George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Like any place, Jackson, Tennessee, has its fair share of history, some things worth celebrating and others worth mourning, but all are worth remembering so that we can move forward in hope for change.
One of those historically significant events for our community (and hundreds of others across the U.S.) is the brutal lynching of African Americans—not just one, but three.
Jacksonians Jesse and Mary Chandler Wooten gave birth to a daughter in 1883. The baby was expected to die, so she was baptized in extremis by Rev. George Hinkle at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson in March of 1884. She passed a year later, followed by her twenty-five-year-old mother’s death just sixteen months afterwards due to a mysterious illness.
Eliza Woods was the cook for the Wooten family, and some of Mary’s clothing and a box of “Rough on Rats” (arsenic) were found in her room. Even though Mary had already been laid to rest, her body was disinterred. Her stomach, along with a box of Rough on Rats, was sent to a Professor Wharton in Nashville, and after finding arsenic in the stomach, Wharton confirmed that Mary was poisoned.
Suspicion turned on Woods. On August 18, she was arrested and taken to jail, along with her paramour. The prominent men of town spread the news that there would be a hanging that night, and the threats of lynching were even reported in the New York Times. After prayer meetings let out in Jackson at 9:00 P.M., the fire bell rang, rallying the men to action.
Sheriff B.A. Person was on duty at the jail that night, and he four guards tried to stop the mob but were overpowered. Former mayor Hu Anderson begged them to stop, but they paid no attention. Robert Cartmell, a witness to the scene, wrote in his diary that a small gang of men broke down the front door of the jail, rushed in, and demanded the keys from the jailer. When he refused, the men called for a sledge hammer; so, rather than have the jail suffer the damage of a sledge hammer, the keys were surrendered to the men.
Once found by the mob, Woods was stripped of her clothes and dragged down the street to the courthouse. Some shouted for her to be burned, others demanded a hanging, and everyone tried to make her confess. Woods refused and was hung from the branch of a small elm tree. Someone yelled out, “Stand back!”, and five bullets were fired into her body.
The newspaper reported that the crowd of 1,000 was orderly and dispersed soon after.
Rumors immediately spread that Woods had poisoned others, including Mrs. Wooten’s baby, two other women she cooked for previously, and even her own children. The Tennessean reported that one African-American woman walked seven miles from the country to see the hanging because she claimed Woods had poisoned eleven children in her neighborhood. The paper concluded its story of the lynching: “Everybody thinks the city is rid of a she-devil.”
Woods’ body was left hanging from the tree until the next morning when Sheriff Person cut her down and ordered John Trice, the African-American sexton, to bury her body, but two other black men threatened to burn the town to the ground and were later ordered to leave the city. The Index of the City of Jackson Court Clerk Minutes revealed in an entry that J.R. Rushing was paid ten dollars in January 1887 for Woods’ burial expenses. All indications are that she was buried in Eastside Cemetery; however, in 1920 the cemetery, which had not been used in many years, was transformed into Centennial Park on Chester Street.
But the story did not end with Woods’ burial.
After the Woods’ lynching, Jesse Wooten visited Middle Tennessee for several weeks. About three months later on a Sunday afternoon he reappeared in Jackson “hopelessly insane.” He swore that he was “authorized by Almighty God to kill somebody in order to save [his wife and daughter’s] souls.” He was violent and it took a dozen men to restrain him and take him to jail. The Jackson County Clerk Minutes record the court hearing declaring Jesse insane and ordering him to be transported to the Nashville Insane Asylum.
Ida B. Wells, an African-American reporter from Memphis, wrote about Woods shortly after the lynching in Jackson. It was not the last time Wells would write about Woods, outraged when she read that Wooten became a raving maniac and died in the insane asylum after confessing that he killed his wife. The witness Robert Cartmell wrote, “This is the only circumstance of this kind […] that has ever occurred in Jackson. May it be the last—no cause for any thing of the kind.”
But just five years later, another lynching of a wrongly accused person, John Brown, would be carried out in Jackson. Another three years later, it was Frank Ballard’s turn.
Between 1877 and 1950, there were 237 documented lynchings of African Americans in Tennessee, three of which occurred in Madison County, and until recently, very little has been done to honor the victims’ lives, let alone acknowledge this horrible truth. Thankfully, in 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) released the book Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in which 4,400 lynchings of African Americans were recorded, many of which were previously not adequately documented. EJI’s Community Remembrance Project undertook to recognize these lynchings by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and creating a national memorial to acknowledge the horrors of racial terrorism.
On August 18, 2017, members of the Indivisible Jackson organization held a candlelight vigil on the courthouse grounds for Eliza Woods 131 years after her lynching, and last month, Jackson State Community College was the host agency for a soil preservation ceremony memorializing Woods, Brown, and Ballard.
Last April, EJI opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial contains 800 six-foot corten steel memorial columns—one for each county in which African Americans were lynched. A duplicate column sits on the grounds waiting to be claimed by the county in which the lynchings occurred. Eventually EJI’s empty spaces of the claimed columns will be testaments to the communities that are dealing with their past and working toward racial reconciliation and peace. The unclaimed columns will also testify, but to a much different message.
In December, the Jackson-Madison County Community Remembrance Project held its first meeting. With the full support of Mayor Jerry Gist, the coalition was formed for the purpose of promoting racial reconciliation. The first project of the coalition is to work with EJI to erect a historical marker memorializing the lynchings of Woods and Brown, both hung at the county courthouse. The coalition is currently requesting approval from the Madison County Commission to place the marker on the courthouse grounds in the approximate spot where Woods was lynched; a second marker will be placed near the site of Ballard’s death at a later date.
The marker will be fully funded by EJI will be no cost to the county except for normal lawn maintenance. All we have to do is fight for remembrance, the way the great African Americans of the past have, such as Maya Angelou:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, / Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.”
The Jackson-Madison County Community Remembrance Project is hopeful that the Madison County Commission will approve their request at the next meeting on Thursday, March 18. If you support this project, we encourage you to contact your county commissioners to ask them to vote in favor of the request and to attend the meeting to stand in solidarity with the group. To learn more about the Jackson-Madison County Community Remembrance Project, visit their Facebook page, and make sure to check out EJI’s website.
Cindy Boyles is the Chair of the Jackson-Madison County Community Remembrance Project, which is working to memorialize victims of lynching in Madison County. She has conducted extensive research on the lynching of Eliza Woods and is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Tennessee at Martin.