Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, 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 sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Another Lynching Debunked

In recent months I've written about two supposed incidents of violence in the Ozarks that have often been cited on the Internet and elsewhere as lynchings of black people. When I looked at these incidents more closely, however, I found that one of them did not occur at all and that citations about the other one usually contain erroneous and misleading details.
The whipping of Paralee Collins in Howell County, Missouri, in June of 1914 is one such incident. In fact, Collins was not black, and she was not lynched in the popular sense of the word. Originally, the word "lynch" meant simply to administer any extralegal punishment, especially by flogging. Its meaning likely derived from William Lynch, leader of a vigilante movement in early Virginia. In this broad sense, Collins was indeed lynched, but in modern times the word "lynch" has taken on a narrower sense, meaning vigilante execution by hanging. Most people nowadays understand the word "lynch" in this narrower sense; so it is misleading simply to say that Paralee Collins was lynched without giving all the facts, as most citations about her on the Internet do. In fact, some of them specifically say that she was hanged, and, of course, she was not.
The other supposed lynching of a black person in the Ozarks that I've debunked recently is that of Andy Clark in January 1903 in Wayne County, Missouri. Clark was black. At least the people who persist in listing Clark as a victim of vigilante hanging have gotten that part right. However, he was not hanged and was not even administered any sort of vigilante punishment, because he was never captured after he committed the deed that supposedly resulted in his lynching.
Now comes a third dubious victim of lynching in southern Missouri: Nelson Simpson, who was supposedly lynched near Neelyville in Butler County, Missouri. On the night of January 1, 1901, a masked band of whitecaps visited a black neighborhood near Neelyville, shooting out windows and doors of the residents as a warning for them to leave the area. (The White Caps were originally a vigilante group that started in Indiana during the 1870s to enforce morality and community standards. For instance, men who neglected their families or women who had children out of wedlock were prime targets. However, as the movement spread to the Southern states during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the word "whitecaps" became more generic and the vigilante mobs mainly targeted black people.)
The mob that visited the black community in Neelyville summoned Simpson to his door, and when he appeared, "It was the signal for the discharge of a dozen or more firearms," according to a report in a St. Louis newspaper. "The bullets fairly rained into the house." Simpson fell badly wounded, and his ten-year-old daughter also received a serious wound. (Other newspapers reported that Simpson was mortally wounded.) The outlaws kept shooting "until every window in the house was riddled and the structure was perforated with bullets in a hundred places." Before the whitecaps left, the leader of the gang told the family that they must leave the territory within twenty days or they would receive a second visit, their house would be burned, and the residents punished.
Other houses in the neighborhood were also visited, and similar outrages perpetuated. Several black men were threatened with lynching if they did not leave within twenty days.
So, Nelson Simpson was, in fact, a victim of lynching in the original sense of the word, but, like Paralee Collins, he was not hanged. He also was not mortally wounded, as several newspapers reported in the immediate wake of the incident. He was still alive at the time of the 1910 census, almost ten years later. He also did not scare easily, because he was still living in the Neelyville area in 1910.
My intention in debunking these supposed lynchings of black people in the Ozarks is not to try to dismiss or diminish the tragic violence that blacks in the Ozarks experienced during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although mob violence against blacks was not as prevalent in the Ozarks as it was in the South (at least partly, no doubt, because there weren't as many black residents as a percentage of the population), there were still plenty of blacks who were lynched (i.e. hanged illegally) in the Ozarks. Enough that we don't need to invent more.
I might add as well that Richard Mays (aka Mayes) is often cited as a black man who was lynched in Springfield, Missouri, in 1893. He was, in fact, lynched near Springville, Alabama.

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