Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

Lewis Harris (d. 1900)
MSA SC 3520-13952
Lynched on March 26/27, 1900 at Bel Air, Maryland1

Biography:

An African American man named Lewis Harris was lynched by a mob on March 27, 1900 in Bel Air, Maryland. Harris was arrested and charged with assault on Miss Anne McIlvaine, a resident of Harford County. According to newspaper accounts, Harris knocked on the door of Miss McIlvaine's residence at 4:00a.m. on the morning of March 25, supposedly in search of some medicine for a toothache. When McIlvaine opened the door, she testifies that she was forced from her home, and as she screamed for help, a neighbor came to the scene and chased Harris off with a shotgun, missing his one shot fired at the attacker. As Miss McIlvaine gathered herself after the attack, she went to the home of Sheriff Kinhart for treatment and to report the incident. A hat was left behind at the home of Anne McIlvaine, and it was confirmed that it belonged to Harris. After a short search, Harris was found, arrested, and transfered to the local jail house. Harris was found to be wearing soiled clothes, and his thumb had been lacerated, confirming Miss McIlvaine's assertion of biting the attackers hand during the struggle. Right away, the sheriff knew it was safer to transfer the prisoner to Baltimore City in hopes of avoiding a lynching in the county due to the heightened emotions in Bel Air of late.2
        Around midnight on the morning of March 27, it was learned that a mob was apporaching Bel Air from Aberdeen, and heading straight for the jail house where Harris was being held. Shortly after the mostly masked mob of around 30 people approached, they quickly attacked the sheriff and his deputy that were guarding Harris. The mob confronted the officers and exchanged gunfire. A man named Robert L. Bull was wounded in the shoulder, and another member of the mob was also injured on the hand, but the identity of the person could not be acquired. The sheriff was ultimately overwhelmed and Harris was removed from the jail by the mob. According to one newspaper account of the spectacle, Lewis Harris, as he was being taken from his jail cell by the mob, is quoted as saying "If I did it, men, I was drunk and didn't know what I was about. I have no recollection of it."3
         The mob dragged Harris out of the jail and took him to a neighboring yard where a large poplar tree stood, and while a rope around the neck, Harris was lifted into the air. As his body was hoisted up, the branch broke, throwing Harris down to the earth. He was then lifted a second time, shot a number of times, and Harris' lifeless body was left hanging in the tree until the morning when he was finally taken down. It was reported that the victim, Anne McIlvaine was with the mob at the scene, but that claim was never confirmed.4
         Judge Watters of the Harford County Court urged the prosecution of the men who instigated and took part in the lynching. He believed the mob made a stand against law when they lynched Lewis Harris and that if law enforcement officials allowed mob law to rule the community, it would endanger an organized and stable government. Judge Watters is quoted as saying "The community has a right to demand protection of you and me. I charge you to do your duty without fear or favor, and without regard to persons." He continues that the mob's crime was murder, and the attack on the sheriff was "war against the state." The articles concludes with the idea that several person whom rumor connected them to the lynching were in the courtroom, attentive listeners and greatly distrubed over the Judge's charge.5 There is no evidence that the inquiry was followed through, or that any charges were filed against any of the participants involved with the lynching of Lewis Harris.



Footnotes

1. In "Maryland's Lynching Record," author and historian A. Briscoe Koger cites that Harris was lynched on March 26, 1899, however we were unable to corroborate this date. The extant newspaper accounts all point to March 26-27, 1900 as the night-into-day that Harris was taken from the jail by the mob and lynched.

2. "Assaulted by A Negro: A Belair, Md., Woman's Desparate Struggle With an Assailant," The Times, Washington , March 26, 1900. One reporter alleged that the community's reaction was more intense because of a previous crime; they wrote “indignation aroused by the crime was more intense [because it was] the second of the kind within a month.”  Another African American man named William Black was accused of assaulting a woman named Jessie Bradford in Aberdeen and was awaiting trial.

3. "Lewis Harris Lynched," Evening Star, March 27, 1900.

4. ibid. Although, The Ohio Democrat reports that Miss McIlvaine was indeed present at the lynching, standing on the curb in the rain with her arms crossed "Woman Led Lynchers," Ohio Democrat , April 5, 1900.

5. "To Investigate A Lynching," New York Times, May 15, 1900.



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