About the Case
Date: June 21, 1896
Victim(s): Leon Orr
Case Status: attempted
Around 2 a.m., the morning of June 21, 1896, a mob of at least fifty Hartselle, Alabama men rushed into the Lawrence County Courthouse in Moulton, Alabama. The mob found Leon Orr, a black man that worked and resided in Danville, Morgan County, Alabama, “cowering” in a corner. Once located, “A rope was hurriedly thrown about his (Orr) neck and he was dragged out, strapped to a horse’s back and taken away.” The mob took Orr back to the scene of a crime he allegedly committed in Danville “where they hanged him and riddled his body with bullets.” The mob was proud to have given him a minute to pray before he was brutally lynched. This would be the first of three racial terror lynchings in Morgan County, Alabama.
Leon Orr was lynched for allegedly abducting and assaulting Mary “Bessie” Puckett, the daughter of a “prominent farmer living near Hartselle,” Gwyn Puckett. According to the many white owned newspapers that ran the story, Puckett was “seized” while walking, around fifteen feet outside from the family’s kitchen, to the house. From there, Orr allegedly took the girl to the nearby woods, where he assaulted her. After the alleged assault took place, it was reported that Orr escaped to Lawrence County, where he previously had lived. Rucker was reportedly found nearby and was said to be in critical condition and unresponsive.
There were major inconsistencies in the reporting of Mary Puckett’s age. In many news sources outside of Alabama, especially those to the West, it was repeatedly stated that Puckett was only nine years old. However, in the news sources from Alabama, it is consistently reported that she was nineteen years old at the time Orr allegedly assaulted her. I searched through ancestry databases ancestry.com and familysearch.org, but was unsuccessful in finding Puckett’s exact age. I have been in contact with the Morgan County Archives regarding the research of Puckett’s age and hope to have an exact birth date confirmed in the coming days.
Another odd factor in the reporting of the Leon Orr lynching is the manner in which Puckett’s medical state was so urgently reported in articles about the lynching, however it is not discussed at all after November 6, 1896. Because I have discovered no future whereabouts or an exact date of death for Mary Puckett, I believe it would be irresponsible to draw conclusions about what happened to her after the reported assault. That said, the lack of reporting done on her state of being after the articles on Leon Orr’s demise show that the story was framed in a way to make the public believe that Orr deserved whatever morbid ending the mob decided he should have, regardless of the lack of due process that he was entitled to as a human being in the United States.
Another way the white-owned newspapers of 1896 downplayed the humanity of Orr was by running a story on the drowning of multiple white people in the same column. This Grouping the Orr murder with an accidental drowning attempts to lessen the seriousness of brutal racial terror lynchings in this time period. Not only this, but grouping a lynching with the death of white citizens greatly overshadows the horrific and violent crime committed against a black human. Many white families in the post-Bellum South and West quickly forgot about what they read on Orr after seeing the drowning piece.
Of the 174 primary newspaper sources I collected on the Leon Orr lynching, 137 were from west of the Mississippi River. This is most likely due to the mass migration of Black Americans to the west in the era immediately following the Civil War. Lynchings like Leon Orr’s were typically used as an intimidation tactic by the white owned press up until the mid 1900s, to remind the newly freed Black population of their “place,” particularly in the South, although hotbeds of black migration and other big cities also saw surges of these types of articles.