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DeWitt Lynching of 1891

On December 21, 1891, a mob of masked men entered the jail in DeWitt (Arkansas County) and shot three men: Floyd McGregory (sometimes written as Gregory) and his father-in-law, J. A. Smith (who were both white), as well as Mose Henderson (who was African American). The three men had been put in jail for plotting to kill Smith’s wife, who had divorced him and received one-third of his property in the settlement.

According to the Arkansas Gazette, Smith’s wife, Mary, divorced him because “he was unkind to her, and abandoned her companionship for that of negroes.” The case was bitterly fought, but in the end, she received damages as part of the settlement, and her former husband objected. Smith enlisted Mose Henderson to kill his former wife, promising Henderson eighty acres of land, as well as a horse, bridle, saddle, and cow.

On December 9, the three men went to Mary Smith’s home, and A. J. Smith and McGregory held the horses while Henderson entered the house. He allegedly found Mary Smith “sick with her babes in the bed with her.” He wounded her in the face and hand, but was recognized by one of the children as he left the room. Henderson was arrested in DeWitt and implicated the others in the plot. Subsequently, Smith and his son-in-law were arrested, and at a preliminary trial, bail was set at $30,000 for Smith and Henderson and $1,000 for McGregory. Unable to post bond, they were sent to jail. According to the Gazette, Smith and Henderson were not the most savory of characters: “Smith does not seem to have any standing in the community where he lived, while the negro is charged with having drowned his own wife some years ago.”

Rumors began to circulate in town that the three prisoners were either about to post bond or would be moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), and a lynch mob of fifteen or twenty men assembled. The mob tricked the jailer into letting them into the jail, took his keys, and went upstairs to where the prisoners were being kept. They immediately began shooting, and in minutes, the prisoners “were all weltering in their gore.” According to the Gazette, “The mob retired, as they came, quietly. No one knew the leaders….No one censures the killing. ‘Served the fiends right,’ is the common sentiment. The citizens deprecate the necessity of such steps, but do not question but what the prisoners got justice.” According to the New York Times, “There is no excitement over the matter here in town, and business is going on as if nothing unusual had happened.”

The Deseret Evening News of Salt Lake City, Utah, having received a telegram about the incident, decried this lack of outrage: “The miscreants deserved their fate, but that makes no excuse for the assassins who took the law into their own hands, thus striking one more blow for anarchy. Remarkable to state, the telegram describes the tragedy as a quiet and orderly affair. It ought to have added that it was high toned and respectable.”

For additional information:
“Dewitt’s Tragedy.” Arkansas Gazette, December 24, 1891, p. 4.

“Shot to Death in Jail.” New York Times, December 22, 1891, p. 2.

Untitled article. Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), December 22, 1891, p. 4.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Clinton, South Carolina

Last Updated 2/10/2014

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