About the Case
Date: April 17, 1904
Victim(s): Charles Daniel Cole
Case Status: attempted
On April 17, 1904, Charles Daniel Cole, a resident of Little River, Alabama was murdered. Two nights later on April 19, four local Black men were arrested on suspicion of murder by a mob of citizens from Baldwin and Monroe County. The men were suspected of the murder because they had been seen inside a local store owned by Cole the night before the murder. Two of the men were released soon after their arrest, but Reuben Sims and Robert Tate were kept for further questioning. Tate confessed to killing Cole, but Sims did not. Sims was then whipped three times in order to force a confession from him. After confessing to murdering Cole, the mob that arrested Sims hung him to a tree and his body was, “riddled with bullets.” The Baldwin County Sheriff, J. M. Armstrong, was out of town when the lynching occurred and did not learn of it until at least ten hours after it happened. His initial belief was that two men had been lynched on the night of April 19. It would be reasonable to assume that Tate was lynched alongside Sims, but he was not. White newspapers never mentioned how Tate got away after the mob arrested him. He may have escaped or he may have been released. I do know that he was not lynched that day though because his death certificate confirms he died of pneumonia in 1918.
Despite many attempts to learn more about Reuben Sims, I was unable to do so. Documentation of his life seems to both begin and end when he was lynched. One newspaper article said that Reuben had a brother named Don who was also arrested for the murder of C. D. Cole. However, the 1900 United States Census does not include any families with children named both Reuben and Don. Also, there were not any Black men named Reuben or Don Sims in Baldwin or any of its adjacent counties in 1900.
The closure of the Baldwin County Department of Archives and History during the process of researching created a barrier that prevented me from learning more about the lynching and eliminated any possibility of learning more about Reuben Sims. I was able to visit the Alabama Department of Archives and History though and look at letters acting Governor Russell Cunningham received from the Baldwin County sheriff and the judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District. Although only one side of the conversation is seen though the letters, they demonstrate the inside workings of a county after a lynching.
In Baldwin County Sheriff J. M. Armstrong’s first telegram to the Governor, he writes that he made no arrests because, “things will be cooler in a few days.” He claimed that if the lynchers had been arrested immediately, the military would have been needed to protect the grand jury. Sheriff Armstrong does, however, recommend the eventual arrest of the lynchers and asks the Governor to set a reward for their capture. Governor Cunningham complies and issues the reward on April 23, 1904. The reward offers $400 for the first arrest and conviction and $100 for the second and third. On April 29, 1904, William S. Anderson, the Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District writes to the Governor that he does, “not consider the holding of a special term of Court in Baldwin County either necessary or advisable” The next day, Sheriff Armstrong writes the Governor that he wanted to make arrests, but the citizens and local State Senator D. D. Hall were preventing it. Armstrong predicted that ‘schemes’ were in motion to prevent him from collecting evidence and that Hall had already tried to stop him from attending the scene of the lynching. Armstrong continues writing Governor Cunningham and in late-August he said he thought he knew the names of some of the mob members, but he did not have any evidence to convict. He did not provide any of the suspect’s names in his letter. In his last letter to the Governor regarding the lynching, Armstrong claimed that, “this case was as justifiable as any lynching ever was, yet I believe in upholding the dignity of the law.” It is clear that Armstrong did not feel any need to seek justice for Reuben Sims. If Sheriff Armstrong and Governor Cunningham had any written communication about the lynching of Sims after August of 1904, the Alabama Department of Archives and History did not have it or it was not available to the public.
The letters sent to the Governor from local officials gave me new insight into how local communities reacted to lynchings. It is clear that the perpetrators did not expect to be convicted for their crimes and the citizens of Little River and the surrounding communities would come together to protect one of their own. Citizens could lynch an innocent Black man without any remorse, but arresting a white man for lynching would cause a public uproar. The lynching of Reuben Sims demonstrates how quickly the victim could be forgotten and the communities desire to erase the lynching from their history by not convicting anyone.