Shore starting to face up to past, some say

Within living memory, Matthew Williams and George Armwood dangled on ropes for the world to see: The last of 25 to 30 victims of lynchings believed to have taken place in Maryland. Throughout the United States, about 5,000 lynchings have been documented between 1890 and 1960.

The number of people convicted of those crimes? None.


On the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1931, a white lumberyard owner was shot dead in his Salisbury office. Matthew Williams - a young employee in good standing - subsequently was admitted to nearby Peninsula Hospital with a superficial gunshot wound to the head.

Rumors immediately began swirling around Wicomico County that Williams had killed his boss. (A minor-key, alternative theory was that the man's own son had committed the murder during a heated family argument, then turned his gun on Williams, a hapless observer.) That night a mob descended upon the hospital and dragged a bandaged Williams from his bed. He was beaten and stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick, then hanged from a tree on the courthouse square in Salisbury. For good measure, his corpse was doused with gasoline and torched.


Between 500 and 1,000 onlookers attended all or part of the grim proceedings.

The lynching of George Armwood became a larger spectator sport.

There's no question the 28-year-old farm worker assaulted an elderly Princess Anne woman on Oct. 17, 1933, during a botched purse-snatching. Some contend he may have been acting in consort with a white man. Regardless, Armwood was quickly arrested and taken to Somerset County jail. That night, he was transferred to Baltimore for safekeeping, but in a matter of hours was returned home at the request of Eastern Shore officials.

The next evening, Oct. 18, vigilantes split from a mob some 2,000 strong, broke down the door of the county jail, knocked Armwood senseless, cut off his ear, hanged him, dragged the body through town and finally tossed it onto a bonfire.

Pieces of the ropes used in the Williams and Armwood lynchings reportedly were taken home as souvenirs.

The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper did the most aggressive reporting on the lynchings. The Eastern Shore papers largely took a pass. (The Salisbury Times downgraded the Armwood murder to "a demonstration.") The Baltimore Sun spoke out forcefully, condemning the lynchings on its editorial pages, but the most impassioned response came from H.L. Mencken, the newspaper's marquee columnist.

Mencken fired a series of attacks on the Eastern Shore culture he said set the stage for the barbarous incidents. He described the region as morally adrift, "sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia."

Mencken testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1935, lending support to an anti-lynching bill that never made it into law. By then, Maryland had thrown up its hands.


In November 1933, Gov. Albert C. Ritchie, frustrated with the inertia of local police and prosecutors, sent Pinkerton detectives and the state militia to Salisbury to pursue the lynchers. Four leaders of the Armwood mob actually were taken into custody. Grand juries were convened in both cases. A combined total of 142 witnesses was called.

In the end, no one could or would identify a single lyncher. The two grand juries ultimately decided that George Armwood and Matthew Williams died "at the hands of persons unknown."

In all, an unlucky seven of Maryland's lynchings happened on the Eastern Shore; four in Somerset County. One ripple effect of the subsequent negative publicity was that Shore residents became hypersensitive to outside criticism (witness the backlash boycotts of The Sun and attacks on Sun delivery drivers). That insular, batten-down-the-hatches mentality lasted well into the 1960s.

Remedial steps have since been taken. In 2004 Wicomico County was awarded a three-year, $800,000 federal grant to help revamp its local-history curriculum. Forty-two junior and senior high school teachers attended workshops that delved into previously ignored topics like lynching.

"It seems to me the Eastern Shore is starting to come to terms" with its past, says Dean Kotlowski, an associate professor of history at Salisbury University who conducted some of the workshops, "but just coming to terms."

There is no consensus about what else needs to be done. Clara Small, the university's only African-American history professor, teaches a course in racism and discrimination, in which students are strongly encouraged to speak from the heart: "If they can't do it, I tell them 'Maybe you better be in another class.' "


To no surprise, Small favors a thorough public airing of dirty laundry. "If you don't talk about what happened in the past, you can't move forward," she says. "As a historian, I look at the past as a window to the future."

Honiss Cane is more concerned with Eastern Shore blacks and whites moving forward together, rather than looking back on the ugly history of lynchings. Cane is 75 and has spent his life in Pocomoke City, on the western edge of Worcester County, not far from where George Armwood met his demise in Princess Anne. He joined sit-ins in his younger days and collaborated on civil-rights cases with the American Civil Liberties Union. He has been a county commissioner since 1986 and ran for re-election unopposed last year.

"We've gotten to the point where we've built better family relationships between the races," he says. "Everybody knows the troubles were there. I don't mind discussing history, but I don't like going back. ... We left it behind."

H.L. Mencken had no problem with going back and rattling bones. In his memoir Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work Mencken named the suspects arrested, but never prosecuted, in the lynching of Armwood: pharmacist William Thompson, constable Irving Adkins, truck driver William Hearn, store clerk William McQuade.

Those four have long since passed. But not so every face in that crowd.

"There are members of the mob who are still alive," says Joseph E. Moore, a former Worcester County prosecutor who wrote a book about another racially charged murder on the Eastern Shore in the 1930s. "I'm just positive of it."


Indeed, he talked with someone whose grandfather once held a high position in Somerset County government. That person has the names of about 20 other citizens who were part of the Armwood mob. In addition, Moore says the identities of Matthew Williams' lynchers were known to authorities 70 years ago - and, presumably, to certain families now.

Joseph Moore is curious to see how Sherrilyn Ifill's book On the Courthouse Lawn - detailing the murders of Armwood and Williams and the legacy of lynchings - will be received in Maryland. His guess is inhabitants of the Eastern Shore will react more in the spirit of accommodation than reconciliation.

"I think they will be saying, 'That's the way it was then, but we've come so far it has no applicability now. That was a lifetime away.' "