Sylvester Churchill (Lynching of)

On October 20, 1885, a white man named Sylvester Churchill was lynched in Murfreesboro (Pike County) by being burned alive for having apparently murdered a local man named W. F. Brooks. This was the second time in as many months that the local jail was set afire; on September 6, 1885, brothers Henry and Sylvester Polk had been burned alive when a mob set fire to the new jail.

Churchill’s apparent victim was, according to early reports in the Arkansas Gazette, named Dennis Brooks, but an account of the lynching that appeared in the Pike County Sentinel on October 22, 1885, and was reprinted in the Arkansas Gazette five days later, gave his name as W. F. Brooks. Reportedly, there had been a longstanding grudge of an unspecified nature between Brooks, a resident of Langley (Pike County), and Churchill, who had previously lived in Langley but had since relocated to Scott County. The 1880 census lists a Sylvester Churchill, age sixteen, as well as a William F. Brooks, then age eighteen, with both residing in Mountain Township of Pike County—the township that contains Langley. Churchill is listed as a farm worker, while Brooks is listed as a farmer.

On October 10, Churchill was visiting Langley “armed with a brace of pistols and a Winchester.” Though Brooks feared for his life, Churchill behaved in a friendly manner toward him when they encountered one another, shaking hands and striking up “some conversation concerning the cost of his Winchester.” However, that evening, as Brooks was heading home (apparently from his work at a lumber mill), Churchill fatally shot him in the back and then escaped, pursued by a posse.

The Gazette reported these events on October 20, 1885, and the following day, it reported that “the murdered man’s brother, accompanied by Fayette Epperson” managed to catch up to Churchill, whereupon “a fight ensured in which the murderer was killed and Fayette Epperson badly wounded,” but this report was in error, and the Gazette corrected its report the following day.

Instead of being killed by the posse, Churchill was taken prisoner. The Pike County Sentinel reported that Churchill later neither denied the murder of Brooks nor provided any reason for it “except that he did not like him.” Upon being taken to the site of the murder, he demonstrated to his captors where he stood when he committed the deed. He was then placed into the old jail at Murfreesboro, described by the Southern Standard of Arkadelphia (Clark County) as “a wooden building without doors, a ladder and a trap-door in the roof being the only means of communication.” The mob “saturated the lower parts of the building with coal oil and set it on fire,” after which “Churchill appeared at the grated windows and piteously begged the mob to shoot him and not burn him alive, but his appeals were in vain.” According to the account in the Pike County Sentinel, local residents quickly gathered around the building, “but unfortunately they were too late to save the prisoner whose cries and entreaties stirred the tenderest feelings of pity in every man’s breast who heard it.”

The actions of the mob were roundly condemned in the newspapers, especially given that two different jail buildings in Murfreesboro had been incinerated by mobs within the span of less than two months.

For additional information:
“The Jail in Pike County Again Burned by Mob.” Southern Standard, October 24, 1885, p. 2.

“The Pike County Atrocity.” Arkansas Gazette, October 27, 1885, p. 2.

“Retribution.” Arkansas Gazette, October 21, 1885, p. 1.

“Shot in the Back.” Arkansas Gazette, October 20, 1885, p. 4.

Untitled. Arkansas Gazette, October 22, 1885, p. 4.

Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Last Updated: 03/10/2022

Entry