Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lynching of Mart Danforth

The case of Mart Danforth, a black man who was lynched in Springfield, Missouri, in August of 1859, was fairly typical of the time. He was accused of raping a white woman, supposedly confessed to the crime, and was strung up by a mob before any legal punishment could be meted out.
Holcombe's 1883 History of Greene County says about the case only that Mart Danforth, a "negro rapist," was lynched in a grove just west of the cotton factory in August of 1859. Fairbanks and Tuck's Past and Present of Greene County , published thirty years or so after the first county history, adds a few more details. It says that Danforth was arrested and indicted and that he promptly confessed his guilt but before he could be brought to trial, a mob took him from the custody of his guards and hanged him from a tree in the Jordan valley, "just east of where Benton Avenue now crosses that stream."
I recently found a contemporaneous account of this incident in a Missouri newspaper that was originally published in the Springfield Mirror. From the newspaper account, I've learned that the exact date of the lynching was August 25, the alleged rape having occurred a few days earlier on the 20th. On the latter date, according to the newspaper account, Mart, a slave belonging to the estate of a recently deceased man named Danforth, "went to the house of a respectable married lady who resides about five miles from this place (Springfield) and whose husband was absent at the time, and demanded entrance." When the demand was refused, the black man reportedly broke a window in the house to try to gain entrance and a struggle ensued. The woman threw hot but not scalding water on her assailant but couldn't deter him. Seizing her by the throat, he choked her "senseless" and accomplished his purpose on her.
Immediately afterwards, the woman reported the incident to her neighbors, and a determined search for the culprit was begun. He was not immediately located, but over the next few days supicion began to be attached to Mart Danforth, and, on August 24, several days after the incident, a "posse" went to where he was at work and elicited a confession from him. According to the Mirror, "No force or threats were used to induce him to tell." He was kept under guard and brought to Springfield the next day. Circuit Court was in session at the time. The sheriff took charge of the prisoner, putting him under guard at the Temperance Hall, and his case was going to be taken up that very day. However, a mob of about three or four hundred men gathered around the Temperance Hall, gained entrance, took the prisoner out to the edge of town, put a rope around his neck, and hanged him.
The assertion that Danforth's confession was not coerced, of course, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. No doubt black men did occasionally rape white women during slavery and the years following slavery when blacks were still oppressed, but it is also undeniable that black men were sometimes forced through abuse and intimidation into making false confessions. (It's probably also true that black men raping white women did not occur as often as white men raping or taking advantage of black women.) Nothing incited white men to violence toward blacks quicker than the idea that "their women" might be "despoiled" by a black man, whether through forcible rape or consensual sex. A black man having sex with a white woman was the ultimate challenge to white, male authority. Fairbanks and Tuck's account of Danforth's lynching illustrates the attitude I'm talking about. The authors attributed the outbreak of mob violence in 1859 to "that ever-present menace where there is a large negro population" and later suggested that "this crime committed by a black ruffian upon a helpless white woman instantly kindles a flame that nothing short of the quick and merciless death of the guilty one can satisfy." They seemed to suggest that it was not only understandable but appropriate that, throughout U. S. history, in cases like the lynching of Mart Danforth, the law had almost never been able to convict any of the "indignant slayers of the ravisher."

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