Lynching of Henry Caldwell
On Thursday morning, July 27, 1882, some citizens in downtown Ironton, Missouri, according to the Iron County Register, heard cries for help from a nearby residence and, hurrying to the scene, found Mrs. Peck, a 60-year-old white woman, "struggling and screaming in the disgusting embraces of a black brute," 37-year-old Henry Caldwell, in the yard outside her home. Several men pulled Caldwell off the woman, and he was arrested and committed to the Iron County jail. The next day he was indicted for assault and attempted rape and held in lieu of $10,000 bond.
Caldwell, who was married with at least four children, had previously been considered a bit daft "in his every-day walk and at times out-and-out crazy." Back in May, he'd had one of his "spells" and threatened to kill his mother, his wife, and his children and been arrested for carrying concealed weapons. Apparently, though, as long as Henry was mainly a threat to his own family, no one in Ironton grew too alarmed. But, now in the wake of his arrest for assaulting Mrs. Peck, there was talk of lynching Caldwell, not only as a punishment for his own deed but "to serve as a deterrent to others whose 'craziness' might have a bent in a similar direction."
However, Thursday evening and Friday evening passed without any vigilante demonstration, and it was thought that the law would be allowed to take its course. The early part of Saturday night also passed quietly. About midnight, though, several squads of two or three men each, converged on the public square from different directions. Soon about 30 or 40 men, with blackened faces or wearing masks, had assembled in front of a millinery store, where they took an oath of secrecy. They then placed guards at each corner of the square, while the rest of the mob headed toward the jail.
The horde easily gained access to a corridor leading through the sheriff's two-story residence to the jail, but a heavy iron door at the end of the corridor blocked entry to the jail. An axe was procured, and the first blow to the lock awakened Sheriff William Fletcher from his slumber in his upstairs room. Springing from his bed, he appeared on a landing above the corridor with revolver in hand, but half a dozen revolvers quickly covered him in return. Two men walked up to the landing to relieve him of his weapon, and one of them whispered in his ear, "Bill Fletcher, you're one of my best friends, but, by God, we're going to have that nigger." Vastly outnumbered, Fletcher could do little but watch helplessly as the men proceeded to break down the door leading to the jail.
They forced Fletcher to give up the key to Caldwell's cell, looped a noose around the prisoner's neck, and dragged him outside. The mob took Caldwell on a run to a railroad bridge southeast of Ironton and hurried him up the steps to the center of the bridge. With one end of the rope still tied in a noose around Caldwell's neck, the vigilantes fastened the other end of the rope to a beam of the bridge and threw the condemned man over the parapet. Caldwell clung desperately to the timbers of the bridge until someone slashed through his arm with a knife, causing him to lose his grip and fall. Although he hung suspended, his feet barely touched the ground, and the mob, thinking the hanging might not be sufficient to cause death, immediately opened fire, riddling him with about 30 bullets fired at short range. The crowd then gave a yell and dispersed in all directions.
Advised of the incident about one o'clock on Sunday morning, the county coroner assembled a jury and went down to the bridge. They cut the body down and brought it back to the courthouse, where an inquest quickly yielded the usual verdict that the victim came to his death at the hands of parties unknown to the jury. Caldwell's body rested at the courthouse until 10 a.m. Sunday morning, when it was buried in the local potter's field.
The following week, the editor of the Iron County Register took a stance in sympathy with the mob. He claimed not to be an advocate of lynch-law, "but if there ever can be a case calling justly for its intervention, this was one." The editor said Caldwell's actions during the past few months had been such that he had been forbidden to enter the premises of several people for whom he worked, and "the heads of these families had been keeping him under continual surveillance."
One wonders, of course, how banishment from white homes and constant surveillance differed from the treatment any other black man in 1880s Ironton might have been subject to. One might also reasonably ask what punishment the actual rape of a white woman by a black man merited if the mere attempt to force oneself on a white woman justified lynching.