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Jesse Washington, born around 1898, was the eldest of twelve children and was described as quiet and mentally disabled. He had a limited education and his cognitive challenges made it difficult for him to navigate complex situations. In 1916, at the age of 17, Jesse worked as a farmhand on the farm of George Fryer in Robinson, Texas, near Waco. On May 8, 1916, a local resident named Chris Simmons was walking home that evening when he heard screams coming from the direction of the Fryer home. Rushing to the scene, Simmons discovered Ruby Fryer, 22, and her 14-year-old brother, George Jr., standing over the lifeless body of their mother, 53-year-old Lucy Fryer. Lucy had been brutally attacked and her life had been violently taken.

Upon learning of the incident, George Fryer quickly drove to Waco and informed Sheriff Samuel S. Fleming. The sheriff assembled a team of investigators and returned to the Fryer farm. Suspicion immediately fell on 17-year-old Jesse and his brother William, who had worked for the Fryers since January. The police arrested Jesse’s entire family, but everyone except Jesse was eventually released. Within hours, Jesse was moved to jails in Hillsboro and later Dallas. The police promised to protect him if he confessed, leading Jesse to sign a confession that he could not read, as he was illiterate and signed it with an X. This confession was published in local newspapers, likely influencing potential jurors.

A Swift and Flawed Trial

On May 11, 1916, a McLennan County grand jury took just 30 minutes to indict Jesse for Lucy Fryer’s murder. Judge Richard I. Munroe appointed attorneys for Jesse’s defense and scheduled the trial for the following Monday. Jesse’s trial was a travesty of justice. The court, jury, and spectators were all white, and the atmosphere in the courtroom was filled with racial hatred.

The trial began at 10:00 am in a packed courtroom. When Jesse was brought in, a spectator brandished a weapon, suggesting they should kill Jesse immediately. Another person proposed letting the trial proceed and dealing with him later. Jury selection lasted about 30 minutes. When the indictment was read, Jesse, confused, simply responded, “Yeah.” Prosecutors presented a doctor’s testimony about Mrs. Fryer’s wounds and read Jesse’s confession. Jesse’s defense was minimal; his attorneys asked only one question of the prosecution’s witnesses and called Jesse as their only witness. The jury deliberated for just four minutes before finding Jesse guilty.

The Mob’s Fury

Immediately after the verdict, the courtroom erupted. As the judge recorded the verdict, someone shouted to get Jesse. A mob seized him and dragged him out of the courthouse to a waiting crowd of hundreds. They chained him by the neck and dragged him to City Hall, where another group had prepared a bonfire. As Jesse was dragged, he was beaten, stabbed, and his clothes were torn off. At City Hall, Jesse was stripped naked, beaten, and chained to a tree in the city square, chosen for its central location and visibility.

The Lynching

Jesse Washington’s lynching was brutally systematic. The mob cut off his fingers, toes, ears, and genitals before setting him on fire. As flames consumed him, Jesse tried to climb the chain to escape but was forced back down. The crowd of over 20,000 men, women, and children treated the lynching as a communal event.

They collected parts of Jesse’s body as gruesome souvenirs, and his body was later tied to a horse and dragged through downtown Waco. During this procession, his skull detached, and a group of boys sold his teeth as keepsakes. Jesse’s body was eventually hung from a pole for the entire town to see.

Photographic Documentation

Photographs of Jesse Washington’s lynching exist and are gruesome but necessary to understand the brutality of the event. These images, though disturbing, are crucial historical evidence of the racial violence Black people endured during this time.

NAACP Investigation

The NAACP quickly responded to Jesse Washington’s lynching, aiming to use the incident as a catalyst for change in how Black people were treated in Southern courts.

Elizabeth Freeman, an English suffragist and NAACP member, was tasked with investigating. Freeman documented every detail of the lynching, interviewing witnesses and compiling a report that exposed the brutality and the complicity of local authorities. Her findings were published in a special supplement of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Titled “The Waco Horror,” the report included graphic descriptions and photographs, shining a light on the savagery of the lynching.

Aftermath and Reflection

There is some evidence suggesting that Jesse might have killed Mrs. Fryer after becoming tired of her berating him. However, due to the mob violence and lack of due process, we will never know the full truth. Jesse never had a fair chance to defend himself. His guilt or innocence is overshadowed by the injustice of the lynching. A 17-year-old mentally disabled boy was subjected to unspeakable brutality and pain, reflecting the systemic racial violence of the time.

Jesse Washington’s lynching was not an isolated incident; it was part of a broader pattern of racial terror. The event highlights the pervasive and brutal nature of lynching in America, where mob justice often replaced legal proceedings. Jesse’s story is a somber reminder of the systemic racism that has plagued Black communities for generations.

Reflecting on Jesse Washington’s tragic fate, we must acknowledge the deep-rooted injustices and strive for a society where such atrocities can never happen again. His story, and the stories of countless others, should fuel our commitment to fighting racial injustice and ensuring that every person is treated with dignity and fairness.

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