Alexander Wilson (Lynching of)

On October 20, 1919, an African-American man named Alexander (Alex) Wilson was lynched near Marianna (Lee County) for allegedly murdering Ruth Murrah (identified in many newspaper articles as Rosa or Rose), who was about nineteen years old. Wilson had attacked Ruth, who was killed, and a relative named Estelle, who escaped.

There was a Murrah family in Lee County as early as 1880. Charles Murrah was working as a farm laborer in Bear Creek Township and living with his wife, Celia, and their one-year-old daughter, Mary. A family member (probably a daughter) named Clara Belle, age fourteen, married thirty-one-year-old William Clifton in August 1893. By 1900 Murrah, age fifty-four, owned his own farm in Bear Creek Township. Also in the household were his wife, Sela, and children Willie C. (age eighteen), Charles (age ten), Thomas (age eight), and Ruth (age one). At the time of the 1910 census, the children in the home were Ruth (age twelve) and James (age nine). Charles Murrah died on February 5, 1914. According to reports, Celia Murrah died in 1918, leaving Ruth to live with her brother-in-law, William Clifton. She had also apparently inherited the Murrah farm, which Clifton managed for her. As a Ruth Murrah died on October 20, 1919, the date of the murder, it is assumed that she is the Rosa or Rose named in some newspaper articles as the victim.

Clifton also appears in Lee County records. In 1900, he was working as a timber laborer in Hardy Township. Also in the family were his wife, Clara, and children Walter (age five), Carrie (age two), and ten-month-old twins John and James. Although no Estelle is mentioned in 1900, there is a record of the Clifton family in Independence Township (Lee County) in 1920, which includes a twenty-year-old daughter named Stella.

According to newspaper reports, Alex Wilson was a tenant on the Murrah/Clifton farm, where he had only worked for about six months. According to the same reports, he had registered for the World War I draft but was found mentally incompetent. He appears in county records in 1917, when he registered for the draft. At the time, he was twenty-two years old and working for farmer Cal Wilson. That same year, an Alex Wilson, age twenty-two, married Lula Thomas in Lee County.

According to newspaper reports, there were two possible events that precipitated the crime. One was that Wilson had argued with William Clifton about a settlement for the crops he had grown on the farm. Other newspaper reports discounted this, reporting that Clifton had never had any trouble with Wilson. The Arkansas Democrat reported that Wilson had frequently helped Ruth and Estelle move cattle on the farm, and they had, perhaps jokingly, promised him a present in return for his kindness. As Wilson was “half-witted,” their promise “would not leave his mind.” In any case, on the morning of October 20, Ruth and Estelle were taking the stock to pasture when Alex Wilson waylaid them in a heavily wooded area along the way. Armed with a shotgun, Wilson asked Ruth Murrah when they were going to give him his present. The girls were frightened, and Estelle managed to escape. When Ruth tried to follow her, she was shot in the back. Estelle rode to town, where she notified the authorities. In the meantime, Wilson took the gun to the home of his brother, a respected farmer named Harrell Wilson, and fled. Census records indicate that “Harrell” Wilson may have been the same Cal Wilson whom Alex was working for in 1917. (In 1920, an African American named Call Wilson, born in Mississippi around 1871, was living on a cotton farm in Bear Creek Township with his wife, Easter, and several children. He may have been the same person as Collier Wilson, who in 1880 was a nine-year-old living in Monroe County, Mississippi, with his parents Henry and Francis Wilson.)

Sheriff Arthur Carter quickly organized a search, and a posse that included some African Americans who lived near the Murrah farm found Alex Wilson on Whiskey Island, about twelve miles east of Marianna, at 9:00 that night. There are differing reports about what happened next. Some accounts say that the posse was intercepted by a mob of twenty men at 10:30 p.m. about four miles east of Marianna. The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic reported that the posse bringing Wilson back actually encountered a second posse, which accidently killed Wilson. In any event, Wilson was asked to step away from authorities, and when he did so, his body was riddled with bullets. His body was left lying by the roadside, and according to the Democrat, “No resentment was evident Tuesday on the part of any of the negro residents of this community.”

For additional information:
“Negro Murders White Girl; Is Slain by Posse.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, October 21, 1919, p. 1.

“Negro Slayer of Marianna Girl Is Shot to Death.” Arkansas Democrat, October 21, 1919, p. 1.

“Negro Slayer of White Girl Shot to Death.” Arkansas Gazette, October 21, 1919, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina

Last Updated: 08/29/2019