About the Case
Date: April 17, 1895
Victim(s): Alice Greene, Martha Greene, Mary Dean
Case Status: attempted
Watts Murphy, “a splendid young man,” from Butler County, Alabama went missing from his field on April 17th, 1895. His father, Gus Murphy got suspicious after a few days and conducted an investigation. The police, and Mr. Murphy, questioned the Black people that worked for Watts in his fields because he felt they were acting suspiciously. It was allegedly discovered that Watts had been hit over the head with an ax while sitting on a log. The person who struck Murphy was disputed, but John Rattler or another man were suspected. Allegedly, Zeb Colley tied an overcoat to the saddle of Murphy’s mule to make it seem like Murphy was on a trip, but the mule returned a few days later. The articles stated the male workers put logs on the body, while the females gathered brush to aid the flames. The newspapers accounted that nothing was left of Watts Murphy, except his heart, liver, and some teeth. How the confession came to light, or who made it, is disputed as well, but white newspapers reported it was either Zeb Colley, John Rattler, one of the men, or “the women.” In all reports, it is noted that the person who made the suspected confession, implicated all other parties, and allegedly showed police where the body was. Newspapers claimed Zeb Colley confessed because he had worked with the Murphy family for a long time. In the end, six African Americans were arrested for Watts Murphy’s murder. The sheriff and some of his deputies were taking the prisoners to the Greenville jail when they were allegedly attacked near Buckaloo Plantation, or Place. “A hundred, probably, of brave and desperately determined men,” told the sheriff’s party that they would be killed if they did not listen. The violent posse took the prisoners at gunpoint, but during the commotion, one of the male prisoners escaped. The men took the prisoners and separated them by gender. They then hung John Rattler and Zeb Colley on the side of the road. Shortly after, they hung Alice Green, Martha Green, and Mary Dean in a tree on the other side of the road. No members of the lynch mob were ever identified or pursued. Butler county was in the top ten list of lynching crimes in Alabama, having 13 lynchings. Lynching was most prevalent in the South, especially Alabama. The citizens of the Alabama Black Belt, including Butler County used racial violence to enforce fear and white supremacy. There was also little done to prevent racial terrorism, causing much of the information about the victims of violence to be unrecorded.
There are no genealogical records found for Alice Greene, Martha Greene, and Mary Dean. Sadly, this is common in women and Black history research, because if there is no information about the man, a named woman is tied to, it is hard to find any information about her. Historically, all women were legally subordinate or economically dependent to their fathers or husbands. Women could not own property, or handle money, or participate in politics. However, a death register found at the Butler County Probate Office indicated that all the women’s last names were Dean, perhaps they were sisters, and Alice’s name is Alia. Mary Dean was 21, Alia Dean was 22, and Martha Dean was 23. It did not note their birthdays, but that they were Black, female, and lynched. John Rattler was 26 and Zeb Colley was 29 when they were lynched. The register recorded the same information as the Dean’s for Rattler and Colley. There was an 1880 United States Federal Census found for Zeb Colley, indicating that when he was 15 he was living in Dwelling #519 in Butler Springs, Alabama, the same place the census recorded Watts Murphy living when he was 14. Zeb Colley, however, was not recorded on the Murphy family census, and his census had no relatives listed. He could potentially have been an indentured servant, or needed the Murphys to survive. Watts Murphy was the son of Augustus Murphy, and nephew of ex-governor of Alabama, T. H. Watts. He was 29 at the time of his death, which was listed as murdered.
In 1895, five Black people were working in the field of a white man’s land. The newspaper articles depicted one of the workers killing their “splendid” white boss, then all of the workers helping to dispose of the body in a “brutal” way. 1895 is only 30 years after the end of the Civil War. Articles used words and descriptions to remind readers of the history of slavery, slave revolts, and white supremacy. Little had changed in the south, for white or Black people. Black Codes replaced slave laws, and white supremacy still reigned free. The election of 1876, also known as the “Corrupt Bargain,” allowed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to control the White House. In exchange, he ended Reconstruction, and allowed the Democrats to take over. The end of Reconstruction brought power back to the Democratic party and white supremacy, segregation laws and Black Codes appeared all over the South. Black people had no rights, no vote, no equal resources or education, no economic positions, and no protection. The Civil War created liberties and freedoms for newly freed Black people, and the government worked to improve their quality of life. The Third Force Act, or Ku Klux Act, was established in 1871 to enforce penalties on perpetrators of racial terror. Klan members could no longer commit racial terror in the light of day. They took precautions to not get caught for their act, including wearing masks or attacking at night. However, these acts were never truly followed or enforced. When lynching occurred there were no repercussions for the members of the lynching party. The juries for lynching trials were typically white men, most likely members of the Klan. Newspaper articles rarely list the names of the mob members, and when lynching cases were brought to court, their murderers were labeled “unknown”. There was nowhere in the South Black people could go for help. Black women had even less protection than men. Southern women were always meant to be subordinate to their husbands or fathers, they truly had no representation unless there was a man beside them. Southern men also made women who worked thought of as a common prostitute, so most of the Black female population was seen this way. White men controlled the government, and therefore controlled the south and everyone in it. The laws they made lead directly to the struggles of African Americans trying to start their new free life. But more importantly, it fueled the fire for more heinous crimes and lynchings of African Americans.