Wednesday, April 22, 2015

More on the 1884 Cheney Lynching

Image courtesy of  Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections,
Washington State University Libraries, Cage 1771

As I was researching my recent post and teaching activity about the lynching of an American Indian in 1884, I ran across a reference in WorldCat to a letter in the Washington State University Archives that had some additional information. Yesterday, through the efforts of EWU graduate student Joanne Percy (thanks!) I received a scan of the letter--and it changes my understanding of the whole event.

The letter was written by Charles Ratcliffe, who is listed in the 1890 Spokane City Directory as manager of Frank Brothers Implement and Fire Insurance Company in Cheney. He was writing to his sweetheart Louise Bressler in Belleville, Illinois. Writing on the day of the lynching but before the crime was committed, Charley begins sweetly enough, telling Louise that "you are the hope of my youth . . . when night comes I always think of you" and how he looks forward to the day "when you will be my dear little wife." Then comes the dark part:

Oh Louise will I tell you of the dreadful thing that happened here yesterday and what I fear is going to happen tonight. A woman riding alone between Cheney and Spokane about dark was met by two Indians and draged out of the wagon by the fiends after accomplishing their purpose left her insensible. hundreds of men turned out and today the principle was caught and is now in jail. Tonight an attempt will be made to lynch him. I sincerely hope they will although it is an awful thing to do. I saw him as he passed the office just a few minutes ago. Maybe I ought not to have told you this. but it is not worse than has been committed in Ill not many days ago. truly "the way of the transgressor is hard."

"Ill" above is short for Illinois, though after a cursory search I cannot determine what lynching is being referred to by Ratcliffe.

This unfiltered account contradicts the story as it was told at the time in the newspapers, that the unnamed Indian man was killed by a mob of masked men who from Spokane who rode into into Cheney at night and caught everyone by surprise. Ratcliffe's account, written a few hours before the lynching, shows the crime was entirely premeditated and was the talk of the town in Cheney well before it happened. Far from the act of a mob, this was community decision made by many of the men of Cheney and tolerated by the rest. The sheriff and other officers of the law would have known what was planned, and made a decision to let it happen (if they did not actually participate). The masked mob from Spokane was a story that was made up afterwards to shield the Cheney community from responsibility for the act.

This is actually a very familiar pattern for local newspaper reports of 19th century lynchings--it was done by a mob from out of town, acting in the passion of the moment, we residents of Lyncherville had nothing to do with it. Very often further research reveals that the lynching was planned in advance by leading citizens of the community and tolerated by law enforcement, as appears to be the case in Cheney as well.

Charley Radcliffe and Louise were married soon thereafter and had long lives in Cheney, where they are buried together in Fairview Cemetery.

So many questions remains about this incident. Who were the murderers? The 1896 article published a dozen years later stated: "If the names of that mob should be published it would be found that a large number of them could be readily found in the city directory of today"--a tantalizing hint, impossible to follow up on. What was done with the body of the poor victim? Would his relatives have come to collect him, or is he in the paupers section of one of Cheney's cemeteries? And most pressingly, who was he--what was his name? None of the sources bothered to record his name, though they must have known.

Though questions remain, we seem to be out of sources. I may poke around in the newspapers a bit more, but barring some newly-discovered source, we may never know the identity of the innocent man who was lynched in Cheney that day.

[You may read the entire letter here, courtesy of  Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections,
Washington State University Libraries, Cage 1771.]

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