Horace and Fred had been friends since before they could remember. They had always lived nearby and gone to school together. Now 20 and 21, they even worked together. Horace lived with his parents, and Fred lived with his grandfather, a prominent businessman in town. Working together just seemed right, as they had done everything else together up to that point. This Friday they went in to the Pickwick Livery and Transfer like any other day, tending to the horses, and doing whatever unpleasant jobs needed to be done. They then said good night to their boss and went home that night.
In the morning, everything changed.
While they were working, a couple was on a buggy ride a mile away, and the events of the night would forever intertwine their stories. Mina Edwards had recently left her husband, and was in town looking for work. She decided to meet up with an old friend, Charles Cooper. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time and they were catching up in the comfort of the buggy when all of a sudden, as they later told police, they were approached by two black men wearing masks. The men first grabbed Charles, knocking him unconscious and robbing him, and then went to Mina. They took Mina to a nearby field and raped her.
Horrifying to anyone, anywhere, in any time period.
This was Springfield, Missouri in 1906. Springfield had made it through the Civil War after being handed back and forth between the North and South and Springfield was finally shedding it’s image as a wild west sort of town. Yes, Wild Bill Hickok had shot Dave Tutt in a duel on the square, but that was more than 40 years earlier and Springfield had been more established as a modern city now. It was the center of the region and a good place to live.
It was even a relatively good place to live for African Americans like Horace and Fred. They weren’t too far from the Southern states, and the outlying areas were not so welcoming, but Springfield was known regionally as a place of relative tolerance where there were many black men of prominence in the town.
That’s what made it all the more shocking when Horace heard an angry knock on the door of his parents’ house Saturday morning. In the commotion of being arrested, it was only clear that Horace, and Fred, vaguely fit the profile of the men accused of beating Charles Cooper and raping Mina Edwards. Basically, they were two men, who were black, who were seen together Friday night. It didn’t matter that Charles Cooper had said that the men that attacked them were wearing masks, hiding their faces, he was still somehow able to identify them. Even in a relatively tolerant city in those days, that counted as enough evidence.
Horace and Fred were reunited in the jail on the square that morning, it was their first time having any sort of run in with the law. These two that had been lifelong friends now found themselves together, as always, this time in the most horrible of circumstances. They were charged with the rape of a white woman, and they knew the consequences of that charge.
To their fortune, their white employer came to vouch for them. Although he said the same thing they had surely said, that they were unloading stage sets at the Baldwin Theatre blocks away, it meant something more coming from a white man. They didn’t care, they were now free.
It wouldn’t last long.
Charles Cooper then accused the Horace of stealing his watch. A flimsy claim to be sure, since the men had just been freed because they weren’t near the scene. Horace and Fred were now back together yet again, this time taken to the county jail.
Word spread around town of what had happened to Mina Edwards and Charles Cooper and the racial tension that had been felt in the region now had an outlet. Rumors of a mob began to form. The rumors snuck their way into reality quietly at first for Horace and Fred. The noise of hundreds of people soon became unmistakable. The men could hear Sheriff Horner pleading with the mob to no avail. Then the yelling faded as the sounds of force, of scraping tools on brick, and guns going off grew louder.. Fear set in, the mob had stormed through the walls. The iron meant to keep them in, did not hold, and these prisoners meant to be held for the safety of the others were now the ones without the protection from the many.
Horace and Fred were beaten.
They were started down Boonville, being dragged the more than half mile from the jail all the way down to the square.
The crowd had grown to nearly 2,000 by now.
Through the excruciating pain and the blood, surely they knew what was coming, these things happened in their day. But they happened in other places, to other people.
They reached the low point of Boonville in the Jordan Valley, then up the hill as Boonville rises to the square where the iconic and towering Gottfried Tower stood in the middle, complete with a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the top. The irony of that statue was lost on all of the mob there. There were now about 3,000 people there in the dark of the night. They filled the square. It was a sea of anger, probably over many things, but it didn’t really matter, because tonight, they were directed at those two men.
The men were dragged up to the foot of the tower.
Hardly recognizable, the men felt as the ropes were put around their necks and then tightened. They could surely feel the slight tug as the other end of the rope was thrown over the beam. It didn’t matter anymore how innocent they were. It didn’t matter that their white boss had spoken up for them. That’s for the courts, when they’re at their best, not for mobs, mobs don’t have room for that.
Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, these two lifelong friends, who had grown up together, who had worked together the night before, were now together, as the nooses tightened and the course strands of the rope dug into their necks and their feet desperately twitched for ground. These two men were now hanging from the same beam, under the watch of the Statue of Liberty.
Their bodies were doused with coal oil and set afire.
The mob, “overcome with their orgy and filled with exultant frenzy over their success,” as the Springfield Republican put it, marched back to the county jail, found Will Allen, another black man being held for another crime was brought down to the square, where he too, was hanged and lit on fire.
That was 106 years ago.
Springfield still suffers from it.
Gone are the institutional racism, and the pervasive racism of the city where an event like that can occur. A lot has happened in that time. The square is still there, with a plaque memorializing the spot, but obviously, Springfield is not that town anymore. Things have healed, but a scar remains.
Personal stories of trauma can last a lifetime, family stories of trauma can last even longer, and cultural stories that are self inflicted can last generations. Hundreds of black families fled Springfield immediately after the lynchings, and the city’s African American numbers have not caught up to the pre-1906 days since. Truly, Springfield is not that different from other places that aren’t quite sure how to deal with the racial issues of the past. Do you commemorate an event like this? Do you talk about it in hushed tones? Do you cover it in a local history project in social studies in 10th grade? Do you suppress it?
I don’t know.
I just know it’s good to tell stories. It’s good to tell stories that are messy. It’s good to tell stories that are unfinished. It’s good to tell stories that don’t have a neat moral. It’s good to tell stories that don’t tell you how to feel at the end. It’s good to tell stories that make you feel worse at the end.
It’s good to tell stories of race.
Whether we like it or not, it’s still an issue. Particularly in Springfield. Springfield is the second whitest city in America of it’s size, clearly, due in part, to the story above. If anywhere needs to talk about diversity, it’s Springfield. I can go on and on about the advantages of diversity, but I won’t.
Diversity is just about stories, stories that are different from your own, and I think there is value in simply hearing those stories.
That’s why, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, we’re going to be telling stories. About a year and a half ago, I started a spin off show to my show, The Mystery Hour, called So There I Was…A Storytelling Series. In a normal show, we have four storytellers tell a true story from their life, and we have a musician mixed in their as well. This show will be the same thing, but we will have a theme, diversity. Instead of doing it one night, we’re doing it two.
I believe the telling of stories, and the appreciating of stories is what diversity is about, and even in a place like Springfield, and especially in a place like Springfield, we should keep doing that.
So There I Was…A Storytelling Series
Q Enoteca Wine Bar (308 W. Commercial)
Friday, January 13 and Saturday, January 14