Jerry Summers: When Justice Prevailed

Thursday, September 17, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Five African-Americans in Hamilton County were hung and/or shot during the “lynch law” era in the South during the post-Civil War days.  One exception to this deplorable situation was during the administration of Hamilton County Sheriff John Skillern in 1892. 

In May 1892, Frank Weims, a black, attempted to sexually assault a white woman in a wooded area in Hill City (North Chattanooga).  Weims was caught immediately and brought to the Hamilton County Jail. Indignation was high, reflecting the bitter social feelings through the South during this time.  Sheriff Skillern, recognizing the potential danger of a mob to attempt to kill the prisoner, immediately sent the prisoner out of town.  As anticipated that night, a riotous crowd stormed the jail only to learn that the prisoner was not there.  Two deputies, jailer Holt and deputy Frank Selcer, acting pursuant to Sheriff Skillern’s orders, began a memorable journey transporting Weims from one jail to another through the state. 

Their job was made difficult by the practice of telegraph operators, contrary to company rules, wiring ahead to Chattanooga rioters and those along the route being informed as to their movements.  At many train stations troublemakers demanded that the officers turn the prisoner over to them for lynching accompanied by threats against the law officers.  Since the officers could not take the prisoner out of Tennessee they found many jails in the state closed to them.

A local newspaper in Middle Tennessee reported that the jails had “standing room only” cards on the front of the jail and that the City of Memphis shook at even at the suggestion that Weims be brought to the Bluff City.  The prisoner was incarcerated in Nashville for a while and several officers were wounded in a confrontation with a mob.  It took a subterfuge of giving Weims a market basket with instructions to walk up the street smoking a cigarette in a casual manner surrounded by three officers guarding him to escape the crowd.

Getting back to Chattanooga the two lawmen left for East Tennessee but were met by a howling and well organized mob at every turn.  Being forewarned that an angry crowd awaited them at the Wauhatchie station, they threw Weims off the train and then jumped after him.  After reaching Chattanooga they hurriedly left on a train bound for Knoxville but, after finding “no room” in the jail there, they went on to Morristown.

In the meantime the conditions had gotten worse in Chattanooga.  An armed mob had demanded that they be allowed to check the jail to see if the prisoner was there.  Sheriff Skillern requested that a committee of citizens perform such task and then persuaded the crowd to disperse.  This, however, did not totally appease the angry group.   A public meeting was called for at the courthouse on May 26 to “reverse the apparent order of the day by putting the law above the wild and wooly mob.”

The meeting was presided over by the Reverend T.H. McCallie who addressed those assembled “on the harm that lawlessness could bring the community.” After much debate a list of resolutions endorsing law and order were approved and adopted by those assembled.  The citizens also applauded Sheriff Skillern and his staff for the way they had handled the case so far. 

The most explosive potential still remained. Weims had to be brought for trial.  Sheriff Skillern met the train in broad daylight at the depot with 75 “trusted, determined, well-armed citizens.” They marched up the middle of the street with the prisoner who would later enter a plea to a charge of “assault with intent to commit rape” and received a sentence of 25 years.

They once again called on the community for help and they responded in assisting the Sheriff to get Weims to the state penitentiary as armed guards to “prevent any violence or unlawful demonstration.”  Skillern and his deputies as well as Judge John A. Moon, who presided over Weims’ trial, were congratulated for the manner in which the unsavory incident was handled.  Hamilton County received accolades all across Tennessee for “its fervent desire and strenuous effort to follow the law.”

Unfortunately, within a year (1893) the community failed to maintain this standard of conduct and returned to the use of the “lynch law” and the first hanging of a young black (Alfred Blount) was held on the Walnut Street Bridge for the assault of an elderly woman in her home in downtown Chattanooga. 

After his second term of office expired in 1894, Sheriff Skillern moved to Idaho where he raised sheep and became the biggest wool producer in the state.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

           

Sheriff John Skillern
Sheriff John Skillern

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