Phillips County Lynching of 1849

In early November 1849, two unidentified slaves were burned to death in Phillips County for allegedly murdering their owner, Henry Yerby. The exact date of the lynching is in doubt; some sources list the date of Yerby’s death as November 9, but the November 8 edition of the Arkansas State Democrat, quoting the Helena Shield, reported that Yerby was murdered “a few days since.”

In the 1830s, Henry Yerby, a native of Virginia, received several land grants near Old Town Lake in Phillips County. On August 14, 1837, he married Emily Marion Dickson there, and he is listed in the 1840 census. He must have owned a number of slaves when he died; the slave schedule compiled in 1850 lists nineteen enslaved people ranging in age from four months to forty-two years in his widow’s household.

In December 1849, several national newspapers, including the Anti-Slavery Bulletin, reported on the murder and lynching. Most of these reports were based on an article published in the Helena Shield, probably on November 17. This same article was the source of a report in the Washington Telegraph on December 5. According to the Telegraph, two of Henry Yerby’s slaves had escaped two or three months earlier. On the morning of November 9, 1849, Yerby went out into his fields with his gun. He had not returned by nightfall, and the following morning a group of neighbors went out to search for him. Around sunset, they found his body buried between some logs about 600 yards from his residence. As the group was readying his body for burial, the two escaped slaves reappeared, reporting that “they were tired [of] lying in the woods.” They claimed to know nothing about Yerby’s death. They, along with two other of Yerby’s slaves, were immediately suspected of the crime. The four were put under guard, and after they were examined separately, it was determined that the two runaways were responsible for the murder. They were immediately tied to a tree and burned to death.

Although the lynching of enslaved persons had been presumed rare by scholars, given the monetary value of slaves, this incident was one of several such lynchings to have occurred in Arkansas, totaling more than a dozen killings in the antebellum era.

For additional information:
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.

“Murder in Phillips County.” Washington Telegraph, December 5, 1849, p. 2.

“Terrible.” Anti-Slavery Bugle (New Lisbon, Ohio), December 15, 1849, p. 3.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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