Phillips County Lynching of 1859
Historians of racial violence long contended that those held in slavery were not often lynched due to the value tied to their living bodies. However, greater inquiry into the matter has revealed a greater number of slave lynchings than previously thought. One such event occurred on August 17, 1859, near Helena (Phillips County).
The event in question is so far known from a single article in the August 24, 1859, Des Arc Citizen newspaper published in Des Arc (Prairie County). According to this report, which draws upon information from the Southron newspaper of Helena, on August 11, “a negro man, belong to J. W. Carpenter, Esq., near Helena, struck Mr. Robert Bickers (Mr. Carpenter’s overseer) on the head, with an ax, breaking his skull, and causing his death.” The man in question concealed himself among the fodder in the barn for several days, “until he was compelled to have something to eat,” whereupon he was spied by an enslaved woman, who relayed information as to his whereabouts, apparently to Carpenter.
On August 17, the unnamed man “was taken and hung, at or near the spot where he committed the murder. The people of the whole neighborhood were present; and his body was permitted to hang until the evening of the 18th inst., as a warning and spectacle to other negroes.” As historian Kelly Houston Jones has written, while such executions did result in a loss of property, that could be outweighed by the “desire to make an example out of the man to other bondspeople.”
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 by a Negro—The Murderer Hung.” Des Arc Citizen, August 24, 1859, p. 3.
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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