I was hoping Platte County would not be part of some recent national news. But I was wrong. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice recently opened in Montgomery, Ala. The memorial marks the injustice of slavery and the horror of the terror lynching. A search of the memorial’s online map shows one lynching in Platte County, two in Clay County, 60 in Missouri.
According to the listing, George Johnson was hanged in Platte City on Aug. 1, 1909. Some news accounts online list the date as Aug. 2 and say it occurred at 2 a.m. on that day. The story ran throughout the nation in a short Associated Press version. Accounts are found in New York and Los Angeles of a death by rope and noose on the streets of Platte City.
Johnson was accused of killing J.W. Moore, a farmer, on June 20. He had been taken to Kansas City “for safekeeping, but was taken to Platte City yesterday to be in readiness for his trial which was set for today. Johnson shot Moore from ambush,” according to the story that ran on Page 9 in the Marion Weekly Star of Marion, Ohio, on Aug. 7 1909.
It’s sobering to type lynching into an online search engine and come up with barbaric events from the Civil War into World War II, some pretty close to where we live. There was the 1901 case of a young black man burned at the stake in Leavenworth, Kan. by a large mob. When you say the word lynch, you think of crimes against African Americans.
In the Johnson case, news accounts say two men approached the jail pretending to bring a third man as a prisoner to the jail, prompting Sheriff Tom Perry to open the jail door. He was then overpowered but the sheriff and his wife refused to provide the cell keys. By that time 50 or so men had appeared, and with hammers and bars they beat the jail cell open.
Johnson “was hanged to a tree in front of Wells Bank,” said the Leavenworth Times. “They mob then silently disbanded and went to their homes.” A reward was offered by the governor’s office for information about who conducted the lynching.
So here’s a mystery. The New York Times in its account, with a dateline from St. Joseph, said “George Johnson, a white man, was taken” by the mob and hanged. I assumed he was black. So have several online listings of lynchings in Missouri. The newspaper accounts, except for The New York Times, don’t delineate race. That makes me think Johnson was white. I welcome clarification from any historians reading this column who have traced this story out to deeper depths.
We are sensitive to race because so many horrific terrorist acts such as lynching occurred in America, and racial divides remain today. For example, the Platte County Fair Board has refused in the past to take down the prominent Confederate flag in the Dirty Shame Saloon. Loyal, longtime fair volunteers who complained got verbal abuse in return. At fair time, it’s become a tradition for a few young men to plant Confederate flags in the backs of pickup trucks and parade around Platte City and go park over at the fair. Some may say the flag stuff at the fair is historical legacy. However, most people get the feeling it’s a political statement and intimidation.
Should it matter if Johnson was white or black? Looking backward, no, we should be equally horrified. All deserve fair trial.
“The mob bungled the job,” said one of the deck headlines in the Atchison Daily Champion newspaper. “The murderer struggled one hour before death came.”
Johnson was a farm hand about whom little was known, the Champion said. Reportedly he had worked for Moore and they had disagreed on matters. Thus when Moore turned up dead, Johnson was arrested. None of the papers calling Johnson a murderer never bothered to use the word “alleged,” though Johnson was never convicted in a court of law.
The Champion reported that an inquest was held on Main Street in Platte City and the jury’s verdict was that Johnson’s death was by hands unknown. The paper reported that Sheriff Perry did not recognize any of the men in the hanging mob, which seems odd.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice includes a sculpture display with rectangular steel columns suspended downward. Each county in America where a lynching was reported has a hanging column. They bear the names of victims. Platte County’s bears the name of George Johnson.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.