Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

William Burns
MSA SC 3520-13759
Lynched in Cumberland, Maryland, October 6, 1907

Biography:

William Burns, a 22-year-old African American laborer, was lynched on October 6, 1907 accused of the murder of August Baker, an officer on the Cumberland Police force. Burns, a porter at Alpine Hall, and another African American, Gus Little, were arrested by Baker for disorderly conduct on October 3. Burns and Little had been drinking at Hussey's Saloon near the canal wharf when they began making threats to other patrons and were ordered to leave by the owner. When Baker arrived on the scene, Burns supposedly resisted arrest, and mace was used to subdue him. During this struggle, Burns shot Baker in the abdomen. Baker managed to handcuff Burns even though the gunshot wound would prove to be fatal. Burns was transported to the jail house by an African American ice wagon driver named Humphrey Green. Little managed to escape during the scuffle.1
    Burns waited in jail for several days fearing an attack from the citizens of Cumberland. When Baker's death was reported later that evening, anger over the shooting intensified among the residents in town. On the same day as the lynching, a coroner's jury announced that Baker died from a bullet wound from a gunshot by William Burns. Burns admitted he was drunk at the time, but that he had no recollection of the event. Burns requested that his mother, whom was a resident of Virginia, not be notified. Sheriff Horace R. Hamilton chose not to put extra guards on duty at the jail because he did not fear any uprising would threaten his prisoner. Sheriff Hamilton left Deputy Sheriff Noah Hendley on guard. By midnight, several small groups of men were lingering on the streets, making their way towards the jail located on Washington Street. The Sun reported on October 6 that by 1:00 a.m., a group of about fifty men with handkerchiefs covering their faces approached the jail, with the crowd eventually doubling in number.2
    The mob stormed the jail doors and demanded the keys from Deputy Hendley. When Hendley refused, they tore down a telegraph pole and forced the jail doors open. The mob proceeded to ram the iron doors of the cells once they got inside. When they finally reached Burns, the mob beat him and dragged him out of the jail. Several men from the mob sought to make Burns confess to the shooting, but others were already convinced of Burns' guilt and proceeded with the lynching.3
    Burn was hung and also shot repeatedly, and his body fell to the ground. Upon his death, the crowd dispersed. The crowd checked to see if Burns was dead, and once it was confirmed, the mob dispersed. There are differing accounts as to how the mob managed to reach Burns in his cell. Spectators at the time claimed that the mob obtained the keys with ease and removed Burns from the jail with resistance from the deputy. However, Deputy Hendley claimed that he refused the mob's demands to hand over Burns.  He stated that the mob used a telegraph pole to break down the door, and that even with the mob pushed pistols in his face, he still refused to turn over the keys. Hendley estimated that the mob was in excess of 2,000 men.

One witness reported that only twenty-five men participated in the actual lynching.4  The eye witness told The Sun, "The crowd gathered quietly and there were not more than twenty-five actively engaged in the lynching. The men demanded and received the keys without trouble, took the negro and shot him to death." Another witness, Benjamin A. Richmond, known to be a close friend of the late Governor Lloyd Lowndes, reported to have seen several prominent men of the city participating in the lynching.  Not one of the sixteen policemen on the Cumberland force reported to the lynching. Chief Judge A. Hunter Boyd urged the lynchers to disperse, but his calls were ignored. Boyd called out to those participants he recognized and those men did eventually leave the scene.5
    On October 12, Allegany County commissioners offered a reward of $500 for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the death of William Burns. Witnesses claimed they could not remember, let alone identify those who participated in the lynching.6 Judge Boyd directed a grand jury to investigate the lynching.7 The jury reported on October 19, 1907 that no one could be identified for prosecution of the crime.8 The Afro-Ledger protested the lynching in an article:

"The men who lynched Burns are greater murderers than he was, for while he shot his man while under the influence of liquor, and without premeditation, these men deliberately planned and carried their plans in execution.  Without doubt, everyone of them is guilty of murder in the first degree and justice will not be done until everyone implicated in it is brought before the bar and receives the penalty of his crime."9

Footnotes

1. "Negro Shoots Policeman." The Baltimore Sun, 4 October 1907.

2. "Burns Lynched." The Baltimore Sun, 6 October 1907.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. "Scores Cumberland Police." The Baltimore Sun, 7 October 1907.

6. "Rewards" and "Murder for Murder." Frostburg Mining Journal, 12 October 1907.

7. "One Demoralizing Effect of Lynching." The Baltimore Sun, 8 October 1907.

8. "Grand Jury Report." Frostburg Mining Journal, 19 October 1907.

9. "An Unmitigated Outrage." The Afro-American Ledger, 12 October 1907.


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