There can be no sort of an excuse for the Salina lynching” said the editors, apparently oblivious to the implications of their own characterization of Adams as a “notorious character” and his victim as a “popular young baggage agent.” “For that matter,” the editors continued, “there is no sufficient excuse for any lynching, however much the public may sympathize with the passions of the mob.”[14] Like the Times, the Journal called for legal measures against leaders of the mob.

A few days later, a letter on the Adams lynching from the “colored citizens of Saline county, Kansas” was published in the Times. The letter disarmingly begins with a loyal defense of the city against the “many uncomplimentary remarks made by newspapers throughout the West” about it: “There is not a city in Kansas that contains a more refined or humane people….”

The writers then go on to report on the resolutions of a meeting of Salina’s African American community. The first resolution denounced Adams’ attack on the baggage agent as “a heinous, villainous and unprovoked crime,” and expressed sympathy for his family. Its next resolution denounced the “brutal, barbarous and lawless manner that Dana Adams was taken from the authorized officers of the law and murdered….” Law abiding citizens were called on to suppress mob violence and “the idle loitering upon the streets of the city,” and the authorities asked to make “every effort in their power to arrest and secure the punishment of the murderers of Dana Adams.”

Finally, and perhaps most telling, the letter denied rumors that the “negroes of Saline county are preparing to use any unlawful means in retaliation” for the murder of Adams[15], rumors to which the Journal, among other newspapers, had contributed. Clearly the African American citizens of Salina, and of Kansas as a whole, though many were relatively recent arrivals in the state, had acquired political heft and savvy. Days after the letter was published, the Populist governor, Lorenzo Lewelling, offered a reward of $300 for the apprehension of “parties concerned” in the lynching, in response to “a demand by a committee of colored men who called upon him yesterday and presented him with a copy of resolutions adopted in an indignation meeting of colored people” in Topeka. The Topeka meeting expressed more indignation than the one in Salina: it described the lynching as a “painful manifestation of a wave of increasing prejudice, hatred and injustice now sweeping over the country against the negro race.”[16]

The increasingly racial aspect of lynchings in Kansas – all four in 1892 and 1893 were of African Americans – went unremarked by Kansas City newspapers. The Times in an editorial described lynchings as “unfortunate” events staining the close of “a progressive, civilization-making century” and horrifying foreign visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair and its glorification of American progress.[17]

Yet when the second lynching of an African American in Kansas occurred, in August near Leavenworth, the Times returned to its stance of faulting the character of the victim rather than the racist agenda of the perpetrators. Silas Wilson “was a very bad man and a dangerous character in the neighborhood,” the Times story begins, “and the citizens wanted to get rid of his presence.” He is described as an ex-convict who had been imprisoned for manslaughter and horse stealing “and was considered a disgrace and dishonor to the earth.”[18]

His previous record aside, Wilson had committed no crime except having had an altercation with a white man: “The cause of the lynching is shrouded in mystery,” admitted the Times. Five masked men had been seen in a wagon, presumably those who had captured Wilson and lynched him from a tree. Interestingly, the lynching attracted virtually no attention from newspapers or the authorities: no rewards were offered, no mass meetings held. Perhaps Leavenworth and its surrounding county had less of a reputation to be concerned about than Salina: the Wilson lynching was hushed up and justified by emphasizing Wilson’s bad reputation.

That there were Ku Klux Klan or similar groups active in the area and responsible for Wilson’s death is suggested by an event a few days before the Wilson lynching, when thirteen members of an African American reserve company in Leavenworth, the “Garfield Rifles,” had been arrested for “acting in a suspicious manner.”

The men had been patrolling in squads around the city and when brought before a judge explained that they were on the alert “lest a crowd of white men should make a raid on the county jail for the purpose of lynching ‘Cute’ Scott, the colored man that Sheriff Flora recently brought from New Mexico,” who was being held on a murder charge. “There were,” reported the Journal, “no tenable grounds for the suspicion of lynching… and even if there should have been, it is improbable that the sheriff would have called on the ‘reserve’ company for assistance.”

The Journal story admits that there had earlier been talk of lynching when the murder occurred a year earlier but insists that the feeling had “died out.”[19] Clearly the Journal did not wish to give credibility to the men’s fears, though the Adams lynching in Salina in April--  and the Wilson lynching in Salina just over two weeks later -- suggests that they had every reason to anticipate a lynching in Leavenworth. The tone in which the paper dismisses the potential usefulness of the Garfield Rifles emphasizes the tendency to marginalize African Americans even in an area – lynching – in which they were most directly interested.

C.H.J. TaylorIncreasingly, however, African Americans in Kansas were organizing around the subject and carrying it to the national stage. In November, 1893, Charles H.J. Taylor, Kansas journalist and president of the National Negro Democratic League, delivered a speech at a National Negro Convention in Cincinnati proposing that the federal government should hold the states responsible for lynchings occurring within their borders, and the states in turn should hold counties responsible[20]  by levying a payment by the county of $10,000 to the family of victims of lynching.[21]

Taylor’s speech was significant on two levels: first, it carried weight because he had recently been appointed by Grover Cleveland as ambassador to Bolivia, the first such appointment for an African American outside of Liberia and Haiti. Second, Taylor’s advocacy of a governmental response to lynching was an implicit rejection of the position taken by Bishop Henry Turner at the Convention that the best response to the growth of white racism in post-Reconstruction America was emigration to Africa: “I do not believe,” said Turner in his convention address, “that there is any manhood future in this country for the Negro, and that his future existence, to say nothing of his future happiness, will depend upon his nationalization.”[22] 

Turner’s position did not carry the day at the convention: no radical plan for emigration to Africa was adopted. Instead, the convention recommended establishment of a National Equal Rights Council, and appealed to Congress, governors and the American people for fair and equal justice, echoing Taylor’s appeal.

Lynching diminished in Kansas in coming years: in the decade of the 1890s, sixteen were reported; in the following decade, three,[23] of whom two were African American.[24]  In 1903, Kansas passed an anti-lynching law,[25] but bills to create federal anti-lynching laws were repeatedly defeated in the Senate by Southern Democrats. The first successful Federal prosecution of a lyncher came only in 1946[26] as the result of relentless pressure by the NAACP, heir to C.H.J. Taylor’s National Negro Democratic League, among other civil rights groups.


[1] “No excuse for it.” Daily Journal, April 22, 1893, p. 4.

[2] Genevieve Yost, “History of Lynchings in Kansas.” Kansas Historical Quarterly. 2:2 (May 1933), 192. http://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-historical-quarterly-history-of-lynchings-in-kansas/12580

[3] “Narrowly escaped lynching.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 25, 1893, p. 5.

[4] “Kansas lynchers foiled.” Kansas City Star, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[5] “May be lynched any moment.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[6] “May be lynched any moment.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[7] “Kansas lynchers foiled.” Kansas City Star, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[8]   “May be lynched any moment.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[9] “Kansas lynchers foiled.” Kansas City Star, April 11, 1893, p. 1.

[10] “A lynching at Salina.” Kansas City Times, April 21, 1893, p. 1.

[11] “A mob’s vengeance.” Daily Journal, April 21, 1893, p. 4.

[12] “A lynching at Salina.” Kansas City Times, April 21, 1893, p. 1.

[13] “Deplores the act.” Kansas City Times, April 22, 1893, p. 5.

[14] “No excuse for it.” Kansas City Daily Journal, April 22, 1893, p. 4.

[15] “In defense of Salina, Kan.” Kansas City Times, April 29, 1893, p. 4.

[16] “Rewards for lynchers.” Kansas City Star, May 11, 1893, p. 7.

[17] [Lynching editorial] Kansas City Times, July 24, 1893, p. 4.

[18] “Just lynched him anyhow.” Kansas City Times, August 22, 1893, p. 2.

[19] “From Leavenworth, Kas.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 6, 1893, p. 2.

[20]The cure for lynching.” Kansas City Times, November 19, 1893, p. 4.

[21] “National Colored Convention.” Kansas City Times, November 29, 1893, p. 1.

[22] Andre Johnson, “The Emigration and Propaganda campaign of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.”  Paper presented to National Communication Association, November 15-18, 2007.  http://www.academia.edu/541996/The_Emigration_and_Propaganda_Campaign_of_Bishop_Henry_McNeal_Turner, p. 2.

[23] Genevieve Yost, “History of Lynchings in Kansas.” Kansas Historical Quarterly, 2:2 (May 1933), p. 192.

[24] Genevieve Yost, “History of Lynchings in Kansas.” Kansas Historical Quarterly, 2:2 (May 1933), p. 219.

[25] James Harmon Chadbourn. Lynching and the Law. Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2008, p. 27. http://books.google.com/books?id=LB4a6PsemLMC&pg

[26] “Lynching in the United States.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States

December 22, 2012