George Armwood (b. 1911 - d. 1933)
MSA SC 3520-13750
Lynched in Princess Anne, October 18, 1933
George Armwood was lynched in Princess Anne in Somerset County on October 18, 1933. He was 22 or 23 years old and a resident of Pocomoke City when he was murdered. Armwood had been accused of attempted assault and rape of seventy one year old* Mary Denston two days before, on October 16.
George Armwood was widely considered to be a very hard worker, uncomplaining, quiet, and generally well liked.1 He was also described as "feeble-minded."2 John Waters, a 21 year old who described himself as a friend of Armwood's said of him that "that guy was a little off at times." Waters suggested that this "feeble-mindedness" was at the root of a separate assault, when Armwood allegedly sexually assaulted an African American woman. That case occured years before he was accused of attacking Mary Denston, but it was not investigated, some said because of the influence of Armwood's white employer, John H. Richardson.3 Armwood attended attended school until the age of fifteen, when according to his mother, "Mr. John H. Richardson, white, and his wife requested that George be given to them."4 The Afro-American wrote a piece referring to this arrangement after the lyching. The article suggested that Armwood should have been placed in a pyshiatric ward, but was not, "in spite of his mental infirmity or because of it, he was a good workman and an inexpensive one." The case seemed to resemble the Matthew Williams lynching case of 1931, when Williams, who was "conceded by both colored and white to be demented, but allowed to work at starvation wages until he allegedly slew his own employer and exploiter." The Afro-American asserted that a number of cognitively disabled African Americans were held in "peonage, ignorance, and serfdom" on the Eastern Shore in what was "merely a polite term for slavery."5
After the alleged attack, Richardson reportedly aided Armwood in his escape. Armwood's mother mentioned that assertion in her interview with the Afro and the rumor was repeated by John Waters, who described the Richardsons as "his [Armwood's] white people" and said that Richardson "helped George to get away from that mob which was hunting him."6
After Mary Denston reported the attempted assault, police in Somerset County organized a search party to look for George Armwood in the woods near where the incident took place. They questioned those in the area, and armed men searched the home of Armwood's mother Etta in Manokoo. George Armwood was found hiding in the home of John H. Richardson. He was dragged across the field and beaten as he was taken into custody. Armwood's mother saw the beating from her house. She told reporters from the Afro-American that she feared he would be killed.7
Armwood was taken to the Salisbury prison, ten miles north of Princess Anne. After the lynching of Matthew Williams in 1931, lynch law had embarrassed Maryland authorities. The distance was not a guarantee of safety but it would put ten miles between George Armwood and potential lynchers in Princess Anne.
However, by 5 o'clock the afternoon of Armwood's jailing in Salisbury, a white mob was forming. It was decided to move George Armwood. He would be shuttled from Cecil County to as far as Baltimore City in an effort to avoid mob violence. Somerset County Judge Robert F. Duer and State Attorney John Robins were pressured by their constituency to call for Armwood's return to the Eastern Shore. The two assured Governor Albert C. Ritchie that the justice of the courts would not be circumvented by terror and lynch law. Governor Ritchie assented, and Armwood was sent back to Princess Anne in the early morning of October 17.
Despite the promises of Duer and Robins, the mob formed again at the jail once people heard of Armwood's returned. Judge Duer reportedly spoke to the crowd while he was en route to a dinner party. "I know nearly all of you," he told the crowd, going on to say that he was "one of them" and would hold the citizens "to their honor." The crowd initially dispersed in response to Duer's words, but it quickly reassembled. Deupty Norman Dryden, Captain Edward McKim Johnson, and 23 other officers guarding the jailhouse threw teargas into the mob. As the smoke cleared, the lynch mob used two fifteen-foot timbers as battering rams to breach the jailhouse doors. Captain Johnson was reportedly knocked unconscious and Deputy Dryden was forced to hand over the keys to the cells.
Armwood hid under his mattress but was dragged out of his cell by the mob and a noose was placed around his neck. He was beaten, stabbed, and kicked, before he was tied to the back of a truck and driven to the place he would be hanged. Initially the mob favored a tree near Judge Duer's home, but instead they used a nearby tree on the property of ninety one year old Thomas Bock. Before he was hanged, Armwood's ears were cut off and his gold teeth were ripped out. Armwood was reportedly dead by the time the mob raised and dropped his body from a tree branch.
The lynch mob dragged George Armwood's corpse back to the courthouse on the corner of Prince and William Street in downtown Princess Anne. His body was hanged from a telephone pole and burned. His corpse was dumped in Hayman's Lumber Yard, to be gathered by the authorities in the morning.
Governor Ritchie blamed Judge Duer and State Attorney Robins for Armwood's lynching and prompted an investigation to find those responsible. A grand jury heard testimony from 42 witnesses to the Armwood lynching, including twelve black men who were held in the jail and had heard, if not saw, Armwood dragged to his death. As predicted, those interviewed claimed that the organizers of the lynching were not from the local community, and therefore they could not identify anyone involved that night. Ralph Matthews, editor for the Afro- American newspaper, in an interview with Deputy Dryden, reported the name Shelburn Lester as the man who rushed and injured Capt. Johnson. It was apparent that people of Salisbury and Princess Anne were deeply involved with the lynching, and the mob was not composed of strangers and out-of-towners as many asserted later. Even after state police identified nine men as acting leaders of the mob, a local jury issued not one indictment for Armwood´s murder. Attorney General Preston Lane ordered the National Guard to Salisbury and arrest suspected lynchers. Twelve men total were named as being members of the lynch mob. Hostilities between the Salisbury locals and the National Guard broke out. It reached the point where local chants of "Lynch Lane" prompted the State Attorney General to leave the city. The next day in Somerset County, four men were on trial for the lynching in Princess Anne on a habeas corpus hearing. One thousand white supporters cheered as the jury ordered the release of the accused, and dismissed the case forever.8
* Age of Mrs. Denston according to article in Afro-American, October 21, 1933, notes Mrs. Denston as seventy-one-years-old. Prof. Ifill's book On the Courthouse Lawn, lists Mrs. Denston as eighty-two-years old.
1. "Armwood Quit School in 5th Grade, Says Pal." Afro-American, October 21, 1933.
2. "Mob Members Knew Prey Was Feeble-Minded" Afro-American, October 21, 1933.
3. "Armwood Quit School in 5th Grade."
4. "Mother's Heart is Broken from Lynch Tragedy" Afro-American, October 21, 1933.
5. "Get at the Roots" Afro-American, October 21, 1933.
6. "Armwood Quit School in 5th Grade."
7. "Mother's Heart is Broken from Lynch Tragedy."
8. Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Court-House Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.
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