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Fulton County, Georgia, March 16, 1899
On March 16,1899, nine African American men were shot by a white mob and five of them were killed; John Bigby, Henry Bingham, Edward Brown, Bud Cotton, and Tip Hutson. A masked mob of white men opened fire on the men at a warehouse where they were being held after being accused of arson.
In February and March of 1899, there had been a series of fires in Palmetto and suspicion was directed to the African American men in the town. At least nine men were taken into custody and placed in a warehouse. At the time, reports state that the local jailhouse had burned down. Not much is known about why these men were apprehended, but the warehouse where the nine African American men were being held was owned by the same man who collected a $300 fee for apprehending them.
In a strictly maintained racial caste system, white lives and white property held heightened value, while the lives of black people held little or none. White people accused of crimes during this era, and certainly those accused of arson, were much more likely to be tried, convicted, and punished by the legal system than by a mob. Lynching, a statement of racial terror and white supremacy, was largely reserved for black suspects. Race, rather than the alleged offense, sealed lynching victims’ fates.
It was reported that Bud Cotton confessed to several acts of arson and in doing so implicated the other men who were apprehended alongside him. A local newspaper printed that “It is practically certain now that news of the confession which spread quickly throughout the town brought on the mob yesterday morning which had determined not to let guilty men run the risk before a jury of being acquitted.” During this era, Black suspects in the south were regularly subjected to beatings, torture, and threats of lynching during police interrogations. In many infamous cases, these tactics led innocent men and women to confess to crimes they did not commit under extreme pain and fear for their lives. News reports eagerly reported these confessions as truthful justifications for the brutal lynchings that followed, but without fair investigation or trial, the confession of a lynching victim was always more reliable evidence of fear than guilt.
The day after the ambush on the warehouse, six men were assembled to form a jury to determine if any members of the mob could be identified. Two guards and one of the injured men stated that they could not identify any members of the mob. John Bigby, who was still fighting for his life at that time, identified two white men as members of the mob but was not believed. The jury determined that the “deceased met death from gunshot wounds inflicted by hands of unknown parties.”
Like in the case of John Bigby, Bud Cotton, Edward Brown, Henry Bingham, and Tip Hutson, whites’ allegations against black people were rarely subject to scrutiny and often sparked violent reprisal even when there was no evidence tying the accused to any offense. Nearly all documented lynching victims never had a chance to stand trial for their alleged crimes.
April 13, 2019