The Sheriff Denied Them

June 18, 1901


A Sheriff and his deputies prevent a white mob from lynching an African American prisoner, killing one and wounding two others.


Carrolton, Ga., June 6th ’01.—The nerve of an obscure Georgia Sheriff, whose name is Joseph Merill, today upheld the law of the State and saved the life of a colored man from a mob. In protecting the colored man, who had been saved from the gallows only a few hours before through the efforts of his lawyers, one life was lost and two men were wounded. The arrival of State militia averted threatened trouble tonight and at 9 o’clock a special train bearing the colored man whose crime was the murder of a little white boy whom he found fishing alone, and his guard was speeding towards Atlanta. The man killed in attacked the jail was George Bennet of Carrolton. The wounded men are Thomas Smith also of Carrolton, and un unknown man, presumably a farmer. Thos. S. Word, father of the murdered boy who was in the front rank of the would-be-lynchers, was strange to say, not hit. After Bennet fell, Mr. Word jumped upon and exclaimed dramatically: “Shoot me, Mr. Sheriff, I would as soon die now as any time.” Only nine shots were fired and the walls of the jail show the mark of the bullets. None of the Sheriff’s posse was hit. Williams, the colored man was tried and found guilty of murdering Otis Word, January 1st, this year and sentenced to be hanged today, being refused a new trial by Judge Harris, this morning. His attorneys, Reese, Smith, and Boykin fled a bill exceptions and carried the case to the Supreme Court. A large crowd of people had come to town to witness the hanging, and when it was learned that an appeal had been taken to the Supreme Court, delaying the execution there was much talk which led soon afterwards to the formation of a mob. At noon the mob made an assault on the jail, They battered down the iron door, despite warnings from the Sheriff and entered the building. They made a demand on the Sheriff for a key to the prisoner’s cell but were refused. With the refusal they began to make their advance upon the Sheriff, and the few deputies whom he had been able to summon to his aid. They were told to stop or they would be fired on, but the order was no obeyed. As they advanced, down the corridor towards the Sheriff, the order was given to fire. Bennet fell, dying almost instantly. The unexpected fight of Sheriff and his posse frightened the mob and its members retreated outside the jail. Here they broke and ran, and were soon in little groups discussing the event. Sheriff Merrill at once consulted Judge Harris of the County Court, and it was decided to call upon Governor Chandler for aid. The Governor was communicated with by telephone and said he would sent two companies from Atlanta as soon as they could be assembled. During the afternoon, the mob telephoned the situation to friends in the adjoining towns of Villa Rica and Temple, and made an appeal for more men to effect the capture of the prisoner. This was communicated to Governor Chandler, and the Governor soon wired a proclamation to the people of the county. It was read from the steps of the courthouse at 4 o’clock by the Mayor. The Governor commanded the people to disperse, and said the entire military and civil forces of the State would be used to enforce order if necessary. The reading of the proclamation apparently had a good effect as many people were soon to mount their houses and leave the town. Much apprehension was felt for the night and the Sheriff and city and county officials after a consultation, decided to take the prisoner out of the county for safe keeping. The Atlanta military under the command of Major Baker, arrived about 6 o’clock and one hour later escorted the prisoner and sheriff to the train, which was soon speeding southward for Atlanta. Atlanta, Ga., June 7.—The special train bearing the two companies of the State militia which Governor Chandler sent to Carrolton to preserve order returned to Atlanta at 11 o’clock tonight having in charge the prisoner Williams. The convicted murderer was quickly escorted to the Fulton Co. jail where he will be kept until the Supreme Court acts on the appeal in his case. Sheriff Joseph L. Merrill who accompanied the party, said the leaders of the mob were Bennet and Mr. Word, and that both of them had assured him early in the day that there would be no trouble, but about noon they found it impossible to restrain their friends. Sheriff Merrill said Mr. Word was the last one of the mob to leave the jail and that he was probably the only one who was not armed.
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Nathan Lyell


“The Sheriff Denied Them,” Black Virginia: The Richmond Planet, 1894-1909, accessed October 27, 2020,