Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Matthew Williams (b. 1908 - d. 1931)
MSA SC 3520-13749
Lynched in Salisbury, December 4, 1931


Matthew Williams was lynched on Friday, December 4, 1931 at 8:05 pm in Salisbury, Maryland located in Wicomico County on Maryland´s lower Eastern Shore. 

    During the afternoon of December 4, Matthew Williams went to the office of his employer, Daniel J. (D.J.) Elliot, local lumberyard and box factory owner, apparently to discuss his low hourly wage.  Williams had been a laborer for Elliot since childhood, and to all who knew him, was liked by and extremely loyal to the Elliot family.  D.J. Elliot was in his office located on Lake Street talking on the phone with another Salisbury businessman, Thomas Chatham, when Williams entered around 2:00p.m..  According to Chatham, who heard the incident over the phone, he remembered no words were spoken and that two gunshots were fired. Chatham immediately called the authorities. The authorities found D.J. Elliot dead at his desk, his son, James Elliot present, and Matthew Williams incapacitated by several gunshot wounds. 

    James Elliot would state that he had heard the shots from the house and ran to investigate, finding his father dead and Williams lying on the ground in a pool of blood. As James ran for help, Williams recovered to flee towards the lumberyard, only to be stopped by James Elliot with gunshot wounds to the shoulder and leg. 

    A different account of the incident is found in Shepard Krech III’s, Praise The Bridge That Carries You Over: The Life of Joseph L. Sutton, page 124, where Mr. Sutton recalls a conversation in Easton with a friend who said it was Daniel J. Elliot’s son James who did the shooting.  It seems that Matthew Williams had agreed to lend  James Elliot a sum of money that he had saved on condition that the money would be returned.  When attempts by Williams to get repaid by the younger Elliot failed, Williams took the matter up with his good friend Mr. Elliot, and that is when James walked into the meeting, and shot both Williams and his father.1

    Once Matthew Williams arrived at Peninsula General Hospital in downtown Salisbury, half-dead and semi-conscious, he was immediately restrained in a straitjacket to prevent further attacks.  As soon as Williams´ head and shoulder were wrapped, State´s Attorney Levin C. Bailey and Wicomico County Sheriff G. Murray Phillips questioned him, where he is quoted saying "I got my man." The late edition of the Salisbury Times at first wrote that Williams died at the hospital, but as soon as they learned he was still alive, by 7:30p.m., a sign was posted on the Salisbury Times building correcting their previous statement.  A crowd began to gather on the hospital lawn, and the phrase "lets lynch him" began to ring through.  People were exiting from their homes, shops, restaurants and corner stores, adding to the commotion that evening.  Delmar High School had just beaten Wicomico High School in a highly anticipated match-up of the two local football teams, and both teams were dining at the Wicomico Hotel on the corner of Main and Division St. near the scene as the crowd began to assemble.  A number of men entered the hospital demanding for Williams to be turned over to them, but were stopped by Police Chief N.H. Holland and Deputy John Parks who blocked the entrance.  Six members of the mob then went around the building to an open side entrance and reached the Negro ward of the hospital.  There, hospital superintendent Miss Helen V. Wise instructed them "If you must take him, do it quietly." There were two other men in the ward at the time Williams was taken, Rufus Jernigan and Jacob Conquest, but both were apparently unharmed during the raid.  The men threw the bandaged Williams out of a window down to the crowd of approximately 300 people anxiously waiting below.

    As the crowd escorted the blinded Williams towards the courthouse, onlookers joined in the event, and 300 quickly grew to a crowd of over 1000 people.  Williams, still straitjacketed, was pushed, stabbed with an ice pick, and then dragged behind a truck three blocks to the courthouse lawn.  At 8:00p.m., the crowd strung up a noose and found a branch twenty feet above the ground, tied the unconscious Williams' neck, and began to lift him up, then drop him down.  County Sheriff Phillips attempted to prevent the lynching, but the mob pushed him to the side, unable to deter them and their actions towards Williams.  After repeating this several times, the mob allowed Williams to hang lifelessly for twenty minutes, meanwhile mocking the victim and taking parts of his anatomy as souvenirs.  After Williams thumped to the ground one last time; the crowd followed the body being dragged behind a truck once again, towards a black section of Salisbury off Poplar Hill Avenue.  Finally, after about an hour of further torture, Williams´ corpse was tied to a light post, doused in gasoline and oil, and set on fire in front of Rosen's store "so all the colored people could see him."  The sheriff was able to recover the body of Matthew Williams from the tired, drunken mob, and cut it down from the light post hours later.  However, unsure as to what to do with the remains, they decided to dump the body in a field outside of town. The Williams family, rightfully terrified and despite the atrocities that were forced upon their son, still wished to have the body recovered for a proper funeral.  The black undertaker James Stewart and authorities recovered the body from the field, and brought it back for the funeral, held at Stewart's Funeral Home in Salisbury.2

    It was said that this lynching was in response to the delayed "justice" the Eastern Shore experienced in the past year with the trial of Euel Lee a.k.a. "Orphan Jones," accused of murdering a white family of four in Berlin, Maryland.  Lee´s lawyer, Bernard Ades, felt that there was no way that he would receive a fair trial on the Eastern Shore and had the hearing moved to Baltimore, which deeply angered the residences of Worcester County and the Delmarva Peninsula as a whole.3 Immediately after hearing of the Williams lynching in Salisbury, Governor Ritchie set up a task force with Attorney General William P. Lane to look into prosecuting those who were involved in any way with the mob that killed Matthew Williams, stating that the actions on the Eastern Shore were disgraceful to the entire state.4 After interviewing those officers and hospital workers who were present during the abduction, no one could recall or recognize anyone that was present that night. Incredibly, it was concluded that most of the active mob members were those from other parts of the peninsula, including Delaware and Virginia, and to this day, no one has been prosecuted for the lynching of Matthew Williams.5

1. Krech, Shepard, III. Praise the Bridge That Carries You Over: The Life of Joseph L. Sutton, (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1981).

2. "Eye Witness to Lynching Tells How Mob Acted," The Afro-American, December 12, 1931.

3. "Blame Ritchie in Lynching," The Washington Times, December 5, 1931.

4. "Ritchie Orders Vigorous Prosecution of Mob that Lynched Salisbury Killer," The Baltimore American, December 6, 1931.

5. "Blankety, Blank, Blank!" Jeffersonian, March 6, 1932.

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