Metro-East News

Death certificates for race riot victims offer scant information on the dead, but detail violence

Remembering the race riots of 1917

East St. Louis had a Centennial Commemoration of the race riots of 1917that featured music, poetry, prayer, speeches, and more.
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East St. Louis had a Centennial Commemoration of the race riots of 1917that featured music, poetry, prayer, speeches, and more.

They are listed as “unidentified negro” on their death certificates.

They were four African-American men found dead in Cahokia Creek during the East St. Louis riots on July 2 and 3, 1917. They died from various causes, including gunshot and fractured skull.

The four men’s death certificates, found by News-Democrat reporters in the Illinois State Archives in Springfield, are mostly anonymous. No names. No ages. No next of kin.

Each was buried in the St. Clair County Cemetery on July 3.

The state archives have death certificates for 39 African-American men who died in the rioting. Some don’t have names, but some do.

Among those named is Edward Cook, a laborer, who was pulled from a streetcar and shot in front of his wife, Lena, and their two children, Lurizza, 14, and Beatrice, 13. The family had been in Alton fishing that morning and was headed home to St. Louis when the mob attacked them. Lena Cook later went on to testify before a grand jury. She identified the man who killed her husband and son. Two were convicted of the murder.

Thomas McCellus died from being hung on a light post at Fourth Street and Broadway. A reporter witnessed a man with his head split open from a paving stone, being dragged down an alley toward Fourth Street, according to the book “Never Been a Time” by Harper Barnes. The man had a rope looped around his neck and men were circling. They pulled the man up to his feet and held him there until others brought a stronger rope.

That was when an unidentified white man tried to intervene, telling the crowd not to hang McCellus. The crowd pushed the man aside and hoisted McCellus. According to the book, McCellus died with the militia looking on.

Scott Clark was also hanged. Clark initially survived the attempted hanging, but died days later from internal injuries. Herbert Wood and Leo Keane were later charged and convicted. Clark’s widow testified at the trial that her husband hid in the basement of their home during the riots but was later forced to flee when the house was set on fire.

There were other identified African-American victims, but information listed on the death certificates is sparse. They include:

▪  William Bady, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshot wounds, shot near where Clark was hung at Fourth and Broadway.

▪  Thulman Lee, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshots at the M and O Round House, near the rail yard.

▪  “Mr. Johnson,” who died from gunshots.

▪  William McMoore, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshot wounds.

▪  Harry Gillan, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshot wounds.

▪  James Spratt, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshot wounds.

▪  James Massey, no age, next of kin or occupation listed, died from gunshot wounds.

▪  William Keith died in a fire at the Hill & Thomas Lime and Cement Co. during “mob violence” on July 3, 1917. No age or next of kin. No signature testifying to Keith’s identity.

▪  Tom Percell, unknown age, who died from a gunshot wound at Fourth Street and Bond Avenue

▪  L. Beard, unknown age, a laborer, who died from a bullet fired by John Kofsky.

Damage No. 4
This photo was taken of damage at 17th and Parsons after the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis. Provided

While press accounts from the time state 30 bodies were pulled from the torched Broadway Opera House, there are only two death certificates from there on file at the state archives. The cause of the two men’s death was listed as “burns.”

Another unidentified man died from burns at a business at South Sixth Street and Walnut.

The Associated Press reported that 310 homes belonging to African-Americans were torched during the riots and 100 people were killed.

Near the rail yards on Sixth Street, the bodies of three African-Americans were found; two were shot and one was beaten to death. All three were unidentified.

East St. Louis this weekend is commemorate the 1917 race riot, which resulted in dozens or hundreds of deaths and injuries, as well as burned buildings in the city.

Whites also died in the massacre. Stephan Hopkins, an 18-year-old laborer, died from a gunshot wound. James Coleman, age unknown, worked as a laborer and died from a gunshot wound at 13th and Broadway. William Keyser, age unknown, was a Russian immigrant and merchant who died from a gunshot wound. Robert S. Murray, a 25-year-old locomotive fireman, died from a gunshot at St. Mary’s Hospital. Chas Boyle was found at Sixth and Piggott on July 2, dead from a gunshot wound. Samuel Cappodge, a police officer, died from a gunshot wound. Franklin Wodley, a 29-year-old police detective, was shot by Charley Foster, Fayette Parker and other illegible names “with malicious intent.” Wodley died at Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis.

Woman burn
This woman shows severe burns on her arms after the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis. Estimates of the death toll range from 48 to 200. More than 250 buildings were destroyed by fire.

According to media reports at the time, the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. But a search of the death certificates found at least two soldiers died. Piotr Twardowski, a 46-year-old Russian or Polish immigrant, died at 21st and McCausland “from a gunshot would inflicted by one Arthur J. Keating, while in the performance of his military duty” on July 5. Deujauin McDaniel, a 27-year-old soldier, died from a gunshot wound to the right side of his head on Aug. 20 at 309 N. Sixth St. The manner was listed as “unknown to us.”

A tragic death certificate was found in the state archives. It is that of an “unidentified negro girl” who was found at 1118 Division Street. Her age is estimated at 2. The girl died “from gunshot wounds inflicted during mob violence by parties unknown to us.”

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