Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thin Black Line

William Lee (d. 1906)
MSA SC 3520-13955
Lynched on July 26, 1906 in Crisfield, Maryland

Biography:

William Lee, alias "Kid," alias George Scott, alias William Simmons, alias Lawrence Lewis, was lynched in Somerset County on July 26, 1906, in Crisfield, Maryland. It was believed that Lee was the suspect in an assault on two white women.  Lee, who was somewhere between 16 and 20-years-old, and had been in Crisfield for two months, originally from Virginia.  According to the The Sun's report, Lee was "considered a bad Negro."1 Lee attended Cheltenham School of Reformation for colored children between the ages of 12 and 14, but found gainful employment after his schooling on the vessel of Captain John Wallop Sterling.
    Allegations were made that on Sunday, June 10, 1906 in the town of Kingston, Lee attacked two women on their way home from St. Mark's Protestant Episcopal Church.  The two women were Lily Barnes (Mrs. Gordon Robert Barnes), of Kingston, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, and Miss Frances Powell of Marumsco, the 18-year-old daughter of Mr. Louis Powell who was visiting the Barnes'.  The assault took occurred around 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. after the women left the Kingston Church.  The women were about 300 yards from Mrs. Barnes house, near a wooded area, when Lee, supposedly holding a knife and a gun, jumped out in front of them and ordered them to go in the woods with him.  The women attempted to run away, but they reported that Lee threatened to kill them if they ran or cried.  They were led deep into the woods where they were assaulted and beaten.  Lee allegedly kept them in the woods until after 8:00 p.m., when he finally fled.
    Telegrams were dispatched to stations all around Somerset County and lower Eastern Shore, making it as far as the Cape Charles station in Virginia.  Lee ran on foot to Rehobeth in Somerset County, where he stole a horse and carriage from Rehobeth Baptist Church, belonging to Mr. Charles Briddell.  From Rehobeth, Lee drove to Pocomoke City and boarded a freight at 4:00 a.m., and arrived in Cape Charles City, Virginia at 6:30 a.m.  Lee was arrested at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, June 11 at Cape Charles City and held in jail there. The Sun reported that "soon after his arrest it was thought he would be taken to Princess Anne at once, but he understood all about the requisition laws, and refused to go requisition papers."2  Lee was identified by Mr. Edward Townsend, who claimed that Lee broke into and robbed his home the day before on Sunday, June 10, the same day as the assault.  Mr. Townsend went to Virginia and verified that Lee was the "Mulatto man seen prowling around"3 his home as he was preparing to leave for church.
    Lee was held in jail on accusations of house-breaking, which he admitted to, and committing assault, which he denied.  Later in the day, Lee confessed to the sheriff of Northampton County that he assaulted Miss Powell, but continued to deny assaulting Mrs. Barnes.  Lee was searched and was found in possession of Mr. Towsend's watch, a ring with his initials, and 62 cents that came from his children's toy bank were stuffed in his stocking.  When Virginia Governor Claude A. Swanson heard that a mob was headed to the jail in Cape Charles, he dispatched 200 soldiers from the state's militia stations in Norfolk and Portsmouth by boat and train to protect Lee.  Meanwhile, a mob in Pocomoke, Maryland was gathering as people converging on the city by bicycle, horseback, carriages, wagons, and by foot. Many citizens were agitated and waiting the arrival of the train they believed carried Lee into town.
    Somerset County Sheriff George W. Brown, twenty-five friends of Mrs. Gordon Barnes, and citizens of the neighborhood where the assault took place accompanied Mrs. Barnes and her husband on an early train to Cape Charles in hopes of identifying Lee.  Miss Powell remained in the hospital, as it was initially thought that she would not live.  Commonwealth attorney of Somerset county Harry J. Waters arrived in Eastville after 11:00 a.m., but Northampton county authorities blocked traffic to those wishing to identify Lee, for fear that as soon as he was identified he would be lynched.  Attorney F. Tucker Wilkens and Sheriff Jarvis telegraphed Virginia Governor Swanson, requesting the 71st Regiment (of Norfolk) be sent to Eastville as soon as possible to protect Lee.  The governor sent the Norfolk and Portsmouth companies of the 71st Regiment to Eastville, and they arrived on the 6:00 p.m. boat.  The governor was stern in his calls to "use all power to arrest, imprison and prosecute the mob of Maryland men which came into Virginia intent upon lynching the Mulatto."The sentiment against Lee was so strong that African-American lawyer Harry S. Cummings spoke on behalf of the black people of Baltimore, denouncing Lee's actions and the actions of those like him.  His words were recorded in an article in The Sun on June 15, 1906.
    On Wednesday, June 13, at 3:45 a.m., the troops took William Lee to Norfolk to be held until his trial commenced, whether it be in Somerset County, or in Baltimore.  Lee reportedly confessed to both crimes on the boat ride to Norfolk, and signed a confession that was written at his dictation including details of the crimes.  Northampton County Deputy Sheriff Charles Lankford, who heard the confession, delivered Lee to Sheriff John F. Lawler of Norfolk.  The Sun reported that when in Norfolk, Lee "seem[ed] resigned to his fate, but would say nothing further,"5 and that, "He was evidently glad to get away from Eastville, for there he knew a mob was forming against him.  After leaving Cape Charles he displayed little uneasiness and today in jail he was calm."6
    On June 14, Virginia Governor Claude A. Swanson requisitioned Maryland Governor Edwin Warfield to return William Lee to Maryland for the crime of rape.  The requisition stated that Governor Warfield does "Hereby certify that the said William Lee be apprehended and delivered to George W. Brown, Esq., Sheriff of Somerset County, who is hereby authorized to receive and convey the said William Lee to the State of Maryland, there to be dealt with according to the law."Judge Henry Page of Somerset County called a special term of court at Princess Anne in Somerset County on June 20 to try Lee.  That particular date was chosen to give Miss Powell some time to recover in hopes that she would testify against William Lee.  Throughout the process, there was question as to how Lee would be brought to the state of Maryland because there was still a heavy threat of him being lynched by angry citizens; it was even believed that the troops sent to protect Lee by force would not be enough to avoid a lynching.  One suggestion was for Commander Howard, of the State Fishery Force, go directly to Norfolk with his oyster steamer and bring Lee back into Maryland by boat.  One man said, "No matter whether the Adjutant General or any other officer is in command, these people will not hesitate one single instant in the putting into execution any plans that they may have to get this negro, and get him."Another African American man named Edward Watson, who was being held at the Princess Anne jail on assault charges, was transferred to Salisbury for fear that the excited citizens in Somerset County would hang him if they failed to get to Lee.
    Somerset County Sheriff George W. Brown arrived in Norfolk late on Monday, June 18 with the requisition papers for Lee.  It was decided that it would be best if Lee was not be taken to Princess Anne.  The special term of court that was to convene on June 20 took place without the presence of the defendant, or his Worcester County counsel, Mr. C.O. Melvin.  On June 19, there were crowds of people at every train station from Delmar, on the Maryland-Delaware border, all the way to Princess Anne, hoping that Lee would be on board. Even when it was announced that Lee would not be at the court house the next day, the crowd refused to believe the statement.  They excited mob saw this as an attempt to keep them away from the trial. Regardless, they planned to be make their presence known.  Even the victims of the crimes were not present, partly due to their physical conditions, partly due to the unrest it may add to the situation.  The witnesses present were to Dr. Eckles, who attended the victims, E.B. Hayman, who identified Lee's whereabouts the day of the crime, and Deputy Sheriff C.M. Lankford, of Northampton County, Virginia, the man Lee reportedly confessed.
    While William Lee headed for Baltimore on June 20 on the steamer Atlanta, as soon as the doors opened at the Princess Anne court house, "old men were jostled, boys were trampled and admission was won only in a free-for-all contest, in which the stronger prevailed.  It took but a few minutes to fill the room almost to suffocation."9 Getting through 2,000 people who were on hand was no easy task, even the jurors barely got into the courtroom.  The grand jury took one hour to hear from the state's attorney and submit bills of indictment against Lee, which they did at 11:00 a.m.  Judge Henry Page received a suggestion for removal that was signed by William Lee under the alias "George Scott" and read, "The defendant in this case suggests to the Court here, that he cannot have a fair and impartial trial in this Court; and prays the Court to order and direct the removal of the record of the proceedings in his case to a Court of some other circuit or jurisdiction in the State for trial."10  The court ordered on June 23 that the record of the proceedings in the above case be transmitted to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City, where the transcript of the Somerset County proceedings was received on June 26, and two days later the case was heard.  On June 28, Lee was arraigned and pled "not guilty."  On Thursday, July 5, Lee was found guilty as indicted by Somerset County.  The judgment was that Lee be taken to Baltimore City jail and kept subject to the order of Somerset County Sheriff Brown.  It was ordered, on a day to be named by the Governor, Lee would be executed by hanging.11 Lee's July 5th trial lasted little more than three hours before Judge Harlan delivered the sentence.  The decision handed down by Governor Warfield was for Lee to be hanged on Thursday, July 25, 1906 because twenty days had to elapse between sentence and execution according to state law.  "It will be seen that the Governor wasted no time," as "usually hangings take place on Fridays, and it has become something like an unwritten law."12
    On the day of his execution, Lee skipped breakfast and ate a noon meal of beef, potatoes, bread and coffee.  He was baptized and was said to be very quiet and somber the entire day.  Lee, who normally was known to sing a song from time to time, and talk often with a black jail worker, "Dick" Titus, was reserved on July 25.  Outside of sitting with his head in his hands most of the day, "now and then he looked up as some fellow prisoner stopped at his cell window to offer a consoling word or two."13  Up until that day, Lee had worn the same "dirty shirt and mixed gray trousers he wore when he committed his crime,"14 until right before his baptism when he was given prison overalls.
    It was decided that the safest way to get Lee to Princess Anne and to prevent a possible lynching was by boat.  Governor Warfield was very keen on not permitting the lynching or burning of Lee, as "the main idea was to hang Lee as humanely as possible."15  Officials took a gallows, borrowed from Baltimore County, on board with them in case there was an emergency situation where they could not take Lee on shore to carry out the execution, this way they would be able to perform on the waters.  Baltimore County Carpenter Elijah M. Price was brought on board in order to set up the gallows quickly if need be.  The state steam boat Governor McLane took afloat on July 25, shortly after 7:15 p.m. with William Lee, Sheriff Brown, three of his deputies, six Baltimore City detectives, Commander C.B. Howard of the State Fishery Force and personal representatives of Governor Warfield, a gallows, a coffin, a carpenter, two deputy sheriffs from Somerset County, case prosecutor and state's attorney Eugene O'Dunne, Lee's spiritual advisor Reverend Samuel A. Ward, and two physicians were all on board.  Many angry Baltimoreans watched the boat launch as they wished the worst for Lee.
    The Governor McLane reached Smith's Island in Somerset County at 4:25 a.m. on July 26, 1906.  It was discovered that the steps to the gallows had been forgotten in the rush to board the boat.  Commander Howard used some iron steps from the steamer, which went part of the way up to the gallows, and the carpenter nailed a couple of strips to use as steps to go up farther.  Lee was pulled up the rest of the way.  William Lee was hanged on Smith's Island at 8:25 a.m.  His body was buried on a poor house farm near Mt. Vernon, Somerset County.

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1. "Victims of a Negro."  The Sun, 12 June 1906.
2.  Ibid.
3. "Two Victims of a Negro."  Democratic Messenger, 16 June 1906.
4. "Guarded by Troops."  The Sun, 13 June 1906.
5. "Lee Taken to Norfolk."  The Sun, 14 June 1906.
6.  Ibid.
7. SECRETARY OF STATE (Requisition Record) MSA S1115-4, June 14, 1906, Accession No. 5289.
8. "Lee Case a Problem."  The Sun, 15 June 1906
9. "Mob is Cheated."  The Sun, 21 June 1906..
10. SOMERSET COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Court Papers) MSA T779, Special Term 1906, No. 1 & No. 2 Indictments, Box 13.
11. BALTIMORE CITY CRIMINAL COURT (Criminal Docket) MSA C1849-115, 1906, p. 185, No. 1105 & 1106.
12. "Lee Goes to be Hanged."  The Sun, 26 July 1906. And "Baptized in Jail Tub." The Sun, 26 July 1906.
13.  Ibid.
14.  Ibid.
15.  Ibid.

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