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Jerry Atkins (Lynching of)

Jerry Atkins, a black man, was murdered in Union County on November 21, 1865, for having allegedly murdered two school-age children. The lynching was notable for the viciousness it exhibited, a brutality that foreshadowed later lynchings in the state and nation, as well as the fact that it was witnessed by federal troops still occupying the state following the Civil War.

Little information exists regarding the lynching. According to an account of the event in the Goodspeed history of the area, Atkins waylaid and murdered two siblings on their way to school on November 7, 1865. The two children were Sarah K. Simpson, who was thirteen years old, and Jesse G. Simpson, eight. The diary of George W. Lewis of the Twelfth Michigan Infantry Regiment records that, after going missing, the boy was soon found dead with a slashed throat and other stab wounds, while the girl was finally found on November 9 with her throat cut and her skull broken in. Goodspeed holds that this occurred three miles north of El Dorado (Union County), while the Lewis diary reports that the family lived in the vicinity of Champagnolle (Union County). Discrepancies in the two sources persist. Lewis records that the alleged murderer (whom he does not name) was apprehended in Bradley County and returned to the site of the murder, near El Dorado, while Goodspeed states that “Atkins was captured in Ashley County in the course of a few days by another negro, named Ed Tatum, who brought him to El Dorado.” There, after Atkins reportedly confessed to the murder, the local citizenry (both white and black) decided to avoid the expense of a trial in the courts and so tied Atkins to a tree and burned him. According to Lewis, Atkins’s captors built a pen “of fat or pich pine split up fine. It was then set on fire in diferant places after which he lived only 3 moments & then died. After burning about 10 minutes his head & arms droped off.”

The Lewis diary records the children’s last name as Simmons, but the Goodspeed account has their name as Simpson, which is the name that matches the record in the U.S. Census. In the 1860 census, the two children were listed as belonging to the family of H. M. and Amanda Simpson. Their father, a native of Alabama, was forty years old, while their mother was thirty-eight; the children had two other siblings. In addition, the family owned fourteen slaves, two to fifty-five years of age. As far as Jerry Atkins is concerned, there is apparently no record. He may have been a former slave, but the names of slaves were not recorded on the federal census.

The public spectacle of burning someone alive calls to mind later atrocities such as the 1892 lynching of Ed Coy in Texarkana (Miller County) and the 1921 lynching of Henry Lowery in Mississippi County. The 1865 murder of Jerry Atkins thus provides a gruesome precedent to later spectacle lynchings.

For additional information:
Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1890.

Diary of George W. Lewis, June 4, 1865–December 31, 1865, 12th Michigan Infantry Regiment. Lloyd Miller Collection. U.S. Army Military History Institute. Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Guy Lancaster
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 8/16/2016

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