restricted access 10. The “Delaware Horror”: Two Ministers, a Lynching, and the Crisis of Democracy
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• 10• The“Delaware Horror” Two Ministers, a Lynching, and the Crisis of Democracy Dennis B. Downey I On Sunday evening, June 21, 1903, 3,000 people gathered at the corner of Broome and Fourth Streets in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, to hear the curbside homily of Rev. Robert Elwood, the pastor of Olivet Presbyterian Church. In one sense, there was nothing unusual about the setting; as was his custom, Rev. Elwood routinely preached out of doors on Sunday evening. But in every other sense this was an extraordinary moment, not only because of the unusually large crowd but because of the sermon’s subject matter.1 The events that followed crystallized the alarming character of racial lynching in America and its unorthodox and unexpected relationship to democratic sentiments at the dawn of the twentieth century. These events also launched two clerical protagonists on their remarkable careers. A shared grief, a moment of community crisis, bound minister and supplicants together that gentle Sabbath evening. Six days earlier, on Monday, June 15, eighteen-year-old Helen Bishop had been brutally assaulted along an isolated stretch of road near Price’s Corner, one mile west of the city limits. The attack appears to have occurred in the early afternoon, as Helen returned by trolley from Wilmington High School, where she had been dismissed late in the morning. Published accounts are unclear whether she was ill or merely had completed her assignments for the day. It was not until almost 5 p.m., however, that an Elsmere man • 238 • Dennis B. Downey and his daughter saw Helen Bishop crawling along the roadside, her clothing soiled and torn, with cuts on her arms and a serious gash on her neck. It was reported that she clutched a penknife in her hand.2 Helen Bishop was the younger daughter of the Rev. and Mrs. E. A. Bishop, who had moved their family from Pennsylvania to Wilmington only two months earlier. An ordained Methodist minister with twenty years of experience in church work, the Rev. Bishop recently had accepted the position of Superintendent of the Ferris Industrial School. The Bishop residence was on the school grounds, about a mile from the trolley stop and only four hundred yards from where the girl was found. When discovered, the teenager was rushed home with the assistance of several students from the school. Helen Bishop never regained full consciousness and she died the next afternoon. Of the attack, the Wilmington Morning News assured its readers, “That Miss Bishop put up a desperate struggle for her life and honor is evident from her condition when found.” Similar reports were carried in the New York Times and other papers that covered the incident. Within hours of finding Helen Bishop, police arrested George White, an African American farm laborer, and charged him with attacking the teenage girl. At the time of his arrest, White put up no struggle but steadfastly denied the accusations, a defense which many local residents resolutely refused to accept.3 Although there were no eyewitnesses to the assault, circumstantial evidence linked George White to Helen Bishop. A black man named George Segars allegedly told police that on the day in question he had seen White running in the direction of a young white woman, who appeared to be hurrying ahead. Two local women, both African American, told police they had seen White following Helen Bishop that morning. When police searched George White’s room at the nearby Woodward farmhouse, where he worked, they found a black cap that resembled one described by witnesses. Most damning of all, Elizabeth Woodward identified a bloody knife found near the scene as belonging to her tenant . Within hours of Helen Bishop’s death on Tuesday afternoon, the Evening Journal reported that “one of the most heinous crimes in the annals of this county” had been perpetrated by George White, a “negro of bad repute” recently released from the workhouse. The newspaper noted that White was now to be charged with murder.4 For several days following White’s arrest and imprisonment at the New Castle County Workhouse, confusion reigned as local authorities • 239 • The“Delaware Horror” remained indecisive on when the accused would be brought to trial. Attorney General Herbert H. Ward was hopeful an early trial date would be set, despite the fact that Delaware courts were in summer recess and the judges refused to cut short their vacations. Responding to editorials in Philadelphia newspapers, the Evening Journal wrote on June 18, “Our...


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Subject Headings

  • Lynching -- United States -- History
  • Culture conflict -- United States -- History.
  • Violence -- United States -- History.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History.
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