The Truth Will Unite Us: Lizzie Yeates, Ida B. Wells, and That Theory of Hers (Part Two)

Updated on September 6, 2018
The false news story that George Smith had murdered Lizzie Yeates.  Although there was strong evidence that Smith raped five year old Yeates, he did not murder her.
The false news story that George Smith had murdered Lizzie Yeates. Although there was strong evidence that Smith raped five year old Yeates, he did not murder her. | Source

Since my business has been destroyed and I am an exile from home because of that editorial, the issue has been forced, and as the writer of it I feel that the race and the public generally should have a statement of the facts as they exist. They will serve at the same time as a defense for the Afro-Americans Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed by white Delilahs.

- Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases

What Ida B. Wells failed to mention in Southern Horrors was that those "Delilahs" were, in many cases, pre-pubescent girls no older than four or five years old at the time of their attack.

Take, for example, one "Delilah," Lizzie Yeates.

On Wednesday, October 7, 1891, at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Lizzie Yeates came running into the house, yelling that a man had hurt her. Lizzie was, at the time, five years old.

She had been playing in front of her house. After examining the child, her mother and grandmother determined, to their great horror, that she had been sexually assaulted. They searched the area near the house; they didn’t find anyone, and soon summoned police.

Lizzie’s grandmother then remembered the young black man that had been lurking around their back yard at the same time Lizzie was in the front yard. He had been well dressed, in a suit and tie. She asked him what he was doing; suspiciously, he told her that he was looking for garbage to take away. She told him there wasn’t any garbage to take and he left, via the alley.

Omaha, ca. 1885.
Omaha, ca. 1885. | Source

Let’s reiterate these facts before we move on:

  • Five year old Lizzie had been, without any doubt, sexually assaulted.
  • Right before the attack, a strange man, who happened to be black, was loitering around the back of Lizzie’s house.
  • Five year olds do not seduce or consent to sex with adult men.

And yet, author David L. Bristow repeated Ida B. Wells’ myth in regard to Lizzie’s rape:

By the 1890s, the idea that black men were somehow naturally prone to raping white women had become firmly entrenched in the minds of white Americans. It is clear now that the myth of the heightened sexuality of the black male persisted mainly because it served a purpose in society, especially in the South, where the myth originated. That purpose was to provide a powerful justification for the lynching of thousands of black men, which in turn served the purpose of keeping blacks in a subservient position close to that in which slavery had formerly held them. 1

Bristow further stated that:

Editor and pamphleteer Ida Wells … enraged her adversaries by proving that many of the so-called rapes were actually cases of inter-racial romance, between consenting adults, which - once discovered - led to the violent death of the negro at the hands of an angry mob. 2

Map of Omaha City, Nebraska, 1866.  Although people know Omaha as a sleepy midwest town now, it was a true wild west outlaw town, with a strong criminal element, in its early days.
Map of Omaha City, Nebraska, 1866. Although people know Omaha as a sleepy midwest town now, it was a true wild west outlaw town, with a strong criminal element, in its early days. | Source

Ida B. Wells, however, didn’t have any proof that white women were desperate to bed black men; so desperate, she theorized, that they were willing to go through the humiliation of filing a false rape report with the police. Wells had no proof that rape accusations were the leading cause of lynchings in the United States. She made it up.

Think about it (and I mean really think about it): Why on earth would white women report a crime that would render them “worthless” as a future wife to “respectable” men? Men didn't care if it was rape or consensual. Either way, women would have been "spoiled" by the act; their "purity" was gone. What “decent” white man would want to marry the "despoiled" former lover of a black man?

If interracial relationships were as shameful as Wells theorized, then, yeah … what white woman in the Victorian era wouldn’t want all the gory details of her consensual interracial sexual encounter splashed all over the cover of the local gossip rag, her picture boldly stamped next to the story? What white woman wouldn’t want all the citizens of her fair city to know that she frequently bedded black men? Of course, she would also want everyone to know her name and address, because it was a sure bet that information would be printed for everyone to see.

Yeah … any woman would just love that.

Wells was wrong about Memphis, she was wrong about the South, and she was most certainly wrong about Omaha. No, rape accusations were not the Number One Cause of Lynching.

After a crime was committed, police questioned anyone who fit the description of the suspect. If the suspect was white, they questioned white men; if the suspect was black, they questioned black men. If a suspect had an alibi that checked out or the victim couldn’t positively identify the suspect, they were set free.

So … back to Lizzie Yeates. Lizzie was a five year old girl who had been brutally raped by a man. She told her family that a black man abducted her, took her across the alley, into a neighbor’s barn, threw her down in the hay, ripped off her underwear, and raped her. Several black men were questioned in regard to Lizzie’s rape before they found George Smith; none of those suspects was detained.

When George Smith was arrested, he had hay in his hair. He also gave the police a fake name: Joe Coe.

Her rape was confirmed by a doctor; he noted that “she was terribly lacerated.” Bruising in the shape of a hand was present on her neck where the perpetrator held her down during the rape. The same alley Lizzie’s grandma just watched George Smith walk down just a little while earlier.

Lizzie Yeates - a five year old girl - was justifiably traumatized. She refused to look at or speak to any strangers who entered her home that day. She refused to look at or talk to the police. It was standard practice to bring suspects to victims’ home for identification purposes; can you imagine being the victim of a rape, and police bringing the rapist into your home? She could not bear to look at George Smith, not once. Her grandmother was the only person who saw the man lurking behind their house, in the alley, but she had only talked to him for a minute. She herself, a white woman, did not jump at the opportunity to condemn whichever black man the police presented to her. The grandmother told the truth; she stated that she could not positively identify George Smith as the man in the alley, but that he was similar in appearance.

She did not lie, in a situation in which Wells said any white woman would most certainly lie. You know, because of all the consensual sex.

George Smith had a problem, though. He had previous rape allegations against him. A grand jury refused to indict him for the rape of “Dottie Gunn on Cut Off,” but it was rumored in the community that he was the one who did it.

Smith's acquittal in the Dottie Gunn case disproves two of Wells’ theories:

  • Black men were not rounded up and imprisoned (or lynched) based solely on skin color. There had to be some evidence incriminating that particular black man in the crime. Many lynching victims by the way, were only lynched after they had been arrested (i.e., given the appearance of guilt).
  • White citizens of Omaha generally valued the law, and to a fault. The Missouri River had jumped its banks some 20 years earlier, leaving a small town (Cut Off Island) in “limbo” between Iowa and Nebraska. At the time of George Smith’s arrest for the rape of Dottie Gunn, the fight between Iowa and Nebraska to determine who owned Cut Off Island was not yet decided. So, yes, a rapist may have walked free because of a zoning/jurisdiction issue.

There were no riots after Smith's first acquittal, and no threats of lynching.

It was also rumored that George Smith had raped five other women of color (which at that time, in Omaha, meant either Mexican or black women), including his own stepsister and an unknown girl on the grounds of his high school. It seems those women of color didn’t even bother going to the police after their rape; when little more than a zoning issue prevented an indictment, how good, after all, were their chances of winning in court?

Wells offered up white women to excuse male violence. She excused violent black rapists, and she excused violent white lynch mobs. A white woman did not rape Lizzie Yeates. A white woman did not spread fake news of Lizzie’s murder to the crowd at the jail. A white woman did not publish fake news of Lizzie’s murder in the newspaper. A white woman did not break the window at the courthouse to gain access to the prisoner. A white woman did not drag George Smith out of the courthouse or lynch him.

Dear Ida B. Wells: Your internalized misogyny is showing.

It was common for companies to use racist images in their advertising.  This postcard was from the G.M. Hammond (meat) Company, which had a packing plant in South Omaha, Nebraska.
It was common for companies to use racist images in their advertising. This postcard was from the G.M. Hammond (meat) Company, which had a packing plant in South Omaha, Nebraska. | Source

After a lynch mob gathered around the Yeates home, Lizzie’s father pleaded with the crowd for calm. He himself stated that the family was not certain that George Smith was his daughter's rapist. Lizzie Yeates’ family’s one crime was reporting that their five year old daughter had been raped, and she just happened to be raped by a black man.

It was not even the rape that spurred the lynching. The morning before Smith's lynching, a crowd gathered at the Douglas County jail to see the legal execution of white murderer, Ed Neil. It had taken nearly a year to convict him of the murder of Allen and Dorothy Jones on the Pinney Farm:

In February 1890, Mr. and Mrs. Allen and Dorothy Jones [sic] were murdered at their farm outside of Millard. The killer shot the elderly couple, then buried them in a manure pile before stealing their horses and cows. 3

The murder had been particularly brutal, and the community felt the courts had allowed Neil too many appeals, which had greatly delayed the execution everyone was sure he deserved (he confessed to the crime on the eve of his execution).

It would have been better for Smith if he had not been in custody at the time. Omaha had already decided that he was guilty of raping not only Lizzie Yeates, but also Dottie Gunn and possibly his own stepsister. Had he not been in custody, the lynch mob would not have been able to find him after the false statement that Lizzie Yeates had died from injuries sustained during her rape circulated through the crowd gathered outside the jail. The Council Bluffs Globe published the fake news in its evening edition (pictured above). The "confirmed" fake news of Lizzie's murder sealed Smith's fate.

No justice was served with this lynching. Although the serial rapes seem to have stopped after Smith’s murder, there was no concrete evidence that he raped Lizzie, Dottie Gunn, or any other women of color. Although, definitive proof would not arrive until a hundred years later, in the form of DNA testing and video recording, which can still be unreliable. Rape remains one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute.

Smith’s murder went unpunished, which gave the impression that vigilante justice was accepted by the establishment; it actually wasn’t. Communities quickly closed ranks and refused to identify the perpetrators. One of the instigators of the lynching, George Moriarty, tried to make himself out to be the hero of the situation in his autobiography. 4

In many lynching cases, the victims had already been arrested and jailed. Armed mobs would then surround the jail and take them by force, often under the threat of violence - or actual violence - toward the deputies and sheriff. In the Omaha Riot of 1919, in which Will Brown was lynched, the white mayor attempted to turn the mob away and was himself strung up on a light pole. He was nearly killed, but was cut down just in time. He spent several days in hospital and quickly stepped down as mayor after the hanging; he never fully recovered from the ordeal.

Omaha World Herald cover story on the lynching of George Smith (aka Joe Coe), Saturday, October 10, 1891.
Omaha World Herald cover story on the lynching of George Smith (aka Joe Coe), Saturday, October 10, 1891.

There is another, more uncomfortable layer that Wells refused to address: Some lynching victims committed heinous crimes. They weren’t necessarily the innocent martyrs Wells wanted them to be.

Thomas Moss was an innocent. (Edit: Not as innocent as this author was first led to believe. He ran criminal enterprises out of the People's Grocery.) Frazier B. Baker and his infant daughter were innocents (and Wells could have added their story to later editions of Southern Horrors).

No, black men are not voracious feral beasts hunting for white females to ravage; some black men, however, are rapists. Some black men are murderers. Some black men are serial rapists or killers. Should rapists and murderers be memorialized, just because they suffered an equal fate as their victims? Should we honor evil men, just because it fits our narrative?

And ... why did Ida B. Wells think that lynching white men was acceptable? How could she come to the conclusion that when white men were lynched, they were guilty, but black men were lynched for no reason?

Not only did she not speak out against the lynchings of white men, she acted like they didn't happen!

Wells failed to mention the attempted murder of Mary Smith, and the subsequent lynching on December 12, 1891, of J.A. Smith, her ex husband (white), his son in law Floyd McGregory (white), and Mose Henderson, the black man they hired to kill her. Henderson entered Mary's home and shot her in the face while she was lying in bed; he was identified by one of Smith's own children when leaving the house after the shooting. Smith hired Henderson to shoot his ex wife because he felt she received too big a settlement in their divorce.

She failed to mention James Howard, a white man lynched on December 12, 1886, for spousal abuse. (It should be noted that Wells did not consider spousal abuse a serious crime.)

She ignored the seven white men lynched in Choctaw County, Alabama, on December 12, 1891. They were all outlaws in the Sims Gang.

She omitted the story of the largest lynching in US history, in which eleven - yes, ELEVEN! - white men were lynched, all at once, in New Orleans. The Italian-Americans had been suspected of murdering the city's police chief.

What is most puzzling about her omissions is that they could only have mustered more sympathy for black victims in white communities, which could have led to a decrease in lynchings overall.

No one cares about Lizzie’s rape, they care about Smith’s lynching. No one cares that Lizzie’s rapist may have escaped justice, free to victimize other little girls. As with most modern serial killers, no one remembers victims' names, but George Smith’s name will be forever memorialized in the lynching museum. And for reporting the crime committed against her, Lizzie Yeates will be forever slandered as “The Woman - WOMAN! - Who Caused the Lynching of an “Innocent Black Man.””

Her name was LIZZIE YEATES.

Surviving family of Postmaster Frazier Baker.
Surviving family of Postmaster Frazier Baker. | Source
Cover of Omaha Bee article on the lynching of George Smith.
Cover of Omaha Bee article on the lynching of George Smith. | Source
Cover of Omaha Bee, October 11, 1891, regarding lynching of George Smith.
Cover of Omaha Bee, October 11, 1891, regarding lynching of George Smith. | Source
Cover of Omaha Bee, October 11, 1891, page 2, regarding lynching of George Smith.
Cover of Omaha Bee, October 11, 1891, page 2, regarding lynching of George Smith. | Source

Newly discovered information regarding the People's Grocery:

THE STORIES IN DETAIL.

In that section of Memphis known as "the Curve," at the corner of Mississippi and Walker avenues, there were two low and disreputable dives operated under the outwardly respectable guise of grocery stores. One of these dens was "run" by a white man by the name of W. R. Barrett, the other by a mulatto by the name of Calvin McDowell. Between these two men there had sprung up bitter hatred for each other and their quarrels had become a disgrace and a standing menace to the peace of the neighborhood. Both places were the resort of roughs, toughs, dangerous gamblers and drunkards who made that locality a blot on common decency and a cess-pool of outrageous immoralities. These alleged stores were the legitimate fruit, the logical and natural sequence of that damnable curse - the unlicensed, unbridled and irresponsible "corner grocery," where villainous whisky is sold to villainous creatures of both sexes and from whose door there pours a stream of poison, crime and moral degradation and death through all the city. That stream still flows!

The feud between the Caucasian, Barrett, and the semi-African, McDowell, grew apace. Barrett had been sent to the workhouse by the criminal court judge, for a season and had he been kept there it is probable that this story would never have been written. The respectable people in that neighborhood grew alarmed at the growing lawlessness and predictions of trouble, bloodshed and murder were freely made. So uneasy, in fact, did these good citizens become that they determined to take preventive steps, it possible, to avert the bursting of the brewing storm and to clean their neighborhood of the pestiferous and dissolute gang of loafers and "crap" gamblers. But to what branch of the law could they appeal for help with assurance of relief? The police force of the city was either powerless or criminally indifferent; the law officers of the State were as the municipal officials and so lawlessness ran rampant and besotting crime and boastful criminals held unchecked carnival at the "Curve." It was "a pocket edition of hell," an epitome of "Darkest London." The officers had been warned that trouble of a serious character was likely to break forth at any moment. Deputy Sheriff Perkins one day received a note from an attache of the Evening Scimitar that stated the negroes at the "Curve" were holding secret meetings and plotting and planning an outbreak of some kind. The officer visited McDowell's place but could discover no sign of trouble. He was convinced and still maintains that the fears of the writer of that note were groundless. The whole trouble lay between Barrett and McDowell. 5

1 Bristow, David L. A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha. 4th ed., Caxton Press, 2009. pg. 230

2 Ibid pg. 231

3 https://northomahahistory.com/2018/04/12/a-history-of-the-pinney-farm-murders/

4 Ibid pg. 263

5https://archive.org/details/shelbycountyssha00slsn

Questions & Answers

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      • Brynn Thorssen profile imageAUTHOR

        Carrie Peterson 

        4 weeks ago from Colorado Springs, CO

        I'm frustrated that I never thought to think it through or question it before.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        4 weeks ago from the short journey

        There is usually much more to a situation than the average person is willing to think through.

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