Ask McGehee

Yes, a lynching took place on the southeast corner of Church and St. Emanuel streets (when those two streets used to intersect) in the early morning hours of January 23, 1909. A group estimated at 20 to 30 masked men walked into the Mobile County Jail on Church Street shortly after midnight and left with Richard Roberson. His body was found hanging from a tree soon after.

Witnesses said that the crowd carried Roberson from the jail, and he made no sound or attempt to break free. According to a newspaper account, when he was dropped to the ground he began to cry out loudly and struggle until three shots rang out. A rope was placed around his neck, and his body was hoisted up. His killers quickly dispersed into the darkness.

In the Dark of the Night

The horrific event took place in a prosperous neighborhood adjoining the city’s oldest Episcopal church. Several residents awoke to the sound of the man’s screams and the gunfire and called the police.

The dead man was being held for the murder of a young deputy sheriff named Phillip Fatch and the wounding of his partner. Roberson, a carpenter, had been part of a construction crew building a house on Lawrence Street when he got into a fistfight with one of the plumbers who swore out a warrant against Roberson for assault and battery. Two deputies were sent to arrest Roberson, who opened fire on them as they approached the house. Fatch was fatally shot and his partner wounded.

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The deputies managed to wound the carpenter, who fled out a back door and scrambled over a fence where a pair of policemen, drawn by the 22 gunshots, promptly arrested him. After being treated in the jail’s hospital, Roberson was assigned to a jail cell.  

As the day progressed, rumors about an impending lynching were rampant. Attorney James H. Webb later testified that he warned Sheriff Frank Cazalas Sr. about the likelihood of mob violence and a lynching, but to no avail. Webb left the building and commented to a friend, “They are going to lynch that man as sure as a gun is iron.”

That evening, Cazalas left for home as if it were any other night. He made no special attempt to increase security or make any precaution against a violent mob. Curious crowds gathered around the building as darkness fell, and witnesses recalled seeing a group of men “keeping in the shadows, seldom showing in well-lighted spaces.”

Around midnight, those men, pistols in hand, entered the jail and told the two jailers to put up their hands, hand over the keys and stay away from the telephone. They retrieved Roberson from his cell and carried him out to his cruel fate.

A Lynching that Made a Difference

While Mobilians were accustomed to reading about horrific lynchings around the South in 1909, the idea that the newly built jail could not keep out a mob and that such a thing could happen in front of a church outraged many of Mobile’s citizens. Several of the city’s ministers took to their pulpits to condemn the event as well as vigilante violence in general. A group of local attorneys pressured the mayor to start an investigation and demanded that Governor Braxton Bragg “B.B.” Comer impeach the sheriff. Money was raised for a reward leading to the conviction of those responsible. 

One of those attorneys, William H. Armbrecht Sr., took things even further by bringing in federal authorities. This was a first; up until this time, lynchings were considered a state rather than a federal matter. Armbrecht also involved the U. S. Postal Service, asking them to investigate hate mail believed to have been written by the killers.

The resulting trial in the Alabama Supreme Court revealed that the newly completed county jail was indeed well built and equipped to keep out any sort of a mob. Witnesses testified that Cazalas had received numerous warnings of an impending lynching but did not act. As one justice stated, “The law is severe and the evil it is intended to correct demands strenuous measures of protection.” The justices ruled 5 to 2 that the sheriff had been willfully negligent in his duty and ordered him removed from office.

Within a year, rumors of a potential lynching of a county inmate ended very differently. When a group of masked men approached the jail, they were met by heavily armed sheriff’s deputies, who kept their prisoner safe for trial. No prisoner in a Mobile jail was ever again taken by a mob.

This is not to say that Mobile was free of this evil, however. In 1981, Michael Donald, an 18-year-old who had simply been walking down the street after dark, was abducted by Klansmen. His was the last recorded lynching in the United States, and the subsequent trial resulted in the execution of one of those responsible and the bankruptcy of the United Klans of America. Herndon Avenue in Mobile, on which the crime took place, was renamed Michael Donald Avenue in 2006.

Text by Tom McGehee

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