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Lynching in Milwaukee

The mob mentality

Dec. 9, 2009
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The city of Milwaukee has witnessed more than its share of depravity at the hands of individuals acting alone, but its citizens have also been known to resort to mob violence when things get heated. One such case resulted in Milwaukee’s only lynching.

As Robert Wells, author of This Is Milwaukee, explains it, on the night of Sept. 6, 1861, at the corner of Milwaukee and Michigan streets, two African-American men, Marshall Clark and James Shelton, were allegedly involved in an altercation with two Irishmen, Darbey Carney and John Brady. The argument escalated and Carney was left dying on the ground from a stab wound. Brady’s shoulder was slashed and a lamplighter, at the wrong place at the wrong time, was cut supposedly when Clark and Shelton fled the scene. Before Carney died, he pinned Shelton as the one who stabbed him.

Clark and Shelton were quickly apprehended and sent to the city’s jail, now the site of Cathedral Square. A mob of 200 to 300 people, mostly Irish immigrants from the Third Ward, amassed at the jailhouse. They knocked down Police Chief William Beck, threw two police officers in the gutter, pulled a revolver on the jailer and ordered him to open up. He refused, so the gang procured an 18-foot-long piece of timber from a nearby construction site and, wielding it as a battering ram, broke the jail’s lock and gained entrance. The mob couldn’t find Shelton because he was hiding in an empty cell, so they grabbed the next best thing, Marshall Clark. While the mob was beating his companion senseless, Shelton sneaked out the back door and ran.

Clark was dragged down Jackson Street to Detroit Street (now East St. Paul Avenue), where a “trial” was held at the fire department’s Engine House No. 6. They found him guilty of being a black man involved in the death of a white man and sentenced him to hanging. Sheriff Charles Larkin arrived and ordered the crowd to hand over their prisoner. Grossly outnumbered and threatened with his own hanging, the sheriff couldn’t stop them from hauling their victim to Buffalo Street, near the corner of Water Street (just feet away from the current offices of the Shepherd Express, coincidentally). The Irish mob fastened a rope to a pile driver that was used to sink supporting timbers and lynched Clark.

James Shelton, the man accused of killing Carney, was recaptured and tried. During the trial, two military companies were posted at the courthouse to prevent another riot. The jury found Shelton not guilty. For those who thought Shelton was guilty, the verdict appeared to be based on the premise that Clark had already paid for the offense and executing another person would be unjust. After the trial, Shelton was quickly smuggled out of Milwaukee before another mob could be organized. Police Chief Beck was held accountable for the debacle and resigned two months later.


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