"They Stole Him Out of Jail" - Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim

Jul 8, 2019

Willie Earle is shown in a police mug shot from a prior arrest, was taken from the jail and lynched by a group of whites in 1947.
Credit Greenville Police Dept

Before daybreak on February 17, 1947, twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for the murder of a Greenville, South Carolina, taxi driver named T. W. Brown, was abducted from his jail cell by a mob, and then beaten, stabbed, and shot to death. An investigation produced thirty-one suspects, most of them cabbies seeking revenge for one of their own.

The police and FBI obtained twenty-six confessions. Remarkably, the names and photos of the defendents were published in a Greenville newspaper.

And yet, after a nine-day trial in May that attracted national press attention, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury.

In They Stole Him Out of Jail (2019, USC Press), William B. Gravely presents the most comprehensive account of the Earle lynching ever written, exploring it from background to aftermath and from multiple perspectives. Gravely meticulously re-creates the case’s details, analyzing the flaws in the investigation and prosecution that led in part to the acquittals. Vivid portraits emerge of key figures in the story, including both Earle and Brown, Solicitor Robert T. Ashmore, Governor Strom Thurmond, and Rebecca West, the well-known British writer who covered the trial for The New Yorker magazine.

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