May 25 marks anniversary of Tyler lynching

May 26, 2016

May 25 marks the anniversary of a lynching that happened in Tyler in 1912. Guest columnist and historian E.R. Bills describes the events leading up to the lynching of Dan Davis. 

On May 13, 1912, a 16-year-old white girl named Carrie Johnson was attacked along the railroad tracks just outside of Tyler. Her assailants assaulted her, knocked out some of her teeth, partially crushed her skull, cut her throat and left her for dead.

Johnson survived. Her attackers’ knives narrowly missed her jugular vein. She was discovered the next morning.

Johnson did not know or recognize her assailants, but an unidentified man apparently saw a black man in the general vicinity at some point before or after the assault. Based on this unsubstantiated, imprecise information, a rudimentary circular was created by a Tyler police officer and distributed around the state. The circular eventually found itself in the hands of Henry Burch, a farmer who lived near Powell, seventy miles to the northwest. Davis had been doing work for Burch and Burch thought he resembled the suspect portrayed in the Tyler circular.

On May 24, Burch got a car, solicited the help of three Powell-area citizens and seized Davis. He then relayed the capture to Tyler officials and began driving to Athens. Meanwhile, a 75-person Tyler contingent caught the first train to Athens. 

The Athens authorities took control of Davis but were confronted by the Tyler contingent and two hundred locals who believed Davis should be returned to Tyler for identification. Athens authorities relinquished custody of Davis after the Tyler constituency assured them that Davis would not be “molested” until his guilt was established.

The Tyler contingent (along with eighty residents of Athens) arrived home with the suspect in tow and Carrie Johnson was sent for to provide identification. A mob one thousand strong met Davis and his escort at the train depot and another crowd formed at the public square.

Tyler law enforcement personnel addressed the growing mob at the railroad station, requesting that no action be taken until the identification of the suspect had been established. The mob acquiesced, but followed the Tyler authorities and the prisoner to the county jail.

As the procession passed the public square, the prospect of lynching Davis was straightaway revisited, but, by then the victim’s father had joined the escort and entreated the crowd to stay its hand until his daughter confirmed the suspect’s guilt. 

The procession made it to the county jail and while the mob waited for Johnson to arrive, the authorities apparently questioned Davis. According to the Dallas Morning News, Davis “broke down under the constant fire” of his interrogators and implicated an accomplice who was currently being held in a Waco jail. Davis reportedly claimed his confederate was responsible for the attempted throat-slitting but admitted to striking Johnson in the face with a railroad spike, “stunning her so that she could make no resistance.”

The instant that Davis’ confession was recorded, preparations for his lynching accelerated. The mob decided that his coerced admission was enough and that a identification was unnecessary. Tyler law enforcement personnel objected, but to no avail.

At 4:00 a.m. on May 25, Davis was bound to a steel rail in the public square. Then, various combustibles were stacked around him and a torch was applied. The subsequent flames consumed him in twenty minutes, but not before he supposedly begged his executioners to cut his throat with a razor.

Davis’ guilt was never confirmed by Carrie Johnson or substantiated in general—he was likely like most other black men in the South: Easily accused, virtually defenseless and perpetually conveniently scapegoated.

E. R. Bills is the author of Black Holocaust: The Paris Horror and a Legacy of Texas Terror (2015) and The 1910 Slocum Massacre: Ac Act of Genocide in East Texas (2014).