The Lynching of Ted Smith

If you take a minute and study the turn-of-the-century image of the large, white crowd gathered around the smoldering remains of a young, black teenager named Ted Smith, a few things jump out at you.

First, most of the crowd is adult male, but there are also some young boys. Burning a black man at the stake was a big event in east Texas, so, of course, grown men would take their sons to witness it. It was still a bucket list spectacle in much of the South.

Second, there is a lone figure who doesn’t belong standing along the periphery.

It cowers in the lower left-hand corner of the image.

White men and boys are standing, watching and walking around the site of Smith’s grotesque execution. They don’t seem repulsed or appalled at all. They are enjoying themselves. But the lone figure in the lower left-hand corner of the image stands with its tail between its legs. A black herding dog, fretful, submissive.

Was its teenage master consumed in the flames? Or was it the odor of broiling human flesh that unsettled it?

A picture may not tell us a thousand words, but this lynching postcard image gives us one word to describe one thousand fathers and sons: Animals.

Except that nomenclature is obviously an insult to the dog.

On July 28, 1908, an eighteen-year-old African American man named Ted Smith was burned at the stake in Greenville, Texas.

Smith and his family worked as laborers for R. H. Delancey on his farm near Clinton, just eight miles southwest of Greenville, in Hunt County. According to oral accounts, a relationship sprang up between Smith and Delancey’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Viola, and they carried on in secret. When Viola’s parents discovered the courtship, they apparently pretended to be unaware until they could catch the two and cry foul.

On July 26, a circumstance presented itself and Mr. and Mrs. Delancey had Smith charged with criminal assault. Smith fled and law enforcement personnel and groups of enraged citizens set out in pursuit.

On July 27, Smith was spotted in the Caddo Creek bottoms near Clinton, but managed to escape. When Smith was later captured by two police officers at a nearby farm around dusk, he was quietly picking a banjo and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Smith’s captors correctly assumed that their chances of avoiding the roving bands of would-be vigilantes while en route to the county jail would be slim. They decided to take Smith deeper into the backwoods and lay low. The decision was prescient. By 6:00 p.m. the returning search parties had formed a mob outside the county jail and were milling around the public square, eager for news.

Both Hunt County Sheriff David L. Hemsell and District Judge T. D. Montrose addressed the unruly crowd and eventually it dispersed. The two police captors and Smith eluded the mobs for several hours and Smith was delivered to the county jail in Greenville at approximately 3:30 am on July 28.

By 8:00 a.m. the mob had returned.

Sheriff Hemsell reappeared and explained to the mob that he had to convey the prisoner to the victim’s house so he could be identified. Spokespersons for the mob promised safe conduct for Sheriff Hemsell and Smith to the Delancey household and back, so the sheriff commandeered a buggy and headed towards Clinton with the suspect.

When Smith was presented to Viola for identification, she said “That is the nigger that did the deed.” Smith cried out in shock and Sheriff Hemsell turned the buggy back towards town.

Once back in Greenville, Sheriff Hemsell was set upon by the waiting mob and relieved of his suspect.

First the mob took Smith to the north corner of the public square, where members placed a rope around his neck and started to hang him. Then, as McKinney’s Weekly Democrat-Gazette put it, “other heads prevailed for a more impressive death, so it was decided to burn him.”

The crowd dragged Smith to the south side of the town square by the rope around his neck and placed him on a cord of wood. He was then doused with coal oil and incinerated in front of 1,000 people.

As Smith burned, an older African American in the crowd remarked that the whole ordeal was unfortunate—he was immediately horsewhipped.

When pressed for an official response to the broad daylight lynching of Ted Smith, Greenville Mayor Joseph F. Nichols relegated it to the ledger of business as usual:

There will be no action taken by the authorities of Greenville relative to the burning of the rapist this morning. The deed was committed by the negro and the penalty of death was administered by an orderly body of the citizens from the city and the country. The negro was properly identified and taken from the sheriff and the incident is closed as far as the city is concerned.

Mayor Nichols’ proclamation was popularly received, the West Texas News (out of Colorado, Texas) noting that “the signal revenge of the Greenville citizens has brought praise from every portion of the state and may furnish a good object lesson for other would be assaulters.”

The Democrat-Gazette’s conclusions were less complimentary, but granted Greenville an exception because there was “no parallel in the history of the state to this case, possibly, with the exception of the Paris case [the death of young Myrtle Vance].”

Viola Delancey later recanted and Sheriff Hemsell himself eventually admitted that he thought Smith had been innocent. No one involved in the lynching was ever charged or prosecuted, and two of the lynch-mob ringleaders later rose to the public offices of Hunt County sheriff and Greenville Fire Chief.

Not long after the Ted Smith burning, the town of Greenville would embrace another controversial civic act “administered by an orderly body” of its citizens. It adopted a new community slogan and celebrated it on a large banner that hung across main street. It proclaimed: “Welcome to Greenville: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People.”

It would greet Greenville visitors for decades.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional & Nefarious and Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History. Read other articles by E.R..