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Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 82-91

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"The Death of Emma Hartsell"

Bruce E. Baker


"In eighteen-hundred and ninety-eight," as the song tells us, "Sweet Emma met with an awful fate." Sweet Emma was Emma Hartsell, the twelve-year-old daughter of a farmer in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, and the awful fate she met was murder. Just as awful, though, was the fate met by Tom Johnson and Joe Kizer a few hours later, hanged from a dogwood tree by a mob just outside of the town of Concord. Johnson and Kizer were black, Hartsell was white, and "The Death of Emma Hartsell" is a ballad that reminded everyone who heard it, mostly white folks, of just what that meant in 1898 in North Carolina.

Lots of North Carolinians met awful fates in 1898. Tempers ran high. One-party rule had been upset for four years in North Carolina as Republicans joined forces with Populists in a fusion coalition that gained control first of the legislature and then of the governor's office. White Democrats decided to take back control. To do so, they had to convince the white farmers in the Populist party to break ranks with the Republicans, whose strength lay in the support of the vast majority of the state's black voters and a fair number of whites, especially in the mountains. The strategy Democratic leaders—especially Charles B. Aycock, Josephus Daniels, and Furnifold Simmons—hit upon was to inspire fear. To frighten African Americans away from the polls, they brought in Senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman from neighboring South Carolina to instruct local Democratic clubs on the finer points of terrorism. To keep whites in line, they whipped up racial fears and animosities that had briefly been submerged. Daniels's newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer, manufactured and circulated stories of unspeakable outrages committed by black men on white women.

It was in this climate that Emma Hartsell's parents went off to church one Sunday morning at the end of May. Emma stayed home to look after a younger sister who was ill. Her parents returned to find her dead on the kitchen floor. A search was made, and Johnson and Kizer were carried to the jail in Concord. Later that evening, a mob broke into jail, carried the men to Big Cold Water Hill outside of town, and dragged them up. No one was punished for the lynching. Soon afterwards, a woman named Mary Baker wrote a poem, ten verses that told the story of Emma and Tom and Joe and the mob. A little later, some singer picked up the poem, added a final verse, and set it to a tune used for "Barbara Allen." The song was widely known in the North Carolina Piedmont northeast of Charlotte. Folklorists collected it from schoolchildren in the 1920s, and the story, usually with the ballad, was a regular item in newspaper feature columns for decades.

"The Death of Emma Hartsell"

In eighteen hundred and ninety-eight,
Sweet Emma met with an awful fate;
'Twas on the holy Sabbath day
When her sweet life was snatched away. [End Page 83]
It set my brain all in a whirl
To think of that poor little girl,
Who rose that morning fair and bright,
And before five was a mangled sight.

It caused many a heart to bleed
To think and hear of such deed.
Her friends, they shed many a tear.
Her throat was cut from ear to ear.

Just as the wind did cease to blow,
They caught the men, 'twas Tom and Joe.
The sheriff he drove in such a dash
The howling mob could scarcely pass.

They got to town by half past seven.
Their necks were broken before eleven.
The people there were a sight to see.
They hung them to a dogwood tree.

Fathers and mothers a warning take—
Never leave your children for God's sake.
But take them with you wherever you go
And always think of Tom and Joe.

Kind friends, we all must bear...


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