Editor's note: In this series, local author David Aaron Moore talks about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte. If you have any questions, submit your inquires to [email protected].
Q. Is it true that Charlotte was once the scene of a lynching? — Doug Roberts, Houston, Texas
A. I've written about this before, and in all the research I have done, I've never uncovered any evidence that Charlotte proper was ever the scene of a lynching. However, in 1906, a lynch mob in nearby Rowan County attacked and killed three African-American men, all for purported killings they were never taken to trial for. Three other men also arrested in conjunction with the same crimes were spared when they were moved to Charlotte for safe keeping.
Until 1913, that was Charlotte's only brush with mob killings, or lynchings, as they were often referred to. No other records exist and city leaders claim that no such heinous incident had ever before occurred in the Queen City.
That changed on Aug. 26, 1913, when an angry mob of 35 men dragged one Joe McNeely from his bed at Good Samaritan hospital and forced him out into the streets where he was fired upon more than 20 times.
On Aug. 21, McNeeley was arrested for the shooting of Charlotte Policeman L.L. Wilson.
The fact that a law enforcement agent had been shot, and that his supposed attacker was an African-American man, was outrageous for many of the traditional Southern separatists who made their home in and around Charlotte at that time. For these individuals, the due process of law was not fast enough to curb their anger. A lesson had to be taught. The man had to pay for what he had done.
What apparently riled the mob into action was that McNeeley, who had been shot during the exchange with the policeman, was in better condition and recovering from his wounds faster than Officer Wilson.
Throughout the day on Aug. 25, there had been rumblings that a mob might be forming to take the matter into its own hands. Two messengers came to Sheriff Wallace around 11 p.m., explaining that he might expect trouble. He immediately communicated with the police department, asking that an investigation be made. Headquarters reportedly assured Wallace that no trouble seemed to be afoot and all was quiet. The decision was made that the two guards on hand watching over McNeeley — C.E. Earnhardt and T.L. Tarleton — would be sufficient protection.
Sometime around 1:30 a.m., staffers at Good Samaritan realized they were in trouble when they noticed a large number of men appeared to be congregating outside the facility.
A woman identified only as a “Negro nurse” in a story published in the Charlotte Chronicle later testified that a gang of men with rags and cloths wrapped around their faces appeared at the front door of Good Samaritan and demanded to speak with Officer Earnhardt.
The nurse reportedly refused them entry, saying, “You will not get in this house tonight,” as she quickly locked the door behind her and Officer Earnhardt dashed to a telephone in an attempt to call in more policemen.
Their efforts were futile, however, as the angry mob broke through the front door and swarmed in to the building, guns and pistols aimed at Earnhardt, who had already pulled out his gun but immediately had it snatched away. Some of the men began to make their way to the room on the second floor where McNeeley was being held.
“I was held in a corner,” said Earnhardt, in an interview with The Charlotte Daily Observer. “With a pistol on each side of my face and three men guarding me, I knew I stood no chance as there were 20 or 40 men in the room.”
Officer Tarleton — who was still on the second floor just down from McNeeley's room — later testified that he, too, had attempted to get to a telephone when he noticed the crowd of men ascending the stairs. They stopped him in the stairwell, shoving pistols in his face, immediately confiscating his weapons and holding him at bay while they broke into McNeeley's room and dragged him from his hospital bed and into the streets.
Both officers reported they demanded and then pleaded with the masked mob to spare McNeeley's life, but against such a large armed crowd and stripped of their weapons, they were virtually powerless.
As the crowd surged past Earnhardt with McNeeley and out in to the night, the members of the mob that had been subduing Earnhardt rejoined the crowd and left them unattended. “They quickly had [McNeeley] outside, and the three men who were guarding me left. I followed them,” said Earnhardt.
Twenty or more shots rang out before Earnhardt made it outside to the spot on the ground where McNeeley's crumpled body lay.
According to Tarleton, the entire attack occurred and ended in about three minutes. No one else in the hospital was injured, and the perpetrators scattered in all different directions simultaneously, in an effort to distance themselves from Good Samaritan as quickly as possible.
Amazingly, McNeeley initially survived the attack, sustaining seven shots: four to his arm and three to his torso.
“I stayed with him,” Earnhardt recalled. “I never left him until aid arrived.”
Unfortunately, McNeeley did die later that morning around 5 a.m.
Reaction to the mob attack from the governor and a presiding judge ranged from shock and horror to embarrassment and outrage. “The persons who committed this crime,” said Governor Locke Craig, “will be prosecuted and punished to the limit. All good citizens will do their part to avenge this outrage against the law, which was trampled down by a band of criminals in the dark. The officials at Charlotte are awake to the situation and will not rest until members of this lawless mob are brought to justice.”
“There walks today upon the streets of your city 35 men, according to the accounts, who are actual murderers,” said Supreme Court Judge J.T. Hall. The deed they did was dishonorable and cowardly and it is imperative they be brought to justice.”
Following the mob attack, a report appeared that some time later in the night the Myers Park Hardware store was broken into, and a quantity of pistols were taken, along with sufficient ammunition to match the number of arms.
Fears arose the following day that some kind of armed reprisal was being organized, and the hospital was placed under heavy armed guard. Many private individuals showed up to offer their support in guarding Good Samaritan, and most remained overnight.
According to all reports, none of the witnesses were able to identify any of the attackers. “Not a ray of light has been shed on any identity of a member of the mob,” The Charlotte Daily Observer reported. “And there seems scant prospect that any incriminating information will be obtained.”
The newspaper's assertion was correct, and the mob members closed ranks and grew tight-lipped. No one was ever convicted for the death of Joe McNeeley, and the men responsible went to their graves with the secret.
As a direct result of the slaying of Joe McNeeley, the Charlotte Police Department purchased their first automobiles to be used as police cars, pointing out that had they been in place already, the speed they would have allowed officers to respond would have prevented McNeeley's murder, and at the very least aided them in capturing the perpetrators.
David Aaron Moore is the author of "Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem." His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.