Newspaper describes 1903 lynching on Belleville's Public Square

News-DemocratFebruary 22, 2014 

While Belleville is celebrating its 200th anniversary, we will be remembering all sorts of fun events from the past.

But not everything that happened in those years is nice to look back on.

Take, for instance, these headlines from the June 8, 1903, Belleville Daily Advocate:

"MOB LAW REIGNS SUPREME"

"Assailant of Superintendent Hertel is Hanged and His Body Burned and Mutilated on Public Square."

"Most disgraceful and horrible affair which ever occurred in St. Clair County -- Supt. Hertel on road to recovery."

The affair was the lynching of David Wyatt on the Belleville Public Square. Wyatt, a black man, suffered the wrath of an angry crowd when he shot Charles Hertel, the St. Clair County superintendent of schools.

According to the Advocate, Wyatt, who was a school teacher in Brooklyn, was in Hertel's office in the county courthouse on Saturday morning, June 7, to get his teaching certificate renewed.

Hertel said he had had some complaints about Wyatt and refused the renewal. Wyatt left, after uttering angry words, the paper reported.

Wyatt returned about 6 o'clock, the two men argued and Wyatt shot Hertel, according to the paper.

Wyatt struggled with an assistant in the office and then Hertel joined the fight which moved down the stairs and onto the public square.

The newspaper said a crowd had gathered from the noise of the shot which also attracted police who took Wyatt into custody.

Wyatt was taken from the square to the nearby police station with cries of "Lynch him," coming from the surly crowd gathering outside the station.

Police took Wyatt and fought their way through the now angry mob and delivered him to the county jail about four blocks away where he was "locked in the murderer's cell," the paper noted.

As the crowd continued to grow and become even angrier, the authorities called the fire department to try and break up the crowd.

"The horse wagon from the market square responded and the firemen tried to disperse the mob by turning water upon them. The plan utterly failed, and the city lost several lengths of hose for their trouble by having it cut literally to pieces," the newspaper wrote.

"...Mayor Fred J. Kern mounted a box near the front of the jail and addressed some remarks to the mob. He told them that the law should speedily take its course in the case and that violence ought not be shown the man or mob rule allowed to reign in Belleville. His remarks were greeted with scoffings and after a few moments he was forced to retire. Some one threw a rock and broke a window in the county jail. This was a signal for a general volley, and in a moment not a whole pane of glass was left on the south side of the structure."

The mob broke down the front door of the jail but backed off when confronted by the deputies' pointed guns, the paper said.

But later some men took a sledgehammer and broke down the unguarded steel door in the back of the jail, surged into the building and located Wyatt.

"About the only noise that could be heard was the dull hum of suppressed conversation and the regular, pounding of the steel chisels against the steel locks," the paper reported.

"Inside his cell the condemned man was alternately piteously praying for mercy and lying down on the cot exhausted from sheer fright."

Eventually the cell was opened and the paper reported of Wyatt, "He made a desperate fight for his life, but the mob was too strong for him, and he was soon down on the floor being kicked, cut, slapped and spat upon by the angry mob. A rope was soon slipped about his neck and the crowd grabbing hold, started off with the man, half dragging and half carrying him out the west side to Spring street, thence north to Main Street to the public square.

"Taking their victim to a pole near the center of the square, the mob quickly carried out their intentions. Some one rapidly climbed the pole and placed the rope over a cross arm. Instantly the negro was jerked into the air. He made a few spasmodic efforts to grasp the rope but failed and in a few moments he was apparently dead. Some one thought of a coal oil can and in a few moments the corpse was ablaze, sending a glare of light out over the sea of faces, upturned toward it, and producing an odor of burning flesh which was entirely in keeping with the rest of the awful spectacle. Not satisfied with burning their victim, the ringleaders produced knives and in a short time the man's body was horribly mutilated and the assailants danced about the swinging corpse in ghoulish glee.

"At a little after twelve o'clock the corpse or what was left of it, was cut down and placed in a small bonfire, and the mob dispersed."

The newspaper noted that women and children were at the front of the crowd and that there was an atmosphere like that of a public gathering or picnic.

At a rapidly organized inquest, "... a large number of witnesses were introduced, but no one knew the ringleaders, and the jury returned the following verdict: 'We the jury, find that the deceased came to his death at the hands of parties unknown to the jury.'

"This in all probability is the end of the affair which has shocked St. Clair County from one end to the other."

Other newspapers across the nation blasted the story.

The New York Herald noted the killers "...worked without masks for six hours in view of hundreds, including all the city and county officials, and although the few men who did the actual killing are known to scores, it is unlikely their prosecution will follow."

The New York Times also roundly condemned the incident.

A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who lived in Belleville, was later forced to leave town after receiving abuse and threats on his life for continued reporting on the lynching.

Despite what everyone predicted, some penalties did come from the lynching but nothing that remotely approached the severity of the crime itself.

On Nov. 3, 1903, the Daily Advocate reported that the sheriff had arrested eight people on charges of rioting in complicity with the lynching.

All denied guilt. One even admitted to being in the jail and watching Wyatt being dragged out, but said he didn't participate. Several said they also had watched.

A total of 14 men were arrested and charged.

Eleven pleaded guilty of rioting in circuit court. Each was fined $50 and costs.

Three men held out for a trial. The Advocate predicted their trials probably would come in the next week but I was not able to find any report of what happened to them in any of the newspapers.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 618-239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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