William Sharp (Murder of)
Several online lynching lists and the Equal Justice Initiative indicate that an African American man named George Bert was lynched in Desha County on July 21, 1883. Investigation of this lynching reveals a number of confusing reports. While the Wheeling Intelligencer lists the victim as George Bert, other papers identify him as Albert Beth, Albert Best, Albert Vess, and Albert Vest. The incident also led to an interesting discussion at the time on the state’s practice of leasing state prisoners to convict farms across Arkansas.
The reported lynching arose out of the murder of a prisoner named William Sharp by an overseer named Alfred Werner (occasionally referred to as Warner) on the Desha County prison farm. (The Wheeling Intelligencer gives the name of the prisoner as Charles Mast rather than William Sharp, the only paper to do so.) Little is known about Sharp except that he was the son of a widowed mother and had come to Arkansas from Illinois to work as a machinist. Alfred Werner, however, appears in public records. In 1880, a twenty-six-year-old single white farmer named Alfa Warner was living in Red Fork Township in Desha County. He was born in Russia in 1854. Alfred Werner may also have been the Crittenden County deputy who was killed in the line of duty in 1895. According to the Wheeling Intelligencer, Alfred Werner’s brother was elected clerk of Crittenden County in 1882 and his sister was a music teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1880, a man named W. F. Warner was living in Jackson Township in Crittenden County with his daughter, Ludzia. He was born in Poland around 1845. He later served as sheriff of Crittenden County from 1884 to 1894. He was involved in the Crittenden County Expulsion in 1888 and died in 1910. The Werner siblings are buried near their sister Winka in the Vincent Cemetery in Crawfordsville (Crittenden County).
When William Sharp arrived in Desha County in 1883, he was virtually penniless. He reportedly appealed to a doctor’s wife, one Mrs. King, for room and board in return for future wages. She agreed. At the time of Sharp’s arrest, the amount he owed her was between $1.50 and $2.00. She filed no charges, but G. W. Hundly, the constable of Red Fork Township, arrested Sharp without a warrant and took him to Justice of the Peace Joseph H. Jones, who fined him $10. When Sharp could not pay, he ordered him jailed until he was able to pay the fine and costs. As was customary in Desha County, Hundly then transferred Sharp to Alfred Werner, who was at the time contracted by the county to work all county convicts.
Perhaps the best account of the events following Sharp’s arrest is found in the Arkansas Gazette on September 12, 1883. The article—titled “Condemned”—recounts the resolutions arrived at following a mass meeting of citizens in Watson (Desha County). While the meeting was called to consider the August granting of bail to Werner by the county judge, the resolutions also contain details about Sharp’s death. After Sharp was arrested, Werner soon put him to work doing farm labor, something with which Sharp, a machinist, was unfamiliar. According to the resolution, Werner “evinced a desire to abuse and maltreat Sharp” and beat him daily from July 10 until July 16. That last day, Werner ordered Sharp to be whipped four times and was present at the final one of these beatings. According to the Wheeling Intelligencer, three other prisoners whipped Sharp (here called Charles Mast) with “a four-found strap, with a club handle, in form of a Russian knot.” The beating continued until they had broken several of his ribs, some of which were penetrating the skin. Sharp asked Werner for mercy, but none was given. On July 31, 1883, the Arkansas Democrat called the crime “one of the darkest crimes that ever disgraced the state.” The Democrat article uses the name Werner for the overseer and the name George Best for one of the prisoners. The report in the Wheeling Intelligencer also asserted that “Werner is known to have killed two other men in the vicinity during the last year or two, and rumor has it that others have been slaughtered and buried in the night time by him.”
Sharp was then confined to jail with his ankles bound, and he died later that day. Werner had him buried early the following morning, failing to inform the coroner or the justice of the peace. An inquest was held before Squire L. W. Watson on July 18, and Sharp’s body was also exhumed that day. There were many witnesses as to how Sharp was treated both on the farm and while confined to jail. The jurors agreed to the facts as stated above and concluded that Alfred Werner and three convicts—the names given here as Albert Bess, Deen Freeman, and Herman Johnson—were guilty of murder, whereupon they were detained in the Desha County Jail to await the next session of the Desha circuit court.
The sheriff then started out with Werner and the three prisoners for Arkansas City (Desha County), the county seat, on the steamer Ida Darragh. According to the Memphis Daily Appeal, the steamer arrived in Memphis on July 22 carrying news of “a stirring encounter with an enraged mob at a point about thirty miles above the mouth of the river.” As the steamboat neared Burnett’s Landing near Red Fork, a mob of several hundred people began firing on the boat, wounding Werner. One of the convicts (presumed to be Bert/Vest et al.) jumped into the river and was either shot or drowned. After this encounter, the boat made no stops or landings and met the steamboat City of New Orleans near the mouth of the White River. The sheriff and his two remaining prisoners then boarded that steamer to complete the trip to Arkansas City.
On July 28, 1883, the Arkansas Weekly Mansion published a slightly different account, dated July 22 at Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). According to the Mansion, after the inquest, 500 citizens of Red Fork Township “marched to the convict farm and arrested the contractor and his henchmen, with all the prisoners and escorted them to Red Fork Landing and sent them to Arkansas City.” While they were at the landing, someone in the crowd shot Werner, described as “a Polish Jew.” He was later put in the jail “in a precarious position” while he awaited the grand jury verdict. On the way to Arkansas City, one of the men (presumably Bert/Vest et al.) who whipped Sharp scuffled with a Deputy Bynum and took his gun. Bynum threw him into the river, where he drowned. Werner and the rest of “the gang” were taken via Helena (Phillips County) “to save their infamous necks.”
The Mansion was the first Arkansas paper to criticize the Arkansas convict system in this instance. It praised local citizens “for breaking up the public nuisance in Desha county, as public opinion throughout the state is against the law and in the counties where the whites are in the majority, the county judges dare not establish such a rule for their political friends.” The law referred to was a statute passed in 1881 allowing counties to lease out county convicts to farmers in the area, who would then reimburse the county for their services. These convicts were supervised by overseers and were not closely supervised by prison officials. Governor James H. Berry, who served from 1883 to 1885, decried the system, asserting that “where so many different parties are in charge, some will prove brutal.” He described the leasing system as “uncivilized, inhumane, and wrong.”
On August 12, the Memphis Daily Appeal also commented on the convict farm system, specifically referring to the events in Desha County, saying that if it were, as intended, “properly guarded and humanely conducted” it could be “made a fruitful source of revenue to the county…a wholesome restraint upon those criminally inclined…[and a] healthful, though vigorous means for the liquidation of criminal penalties.” However, it said, the men administering the farms often came from “a class of men who, in all save the actual commission of crime, are but little better than the miserable creatures they are set out to govern.” In the use of the cat-’o-nine-tails, which had largely been given up because of its savagery, “barbarous cruelties” resulted. The Appeal bemoaned the fact that “the slaughter of one of these unfortunates attracts little more attention than the killing of a dog.” Over time, calls for more control increased, but the system was not abolished until 1913.
Once again, the resolutions passed by the mass meeting in Watson on September 7 give the clearest picture of what happened next. In August, Desha County judge B. F. Merritt granted bail to Alfred Werner, and Sheriff Isaac Bankston, who was the only person who could receive the bond, took Werner to Memphis “on the frivolous pretense to give said Werner a chance to make his bond.” Sheriff Bankston got what was “pretendedly called a bond” signed by two persons, W. T. Werner and E. C. Roseberry, each of whom provided $5,000. According to the sense of the mass meeting, they had “reasons to believe that neither of said parties are worth said amount, and more especially do we feel confident that said Roseberry is not.” In addition, the bond was not legal because Roseberry’s signature on the affidavit of qualification of property did not match his signature on the bond. The opinion of those at the mass meeting was that the “official conduct of B. F. Merritt…is highly reprehensible,” and that of Sheriff Bankston “an outrage on the common right.”
Werner was eventually tried. His trial was moved from Desha County to the circuit court in Jefferson County, where in late November the defense moved for a continuance because some of its witnesses were absent. The judge, however, denied the motion and ruled that the trial would be held during the current session. On December 21, four ex-convicts who had witnessed Sharp’s whipping testified that Albert Best had called Werner over to report that Sharp either could not or would not work. Werner had other prisoners restrain Sharp while Dan Freeman stripped him. Six men held him down while Isaac Freeman flogged him. Sharp then asked for mercy, but Werner allowed Freeman to hit him five more times before stopping him, saying that the beating could continue the following day. He then took Sharp to jail, where he died.
The following day, the defense presented five African American witnesses who testified that Sharp’s whipping had occurred before Werner arrived on the scene and that he stopped it when he arrived. Three of them, however, said that Werner had paid their expenses for attending the trial. The magistrate who originally convicted Sharp and the constable who turned him over to Werner confirmed Sharp’s guilt and said that the usual procedures were followed when Sharp was turned over to Werner. The state, however, noted that Sharp was wrongfully imprisoned because he had been arrested without a warrant. On December 23, Werner was convicted and sentenced to twenty-one years hard labor. The defense requested a retrial, which was denied on January 18, 1884, and Werner was ordered to serve his sentence.
For additional information:
“An Arkansas Mob.” Memphis Daily Appeal, July 24, 1883, p. 4.
“Arkansas Lands: Convict Farms.” Memphis Daily Appeal, August 12, 1883, p. 2.
“Condemned.” Arkansas Gazette, September 12, 1883, p. 4.
“A Diabolical Outrage.” Arkansas Democrat, July 31, 1883, p. 2.
“Further Progress of the Werner Trial.” Arkansas Gazette, December 22, 1883, p. 1.
“Inhuman Deed.” Wheeling Intelligencer, July 25, 1883, p. 1.
Ledbetter, Calvin R., Jr. “The Long Struggle to End Convict Leasing in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 52 (Spring 1993): 1–27.
“Uprising of the Citizens of Desha Col., Ark. At Red Fork, against the Convict Farm.” Arkansas Weekly Mansion, July 28, 1883, p. 1.
“Werner’s Trial.” Arkansas Gazette, December 21, 1883, p. 1.
Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina
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