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Frank Brown (Lynching of)

On September 22, 1905, an African-American man named Frank Brown was hanged at Conway (Faulkner County) for an alleged assault on Arlena Lawrence and her two young sons, resulting in the death of the older son, Elzey. Contrary to some sources, this was not the only lynching in Faulkner County. Two people had been lynched previously in the county: Thomas Wilson, an African American, in 1884 and Albert England, a white man, in 1895.

According to Robert Meriwether’s account of the lynching, Lawrence’s age was “about 35,” and it was reported that she had been raised near Greenbrier (Faulkner County) with the maiden name of Butcher. There is no one named Arlena Lawrence in either the 1900 or 1910 censuses for Faulkner County. The only marriage record presents an interesting anomaly, indicating that Arlena Lawrence, age thirty-five, married Walter Lane in Faulkner County on April 5, 1904, over a year before the attack. According to newspaper accounts, she and her children “lived obscurely on the outskirts” of Conway, her nearest neighbor residing a quarter of a mile away. The Arkansas Gazette described her as “a poor widow of good reputation who has made a precarious living at the wash tub for herself and children and has been aided by charitable people of the town.” There is no information available about Frank Brown.

According to the Gazette, on September 16, a naked African-American man entered Lawrence’s home as she slept and assaulted her. He was armed with a knife, and he hit her over the head before slashing her in the face. Probably fearing that the children might raise an alarm, the assailant killed six-year-old Elzey and stabbed his three-year-old brother. The crime was discovered eighteen hours later when a neighbor, identified only as Mrs. House, came by to see if Lawrence needed anything. Finding Elzey dead and Lawrence and her younger child in critical condition, House alerted the authorities and sent for medical help. On September 16, the citizens of Conway held a mass meeting and raised $500 as a reward for the capture of the perpetrator. Governor Jeff Davis offered $500 more. According to Meriwether, the “law abiding negroes of Conway” also met and condemned the outrage. Several African Americans were arrested, but as Lawrence remained unconscious, there was no real evidence against them. Brown said he had no knowledge of the incident. He claimed to have left Conway the night before the crime, but several people said they saw him in town the day after the murder. He was arrested.

On September 22, Sheriff J. H. Harrell went to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to track down the alibi of another suspect, Will Stewart. This may have been the Will Stewart listed in Faulkner County in 1910, working as a servant in the home of Robert E. Carr and Cynthia Carr in Danley Township. According to Sheriff Harrell, Stewart and Brown “were familiar figures at Conway, and…they were accustomed to call themselves ‘doubles’ from the resemblance which they bore to each other.” According to the sheriff, Stewart had been acting strangely, asserting that he was working at Tick’s saloon in Argenta, present-day North Little Rock (Pulaski County), but then saying that he had been in England (Lonoke County) for a week.

That same evening, while Sheriff Harrell was in Little Rock, Lawrence regained consciousness and identified Brown as her attacker. She said she recognized him because he had come to her house several times to ask for food. A crowd of about 100 people forced jailer J. S. Johnson to leave the jail, took Brown, and hanged him from a tree near the Lawrence home. Before his death, according to Meriwether, Brown allegedly confessed and “begged not to be burned.” Although the lynching seemed to be planned in advance, “word was passed around so quietly that no one knew of what was going to take place.” The mayor did learn about it and tried without success to stop it. Reports indicated that only a few members of the mob were townspeople, the others having come in from the surrounding countryside. According to the Los Angeles Herald, “There was no excitement and the affair was conducted in a business-like manner.” According to Meriwether, “By noon the next day, when acting Coroner J. F. Campbell took charge of the body, some 1,500 persons had visited the site of the lynching to view the hanging corpse.” A coroner’s inquest concluded that Brown “came to his death at the hands of parties unknown to the jury.”

Sheriff Harrell was outraged. While he knew Frank Brown and thought him a “worthless negro,” he did not believe he was guilty of attacking Lawrence. In any case, he felt it would have been better to wait until Brown was taken before the victim so that she could positively identify him. Harrell later declared: “There was no more evidence against Brown…than against some others who had been suspected of the crime.” He doubted Brown’s confession, especially because when the body was found, Brown had a gag in his mouth: “If any confession was made, no one has been found who knows anything about it.”

Harrell fired jailer Johnson and another deputy sheriff, A. G. Wolf. He promised to go before the next grand jury, which would meet on the second Monday in January, to “secure the indictment of several members of the mob whose names he has in his possession.” The sheriff claimed that while there were some respected citizens in the mob, “as is usually the case they were drawn into the thing after a few lawless men had started the movement.” The town was bitterly divided, with some citizens supporting Harrell and others siding with the fired deputies.

The Arkansas Gazette was one of several newspapers to express concern. On September 24, it asserted that such a terrible crime “is enough to make a community cry for the life of the guilty fiend.” It saw, however, some “fundamental objections” to lynching, including that, in the absence of witness testimony and a thorough investigation, in “many cases there must be doubt whether the victim is the guilty man.” While there were claims that Lawrence’s description did fit Brown, “Now that he has been hanged it is to be hoped that he was really guilty of the crime for which he suffered.”

Court convened on January 8, 1906. In front of a crowded courtroom, Judge George M. Chapline told the grand jury, “When a black brute clasps a white throat with a black hand and fans the cheek of innocence with the breath of lust, despoils and outrages pure womanhood, he ought to die.” Despite this, however, Chapline avowed that the suspect should not die “at the hands of a wild, unreasoning, desperate mob,” but only after being tried before a fair and impartial jury. Given the fact that “we have white judges and white juries…no man charged with this crime can escape conviction…and if the mob should make a mistake and take the life of an innocent man, they cannot restore life.” He advised the jury that those who participated in the lynching were subject to the law, and that it was their duty “to investigate this matter and indict the guilty parties.” According to the Gazette, by January 13, there had been no decision on Frank Brown’s lynching. Meriwether reports that the jury did hear several witnesses, but when it adjourned on January 17, there were no indictments against any of the alleged members of the mob that lynched Brown.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Mob Lynches Negro.” Los Angeles Herald, September 23, 1905, p. 1. Online at http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=LAH19050923.2.17 (accessed August 16, 2016).

“Did Mob Lynch Innocent Negro?” Arkansas Gazette, September 25, 1905, p. 2.

“Did the Mob Get the Right Man?” Arkansas Gazette, September 24, 1905, p. 4.

“Grand Jury’s Work at Conway.” Arkansas Gazette, January 14, 1906, p. 2.

Meriwether, Robert. “The Faulkner County Lynching (1905).” Faulkner Facts and Fiddlings 33 (Fall/Winter 1991): 1–8.

“Mob at Conway Lynched Negro.” Arkansas Gazette, September 23, 1905, p. 1.

“Negro’s Shocking Crime at Conway.” Arkansas Gazette, September 16, 1905, p. 1.

“Tells Grand Jury to Probe Act of Mob.” Arkansas Gazette, January 9, 1906, p. 2.

“Will Prosecute Leaders of Mob.” Arkansas Gazette, October 7, 1905, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina

Last Updated 9/8/2016

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