Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Joe Vermilion
MSA SC 3520-13738
Lynched in Upper Marlboro, December 3, 1889


Joseph Vermilion was twenty seven years old when he was lynched on December 3, 1889. He was an African American man accused of arson in Prince George's County. Joseph was born in Annapolis. He was described in the Sun as about five feet five inches tall, with "extraordinary courage, and was of a nature that resented a supposed injury upon the moment it was offered." He had a short beard, and the newspaper stated that the Vermilions were a good looking family.1 The night of November 23, 1889, the barns and tenant house of Thomas Black and General Horn burned, as well as a small unoccupied house belonging to James Hamilton. Justice Ryan occupied the tenant house at the time.  The night before those burnings, November 22nd, Joseph Vermillion's father, John Vermillion, Sr. was forcibly taken from his home by attackers, tied to a tree, his furniture was removed, and his house was burned down. A number of men were arrested for the crime, but they were quickly released by Justice Ryan. It was believed that Joseph Vermilion had commited arson out of revenge for the unpunished burning of his father's house.2 

The burning of the Vermillion home was an act of terror to force the family to leave the area. John Vermillion was only untied from the tree upon promising to "leave the vicinity immediately."3  The family had lived in the vicinity of Upper Marlboro since 1885, when James Hamilton gave them charitable lands to farm. The Vermillions, it was reported, had gained a reputation for lawlessness and citizens feared them. They claimed the Vermilions broke into barns and stole tobacco. It was believed and reported that the men who burned John Vermilion's home wanted the entire family to leave town.4 

Police began arresting members of the Vermilion family and holding them in prison while awaiting trial.  Among those arrested at gunpoint were Edward, John, George, Lloyd, and Joseph Vermillion and Charles Bell, a brother-in-law of the Vermillions. Joseph Vermillion was arrested at the residence of R. Tucker near Benning's Station. He had reportedly escaped from the House of Correction with eighteen months left of his sentence. Authorities were unable to locate seventy three year old John Vermillion, Sr.5

John Vermilion Jr. was reportedly the only member of the family "willing to speak about the occurrence."6 He testified to his brother's guilt, allegedly stating that on Saturday, November 23, Joseph came to his house and told him he would get revenge on those who would not give his father justice.  His brother tried to persuade Joseph not to carry out his threat.  He claimed that later that night, Joseph returned to his home carrying a coal oil can.  Joseph then announced to John Jr. he had created "a little fire of his own."  Joseph then disappeared and was not seen again until his arrest along with four of his brothers and a brother-in-law. Joseph Vermillion pled not guilty, claiming he was out of the county when the arson occurred, and was sent to jail until the grand jury acted. Although there was no evidence against any of the other Vermillion brothers, thirteen people swore peace warrants against them and they remained in jail at $500 bail.7 

The family was being held in jail awaiting Joseph's sentencing on the night of the lynching.  Around 2:30 a.m. on December 3, 1889 a mob of masked men came to the jail.8 Joseph's brothers saw the attackers approaching the jail and pled with the jailer not to open the door, but it was reported that the jailer, Mr. Ridgeway, claimed he could not hear them. The men came to the jail doors and pretended to be Constable Mitchell with a prisoner.  When the jail keeper opened the door, the mob seized him.  The men went upstairs and broke the lock off  Joseph Vermillion's cell.  They cut the shackles that bound Joseph to the floor.  Joseph attempted to fight off his assailants.  Several of the lynchers were left bleeding from his attempts.9 

The men took Joseph by the neck and hung him from a bridge crossing over the Patuxent River.  Joseph Vermilion's body hung from the bridge with the shackles still attached to his feet.  His body was taken down later that day after several citizens stopped to view it.  A jury of inquest was called to review the lynching.  They ruled that Joseph Vermilion had  "met his death by lynching by parties unknown to the jury." John Vermillion, the oldest brother, told the newspaper that he thought he had recognized a number of the lynchers, but declined to name them.10
    After the inquest, Joseph's body was taken to the county jail.  After allowing time for visitors to view the body, the men placed him in a stained pine coffin.  His body was then buried at the jail's cemetery directly beneath Joseph's cell window, next to Michael Green, another man who had been lynched in Upper Marlboro eleven years ago. When Joe Vermillion was buried his brothers were still being held in jail, and the two brothers with a window over the jail cemetery were reported to have wept as his coffin was lowered into the grave.11  The Sun stated:

"The lynching of Upper Marlboro's of a prisoner in jail on a charge of barn burning is a most discreditable incident, and on which the thoughtful and law abiding people of Prince George's County will, no doubt, deplore and strongly discountenance...There  is consequently not even the excuse ordinarily advanced in behalf of lynch law of a probability that adequate justice would fail to be meted out by the courts...Vermilion is said to have been a notorious lawbreaker, but the men who hung him have committed an act more flagrant than any of which he was accused" ("The Prince George's County Lynching," The Sun, 4 December 1889).

After the lynching of Joseph Vermillion, it was reported that the Vermilion family had publicly stated they would move to West Virginia. The brothers' bail was paid on condition that they leave the state. They were to leave the state at 7:30 am the following week, accompanied by William R. Wickham. Their father, John Vermillion, would meet them en route in Washington DC.12 At least Lloyd Vermilion would return to the area. On September 2, 1894, twenty-five-year-old Lloyd Vermilion's body was found in a ditch by the road in Upper Marlboro. Three men were arrested for his murder, Benjamin and John E. Lawson, and Asa Tucker. The dead man's brother Joe, the newspaper reminded readers, "was lynched for burning barns."13

1. "Joe Vermillion's Body," The Baltimore Sun, December 4, 1889.
2. "Barns Burned," The Baltimore Sun, November 26, 1889.
3. "Barns Burned."
4. "Joe Vermillion's Body."
5."Fires in Prince George's," The Baltimore Sun, November 27, 1889.
6. "Fires in Prince George's."
7. "Fires in Prince George's."
8. "Joe Vermilion's Fate," The Baltimore Sun, December 3, 1889.
9."Joe Vermilion's Body."
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. "The Vermilion Family Consent to Emigrate to West Virginia," The Baltimore Sun, December 26, 1889.
13. "Murdered on the Road." Philadelphia Inquirer, September 3, 1894.

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