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The Coatesville lynching of 1911

Published August 13. 2011 09:02AM

The Civil War had been over for 46 years when southeastern Pennsylvania became the scene of one of the most horrific racially charged stories of 1911 - the beating, lynching and burning of a black man accused of killing a security guard.

Zachariah Walker, a black man from Virginia, was employed at Worth Brothers Steel Company in Coatesville. Walker was likely under the influence when he left a bar where he and some co-workers had spent an August afternoon drinking. On the way home, he reportedly took out a pistol and fired it in the general direction of two Polish steelworkers who were approaching him on the road from the opposite direction.

The shots didn't strike either man but they did draw the attention of Edgar Rice, a security guard employed by the Worth Brothers, who soon encountered Walker. A hand-to-hand scuffle ensued and escalated to the point of guns being drawn. This time, a shot from Walker's pistol found its mark, killing Rice.

The intoxicated Walker stumbled into a neighbor's barn where he slept off his deadly drinking binge. The next morning, a search party found Walker walking down a dirt road heading out of town. To avoid capture, he climbed a tree and then attempted to commit suicide. The bullet he fired struck him in the jaw and he toppled to the ground.

He was carried to the town hospital and after regaining consciousness, confessed to the killing of Rice but maintained it was in self-defense. Bound by shackles, his left leg was chained by the ankle to the footboard of his hospital bed.

At 6-3 and over 250 pounds, Coatesville Sheriff Charles Umsted had a reputation for being tough. On this day, he added fuel to a volatile situation. As the crowd outside grew larger, he told bystanders that Walker had boasted about killing Rice, but the sheriff made no mention of Walker's claim that it was in self-defense. He also made it known that he would not intervene if there was an attempted lynching.

According to the Tamaqua Courier, a man with a white mask walked up to the steps of the hospital and, facing the growing mob, shouted, "Men, are you going to allow a white man to be downed by a niggar?"

The mob broke into the hospital, overpowered police guards, and grabbed Walker. The crowd outside the hospital "gave a cheer as they saw their leaders come out with the negro," according to the Courier report.

With his ankle still chained to the bed and the footboard dragging behind him, Walker was taken to a farmhouse near the outskirts of town. The howling mob now numbered a thousand or more. As the sheriff had proclaimed earlier, he made no effort to stop the brutality.

Walker was taken to the area where he had shot Rice the day before and fence rails, hay and straw were piled around him. At one point, Walker reportedly shouted: "For God's sake, give a man a chance. I killed Rice in self-defense. Don't give me no crooked death because I ain't white!"

In moments, Walker's body was enveloped in flames.

"Three times did the negro try to escape," the Courier said of the horrifying spectacle. "Each time the men with the fence rails shoved him back in the fire."

The following day, the Coatesville Record remarked on the "politeness" of the crowd.

"Five thousand men, women, and children stood by and watched the proceedings as though it were a ball game or another variety of spectator sport," it stated.

A group of boys stopped for cold soda afterward at the Coatesville Candy Company to talk about the grim spectacle as matter-of-factly as if it was a game. Some returned to the site the next day to gather fragments of bone and charred flesh as souvenirs.

A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people showed up but his speech, which was published in Harper's Weekly, gripped the country.

Here are some quotes from his message:

• "We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it."

• "As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal - a cold thing, an awful thing. I said to myself, 'I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there.'"

• "What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people. For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the amphitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it."

• "There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world. On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it and did nothing."

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