Will Caldwell and John Thomas (Lynching of)

aka: John Thomas and Will Caldwell (Lynching of)

On September 10, 1895, an African-American man named Will Caldwell and an “old negro man” identified by some newspapers as John Thomas were lynched near Blytheville (Mississippi County) for allegedly murdering and robbing a woman named Mattie Rhea.

An extensive search of records for Arkansas and neighboring states revealed no information about either Mattie Rhea or Will Caldwell. There was, however, a John Thomas living in Mississippi County in 1880. He was twenty-six years old and living in Pecan Point Township, in the very southeastern part of the county. He would have been forty-one at the time of the lynching, which may not qualify him for the sobriquet “old negro.” Living in the same township and working on a farm was Nancy Thomas, who, like Will Caldwell, was born in Virginia and who had a young son named John B. Thomas. It was impossible to confirm whether she was the wife referred to in some newspaper stories.

According to newspaper accounts, the incident occurred near Barfield (Mississippi County), which is seven miles from Blytheville. Mattie Rhea, who lived near Cross’s sawmill where her husband was a mill hand, was home alone when a young black man who had been plowing a nearby field allegedly went into her house and beat her to death with a club. Her body was discovered by W. A. Boni, who worked for her, and according to the Osceola Times, the discovery “created intense excitement among the citizens of the neighborhood, who soon gathered and a search for the perpetrators of the dastardly deed instituted.”

Caldwell, who had reportedly returned to his plowing, immediately came under suspicion. He was captured and, “on being catechized,” confessed to the crime. He reported that an older, unidentified black man (identified by the Fort Worth Gazette as John Thomas) urged him to go to Rhea’s home and kill her, whereupon Thomas would go into the house, retrieve money that he knew was hidden there, and split it with Caldwell. According to the September 12 Arkansas Gazette, Caldwell was then removed from a deputy’s custody and hanged from a tree, and his body riddled with bullets. Caldwell’s last words were reportedly “‘For God’s sake hang the old man, for he got me to kill her.’” The Gazette reported that the old man was soon in custody and had “probably been lynched by this time.” According to a later article in the Austin Weekly Statesman, authorities then commenced a search for the older man’s wife, who supposedly still had the $20 obtained in the robbery. She, however, had disappeared.

For additional information:
“Condensed Telegrams.” Fort Worth Gazette, September 13, 1895, p. 2.

“Double Lynching.” Arkansas Gazette, September 12, 1895, p. 1.

“Osceola Agitated.” Austin Weekly Statesman, September 19, 1895, p. 3.

“A Woman’s Life Sacrificed.” Osceola Times, September 14, 1895, p. 4.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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