Monday, June 27, 2011

The Northern Delaware Lynching of 1903

The only lynching to occur in Delaware happened in Wilmington in 1903. Normally when you think of lynching you think of hanging but the definition of the word is an illegal execution carried out by a mob, often by hanging, but also by burning at the stake or shooting. The term lynching probably derived from the name Charles Lynch (1736-96), a justice of the peace who administered rough justice in Virginia. But none of those fine nuances probably went thru George F. White’s head the night he was roped and bounded and thrown into a fire to burn to death.

Seventeen-year-old Helen S. Bishop (a white woman) was robbed, raped, and had her throat cut by someone. Helen Bishop was the daughter of Rev. Dr. Elwell and Clara Bishop. On June 15th, 1903 the police arrested George F. White an ex-convict and a Black man for the assault. On June 16th Helen Bishop died of her injuries, the coroner’s return of a death report put the cause of death as “ Shock Caused By Maltreatment.” George White was moved to the newly built workhouse in Price Corners. The public was inflamed over the girl death and demanded an immediate trial for George White.

The Sunday, June 21st, Sermon of the Reverend Robert A. Elwood (Wilmington Olivet Presbyterian Church) was a fiery one in which he showed blood-stained leaves from the site of Helen Bishop’s assault. He called for swift justice. Ellwood had came to Wilmington in 1899 and assumed the pastorate of the Olivet Presbyterian Church. He was known for his sensational methods in delivering sermons etc. at one time he was involved in charges of doing violence to church law but was acquitted on trial by the New Castle Presbytery.

Ellwood would say afterwards; “I am very sorry it happened as it did. I believe the man should have had a legal trial, but I also believe that he should have had a speedy trial. The lesson we can learn from last night’s outbreak is that people are tired of the delays of the law.”

On June 22nd at 10pm there was an attack by several thousand people on the New Castle County workhouse. This was at a time when Wilmington had about 11,000 people of which 70% was white. The police knew it was coming and reinforced the workhouse staff. They attempted to repel the attackers with water hoses and shooting over their heads. In the mob was 15 year old Peter Smith. He was hit in the back with a bullet and died on June 24th from the wound. He was the son of Michael and Fannie Smith.

The mob broke into the workhouse and took George White from his cell. They tied him up and took him back to the scene where Helen Bishop was killed. He gave a confession that he cut the throat of Helen Bishop. He was tied to a stake and a fire was started. He broke loose at least once when the fire had burnt the ropes on his legs and he was caught, beat, and thrown back in the fire. It was over with by 2 AM. The fire could be seen from the porch of Helen Bishop’s parents.

The next day thousands of people visited the scene of the lynching. Some sifted thru the ashes for relics ranging from bones to a foot to pieces of burnt wood. The coroner visited the scene and picked up the largest parts which was a small portion of the trunk and a couple of charred bones.

Most people involved started the excuse process the day after the lynching; Judges said they couldn’t have done a speedy trial. The Police said they couldn’t stop several thousand people from breaking into the work house. Everyone said the leaders of the Lynching were from out of state, not us. In general, Delaware said it was an unfortunate circumstance.

The mother of Helen Bishop, Clara, would die due to the shock of the event within the next couple of years.

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