Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

John H. Biggus
MSA SC 3520-13791
Lynched in Frederick, November 23, 1887

Biography:

John H. Biggus, an African American worker from Frederick, Maryland was accused of assaulting Mrs. Yeakle, a local white woman, on Friday, November 18, 1887.  Mrs. Yeakle identified Biggus as her attacker and was immediately arrested.  Mr. Biggus' original story was that he could not have been the attacker because he attended a meeting at the local Salvation Army.1  While Biggus was held in custody over the weekend, emotions stirred among the white community, and tensions flared between blacks and whites in Frederick City and the rest of the county.
    On Tuesday evening, November 22, a mob of about 200 mostly masked men approached the jail cell and demanded that Sheriff Derr hand John Biggus over to them.  The crowd blocked oncoming traffic to prevent any intervention, and after being denied access to the jail by the sheriff, six men armed with an axe broke into the jail via the basement door.  With little trouble, the men were able to break down the door, then entered through a second door before reaching Biggus' cell.  The axe then destroyed the steel lock on the cell door, and the mob reached their target.2
    The first thing the men did was grab Mr. Biggus and place a hemp rope around his neck, dragging him out of the jail to the farm of Mr. George H. Rider who lived in a community called Jefferson Heights, about a quarter mile from the jail.3  Sheriff Derr, after he rang a siren bell for assistance, was approached by armed men and knew he could do little to stop the determined crowd from accomplishing their goal.  The mob, still blocking the streets from outsiders, lead Biggus to a large locust tree on Mr. Rider's lot.  The men pleaded for the accused to confess to his crime, and face his fate.  Changing his original story, John Biggus said that he watched Mrs. Yeakle get accosted by Joe Hall, a local African-American man who was first questioned by the police on November 18.  The crowd was not convinced by Biggus' story, and threw the rope over a branch on the locust tree about eight feet off the ground.  One man explained "You are a liar, you black - - -...and you have got to die."4  The crowd applauded in agreement.
    The angry mob gave Biggus one last time to confess to the crime.  The rope was loosened so that the accused could admit his actions, and pray for mercy to his god.  John Biggus explained that he was scared to admit that he saw the attack for fear that he would be accused of being an accessory to the crime.  The crowd was still unfazed by the explanation, and quickly raised Biggus' body from the ground.  Realizing his situation, Biggus was somehow able to untie his hands and attempt to grab the noose from his throat.  The crowd quickly fixed this problem, retied Biggus, and raised his body once again.  Finally, John Biggus gave up hope and said "Men, I am the right man!"5
    One man felt that his death was taking longer than his patience would allow, and fired three gunshots into the side of John Biggus, killing him instantly (an autopsy revealed that his neck was broken before the shots were fired into him.)  Satisfied that justice had been done, the crowd dispersed, leaving the body to dangle in the autumn night.  At 1:30 a.m., the body of John H. Biggus was finally removed from the tree.
    This was the second attempt to lynch Biggus.  The first try was on Monday, November 21 at around 11:00 p.m..  A smaller crowd gathered and approached the jailhouse, but screams that the authorities were on their way quickly dispersed the mob.  The African American community in turn wished for justice, and rumors surfaced that they would go and attempt to lynch former police officer Marshall F. Harding, who was acquitted for the murder of Joshua Herbert, an African American man the previous May.  The black community in Frederick never did threaten Officer Harding.6
    The white community felt that their actions were justified and necessary in order to protect their wives, daughters and sisters from further attacks.  Newspaper articles over the next few days condemned the lynching, the first in Frederick history, and felt that the legal system and proper execution of due process would have satisfied the outraged citizens of Frederick.7  It was later confirmed that the rope and ax used by the mob were supplied by the United Fire Engine Company.8  Interviews of those who were near the jailhouse all confirmed that most of the men were masked, and that the night was too dark to identify those unmasked.  Frederick City and county gradually began to return to normal after the lynching, and little was written about the event in the days following the lynching.
 

Footnotes

1. "John H. Bigus Hanged." The Sun, 23 November 1887.

2. "The Lynching Case." The Daily News, 25 November 1887.

3. "Lynched!!" The Daily News, 23 November 1887.

4. "John H. Bigus Hanged."

5. "Confession of Biggus." The Daily News, 26 November 1887.

6. "The Lynching Case."

7. "The Lynching of Biggus." The Daily News, 25 November 1887.

8. "The Lynching Case." And "Lynched!!"

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