Alph (Lynching of)

A mob of white residents of Benton County lynched Alph, an enslaved African-American man, on August 20, 1849. Alph was accused of murdering his enslaver, James J. Anderson, whose father had homesteaded near what is now the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and who himself owned land in Bentonville (Benton County).

In early August 1849, Alph was accused of some improper conduct, prompting Anderson to separate him from his wife by taking him downstate to be sold. According to the Arkansas Gazette, during that trip, after passing through Van Buren (Crawford County) on the way to Fort Smith (Sebastian County), Alph killed Anderson on August 4, around noon. Alph subsequently appeared in Fayetteville (Washington County) on Sunday, August 5, around 3:00 p.m., riding Anderson’s horse and dressed in his clothes. Alph confided to a free Black person that he had killed his master.

Alph’s appearance and the absence of Anderson raised suspicion. Soon, members of the white community began a search for both Alph and Anderson. A posse of men headed north to look for Alph. Four more men set out to the south to locate Anderson: prominent local figures Alfred M. Wilson and Alexander Dinsmore (Dinsmore was a brother-in-law to Anderson); a Mr. Keats; and a Reverend Stout (possibly William C. Stout) from the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.

Alph was near where his wife still lived, about twenty-five miles north of Fayetteville, when the posse drew close and shot him twice. Alph eluded the men and returned to the house. He was washing his wounds when the posse arrived. Alph escaped again but left his pantaloons behind. The posse found Anderson’s purse, containing about $14, in a pocket. The garment showed a hole, indicating that a shot must have lodged in Alph’s hip. Clotted blood on the suspenders indicated he had been shot in the shoulder. Alph remained at large, and the posse left under the assumption that he was mortally wounded.

The search party passed through Van Buren on Tuesday, August 7. They recovered Anderson’s body in Crawford County, about 150 yards from the road on Vache Grasse (an area of fertile river bottom), beyond Fort Smith. Anderson’s skull was fractured and his throat slit. They passed through Van Buren on their way back to Fayetteville on the following day. Anderson was buried in a family cemetery on the Anderson homestead.

Alph survived his wounds from the posse. It was not until Monday, August 13, that he was persuaded to surrender by an unidentified Black man enslaved by a white Benton County farmer named Joseph McBroom. He subsequently spent three days in Fayetteville, possibly in jail, and was forced by his captors to undergo questioning to satisfy the white community’s fear of collusion between himself and members of the Black community in Washington County.

Following Alph’s surrender, some white citizens of Benton County formed a “committee of investigation,” or effectively a lynch mob, that intended to enact vigilante justice in his case. In the meantime, a Crawford County court indicted him for murder. On Monday, August 20, without consulting the Crawford County court or any other court of law, a lynch mob of white citizens hanged Alph. The Arkansas Intelligencers report of these events included a statement from an anonymous “gentleman from Bentonville” that some of the persons present that day came prepared to “apply the Lynch law” but others objected. The matter was put to a vote, and a large majority was in favor of it.

The Arkansas Intelligencer also stated that once on the scaffold, Alph pointed a finger at an unidentified white man, declaring that the man had urged him to commit the murder. The newspaper account added that Alph had induced Anderson to get off his horse by saying that there was something the matter with his horse’s foot. Then, when Anderson was on the ground, he attacked him with a club, and afterward cut his throat.

Alph’s enslaver, James J. Anderson (1814–1849), was born in Madison County, Kentucky. He moved with his parents, Colonel Hugh Allen Anderson and Mary Allan Anderson, along with his siblings, from Lawrence County, Alabama, to Benton County in 1836, about the time the county was founded. In the U.S. federal census records, Anderson was not identified as a slaveholder. However, his father, Col. Anderson, was holding fourteen individuals enslaved in 1830 and twenty-one in 1840. In 1849, Anderson was a widower, the father of one daughter, the administrator of his deceased father’s estate, and one of three partners in a Benton County sawmill.

A burial record for Alph is most likely nonexistent, though there is a possibility that, after the lynching, his body may have been interred in the slave cemetery on the Anderson homeplace.

The enslaved community was persistent in challenging the inhumanity of their enslavement in overt and subtle ways. This reality put white slaveholders constantly on guard against any sign within the Black community of resistance or collusion that might lead to an uprising. Alph was accused of premeditated murder and also of disclosing his murderous intentions to some free Blacks. The only person known to have been tried for collusion in this instance was John Smith, a free Black man living in Washington County. Washington County district court records show that Smith was called to appear October 18, 1849, to face an indictment of accessory after the fact of murder. Smith posted a bond of $500, matched jointly by such influential men as Jonas Tebbetts and David Walker, as security for his appearance in the following session of court. At the March 1850 session, Smith was acquitted.

For additional information:
Arkansas Intelligencer (Van Buren), August 25, 1849, p. 2.

“Horrible Murder.” Weekly Arkansas Gazette, August 16, 1849, p. 2.

Jones, Kelly Houston. “‘Doubtless Guilty’: Lynching and Slaves in Antebellum Arkansas.” In Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840–1950, edited by Guy Lancaster. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

“Lynching in Arkansas” and “Murder.” The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), November 9, 1849, p. 4.

Margaret Holcomb
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Last Updated: 07/30/2021