One hundred and nine years ago this week, a violent mob stormed the Escambia County Jail just before midnight, shooting the sheriff and a jailor before seizing a black man named Leander Shaw.
The mob dragged Shaw through city streets to Plaza Ferdinand VII, where they lynched him.
Shaw was hung by his neck from a lamppost near the Chipley monument at the center of the plaza. There is no historic marker on the spot where Shaw died, just feet from where Andrew Jackson accepted Florida from Spanish officials in 1821 and in the shadow of Pensacola’s then-new city hall, completed just four months earlier.
As Shaw’s body swung from the pole, it was riddled with bullets from the mob below, “fully five hundred shots being fired within the course of five minutes,” the Pensacola Journal estimated.
Little is known about Shaw’s life. In the months before his death, he’d worked at W.C. Barrineau’s turpentine camp in what’s now Barrineau Park in northern Escambia County. Shaw’s alleged crime was the attempted murder of a 21-year-old white woman named Lillie Davis earlier that day, which the Journal reported in the starkly racist language typical of Southern newspapers of the era.
“Brutal Assault by Burly Negro Upon White Lady,” the headline read. Despite the fact that had Shaw received no trial, the paper reported his guilt as a matter of fact. Shortly after her husband left for work that morning, Davis was attacked in her Gull Point home in what the paper called “possibly the most brutal assault ever to be recorded in the annals of Escambia County.”
The assailant slit Davis’ throat, beat her in the head with a Colt revolver he’d stolen from the home, and then fled, the Journal reported. Two hours later, a sheriff’s deputy arrested Shaw near the bridge over Bayou Texar, “realizing in an instant he had caught the negro brute.” The still-bloody knife and stolen revolver were reportedly found on Shaw’s person, and he was taken before the hospitalized victim, who positively identified him despite her life-threatening injuries. Davis died three days later on August 1.
It didn’t take long for word to spread about the attack and Shaw’s alleged involvement. By 7:00 p.m., a crowd had begun to form outside the county jail at Main and Jefferson streets. As the crowd swelled and tensions flared, Sheriff James C. Van Pelt unsuccessfully tried to convince the mob to disperse.
“Gentlemen, here I am,” the Pensacola Daily News reported Van Pelt as saying. “You can kill me if you want to, but if you get my prisoner, it will be over my dead body. I have sworn to do my duty, and I am going to do it if I die for it!”
At 8:45, the crowd stormed the jail, using a section of streetcar rail to break down the jail yard gate. Sheriff Van Pelt and his deputies opened fire on the mob, and a firefight ensued, during which one member of the mob was killed and several men on both sides were injured.
The would-be lynchers withdrew after a few minutes, but before long, the mob began to grow once more.
Around 11:30 p.m., with Sheriff Van Pelt and his men preoccupied with the crowd in front of the jail, a dozen or so lynchers scaled the rear wall of the jail yard, entered the jail using a rear entrance, and overpowered the sheriff’s small force. The lynchers took the jail keys from deputy T.F. Cusachs, seized Shaw, and placed a noose around his neck as they dragged him from the building.
“A wretch in human guise, despoiler of the honor of a Southern wife and mother, and perhaps her murderer, had been dragged across the fragrant grasses of the park to pay the awful penalty of his crime as the howling mob saw fit,” the Journal recapped in a particularly macabre passage laced with Southern stereotypes of black men as hulking, violent savages.
“Sinister in his facial expression even in death, he looked the brute that he was,” the Journal wrote. “Muscular, his frame a massive one, he appeared a giant of power and strength, and the knowledge of his heinous attack upon one of the best and sweetest women of Escambia County, who with all her helplessness had feebly matched her strength with his in her last struggle for her honor and life itself, only served to increase the venom of unearthly hate directed against him.”
In the days that followed, Pensacolians who hadn’t seen the lynching in person flocked to the plaza or to F.R. Pou’s undertaking parlor to see Shaw’s body. “The crowds to visit the Plaza were eager to obtain souvenirs of the lynching,” the Journal wrote. “The hundreds of empty shells lying on the ground were picked up and will be preserved, while the rope with which the negro was hanged was cut to pieces for similar purposes.” The enterprising photographers who had taken pictures of Shaw’s body both before and after it was cut down had a rush of orders.
A coroner’s jury was hastily assembled the day after the lynching, ruling that Shaw “came to his death at the hands of parties unknown.” None of the men who participated in Shaw’s murder were ever apprehended, much less prosecuted or convicted. The only arrest in connection with the lynching was that of a man who mailed a postcard depicting Shaw’s body, a violation of postal laws.
The lynching of Leander Shaw, the Journal reported, was “the first to occur in Pensacola in many years and probably the first ever to occur in the Plaza.” It wouldn’t be the last. Less than nine months later, another lynch mob seized David Alexander, a black man accused of killing policeman J.D. Carter.
Unlike Shaw’s lynching, however, Alexander’s murder didn’t enjoy popular support and instead drew condemnations from local and state officials, including Rabbi Schwartz of Temple Beth-El and Governor Albert Gilchrist. A white man named William Thompson was indicted in connection with the Alexander lynching, but was later found not guilty by an all-white jury.
“The lynching of Leander Shaw is but one example of the widespread anti-black violence that was a part of the post-Reconstruction South, from which Florida was not exempt,” said Dr. Tameka Bradley Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Florida Memorial University and the author of Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida.
“When it comes to the legacy of spectacle lynchings with large crowds in attendance, the lynching of Leander Shaw challenges the 1934 brutal and well-publicized lynching of Claude Neal in Jackson County for crowd size and brutality,” Hobbs said. “Not only was Florida the site of terribly brutal lynchings like these, as well as the complete erasure of all-black townships like Ocoee and Rosewood, but statistical analysis shows that blacks in Florida had the highest probability of being lynched in the nation.”
In 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative announced plans to build the “Memorial to Peace and Justice,” the nation’s first national memorial to the thousands of victims of lynching, in Montgomery, Ala. In addition to the main memorial structure, the grounds will feature 800 columns — one for each county in the United States where EJI has documented racial terror lynchings. EJI will invite each county to retrieve their monument and place it back in the county where the terror lynchings took place. Currently under construction, the memorial is expected to open in 2018.