When twenty-two-year-old Erastus “Ras” Brown left his home near St. Clair, Missouri, on or about Friday, July 2, 1897, he told his young wife, Julia, he would bring back medicine for their sick baby. The next thing Julia heard about her husband was that he was accused of assaulting a young white woman, and rumors of lynching the “black fiend” were running rampant. A teenage mother of two, Julia was worried sick about her deathly ill child, and now her husband of less than two years was in deep trouble.
After leaving St. Clair, Ras tramped toward Gray Summit where he’d grown up. Whether he made it to Gray Summit is uncertain, but what is known is that he didn’t made it back home. Instead, he got sidetracked late on the morning of the 2nd when he saw twenty-one-year-old Annie Foerving walking along a lane near Villa Ridge, between St. Clair and Gray Summit.
A “pretty country girl,” Annie had been to Villa Ridge to shop and was on her way home when she started down a wooded path about a mile southeast of the village. According to her later story, someone sprang out of the brush and hit her head with a rock, knocking her to the ground. Stunned but conscious, she sat up and saw a black man hovering over her. She screamed and struggled as he pounced on her, but he quickly choked her into insensibility. When she regained consciousness, her attacker was gone.
But that’s not the story that spread like wildfire in the Villa Ridge vicinity and was initially reported in area newspapers. A “mulatto ravisher” had assaulted Miss Foerving, he had been frightened away by farmhands responding to her frantic cries for help, and whether he had “accomplished his purpose” was uncertain. Even after two doctors examined Annie and found her suffering only a scalp wound and “nervous prostration,” many in the community remained convinced that she’d been sexually violated, and reports continued to assert that her condition was critical.
Ras Brown was immediately suspected of the assault because he’d been seen hanging around the vicinity, and he seemed to fit Miss Foerving’s description of her attacker. A posse located Brown on Saturday morning along a railroad track near St. Clair and arrested him without incident. They took him back to Villa Ridge, where Annie reportedly sat up in bed and cried out that he was the man who’d attacked her.
Realizing that mob fever had spread throughout the area since the attack on Annie Foerving, the posse that had captured Brown implied he’d been taken to the woods and lynched when, in fact, three of the posse members had whisked the captive away to the Franklin County Jail in Union. When the other men who’d been hunting Brown realized they’d been duped, they rode to Union on the night of July 4th with lynching on their mind but were deterred when the jailer put up a staunch defense.
But the vigilantes of Villa Ridge would be heard from again.
At his preliminary hearing on July 6, Brown admitted he’d attacked Miss Foerving but said his only motive was robbery and he’d taken “no undue liberties” with her. On the same day as Ras’s hearing, his wife, Julia, started for Gray Summit with her sick baby to see a doctor, but the infant died in her arms during the trip. Although her husband’s reputation might have been less than sterling, Julia and her parents were well liked and considered “respectful, industrious and honest.” Ras’s parents were also known as “respectable colored people.”
But the good name of the two families wasn’t enough to save “Black Rastus,” as he was known in the white community.
About 1:30 a.m., July 10, another mob, larger than the one that had made a halfhearted attempt to lynch Brown five days earlier, rode into Union from the direction of Villa Ridge. They broke into the jail and dragged Brown outside with a rope around his neck. He was placed in a spring wagon, taken to the eastern outskirts of Union, and hanged from a big willow tree.
A coroner’s inquest the next morning reached the usual conclusion when black men were lynched in America during the turn-of-the-twentieth-century era: that the victim had come to his death by hanging at the hands of parties unknown. Julia Brown and her in-laws were notified of Ras’s fate, and they came to Union to claim the body. Ras was buried near Gray Summit.
The story above is condensed from a chapter in my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.
Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.
Saturday, April 28, 2018
The Lynching of Ras Brown
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