Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

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


William Burns, a 22-year-old African American laborer, was lynched on October 6, 1907 for the murder of Officer August Baker of the Cumberland Police Force. William Burns, a porter at Alipine Hall, and another African American, Gus Little, were arrested by Officer Baker for disorderly conduct when the conflict occurred on October 3. Burns and Gus had been drinking at a Hussey's Saloon near the canal wharf and the two began making threats to the other patrons when the saloon owner ordered them to leave. When Officer Baker arrived on the scene, Burns supposedly resisted arrest. Baker used his mace to subdue Burns, but during the scuffle Burns shot Officer 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. Gus Little managed to escape during the scuffle.1
    Burns waited in jail for several days fearing an attack from the angry citizens of Cumberland. When Officer Baker's death was reported later that evening, anger over the shooting intensified among the residents in town. Sheriff H. R. Hamilton chose not to put extra guards on duty at the jail house 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 on October 6 reported that by 1:00 a.m., a group of about 50 men with handkerchiefs covering their faces approached the jail. The crowd doubled in number by the time the crowd actually reached the jail.2
    Men stormed the jail doors and demanded the keys from Deputy Hendley. When Hendley refused, the mob tore down a telegraph pole and forced the jail doors open. The mob continued to ram the iron doors of the cells once they got inside. When they finally reached Burns, the mob dragged him as he bled from a smashed nose, a torn ear, and numerous cuts and bruises past the deputy and out of the jail house. Several men from the mob wanted to have Burns confess to the shooting, but others were already convinced of Burns' guilt and proceeded with the lynching. Burns continued to struggle and curse his lynchers, but his efforts were in vain.3
    The first shots were quickly followed by several others as William Burns' body fell to the ground. The crowd checked to see if Burns was dead, and once it was confirmed, the mob dispersed. There are two different accounts as to how the mob managed to reach Burns in his cell. Spectators claim the mob obtained the keys with ease and removed Burns from the jail with little trouble or resistance from the deputy. However, Deputy Hendley claimed he refused the mob's demands to hand over Burns.  He continued to report that the mob used a telegraph pole to break down the door. Hendley stated that the men pushed pistols in his face, but he still refused to turn over the keys to Burns' cell.  The men ripped at the deputy's clothes to get at the keys, but by the time they found them, Burns had already been taken from his cell. Hendley estimated that the mob was in excess of 2,000 men. One witness reported that only 25 men participated in the actual lynching.4  The eye witness told The Sun, "The crowd gathered quietly and there were not more than 25 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 late Governor Lloyd Lowndes, reported to have seen several prominent men of the city participating in the lynching.  Not one of the 16 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 the same day as the lynching, a coroner's jury announced Officer 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. On October 12, 1907 Allegany's County commissioners offered a reward of $500 for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Burns' death. Witnesses of the event 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


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.

Link to Lynching Profile Questionnaire

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