John Atterbury McKenzie

About the Case

Date: December 25, 1906

County: autauga

Victim(s): John Atterbury McKenzie

Case Status: attempted

On December 25, 1906, John Atterbury McKenzie’s body was found in a ditch between Broad and Locust Street in Mobile, Alabama. The night prior, McKenzie had visited Deputy Sheriff Fatch and asked if he could be loaned a pistol. McKenzie told Fatch that three white men named Charles Barrett, Willie Lewis, and McKean had threatened to kill him. It is unknown why the men wanted to kill John McKenzie, a forty-year old plumber, but McKenzie’s fear proved to be reasonable because he would be dead by sunrise. Despite the sheriff being handed the names of the suspects by McKenzie himself, a Black man named Walter Clayton would be sentenced for the murder in May of 1907. Why Clayton was sentenced for McKenzie’s murder remains unclear, but after being sentenced, Clayton was sent to the Hand Lumber Company, a convict camp in Baldwin County. Clayton was described as “a model prisoner” and made a trusty, but that changed in April of 1908. 

On April 4, 1908, Walter Clayton was accused of choking Perlula Cutchen White into submission in her home just outside of Loxley. Clayton was supposedly interrupted by White’s brother-in-law which caused Clayton to flee back to the Hand Lumber Company. Officers arrested Clayton the same night and he allegedly told officers, “not to take him back to the scene of his crime, as he committed it and it was not necessary to have him identified.” The police then led Clayton to the jail in Bay Minette, but approximately seventy-five men ambushed the group and took Clayton with the intentions of lynching him. Initial newspapers reported that Clayton was killed, but when the police were unable to find his body, the lynch mob claimed he had escaped.  While this may have been a tactic used by the lynchers in an attempt to avoid legal repercussions, Governor Comer offered a $100 reward for the capture of Clayton and the citizens of Bay Minette offered an additional $50. Even the citizens of Baldwin county seemed unsure of Clayton’s fate as his arrest record states he was, “either lynched or escaped.” In the following months, Black men in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Hollinger’s Island, Alabama, were arrested under the suspicion of being Walter Clayton.  What happened to these men is unknown.

The only genealogical information found on Clayton is from his convict record. It recorded that he was 5′-7″, 145 pounds, and twenty-five years old at the time of his arrest in May of 1907. This would have made him 22 or 23 at the time of the lynching. He had brown eyes, black hair, and light skin. All of his front teeth were decayed, and he had a habit of chewing tobacco. 

Unfortunately, the Baldwin County Department of Archives and History closed during the process of researching Walter Clayton so any local records regarding the case were inaccessible. White newspapers, which is where the majority of my research comes from, only skim the surface of what really happened. Despite it being clear that some of the perpetrators were known by local authorities, their names were never given to the papers. While the lynchers were allowed to remain anonymous, Clayton was portrayed as a villain. 

Whether or not Clayton survived the attempted lynching, remains a mystery, but if he did survive, his life would have dramatically changed. It would be hard for him to return to his family in Mobile or Baldwin county. Anyone who saw and recognized him would have been inclined to report him to the police in order to claim the reward. Even outside of Alabama, his name was known because the case was covered in newspapers nationwide. He probably would have felt the need to go by a new name and not contact anyone from his past. His life would have been uprooted while the people who tried to lynch him got to live their life as if nothing had changed.