William Smithyman: an Englishman ‘lynched’ in Mississippi

I often come across fascinating pieces of history when I’m researching something entirely different. Recently, I was looking through some 19th-century newspapers for information about Italian immigration to England and saw an arresting headline in the Derby Mercury of January 1861, An Englishman Lynched in Mississippi. I soon noticed that the article appeared in lots of newspapers between December 1860 and January 1861. Most of the reports were more or less the same. The article had clearly been syndicated from the Missouri Democrat. The Englishman was William Smithyman who had been living in Wisconsin. His work took him to Senatobia, where he was caught up in something which resulted in a mob gathering and he was accused of being an abolitionist. He was attacked, flogged and an attempt was made to hang him which failed. He was covered in boiling tar and “loose cotton.” Smithyman barely escaped with his life, but he managed to walk all the way to Memphis (which, I gather is about 29 miles by modern roads).


I can only find a little more about William Smithyman. I was able to find out a little of his background in Shropshire and that he was a miller by trade. At the age of 30, he emigrated, presumably to seek his fortune in the United States. He married twice (after the events in Senatobia) and had 8 children. He served in the Wisconsin Volunteers during the Civil War and led what seems to have been a quiet life in Wisconsin, becoming respectable enough for a brief biography to be recorded in the History of Grant County (1881). He died in 1904. It would be interesting to find out more about this man and the circumstances around that attack on him. There is no evidence that he was politically active or that the accusations of the Senatobia mob were based on genuine reasons. Not that it would have been justified in any circumstances. One small thing stands out in his Grant County biography (see below), though. He named his eldest son Lincoln Smithyman.


The newspaper report is given in full below. It must be remembered that, however appalling William Smithman’s experience in Mississippi was, the black people of the American South lived with the fear of this – and worse – every day of their lives.


Leeds Mercury, 3 January 1861: “BARBAROUS TREATMENT OF AN ENGLISHMAN BY AMERICAN SLAVEHOLDERS.  (from the Misssouri Democrat.)
“St. Louis, Dec. 8.  A respectable-looking man, named at W. Smithyman, a native of England, and for years a resident of Juneau county, Wisconsin, arrived in the city on Tuesday, from Memphis, by the steamboat J. D. Perry. Mr. Smithyman was driven from Mississippi last week, after suffering severe injuries for crimes alleged against him, but of which he declares his entire innocence. He was formerly employed in the city a few weeks as a miller in the Planters’ Mills, on Franklin-avenue, and went to Mississippi for employment in June last.
He bore letters of recommendation and character, and obtained work in Panola and De Soto counties, near the Tennessee line. He worked for several persons, dressing mill stones, and met with no opposition from any person whatever, until a week ago yesterday, when he started from Looxahomie, De Soto county, for Senatobia station, on the Tennessee and Mississippi railroad, 7 miles distant, employing a negro to carry himself and trunk in a waggon to the railroad. He was then on his way to Memphis. Arriving at Senatobia after dark, he proceeded to lock up some freight for the negro’s owner, and in doing so went into the freight depot. While there three or four persons approached, and asked him where he was going and what he was doing.  He told them he was looking for some freight from Looxahomie, but they charged him with being an Abolitionist and a suspicious person, and seized and threw him into a freight-car, which they locked, and then went up into the village to tell the story. The negro was also arrested, and, as afterwards appeared, was threatened with instant death if he did not confess that the man in the freight-car heard endeavoured to persuade him to run off.

“The negro, thinking to save himself from torture, said that such was the case, but, notwithstanding the confession, he was severely flogged. About ten o’clock, a crowd of thirty or forty returned to the railroad station, took Smithyman out and marched into into the woods. That they stripped him naked notwithstanding the weather was intensely cold, and gave him a large number of stripes, the victim thinks 200, with a thick leather belt, sometimes flat, and sometimes with the edge. A man, who appeared to be a doctor, then advise them to desist, saying that they would finish the job the next day. They then put him back in the freight-car, with nothing but his clothes and an old rug to protect him during the night. In the morning he was released, and permitted to pay 50c for a cup of coffee. An armed force, styling themselves “Minute Men,” then took him into custody afresh, went into the woods again, made him strip, tied his hands around a tree, and then shaved his head as close as they could. The crowd urged him to tell all about his doings in the interior, said that they knew he was guilty of exciting slaves to insurrection, had tampered with them, and all that.  Three or four said that if he would confess his life or be spared, but that if he did not he would be strung up. By this time Smithyman was half dead from exhaustion and fright, and believing that it was his only chance of safety from hanging, he avowed that he had tampered with slaves. With a shout the eager listeners seized him, and some were for hanging him right off. An attempt was made to get a rope around his neck, but others were so anxious for another operation that there would-be execution is failed.

“Smithyman was stripped, and liquid tar, almost hot enough to scald, was poured over his head, and, half blinded as he was, the victim was not allowed to put his hands to his eyes to keep the tar from blinding him altogether. Then they struck him all over with loose cotton.
After this was through they told him that he must start from Memphis immediately – forty miles off – and not stop till he reached that city. They gave him 5 minutes to put on his clothes, and while he was trying to pull off some of the cotton several of the mob stood by kicking his limbs with their thick boots black and blue, the marks of which kicking he still bears.  They then allowed him to start. Smithyman walked all the way to Memphis, and took the boat to this city.  Smithyman is an honest, sober man, and bears the evidence on his person of the infliction of very severe injuries.” 


Biography of William Smithyman from History of Grant County, Wisconsin (1881): 

“WILLIAM E. SMITHYMAN, miller, Castle Rock; was born near Raughton, Eng., in 1828; son of Edwin and Jane Smithyman, when 19 years of age he went to Wolverhampton and followed milling; came to America in 1858; located at Mauston, Juneau Co., for two years; spent one year in the southern part of the United States; lived at Castle Rock, Grant Co., for twenty months; at Avoca, Iowa Co., seven months; and at Dodgeville for two years; he then enlisted in the 42d W. V. I., and served eleven months. He was married in 1864 to Ellen Hughes, daughter of Peter and Elizabeth Hughes, by whom he had two children — Emily and Ellen. Was married the second time, in 1867, to Elizabeth Pendleton, daughter of Thomas and Selina Pendleton, by whom he had six children — Lincoln, Mary A., Rollin E., John P., Jessie R. and Jonathan C. (deceased.)”