The Lynching of Sanford Lewis

By Ben Boulden

On the night of March 23, 1912, an angry mob of men pulled Sanford Lewis, a black man, from the Fort Smith city jail and hanged him by his neck from a trolley pole.

A few hours before the lynching at around 8 p.m., patrolman Andy Carr and his friend, John B. Williams, went to the assistance of two detectives who were on Garrison Avenue struggling with Lewis in an attempt to arrest him for quarreling publicly with a black woman who also was present. When Lewis broke loose and attempted an escape from the policemen and Williams, the men gave chase. After cornering Lewis at the corner of North 10th and A streets in front of the Pony Express, as Lewis was being pistol whipped by his captors, a shot rang out. The bullet from the pistol struck Andy Carr above the eyebrow and exited through his temple. Critically wounded, a cab was called and rushed Carr to St. Edward Infirmary where he died a few days later.

Shortly after the shooting, two more policemen arrived and escorted Lewis to the city jail. Word of the shooting quickly reached a large number of men in the downtown area. Angry at reports that Lewis has shot Carr, by 11 p.m. a hostile crowd of 400 to 500 men surrounded the jail.

As the murderous intent of the crowd became clearer, few police officers actively sought to thwart their plans. Only Capt. Smart and Chief of Police Bryant Barry tried to dissuade the crowd. When Bryant blocked the door to the jail, the mob carried him off and held him to the side. No officer came to the aid of Barry.

After an unsuccessful attempt to batter down the door to the jail with a large piece of lumber, the mob gained entry to the building by tearing the bars off the outside window of the cell that held Lewis.

With several men securing Lewis, they fitted a noose around his neck and carried him to Garrison Avenue. Lewis repeatedly cried out his innocence, but in response to his pleas his captors only beat him into unconsciousness.

Stopping in front of a trolley pole that stood near the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Main and the First National Bank, a member of the mob climbed the pole and secured the rope. Lewis was lifted up as his executioner balanced himself on the pole. The man held him up by his collar and dropped him repeatedly until Lewis' death was certain. The man hoisted the body up even farther and tied the rope off, using his feet to swing Lewis around to show the crowd.

The ramifications of this event were far-reaching. A special grand jury was empaneled to look into the chain of events that led to the March 23 lynching of Sanford Lewis. Police Chief Barry, Capt. Smart and nine other policemen were all fired by the city council.

Barry's replacement, George W. Moss, began a law-and-order crackdown, which probably drew some inspiration from a large town meeting that was held in the Opera House on March 26. When Mayor Fagan Bourland attempted to speak to the gathering, he was jeered repeatedly by the crowd.

Working under great secrecy and with many reluctant witnesses, the grand jury investigation concluded in May 1912. The first determination they reached was that Sanford Lewis did not shoot Andy Carr, but instead he had been accidentally shot by his friend, Williams, who was attempting to help him apprehend Lewis. The jury indicted Williams for involuntary manslaughter.

In the matter of the lynching, the jury indicted Con Sullivan, also charged with bank robbery in another Arkansas town, and John Stowers, a local building contractor, for first-degree murder. For nonfeasance of office, the jury charged five of the policemen who were on duty the night of lynching.

Within a matter of weeks, the court found the policemen guilty and fined them $100 each. The trials of Stowers and Williams began in August after a change of venue to Waldron in Scott County. According to press accounts, the state called dozens of witnesses and presented very strong cases.

Nevertheless, both defendants were acquitted, although after long jury deliberations. Frustrated by these failures, the prosecutor dropped all remaining criminal charges related to the lynching.

Bourland, blamed by large numbers of citizens for not having done enough to stop the lynching, failed to win re-election in 1913. With his defeat, the turmoil and violence which occurred on the night of March 23, 1912, began to recede in the memory of many of the citizens of Fort Smith. It was not the sort of pleasant, entertaining event that people want to reminisce about.

It was, however, a lesson in the injustice of vigilantes, a lesson that most who witnessed the lynching of Sanford Lewis would probably not soon forget, even if it was remembered only in silence.

Sources: Numerous newspaper accounts from the Southwest American and Fort Smith Times Record as well as court records.