After Lost Lexington was published in 2014, one of my favorite things to do was to go out and speak at libraries or to church groups and civic groups. Book signings were such a fun way to share the backstories of Lexington’s lost places. Here’s a list of my past events!
But when I planned two books for release in 2020, I had no idea that a worldwide pandemic would bring any author talks to a screeching halt! I only could say that refrain which we all uttered countless times over the past twelve months: It is what it is.
Now, these kinds of groups are again meeting in person (in socially distanced ways) and others are meeting online utilizing technology with which we’ve all become so familiar. Would your civic group or organization be interested in having me speak about one of my books? I am available for both virtual and in-person events to discuss any of my three books:
Throughout our nation, protestors are righteously standing up to police overreach and brutality. Protestors gather in remembrance of the many people of color whose lives have been tragically cut short by legal tactics that have been labeled as a form of modern-day lynching. Protestors gather to remember. They gather to say his name: George Floyd. To say her name: Breonna Taylor.
Earlier this year, my book The Murder of Geneva Hardman and Lexington’s Mob Riot of 1920 was published. In it, I included a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’ve thought a lot about that quote over the past week because, watching the news, I question how far we have come as a nation.
I could not help but compare (and contrast) what is happening today following the murder of George Floyd with what took place a century ago in Lexington, Kentucky following the arrest of Will Lockett. These two men of color were accused of very different crimes and they received very different treatment. This is especially so given that a century had lapsed between these two events. How has that arc of the moral universe evolved?
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In southern Fayette County, Kentucky, a ten-year old girl – Geneva Hardman – was brutally murdered and quite likely sexually assaulted.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, an employee at a deli called 911 to report that he believed a counterfeit $20 bill had been used to purchase cigarettes.
The Immediate Response
Without hesitation, the focus was on Will Lockett. Lynch mobs began to form with the purpose of hunting down the accused. Police and sheriffs deputies from three counties also searched for several hours before Will Lockett was apprehended by Dr. Collette and Officer White of the Versailles Police Department. In soiled and bloodstained clothes, Lockett was put into the back of a vehicle and transported downtown to the Lexington Police Department’s headquarters. There, Will Lockett confessed to having committed the crime of which he was accused.
Police responded to the scene. Within 17 minutes after the police arrived, Mr. George Floyd was “unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.”* One officer had kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — far longer than George Floyd maintained consciousness.
In 1920, the lynch mob did not stop their desire for vengeance. They searched the police station and then the jail, but local and state officials did what they could to protect the confessed murderer. (Was the confession coerced? A valid question and one explored in the book. The justice system of 1920 functioned quite differently than the justice system should function in 2020.) Five days on, Lockett’s trial was held in the Fayette County Courthouse. Outside the courthouse, thousands gathered. Some in the group surged forward, and soldiers stationed around the courthouse responded.
The night following George Floyd’s murder, many gathered in Minnesota’s Twin Cities to protest specifically against the police tactics utilized in Floyd’s death and more broadly against the systemic racial inequality that has plagued this country for more than 400 years. These protests have spread across the United States into all fifty states as well as overseas. Although some protests have become violent, they have remained largely peaceful.
Shots Fired & National Awareness
As the mob in front of the courthouse in Lexington began to surge, Lockett’s defense counsel was delivering closing remarks pleading that his client might be saved from execution. Shots rang out in a volley that resulted in the deaths of six protestors.
The murder of Geneva Hardman, the Lockett trial, and the declaration of martial law was picked up by newswires and carried nationally including multiple stories in the New York Times.
Just as shots were fired a century ago in Kentucky, shots rang out at the crowd in the city of Louisville. Though protests in Louisville have been largely peaceful, there have been some incidents of property damage (including the loss of Louis XVI hand) and violence. On June 1, however, David McAtee was shot and killed by police while operating his bbq stand after midnight. It is unclear what precisely took place because police had deactivated their body cameras. Kentucky is once again the focus of national attention for its state of emergency.em
Looks like Martial Law
Following the shooting outside the courthouse, martial law was declared in Lexington, Kentucky for about two weeks to ensure no more violence occurred. Although the initial show of force was strong with bayonets fixed marching down Main Street, local officials were permitted to function and life was largely normal. It was a sort of “martial law light.”
Images of police in riot gear across the nation. Clearing areas of peaceful protest even before an imposed curfew. Guardsmen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although martial law has not been declared, there is a sense that in part of America that there is at least the appearance of martial law.
There are parts of these stories which are easy to contrast: a crime committed by a person of color and an escalated response.
The events are easier to contrast. Will Lockett was electrocuted a month after his trial, while George Floyd never received even an arraignment for his alleged crime. It is positively clear that Floyd received no justice whatsoever. Though it is questioned by some today, Lockett did receive a semblance of justice particularly given the era in which those events occurred a century ago.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice? It is fair to question whether or not it has over the past century when looking at these two specific events, though a broader picture examining Miranda and other advances in due process might still show a forward-moving bend toward justice. In 2020, we can only hope, pray, and demand justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for David McAtee, and for so many others. Hopefully, the arc’s progress has a longer path yet to tread.
In Lexington, protests have remained peaceful. In some instances, local police have walked with protestors and taken a knee to honor the lives lost. No curfew has been imposed in Lexington. This sort of peaceful approach makes Lexington a leader among cities (though still imperfect).
In 1920, Lexington was also perceived to be a leader. Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois described the local and state response to the riots during the Lockett trial (and the protection of Will Lockett before and during the trial) as “The Second Battle of Lexington” referring to the opening conflict of the Revolutionary War – it was believed to be the first time in the history of the southern United States that local and state authorities had stopped a lynch mob.
When I graduated from law school, I was given a poster with the Hebrew words Tzedek tzedek tirdof. From Deuteronomy, it means “Justice! Justice! You shall pursue!” It is my prayer that we, as a nation, will pursue (and truly achieve) justice.
Last week, co-author Foster Ockerman, Jr. and I received from our publisher (History Press; Charleston, SC) the cover of our forthcoming book and first collaborative project: A History Lover’s Guide to Lexington and Central Kentucky.
The books is slated to be released in the fall of 2020.
Although we aren’t yet accepting pre-orders, there is a page for the book on The Kaintuckeean website. There’s also a Facebook page – please LIKE the page and check back regularly for updates!
One hundred years ago today, Will Lockett was executed for the murder of Geneva Hardman. The execution took place at the State Penitentiary in Eddyville, which is the same place where executions are still conducted in Kentucky.
Electricity of Sufficient Intensity
Following the trial in the matter of Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Will Lockett, the clerk of the Fayette Circuit Court – John H. Carter – directed that the condemned “be conveyed as expeditiously, privately, and safely by the sheriff of Fayette County, to the state Penitentiary in the town of Eddyville, Kentucky.”
The directive further required that before sunrise on March 11, 1920, Lockett would be executed in the following manner. The warden (John B. Chilton) “shall cause to pass through the body of said defendant, a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause the death as quickly as possible, the application of which current shall be continued until the defendant is dead.”
A serial killer?
While in Eddyville, Will Lockett’s cell on death row was under the watchful eye of three soldiers sent by Governor Morrow. A manned machine gun was also set up at the penitentiary. Inside Lockett’s cell, however, the condemned seemed “more easy” and spent most of his day praying and reading the Bible. The Danville Advocate-Messenger reported on March 9, 1920, that Lockett wanted to “get right” before his execution and was even baptized by a minister from a black church in Eddyville right there in a “bathtub in the prison annex.”
At peace with himself in those final days before his execution, Will Lockett also confessed to other crimes. Lockett gave Warden Chilton a different identity: Petrie Kimbrough.
If Kimbrough was Lockett’s true identity, it is likely that he was born in May 1888 as the son of Charles and Tina Lockett (according to the the 1900 census). Lockett was married in 1914 and the newspaper announcement identified his parents then as Charles and Lena Lockett. A 1917 draft card utilizes a birthday in January 1887. If the same individual, it would seem that Kimbrough adopted the Lockett identity after leaving his childhood home in Christian County, Kentucky.
What did Lockett do to “get right”? He apparently confessed to the warden of having committed four murders. His other victims were
Mrs. George Rogers, 40, of Carmi, Illinois in 1912
Eliza Moorman, 25, of Evansville, Indiana in 1917
Sallie Anderson Kraft, 55 of Camp Taylor, Kentucky, in 1919
The precise names and facts surrounding the crimes may have been hazy to Lockett as he confessed to them at the state penitentiary. Names, dates, and other details were imprecise. There were, however, stories and deaths related to three women which strongly paralleled these additional alleged victims. Although the similarities do exist, their mere existence does not confirm Lockett’s involvement in the deaths. Nor does it acquit him.
He did confess before his trial for the murder of Geneva Hardman and was sentenced to death. On March 11, 1920, Will Lockett became the thirty-second person to receive the death penalty in the electric chair at Eddyville (previously, executions were generally hangings in the county of the trial).
Attorneys, authors, and historians Foster Ockerman, Jr. and Peter Brackney have collaborated on a new book entitled The History Lover’s Guide to Lexington and the Bluegrass Region which will be released this autumn. Published by The History Press, the book will give a history of Lexington and the region with a special focus on the historic neighborhoods of Lexington and historic sites around the Bluegrass, as well as the importance of both the Sport of Kings and of religion to the region.
Who opened fire on the crowd outside the courthouse during the trial of Will Lockett on February 9, 1920? The melee killed six and injured many more. Answering that question was a question for a grand jury that was impaneled.
As Lexington was under martial law, the military governor of the city – General Francis Marshall – issues a proclamation ordering Judge Charles Kerr of the Fayette Circuit Court (the judge who presided over the Lockett trial) to “impanel a special grand jury … to investigate the occurrence on Monday … and the actions of those who resisted the authorities.” The grand jury convened on Saturday, February 14.
Twenty-four prominent citizens were selected to serve on this jury and from this pool, twelve were sworn. The makeup of the grand jury was wholly male, white, and well-connected. After being sworn in, the testimony of about twenty witnesses was heard. County Attorney Hogan Yancey advised the jurors that “if a man leads a mob and a death results (as was the case here), that man is guilty of murder in the first degree.”
After a week’s time, the jurors were all dismissed as there was “doubt as to whether the Jury Commissioners may select a special grand jury” which led toward a second grand jury being impaneled and ordered to assemble at the courthouse at 9:00 a.m. on February 21, 1920. To the hour, it was one week after the first grand jury had assembled and twelve days since the Lockett trial. During the entirety of this time, Lexington remained under martial law.
On February 22, 1920, the last of the federal troops left Lexington and martial law was lifted. Peace seeming to have been restored, the second grand jury returned no indictments recounting that the murder of Geneva Hardman “shocked the whole community” and that ultimately the issuance of indictments would “aggravate an already tense situation, engender more passion and bitter feelings in the county and State and keep alive such as now exists.”
Five score and one week ago, Geneva Hardman was killed on her way to school. Five days later, the confessed accused was convicted and sentenced to die. News of the killing, the trial, and the ensuing riot achieved national attention. As a result, correspondence from across the country (as well as locally) was directed to Geneva’s grieving family.
The family retained these letters over the decades that followed. Some were from relatives who had moved away and others were from complete strangers. One letter, in particular, stood out. It was written by Agnes Plummer of Providence, Rhode Island.
Ms. Plummer was a “friend unknown” to the Hardman family; she knew nothing of the family beyond that which she read in her newspaper. The envelope was addressed to: Mr. and Mrs. Hardman (Parents of little Geneva Hardman who was murdered by negro Lockett) c/o Lafayette County Court House, Lexington, Ky.
Inside the envelope, a typewritten letter encouraged “Mr. and Mrs. Hardman to go to “our Redeemer for consolation.” The religious prose in 69-year-old Agnes Plummer must have been a comfort to the Rhode Islander who herself was grieving from burying six of her own children.
Some of Plummer’s “heartfelt sympathy” was lost by her use of the typed form letter, which crossed out in pen any typewritten masculine identity of the victim. For example, a sentence from the letter from Plummer to Hardman read as follows: “And if you would but believe and be able to realize that if you could see your beloved sondaughter in that supremely happy state of existence, you would not wish him her on the earth again,” where the italicized words were penciled in above the marked-out masculine terms.
This author’s assumption that the Plummer letter was a form letter was confirmed when I discovered an identical letter written eight years earlier included at length in Nita Gould’s book Remembering Ella about the 1912 murder of an 18-year-old woman in northwest Arkansas.
It was the only form letter in the mix. In The Murder of Geneva Hardman and Lexington’s Mob Riot of 1920, I’ve included several of the letters received by the family in the wake of Geneva’s murder. Her school and church also passed resolutions expressing their condolences to the family.
Whether from those who knew Geneva Hardman and her family, or whether from “unknown friends” who simply learned of the events that transpired from newspaper accounts, there was an outpouring of support expressed to Mrs. Hardman and family during their time of tragedy.
Early on the morning of February 9, 2019, local authorities stretched a steel cable around the perimeter of the old Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Lexington. The day would result in a guilty verdict and a sentence of death against defendant Will Lockett, a man convicted in the killing of Geneva Hardman just five days earlier.
At about 1:15 in the early morning hours, Lockett was transported from the state capital, Frankfort, where the accused had been held awaiting trial. At 9:00 a.m., the trial in the matter of Commonwealth v. Will Lockett was called to order.
State and local authorities were assembled around the courthouse that morning. Inside, Judge Charles Kerr presided. The evening the crime was committed, the accused confessed his guilt. As a result, the jurors only determination would be one of sentencing. The question was whether Will Lockett would be executed for his crime or whether he would be sentenced to a life term of imprisonment.
Representing Lockett were two attorneys. While one of them, Samuel Wilson, was reading Lockett’s plea of mercy, gunshots rang out.
The shots were fired from outside the courthouse. Order was largely maintained inside the courtroom; the jury was instructed to deliberate and reach its finding without leaving the jury box. But outside, the guardsman and the assembled lynch mob exchanged in gunfire that resulted in many casualties including the deaths of six in the crowd.
With this state of lawlessness, the governor called for the presence of federal troops. By mid-afternoon, martial law was declared in Lexington, Kentucky, as federal troops planted on the courthouse lawn. Within minutes, the assembled crowd estimated at ten thousand strong was dispersed at the presence of federal troops with fixed bayonets marching down Main Street.
Lexington would remain under martial law for nearly two weeks.