Connecticut is one of the few states without a reported lynching since the Civil War. That is not to say it wasn't done here - the story behind how places like Gallows Hill in Salisbury got their names raises the possibility that such things could and did occur here before then. There are also are several clear cases of attempted lynching in the Nutmeg State. One of these happened in Ansonia on October 4th, 1878.
Beckwith's Almanac included a brief synopsis in its review of notable events for that date:
"Edgar Freeman arrested in Ansonia for an assault on a young girl, was taken from the lock-up by an infuriated mob, a rope put around his neck and dragged through the streets until nearly dead. He was finally rescued and taken to the New Haven County Jail."
The event was such a sensation that the very next day it received a detailed write-up in The New York Times."
LYNCHING IN CONNECTICUT. ; NARROW ESCAPE FROM THE FURY OF A MOB. EDGAR FREEMAN, A NEGRO DRAGGED THROUGH A VILLAGE STREET WITH A ROPE ABOUT HIS NECK, TO BE HANGED FOR ASSAULTING A LITTLE GIRL OF 7 YEARS.
Loaded with the incendiaries of race, class, child rape and mob violence, this article is a remarkable source of early information about the incident itself and an artifact of the values and attitudes of the time (and the Times). Discovering it prompted me to dig deeper into the facts of the story, the principle figures involved, and the context in which events occurred.
Ansonia was a thriving industrial borough of Derby, Connecticut in the late 1870s. By the end of the decade, this manufacturing community on the east bank of the Naugatuck River could boast "twelve factories, five churches, two banks, thirty-four stores of all kinds, three schoolhouses, three drug stores, three coal yards, four meat markets, and a great variety of shops."
The Farrell Foundry and Machine Company was one of the largest of these enterprises, producing chilled rolls for rubber processing and a variety of iron machinery. The father of Jennie McCrindle, the little girl whose sexual assault stirred up a lynch mob, worked at the Foundry.
Her accused rapist, and the victim of mob violence, was Edgar Freeman, a black man in his late teens or early twenties (The Times says he was 19, but the court records say he was 24 when convicted of the crime). Born in New Britain a few years before the Civil War, he had previously been employed at a seaside resort but had recently been hired as a stable hand by Richard R. Colburn of Ansonia., Colburn,had a big house on a hill and an old lead factory which he converted to The Derby Paper Box Company under a patent obtained on July 2nd, 1878. Other Colburns were also investors in the Farrell Foundry. In this company town there was an infinite gulf in race, class and status between men like Colburn and Freeman. There was another racial gap that kept laborers like McCrindle employed in the factories and others like Freeman living in a room in an industrialist's stable.
The Times article gave a detailed description of what reportedly happened to Jennie McCrindle:
"Yesterday afternoon, Jennie McCrindle...was on her way home from school with another little girl, when she met Freeman. He was munching pea-nuts and apples, and she asked him to give her some. He told her he would if she would come into the barn, and she ran along with him; he had told the other little girl to go home. In the barn he committed a brutal assault, and then kept the child there until dark, when he put her in one of Colburn's carriages and drove her three miles below Ansonia, leaving her beside the road. She staggered into Merritt Hotchkiss' house and told her shocking story, and Mr. Hotchkiss took her home. Her father and many friends had been making a fruitless search for her, supposing her lost. When the crime became known the village was wild with excitement. While the doctors were caring for Jennie, her father and his friends were looking for the guilty man, whose name she didn't know, but whom she described. Suspicion first fell on James Drake, a colored friend and neighbor of Freeman, but he satisfactorily accounted for himself. He told them he had seen Freeman go into the barn with the little girl. Between 2 and 3 o'clock this morning, Constable Castle stood by Freeman's bed in the room of the barn, with a warrant for his arrest. Freeman said nothing until he reached his cell n the village lock-up, when he asked why he had been arrested. He was told, and in reply he said "Jim Drake did it."
The amount of specific detail in this report, filed the same day as Freeman's arrest and attempted lynching, strongly suggests that the correspondent had access to the police report. I have been able to learn a bit more about the others named in this account.
Merritt Hotchkiss of Derby, south of the borough of Ansonia, was a "manufacturer of corset steels" and a person of some importance. James Drake was a much older man than Freeman, a Civil War veteran of the 29th CT Colored volunteer infantry. Presumably he was employed by one of the other local captains of industry who lived near the Colburn's. It is interesting to note that these two African Americans implicated each other, but Drake's word was sufficient to clear him as a suspect. He probably was a longer term resident than Freeman, who had only been in Colburn's employ for three weeks. One wonders how he could have been a witness to the abduction yet exonerated in the eyes of the mob, unless Constable Castle or another law enforcement officer got to him first which appears more likely.
Freeman's apparent passivity when arrested by Constable Castle could have been the result of guilty resignation - he did not attempt to flee the community after Jennie was driven off and dumped in Derby - or the hard learned lesson of a black casual laborer that resisting arrest in a new town was extremely unwise. His accusation of Drake, another black man in the neighborhood, may have been opportunistic, or based on his own knowledge of Drake's character. All this is mere speculation, for what matters is that both the mob, and subsequently the courts, believed him guilty.
McCrindle and his laborer friends learned that Freeman had been arrested and convened outside the jail that morning. According to the Times, when they learned that the maximum penalty for the crime was life imprisonment, the gathering became a lynch mob. They attacked Grand Juror Timothy Sullivan, taking his keys from him and rushing the door of the jail. They quickly emerged with the terrified Freeman and completely intimidated the constable and judge who tried to intervene, even striking Judge Peck in the head with a stone. The Times describes in graphic detail what happened next:
A new rope was wound around Freeman's neck, a hundred grabbed the long end and one sat on his back holding the short end. In this condition he was dragged through the stony street until he reached the bridge over the Naugatuck. Here a noose was made, and they prepared to hang him to a bridge beam, but some one cried; "Take him up to Colburn's and hang him up in front of the barn." This cry saved his life, for they listened to it, and dragged him further. The blood flowed freely from his many wounds. Up the steep hill to where his employer lived they pulled him, and when they stopped to get breath he lay like a dead man. Once the rope tightened on his throat and he threw up his arms and groaned. At last he reached the trees from which he was to hang, but the officers had followed them. As Freeman lay motionless on the ground, Deputy Sherriff Whipple, William J. Clark, Constable Castle and Warden Quillinan rushed forward. To the latter's remonstrances they paid no heed, but Clark sprang to the body, and standing across it, cocked his revolver and cried; "I'll put daylight through the first man who touches him!" The rioters were unarmed, and they fell back; the rope was taken from Freeman's neck, and his battered body was placed in a wagon and taken rapidly to a lockup in Birmingham, a manufacturing village [across the river from Ansonia].
William Clark was exceptional among those who tried to prevent the lynching, in that his authority came not from being an officer of the law - his only official position was as postmaster of Birmingham - but as a young scion of another industrialist family, a coal dealer and partner in Merritt Clark Sons. He also had his revolver. The threat of mob violence from the working class was certainly played up in the Times alongside the specter of African American child rapists and the sensational aspects of the lynching epidemic which had gripped other parts of the country. The violence done to Judge Peck and disrespect shown by the mob for the law may well have been motivating factors for Clark to intervene, aside from any sense of justice and fair play he may have felt regarding Freeman.
It did not end in Birmingham, for an angry crowd assembled there as well. Here one of the leading citizens of the community, if not the state - Col. William B. Wooster - urged them to uphold law and order. He had been the commander of the colored 29th regiment in which James Drake had served in the Civil War, He was a Republican and an abolitionist, and his efforts to keep the crowds emotions in check were bolstered by now well-armed deputies from Ansonia who lead Freeman once more from jail and took him by fast carriage to the county jail in New Haven to prevent another attempt on his life.
The sympathies of the Times correspondent were with the child victim and those who resisted the mob to uphold the law. The way it describes Edgar Freeman while incarcerated in New Haven stresses both his bestial appearance and the trauma of the attempted lynching:
"He weighs nearly 200 lbs. and is rather stupid in appearance. His terror has not yet left him, and he suffers much from his injuries...a broken rib, a dislocated shoulder, internal injuries, and bruises and cuts beyond number."
However, the article ends by alluding to "the remarkable epidemic of crime which the state is now suffering from", and closes by mentioning that a number of respectable citizens felt that more extralegal hangings were required.
In January, 1879, Edgar Freeman was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in the state prison in Wethersfield. He was still living in 1892, in jail with 34 other lifers, but is not listed in the prison report of 1895 so may have died by that time. James Drake died in 1899. As for Jennie McCrindle, perhaps she is the same as Jane McCrindle who married John Irving West of Waterbury Connecticut in January, 1893. Something terrible happened to her as a child, and one hopes she was able to make a decent life for herself.
In 1912, another black man named William Taylor was accused of raping a white woman in Derby, CT and dragged off by a lynch mob, but was released when she denied that he was her assailant. But for that, and the actions of citizens like William J. Clark and Colonel Wooster, the "Land of Steady Habits" would be numbered in that mob of all but a handful of states with lynching to their lasting shame.