Service of Reconciliation for Last Lynching in the West

Episcopal News Service. May 8, 1998 [98-2167]

Jeff Sells, Editor of Diocesan Dialogue for the Diocese of Utah

(ENS) The time was June 1925. The place, just outside Price, Utah. The occasion, the lynching of Robert Marshall, a black coal miner. As it turned out, it was to be the last lynching of a black man in the West. But it was to affect one person, C. Matthew Gilmour, now 88, a retired lawyer, and a longtime member of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the rest of his life. He was fifteen years old, living in Price, and saw a man buy the rope for the hanging. And so, finally, after many months of work, on April 4, 1998, nearly 73 years after the event, he organized a day of reconciliation to make what amends can be made after so many years. Gilmour invited religious and political leaders to join him in a service of reconciliation, "to recognize the injustice that had occurred and take steps to rectify it." "Injustice does not go away because of time," said Gilmour at the April 4 gathering. "It is important that injustice is acknowledged. Because of what we do here, we have a new beginning coming. We can realize that all of us are members one of another."

The lynching

Marshall was lynched on June 18, 1925. He was one of 17 lynchings in the country in that year. A grim statistic, to be sure, but this number was down from an average of 57 per year only 3 years earlier. In the case of Robert Marshall, he was apprehended after a 2 1/2-day manhunt outside of Price, Utah. He was suspected of killing a white law enforcement officer in a mining town near Price. After his capture, sheriffs deputies transported him to jail in Price. He was left unattended in a car outside the jail while the deputies were inside making arrangements. An angry crowd reportedly took the car with Marshall in it and headed south toward the town of Wellington. As the crowd moved out of town, it grew in size and in determination. They were heading for a hanging tree outside of town. When the crowd, now numbering about 1,000, arrived at the tree, they hanged Marshall on it.

The deputies caught up with the crowd, but too late to prevent Marshall's hanging. They arrived about 10 minutes after Marshall was hanged and cut him down. But when the crowd discovered that Marshall was still alive, they apparently overpowered the deputies and rehanged Marshall, this time until he was dead.

Reports indicate Marshall's body was photographed hanging from the tree and then placed on display at the local funeral parlor. Pictures of the hanging were sold to the townspeople for 25 cents.

Justice gone awry

Shortly after the hanging, 11 men were arrested for the death of Marshall. When a Grand Jury was convened, in spite of over 120 witnesses called by the Grand Jury, not one person from the town came forward to witness against the men. In fact, one story describes the atmosphere in the jail as much like a party, with cold drinks for all the prisoners, and a festive atmosphere. One person reported at the time, "Why make waves with these boys, now? The deed is done. It saved the town a bunch of money. They would have hung him anyway." A Salt Lake Tribune story of the time reported "Vengeance was claimed." Dr. Larry Gerlach, past chairman of the History Department of the University of Utah, has done extensive research on the lynching of Robert Marshall. During an address at the April 4, 1998, event, Gerlach said, "Robert Marshall was lynched because he was an itinerant black man. Community solidarity kept the 11 accused from coming to trial. This was certainly an act of racism."

"There were other lynchings in Utah," said Gerlach. "This particular one is not historically significant. However, it illustrates both the thin veil of civility under which we live and the deep tragedy that resulted when the rule of law was ignored. All of us were victimized; freedom itself was put in jeopardy."

In his book, Blazing Crosses in Zion: The Ku Klux Klan in Utah, Gerlach said that it was well known that nearly all the 11 accused men were members of the Klan, although apparently the Klan was not directly involved in the lynching.

Gerlach also quoted the District Attorney at the time, FW Keller, as saying, "I am ashamed at the disgraceful mockery of the law and order which has resulted in the affair right from the beginning, and the manner in which the state has been held up to ridicule. May God have pity on you."

Service of Reconciliation

Religious leaders of several denominations gathered on April 4 to participate in a service that would culminate in the placing of a gravestone on Marshall's unmarked grave. The leaders included The Rt. Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Utah, Metropolitan Isaiah of the Greek Orthodox Church, The Rt. Rev. George Nederauer, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Utah, The Rev. France Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, and John Banks of the Southern Utah State conference of the Mormon church.

Pat Shea, Director of the Bureau of Land Management, read a letter from President Clinton commending the April 4th gathering as an example of his call for an Initiative on Racism. In the letter, President Clinton said, "racial diversity has contributed to the strength of our country, " but "we must recognize that hatred and prejudice sometimes have separated us. Such community action as yours will help to bridge the gap."

Governor Mike Leavitt officially declared the day Racial Diversity Day, and in his proclamation spoke of the lynching of Robert Marshall and the gathering of religious leaders for the purpose of reconciliation as an important step in overcoming racial divisions.

Mike Dalpiaz, Mayor of Helper, Utah, emphasized that "we are not the judges here. We can't do anything about the people who don't agree with what we are doing." Bernie Morris of Price, Utah donated and inscribed the Georgia granite gravestone placed as the marker. The inscription reads, "Robert Marshall. Lynched June 18, 1925.

A Victim of Intolerance.

May God Forgive."