Ask McGehee: What are the details of the marker concerning a lynching in Mobile?

A postcard image of the new annex to the Mobile County Courthouse facing Royal Street.
A postcard image of the new annex to the Mobile County Courthouse facing Royal Street. The entrance to the new jail on Church Street is just visible to the left. At its completion, it had been termed “the most modern and impregnable jail in the South.” // Photo courtesy Tom McGehee

At roughly 1:15 a.m. on the morning of January 23, 1909, a group of two dozen armed, masked men strolled into what was then called the New Jail at 104 Church Street and held a gun on a deputy to obtain the keys to the cells. A prisoner was taken by force out onto the street and dragged west. He was then shot three times and his corpse was left hanging from a tree opposite the city’s oldest Episcopal church.

The jail was barely a year old and had been considered quite an improvement over its ancient predecessor, which stood on Congress Street between Jefferson and Broad streets. In 1906, that facility had twice been attacked by mobs of some 500 men looking for an inmate to lynch. On nights in August, and again in October, surging masses had stormed through the wooden portals into the jail’s forecourt.

During the October incident, the news account stated that the armed mob “shot a fusillade of shots,” hitting Alderman Sidney Lyons in the hand and killing one policeman. On both of those nights, the men finally left without their intended targets for the same reason: the suspects had been whisked to a train headed north and deposited in the Jefferson County jail for safekeeping.

The New Jail

- Sponsors -

Mobile County’s new jail was built with these assaults fresh on everyone’s minds. Architect Rudolph Benz designed the 1889 Mobile County Courthouse on Government Street in a style termed “German Renaissance.” By 1907, an expansion was needed, and Benz was called on to create an annex facing Royal Street with a new jail fronting Church Street in a much more classical style.

Besides being equipped with a set of heavy wooden doors, Benz added an additional set made of steel. Security would not be an issue here as it had over on Congress Street. Another benefit was that the sheriffs would no longer need to transport the defendants some two miles through busy city streets for trials. One upstate newspaper termed it “the most modern and impregnable jail in the South.”

How It Began

On the morning of January 21, two sheriff’s deputies approached a house under construction on Warren Street near Eslava Street. The day before, a carpenter named Richard Robertson had gotten into a fight with two plumbers on the job site, reportedly when they refused to share a plug of tobacco with him. Robertson got the better of them, and they filed a warrant on charges of assault and battery and “abusive language.”

As the two sheriff deputies routinely stepped out of their wagon, warrants in hand, Robertson appeared in the open doorway, pulled a pistol from inside his jacket and fired. Philip Fatch, a seasoned member of the force, was mortally shot in the stomach before firing back, while his partner was slightly injured. Robertson escaped despite suffering from the return fire. He was soon captured and taken to the county jail where the prison doctor tended to him.

Ironically, it had been Fatch who had saved one of the men from the 1906 lynch mob by getting him out of the jail just ten minutes before their arrival and putting him on a northbound train. Fatch had recently lost his wife, and his three children between ages 2 and 10 were placed in an orphanage.

Rumors Fly

Word quickly spread about the death of a white sheriff deputy by a Black man and grumblings of a lynching began to be heard. Former district attorney James H. Webb went to the jail and spoke with county Sheriff Frank Cazalas, Sr. Webb told him point blank that the rumors of a lynching were rampant and that he should take precautions.

Instead, Cazalas left for home early that evening and made no attempt to secure the jail. The massive doors were not locked. Early the next morning, the mob simply walked in and found one deputy seated with his back to the door while his partner was engrossed in the pages of a book. They handed over Robertson’s cell key and were told to keep their seats as the man was dragged outside.

The lynching occurred on the southeast corner of St. Emanuel and Church streets. Today, the once-residential neighborhood has been replaced by a parking lot and the eastern approach to the Wallace Tunnels. That such lawlessness could occur in Mobile outraged a growing number of citizens.

A Resolution to the Governor

On Sunday morning, churchgoers heard their pastors condemn the incident. And that afternoon, a group of prominent men with names like Armbrecht, Whiting, Danner and Harrison, met in the office of former mayor Joseph C. Rich. They drafted one resolution condemning the lynching and wrote another to gather evidence and prosecute the men who were responsible. They also sent a resolution to Governor B. B. Comer in Montgomery, demanding that he determine if the sheriff had properly protected the life of his prisoner, as he was sworn to do.

The news of the incident hit every newspaper in the state, with different results. Montgomery’s Alabama Times sniffed, “The Times is not surprised. Mobile’s shameless disregard of state laws against Sunday ball playing or their stating that the prohibition of alcohol would not be treated with respect” obviously led to the lawlessness prevailing in the port city.

An Expression of Anarchy

The Birmingham News declared the lynching to be “one of the worst crimes ever committed in this state,” terming it “an expression of anarchy. It is the duty of every law-abiding citizen of Mobile to assist in the apprehension and punishment of the men who brought this stigma upon the fair name of Mobile.”

In yet another Birmingham editorial — under the heading of “STOP THIS LAWLESSNESS!” — a writer observed, “Lynchings are no way to attract desirable people” to our state. “Bring the guilty parties to justice!”

The Mobile Register weighed in: “The man had been wounded by the pistol of the deputy he killed with the gallows awaiting him. Men should be made to know that they cannot take the law into their own hands whenever they feel so inclined.”

Not everyone agreed with this line of thought. A letter signed “the Lynchers” appeared in the Mobile Register claiming they were just helping to keep the peace.

On March 1, 1909, a Mobile County Grand Jury concluded that “knowledge of a rumored lynching had been given to the sheriff by a reputable citizen and, despite this knowledge, he went to his home four miles away.” On the following day, Governor Comer commenced impeachment proceedings via the state supreme court.

State Supreme Court Decision

In May, that court was in session and one reporter observed, “With logic and careful determination [Mobile attorney Palmer Pillans] went after the scalp of the defendant.” He began by declaring, “The fair name of Alabama has too often been blotted by deliberate chains of homicides wrongfully called lynchings.”

Mr. Webb’s testimony of having warned the sheriff was heard and far outweighed the defense counsel’s claim that Cazalas was “deaf” and may not have heard the warning. Pillans went on to remind Cazalas that those steel reinforced doors of the jail were “not for ornamental purposes.” Pillans also brought to light the incompetence of the two men Cazalas had left in charge that night and the fact that they were still in his employ. 

The Cazalas defense team, in turn, made the claim that the sheriff had witnessed the 1906 mob attacks on the jail and this incident in no way resembled it. Therefore, he had every right to go home and turn in for the night.

The state’s highest justices ruled 5-2 for impeachment.

The Selma Times declared, “a blow for the observance of law in all its majesty has been struck by the findings of the state supreme court.” 

Unfortunately, none of the members of the group that lynched Richard Robertson were identified or brought to justice. However, no mob ever broke into the county jail again.

By the 1940s, the jail and courthouse facilities were beyond repair and were replaced in the next decade. Today, the entire block tells a very different story as home to Mobile’s Mardi Gras Park.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!