Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"The Peculiar Climate of This Region": The 1854 Cairo Lynching and the Historiography of Racist Violence against Blacks in Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"The Peculiar Climate of This Region": The 1854 Cairo Lynching and the Historiography of Racist Violence against Blacks in Illinois

Article excerpt

"PERHAPS SOME OF OUR READERS MAY REMEMBER a tragical affair that occurred in the mudwalled city' of Cairo, Illinois, in the autumn of 1854," wrote Edward Willett nearly a decade later. "I refer to the lynching of a negro named Joseph Spencer." In the lengthy article that followed, Willett, a lawyer and a participant in the events described, provided what he called a "truthful account" of a story that had garnered significant national attention when it occurred. Because of the location of this small but growing Illinois town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, witnesses soon carried reports of the "Cairo Tragedy" along these vibrant waterways, as well as by rail, to newspaper editors throughout Illinois and in larger regional centers like St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati.1

With minor variations, newspaper accounts reported that on or about November 27,1854, authorities pressed a charge of trespassing against Joseph Spencer, a well-known black resident who operated a hotel in the cabin of his boat, the Patrick Henry. When summoned to court, Spencer arrived for the hearing armed with a pistol and a keg of gunpowder. "He entered the little room, took a chair, drew a six-shooter, deliberately knocked in the head of the keg, cocked his pistol, and inserted the barrel in the gleaming black powder, announcing that if justice was not done him he would blow them all to hell."2 Not surprisingly, Spencer succeeded in persuading the judge to postpone the hearing; a commentator noted that "the court wisely took time to consult,' and adjourned in hot haste." With his threat, Spencer enraged white residents. "This outrageous affair soon got wind, and the excitement against the negro became intence [sic], and propositions to lynch him were received with general favor."3

Well aware of the fury that his actions had unleashed, Spencer retreated to his boat and locked himself in the cabin, a mob hot on his heels. Like the Revolutionary namesake of his boat, Spencer clearly adhered to the mantra, Give me liberty, or give me death! When whites threatened to storm the boat, Spencer again placed the muzzle of his gun into the keg and threatened to kill anyone who dared to approach. For a time, whites contented themselves with cries of "Kill the d-d nigger!" With as many as three hundred white men assembled at the wharf, snipers stationed themselves around the boat waiting for him to make his appearance. When Spencer refused to leave his cabin, whites boarded the ship only to be driven back by a fusillade from their well-positioned quarry. Five of the white men, including Willett, were shot and quickly retreated onto the wharf. At that point, mob members determined to burn the boat. To prevent other vessels from catching fire, they cut Spencer's boat away from its mooring and set it aflame. "While all this was going forward, several shots were exchanged between the crowd and the negro, who had previously supplied himself with two double barreled shot guns and a revolver."4

"Joe's boat was cut loose, set on fire, and turned adrift, and went blazing out into the river, amid the yells of the excited mob," recalled Willett. The mob, however, was not satisfied with letting Spencer take his chances on his fiery barge. "The river around the burning boat was soon dotted with skiffs and other boats, many containing armed men, waiting to shoot the doomed negro, if he should attempt to escape." Once Spencer had endured the flames for as long as possible, he appeared on deck "with a weight of some kind tied around his neck. He gave vent to some undistinguishable exclamation, cast himself into the river, and sank to rise no more. The boat burned to the water's edge, and grounded on the Kentucky shore, and thus ended what was known in the West as the Joe Spencer tragedy."5

Three primary objectives drive this investigation. The first is to analyze the lynching of Joe Spencer, as reported by Willett and the contemporary press, in order to gauge white racial attitudes in Cairo in 1854. …

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