About the Case
Date: October 2, 1906
Victim(s): Jim Robinson
Case Status: attempted
Ruth Sossaman, daughter of J. Blount Sossaman, an eleven or twelve-year-old girl, was allegedly assaulted on her way home from school. The girl said a black man grabbed her near a secluded stop, not even a thousand yards from her home. He then proceeded to chock her until she was unconscious and accomplished his unspoken purpose. She was found by the side of the road torn, bleeding, and unconscious. When police arrived to get the girl’s story, she gave them a description of her attacker. She stated he was a man wearing a blue shirt, woolen trousers, and a light hat. She also stated that he carried a rope with him, and he used the rope on her. The investigators began their search for the assailant near the girl’s home.
The police found three African Americans near the Mobile, Jackson, and Kansas City tracks. They brought the men in for Ruth to identify, but she did not think any of the men were her assailant. An employee at the sawmill saw a black man walk by fitting the description. He also stated that the man had a cow with him. The sheriff and his men went to the dairy farm of Mr. Henry Wernth, located on Dauphin Way near the old Bee homestead. He told the officers that the man they described left in the direction of Thaxton, the direction of the assault. Mr. Wernth also told the police that the cow was sold by Mr. Paxton, a contractor, to the dairy. It took the police three hours to locate Robinson. The police found Robinson sitting on the front porch of his house. He did not resist his arrest but professed his innocence. The police took him to the home of Ruth Sossaman, where she was confined to her bed.
The doctor that assessed Ruth’s injuries was concerned about the girl’s identification of Dick Robinson. The girl said, “It looks like the man – I think that the man.” The doctor examined Robinson and found a small spot on the boy’s clothes that might have been blood, but it was very faint. When the police questioned Robinson, he showed high anxiety, and stated he passed the spot while going to get the cow, but denied the knowledge of a crime. Another source stated that Ruth screamed when she saw Robinson, claiming he was the man who choked her. The police arrested Jim Robinson at five o’clock at night on October 2, 1906.
The police and Robinson had just reached the Mobile when they turned around and went to Carey’s station. Other Sources say he was taken to Eight Mile Point on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. The Sheriff called for the Louisville and Nashville railroad for a special train and directed that three companies from Fort Deposit, Brewton, and Evergreen be brought to Mobile. Robinson’s train reached Birmingham at six o’clock in the morning. He was under the protection of Sheriff W. R. Powers, Chief Deputy Sheriff Phillip Patch, and another deputy.
The leaders of the mob said they would get information on Robinson’s location from the police. Men gathered at six o’clock in the evening on Dauphin and Royal streets to discuss and prepare. At six-thirty, five hundred men had formed to attack the jail. A man, named William, said he saw three officers take the prisoner into the jail, and he did not see him leave. The Sheriff met the leaders of the mob and informed them that Dick Robinson was not there; he also allowed anyone he knew to pass through the jail. Forty men searched the jail; some returned and informed the mob that Robinson was not there. A tall, raw-boned man, whose name is not known, seized a telephone pole that was knocked down in the recent storm and dashed it against the closed, iron door. The sound of the door falling caused a man standing by the gate to shoot his revolver. The crowd sent out about a dozen shots before the firing seized. Some of the crowd ran for cover. Alderman Sidney Lyons, chairman of the city council, came out of the jail with his hands up. He had received a bullet wound in the hand and informed the crowd that Roy Hoyle had been shot while searching the jail. A physician from the crowd examined Hoyle and told the crowd he had been shot in the left lung. He also stated that Hoyle would live, but for a short time. The fact that Roy Hoyle had been shot while looking through the jail, and that he was one of the most widely known and best-liked men in the area, took the fight out of the crowd and the majority dispersed. The man who led the crowd with the telephone pole tried to urge the crowd to follow him to the color section of the city. The man claimed, “we will give them what they got in Atlanta.” He walked away, followed by a few others, but they deserted him before he walked three square miles.
At ten o’clock the same evening, a second attack occurred on the jail. Knights men entered the jail to check if Robinson was present, they returned and informed the crowd that the prisoner was not present. The mob did not believe this and demanded he be brought outside. Captain Frank Lumsden mounted a cart and addressed the crowd. He said he was a confederate soldier and fought against the African race for four years. He gave his word that Robinson was not inside the jail. He said Sheriff Powers has been doing all he can to relieve the people after the storm and was not anxious to cause any more deaths. The speech caused the crowd to disperse, satisfied around midnight. Sheriff Powers informed the media that no African Americans were harmed during or after the attacks.
Willie Thompson assaulted Edna May Fowler, an eight-year-old white girl, on August 28, 1906. The girl told the court that she met Thompson on Dauphin street and persuaded her to follow him to a vacant house on Lawrence and Church street. There he committed the assault. Lillian May Savell was another eight-year-old white victim of Thompson. She recalled that Thompson met her on Dauphin street and Joachim street on July 21, 1906. She said that Thompson had promised her a dime and took her to the same location as Edna. He forced the girl into an old shed, where he committed his assault. He also attempted to assault Ruth Kinsley, a ten-year-old African-American girl. She said Thompson had met her in the northern part of the city and had tried to induce her to follow him. Nothing else was recorded from her report.
It took several days for officers of the Mobile police force to find Will Thompson. Mr. J. H. Savell, the father of one of the victims, told Officer Ellsworth the whereabouts of William Thompson and that he fit the description given by his daughter. The officers went to the restaurant where Thompson was serving a meal. The owner of the establishment asked the officers to wait until Thompson was done to arrest him. The police arrested him while he was outside taking a smoke break. The newly arrested prisoner had his preliminary trial on Wednesday, August 29, 1906.
William Thompson was held in record court, with no legal representation. Edna May Fowler was the first girl on the witness stand. She told the court her story of the events that unfolded with Thompson. The court officers thought her story was revolting. Lillian Savell was the next to tell her story, which was similar to Edna’s. The African American girl, Ruth Kinsley, Thompson assaulted was not put on the witness stand. The doctors that examined the girls gave sufficient evidence to the court. They had found a disease that the victims had, and Thompson had as well. As the girls gave their testimonies and the doctors gave their evidence, Thompson stood at the rail in an unconcerned manner. Thompson stated that the girls took him to the house and forced him to commit the assaults. With Thompson’s statement amounting to an admission of guilt, the evidence presented by the state and the doctors, and the testimonies of the victims, Thompson remanded for the trail without bail and immediately hurried to the county jail.
The Sheriff and his deputies had to find a way to pay for Thompson’s trip; therefore, he sent his son to find funs in any way possible. A good Samaritan in Mr. A. E. Stiles lent the officer twenty-five dollars for the ticket. Robinson was taken to the station in a buckboard. Members tried to attack the buckboard, but the deputies deferred them by telling the first person to take a step will be shot. When the Louisville and Nashville train came to Mobile at twelve-thirty in the morning, the sheriff boarded it and told the conductor to stop when the deputies flagged the train down. The deputies flagged the train down a mile south from Magazine Point and boarded it with Thompson. Thompson was brought to the Jefferson County Jail four weeks before Robinson. The Birmingham News reported that Sheriff Powers and Will Thompson had not reached Birmingham by 2:30 in the afternoon. They were supposed to arrive much earlier. It was reported that Thompson and his escorts were in Selma for several hours on August 30. The Sheriff and his deputies reached the Union passenger station around noon, and waited until five-forty-five for the next train to Birmingham.
A mob of 500 formed on Bayou and Conti streets, and increased by several thousand around when it arrived at the jail around ten o’clock at night. There are two descriptions of the beginning of the jail attack. The first one is, the mob rushed through the iron door to the jail and entered into the hallway. The leaders, about twenty men, were pushed further into the jail by others in the mob. The officers could not fire in such a narrow space, so hand-to-hand fighting began. The second is that the mob knocked down the massive gates to the jail yard and then paused because the sheriff and his deputies were armed with Winchesters at the front door. The mob then advanced to the jail door. Sheriff Powers tried to convince the mob to be lawful, but this was met with a yell of disapproval. Someone in the crowd fired a bullet and it flattened against the brick wall of the jail. She sheriff and his deputies fired blanks above the mob to calm them. The mob then attacked the jail door with heavy beams, causing the door to fall. Sheriff Powers let the leaders of the mob search the jail, Lieutenant Davis took the leaders of the mob, including the father of one of the victims, his friend, and another deputy, through the jail. Every inch of the jail was gone through fruitlessly. Prisoners inside the jail were frightened and pleaded with the commit to not shoot at them. The sheriff told his deputies to stop anyone who tried to enter the jail. The leaders informed the mob that Thompson was not there from the roof of the jail. The father and his friend then walked around to different groups, making sure they knew the news. The group stayed near the jail in the hope that Thompson would be found.
The governor received a call asking for troops to be sent to help the officers fight off the mob. The captains of the local militia did not want troops there because Thompson was not present, and the other prisoners were not at risk. They did not want to endanger their troops for no reason. Mayor Lyons went to the jail and informed the people that Thompson was not in the city of Mobile. The mob began to disperse, satisfied that the man was not there.
A second mob gathered at Conti and Royal streets. They advanced to the jail and were met by four companies, A, B, E, and M, of voluntary militia with magazine rifles loaded. The mob of 300 tried to gain access to the jail but was held back by troops that had been ordered to shoot to kill. Sheriff Powers told the crowd to select six men to search the jail. The men concluded that Will Thompson was not there, but the mob would not accept this and kept a safe distance from the jail. Colonel DuMont commanded Company B and took charge of the jail for the rest of the night.
A group of men left on the five o’clock train to Birmingham to intercept the train that Sheriff Powers would be returning with the prisoners. Members of the lynching party were put on the same train from Birmingham as Sheriff Powers to act as watchers. That way, if the sheriff changed his plans, the mob could be informed. Eight men boarded the train first to secure the prisoners and disarm the guards. The lynching party was masked in white and black. They found Thompson and Robinson in the smoking compartment of the African American section. One of the leaders went to the half dozen passengers in the African American coach and told them no harm would be done to them if they just stayed where they were. One passenger passing through the coach gave the prisoners cigars. It was said that the men smoked their last cigars as calmly and coolly as though walking down the street of Mobile. After fourteen miles, at the Saraland station, the advanced guard was joined by forty additional members. While the event on the train was going on, barely a word was spoken, and no questions were asked. A passenger on the train had said it was the most orderly crowd he had ever seen and that they acted like they meant business. All members, except eight, got off the train at the station of Creola. The eight proceeded to Mount Vernon, where the other men had eaten breakfast. The train pulled up to Mount Vernon shortly after eleven in the morning.
Thompson admitted his guilt about assaulting Lilian Savell but denied the accusation against him involving Edna May Fowler. He said he was put up to it by a boy in Selma, where he was raised. Robinson stated he had never done anything and that he was going to heaven when he died.
A party of forty-five men committed the lynching. It happened at Pritchard Station, on Holt Road. The mob members were armed with revolvers, Winchester rifles, and shotguns. Not a shot was fired during the event because the leaders had given orders to keep the hanging quiet. Twenty-five men took part in the tying of the men, arranging the rope, and tying the noose. Cornelius Robinson was strung up first. The executioners used a half-inch rope that was thrown over the northside of a live oak tree. The leaders said Robinson confessed, but then denied the crime again when asked by a reporter. Robinson was taken into the air about fifteen feet. He said nothing and slowly strangled to death. Will Thompson was hung next, not saying a word the whole time. The hanging was done quietly; barely a word was spoken.
Other newspaper articles tell the story of the lynching differently. One article states Will Thompson was sullen from the time he left the train and that neither prisoner showed fear. Another article states the men were hung on the spot, and the men were begging for their lives. It also states that a large crowd was disappointed with just hanging the rapists. Some members went back to the scene to burn the bodies, or went back and riddled the bodies with bullets.