On this dayDec 15, 1897
White Mob of Hundreds Lynches Tom Waller in Mississippi
On December 15, 1897, a white mob of 400 men lynched an African American man named Tom Waller in Lawrence County, Mississippi. Mr. Waller was accused of helping to murder a white family, despite a lack of evidence against him and his strenuous claims of innocence. Without a legal trial or investigation, an angry white mob hanged him from a tree the same night he was arrested.
A week earlier, after a white family was found murdered, a surviving 5-year-old child claimed a Black man did it. Officials brought several Black male "suspects" before her and she identified one—a man named Charles Lewis—as the perpetrator. A mob of hundreds immediately formed and lynched Mr. Lewis on December 10. During this era, the deep racial hostility that permeated Southern society burdened Black people with a presumption of guilt that often served to focus suspicion on Black communities after a crime was discovered, whether evidence supported that suspicion or not.
Although early accounts alleged only one perpetrator, the white community was unsatisfied to lynch only one man, and continued to “investigate” the white family’s murders. Several days later, a group of 30 white men approached a group of Black men, including an acquaintance of Mr. Lewis, and coerced him into saying that a man named Tom Waller had also been involved in the crime. Though another man in the group insisted this was not true, the unsubstantiated allegation was enough to seal Mr. Waller’s fate.
During this era of racial terror, mobs often used violence to force confessions or false identifications from African Americans fearful of the mob. News reports reported these facts later as justifications for the lynching of Mr. Waller but without a fair investigation or trial, the accusation of Mr. Waller was more reliable evidence of the acquaintance’s fear than of Mr. Waller’s guilt. Though he professed his innocence and there was no actual evidence against him, Mr. Waller was arrested on December 15—and was dead before dawn the next day.
Soon after he was taken into custody, a growing mob of 400 people seized Mr. Waller from law enforcement and conducted a “sham trial”; newspapers reported that several men “held court under a tree,” where Mr. Waller was interrogated as a rope was placed around his neck. Some men reportedly suggested that the “trial” be delayed a week because the “evidence” was so scant, but the rest of mob rejected that idea and instead insisted that Mr. Waller be lynched that night. Newspapers later explained that the mob preferred to lynch Mr. Waller immediately because waiting “meant standing guard all night in the cold, and most of those present did not relish this at all.” To the mob, the low temperature and their own discomfort mattered more than the guilt or innocence of the Black man they planned to kill.
As the hundreds of white men in the mob grew “hungry,” press accounts described, “a wagon load of provisions” including fish and lobster was brought forward and everyone “indulged in a hearty supper” before continuing their deadly plan. Racial terror lynchings were often conducted as public spectacles; large white crowds came to cheer on the violence and participate in the brutal acts in a carnival-like atmosphere with food and souvenirs.
The mob ultimately hanged Tom Waller on the night of December 15, on the same hill where Mr. Lewis had been lynched five days earlier, and left his body hanging until 10am the next morning. Mr. Waller is one of the more than 4,400 documented African American victims of racial terror lynching killed in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950, and there is no indication anyone was ever punished for his death.