Thursday, June 20, 2024

James Cummings -- Tar, Feathered, And Shot Dead 1904

In the many news reports about what took place in the murder of a hobo by the name of James Cummings, all mention how he was the victim of a "lynching." So as not to confuse folks, it's important to note that he was not hanged. He was in fact "tar and feathered" in his jail cell before a member of a mob fired a single shot that killed him.

On March 13, 1904, The Morning Echo newspaper in Bakersfield, California, reported:



Given a Coat of Tar and Feathers, and in the Raid the Prisoner was Shot.

Special Dispatch, MOJAVE, CA, March 12.

James Cummings, convicted yesterday of vagrancy, was given sixty days in the county jail. Officer Chitwood locked him in the branch jail at Mojave, intending to take this morning's train at 4 o'clock and transport the prisoner to Bakersfield to serve the sentence. Chitwood and Night Watchman Gillman went to the jail about 4 o'clock this morning and found Cummings dead on the floor of the jail. His clothing was removed from the lower half of the body and the whole body was covered with crude oil and feathers, and a bullet hole through the body.

The jail lock was broken. The coroner's jury is in session. No arrests have been made by officers, but suspects are being vigilantly watched. Nothing definitely is known as yet as to who the lynchers are. Deputy Sheriff Tower and District Attorney Laird are expected here this evening at 10:30. The taking of testimony at the coroner's investigation was continued until tomorrow.

It is quiet here. It is rumored that the motive for the lynching was because of the fact that Cummings was alleged to have committed an infamous crime. The citizens of Mojave are extremely indignant over this event. 

Coroner Mullins was notified yesterday morning that a negro, whose name was not given, was murdered by a mob at Mojave about 11 o'clock Friday night. From the message to the coroner and from the statement of John Underhill, a resident of Mojave, who left that place yestermorning, the facts are ascertained as follows:

The negro, who had been in Mojave but a few days, was arrested for an unmentionable crime against a young hobo, who was also a stranger in the town. The young hobo left Mojave, however, and could not be found at the time set for the negros trial. A simple charge of vagrancy was placed against the negro, and he was sentenced to sixty days in the county jail. The negro was effaced in the small wooden jail at Mojave with the intention of bringing him to this city yesterday morning.

About 11 o'clock Friday night, a party of men battered in the door of the jail, stripped the negro and applied a coat of crude oil and feathers. The intention at first seems to have gone no further than that, but whether by intent or accident the negro was killed. The body of the negro was placed in the jail, and yesterday morning the coroner was notified.

No notice was sent to the sheriff's office, and Undersheriff Baker learned of the lynching by the rumors on the street. He telephoned Justice Reddy of Mojave, who advised that an officer be sent at once to investigate the affair, as it appeared to have been a cold-blooded murder.

The lynching was kept very quiet in Mojave and John Underhill, who left there at 3 o'clock yesterday morning, did not know of the affair until he heard of it in Bakersfield. He knew the circumstances of the negros trial, however, and stated them as given above. Sheriff Kelly, who has been in San Francisco, returned on the 6 o'clock Santa Fe train. He was met by District Attorney J. W. P. Laird and Deputy Sheriff Thrash, and the three proceeded at once to Mojave.

After arriving at Moiave Coroner Mullins telephoned to District Attorney Laird for advice and Mr. Laird instructed him to postpone the investigation until his arrival. Court Reporter Ernest Laird accompanied the coroner. 

It didn't take the Coroner's Jury very long to determine his cause of death. The Coroner's Inquest was held and it was determined that Cummings' death was caused by a single gunshot wound. Of course, even while a Coroner's Jury was being gathered for a Coroner's Inquest, some of the names of the men who were part of the mob started slowly coming to light.

The evidence became immediately sufficient to warrant the holding of James Cowan to answer for the killing. The Coroner Jury's verdict mentioned no one else. However, it was said that evidence secured by Sheriff Kelly and District Attorney Laird caused them to have complaints sworn out against William O'Neal, J. Clancey, and A. Cuddeback. A fifth man was also suspected of being involved, but his name was not known to the officers.

On March 14, 1904, The San Francisco Call reported:


Warrants Are Issued for Arrest of Suspects.

Coroner Investigates the Murder of Prisoner Cummings.

Evidence at Inquest Tends to Show That Unfortunate Negro Was Innocent of Crime Charged.

Special Dispatch to The Call.

MOJAVE, March 13. — A verdict by the Coroner's Jury holding James Cowen responsible for the alleged murder of James Cummings, the negro prisoner who was put to death by a mob; the arrest of C. O'Neil and J. Clancy this evening and the issuance of warrants for two others are the developments today in the Mojave lynching of Friday.

The Coroner's Jury examined witnesses for four hours today. Several witnesses appeared to be very reluctant to testify and one, William Jones, a hostler, acknowledged that he had received warnings not to tell what he knew.

Several witnesses testified that Cowen went to his lodging house, got a rifle, and left, after making a remark, about "having some fun with a nigger."

The autopsy showed that the course of the bullet was downward. Indicating that Cummings had been shot while in a kneeling attitude with his hands raised above his head, the assassin standing over him when he fired. 

The warrants issued tonight charge the accused with the general crime of felony. Cowan is in the Bakersfield jail. Albert Irwin and Fred Fry, railroad employees, testified that a boy, apparently a tramp, informed them Friday that the negro, Cummings, assaulted him with a pistol and committed a serious offense. 

The negro appeared a minute later and was then putting a pistol in his pocket. An officer was called, but the boy disappeared. There is not a scintilla of evidence against the negro, who denied the charge and gave a perfectly straight account of himself and his actions. 

The remains of the murdered man lay all day in the anteroom of the jail. A heavy crowbar used to pry open the jail door, a railroad lantern bearing the stamp of the Southern Pacific Company, and a can of lubricating oil stand by the side of the corpse. The officers believe they have a good case against the suspected lynchers and expect to secure their conviction.

On March 15, 1904, The Los Angeles Herald newspaper reported:


Officers Seeking the Ringleaders of the Mob. 


Relies of Barbarism Are Featured in Burial of the Victim.

(Special to The Herald.) 

MOJAVE March 14.—Authorities here are determined to secure the punishment of at least the ringleaders of the mob that lynched James Cummings, the negro, last Friday night. The latest developments were the arrests today of William Jones and A. Cuddeback, both citizens of this place, which makes a total of five under arrest to date; James Cowan, whom the coroner's jury held responsible for the crime, and C. O'Neil and J. Clancy being already in custody. 

Jones is a hostler at the Southern Pacific roundhouse and admits being downtown the night of the trouble, "just to see what was going on." He made many damaging statements against Cowan at the Coroner's Inquest. On cross-examination, however, refused to make any direct statements, and it was deemed advisable to hold him pending further Investigation. 

Cuddeback was arrested on suspicion and is being held pending a trial before Justice Reddy. There was not much talk today about town in regard to the lynching, the general feeling seeming to be that "the negro is dead and buried and that settles it," but further arrests are looked for. 

A number of tramps are under suspicion but none have as yet been taken into custody. None have left town during the past few days and if any of them were implicated in the outrage they seem to be unconcerned, lingering about the alleys and saloons as though nothing had happened. 

Cummings was buried last night after he had been prepared for the grave by two hobos, who were paid $15 for the job. Laying a board on the floor of the jail, they got most of the blood and feathers scraped from his face and body, and a rough box was then made, in which the body was placed. The box was loaded on a butcher's handcart and taken to the cemetery, where a grave was dug by the light of two lanterns and the body interred. 

Those who saw the funeral procession of drunken hobos, laughing, jeering, and singing parodies of sacred songs, will never forget the scene. It has developed as the result of the coroner's inquest that there was nothing upon which to base a serious terge against the negro. 

Cowan, who is suspected of having fired the fatal shot, is still in jail at Bakersfield and declines to make any statement beyond a general denial of the charge.

On March 17, 1904, The Morning Echo reported:

James Cowan Fired the Shot That Killed Cummings.
Mob Did Not Endorse Shooting.

The Shooting. District Attorney Laird and Sheriff Kelly are determined to prosecute the members of the mob, who took James Cummings, the negro tramp, out of the jail at Mojave, and in the events that followed killed him.

The members of the mob, a number of whom have confessed their complicity in the crime, state that they had no intention of killing the negro, but in the excitement of the moment, James Cowan shot the hobo.

They state that they warned Cowan not to do any shooting, but it seems that he disregarded their instructions and has brought opprobrium on Mojave and Kern County by the lawless act of one member of the mob. It is stated that there was no intention of meting out any punishment to Cummings other than tarring and feathering, and no great harm would have resulted if the mob had stopped at that. The subsequent shooting of the negro has aroused the greatest indignation.

Sheriff Kelly and District Attorney Laird returned yesterday morning from Mojave, where they were called Tuesday night by the news that a number of the men who were present at the lynching of Cummings had confessed. According to the story, they told the officers that Cowan alone was responsible for the negro's death.

It is claimed that he was the only one who fired any shots and the men who made the confessions said that they did not know that Cummings had been killed or even wounded until the next morning. The belief of the witnesses is that the negro was struck by the second of the two shots fired. This shot was fired when Cummings was first taken from the jail and before the oil and feathers had been applied.

Cummings continued to fight with the crowd, however, and while he was being held in the ground Cowan pushed the muzzle of his gun into the negro's face, telling him with an oath, to lie still or he would blow his brains out.

One of the witnesses said that he pushed Cowan's gun aside and told him that there must be no shooting. Cummings lay quiet on the ground after that, but the witnesses said they supposed that he was passive only from fear. After the oil and feathers were applied, the negro was dragged back into the jail.

Whether he died while the mob was rubbing the oil and feathers on him or after he was left in the jail, the witnesses do not seem to know. Some of the men who confessed to the officers said that they left immediately after the shooting.
The case against Conan, while it rests wholly on circumstantial evidence, was considered very strong. He went to Mrs. Mary James, who kept a lodging house where Cowan stopped and asked her for a rifle which he had left in her charge some days previously.

Mrs. James had heard of the story about the negro and fearing trouble told Cowan that he better not take the gun. He replied that he would not kill anybody with it and she gave it to him. As he went outside Cowan told a barber that there was "going to be some fun downtown" that night. William Jones, a Southern Pacific hostler, heard him make a similar remark.

At about 11 o'clock, Cowan returned to the lodging house and gave the rifle back to Mrs. James. She testified that it "was stained with black oil and had feathers sticking to it." On the floor of the jail, an empty shell casing was found that fit Cowan's rifle. There was no wound on the negro's body other than the only shot.

Getting a number of witnesses 'to talk.' A number of them admitted that they had been warned not to tell what they knew. The men who are suspected of the lynching are part of a floating band of hard characters who have been terrorizing the town of Mojave for some time.

As an illustration of the feeling in the town, Mr. Asher, the merchant, told Coroner Mullins that when he locked up his store at night, he never felt sure that he would reach home safely, and he never went down to the store in the morning without wondering if he would find it burglarized. As readers of the Echo will remember, Mr. Asher's apprehensions regarding the store have been realized several times.

The feeling among the citizens of Mojave is that if the present dastardly affair is thoroughly sifted it may result in ridding the town of a large part of the undesirable element. Further information regarding the 'boy' who was the alleged beginning of the whole trouble is that he is 18 or 20 years of age and weighs about 160 pounds. He is supposed to have been traveling with the negro and disappeared before the latter's arrest.

Four officers are searching the southern part of the county for Cowan's accomplices and news of the arrest of one or both is hourly expected. Cowan, who is suspected of having fired the fatal shot, is still in jail at Bakersfield and declines to make any statement beyond a general denial of the charge. Sheriff Kelly was in receipt of encouraging messages from his deputies yesterday.

How many men were implicated is not known. The number in the crowd is estimated at thirty to forty men, some of whom were merely passive spectators. A large number of the men who participated in the lynching are now known. Most of them are employed at Mojave, some of them being from the railroad shops. The railroad men have not been placed under arrest, as that course would have seriously interfered with the railroad operations at Mojave. Trainmaster Trepanier vouched for the appearance of the men when wanted.

District Attorney Laird says that the charge of murder will be placed against James Cowan only, there being no evidence that anyone else was a party to that crime. What charges will be placed against the others and just how many men will be subjected to a trial, he was not prepared to say.

It is possible that the Grand Jury may be summoned to investigate the matter. Sheriff Kellv said that if the matter is left to Mr. Laird and himself, they cannot do anything but prosecute all the men against whom they have any evidence. The Grand Jury might take into consideration the expense to the county and decide to prosecute only the leaders. If all the men liable to prosecution for felony charges are brought to trial, the Sheriff says, the cost to the county will not be less than $25,000. It may be much more.

On June 24, 1904, The Morning Echo reported:


The introduction of evidence in the case of the People vs. James Cowan, charged with the murder of James Cummings, colored, was commenced yesterday morning in Judge Mahon's department of the Superior Court. The trial will require all of this and next week and probably longer. The defense has subpoenaed many witnesses.

A party of fifteen or eighteen men, all masked, gathered at the calaboose in Mojave one night several months ago for the purpose of "tarring and feathering" the negro, Cummings, for committing, it is alleged, a hideous crime.

The negro bolted from the calaboose and he was shot, it is alleged, by Cowan.

The testimony so far introduced is conflicting in some respects. Dr. Dempsey of Mojave, who was on the witness stand yesterday, testified that the negro sustained wounds that necessarily must have resulted in death almost immediately. Another witness went on the stand later in the day and testified that after Cowan fired the shots the negro and him struggled together and on the ground before they were separated.

Then a coat of tar and feathers was applied to the negro, and he was carried into the calaboose, where he was found dead the next morning. The case will be resumed at 10 o'clock this morning.

On June 28, 1904, The Morning Echo newspaper reported:


James Cowan, who is charged with the murder of James Cummings, the negro tramp at Mojave, took the stand yesterday afternoon. His testimony is practically the same as that told by other witnesses. 

He admitted that he fired the first shot at the negro before he came out of the calaboose, and a second shot was fired by a pistol in the hands of another party in the crowd, but he did not know who it was because the party was masked. The witness said that there were three other men in the party who had pistols in their possession, and he indicated in his testimony that the shot which killed the negro was not fired by him.

On July 1, 1904, The Colusa Daily Sun newspaper reported:


Bakersfield, July I.— James Cowan, the Mojave miner charged with the murder of James Cummings, the negro, who was lynched at Mojave on March 11, was yesterday convicted of Manslaughter. 

The jury was out nearly twenty-four hours and recommended the prisoner to the mercy of the court. One  Juror stood out all night for murder in the First Degree with the death penalty. The other members of the mob who went to the Jail with the intention of tarring and feathering the negro will probably not be prosecuted.

On July 28, 1904, The Hanford Kings County Sentinel newspaper reported the following:


Bakersfield, CA, July 23. James Cowan, who was convicted of manslaughter for killing the negro James Cummings, who was taken from Jail at Mojave and shot, was sentenced to eight years in Folsom Prison.

I think it's a sad tale. 

While the reports all mention that he was "lynched," as I said before, he wasn't taken from his cell and hanged. "Lynching" is defined as (1) The execution of a person by mob action without due process of law, especially hanging; (2) Any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person; and (3) Putting a person to death by mob action without due process of law. So while James Cummings was lynched, he wasn't hanged.

And really, what happened to the hobo known as James Cummings is a sad tale. He was tarred and feathered and then shot to death by the dregs of the town, as it was reported, "The men who are suspected of the lynching are part of a floating band of hard characters who have been terrorizing the town of Mojave for some time."

As for the "unmentionable crime against a young hobo, who was also a stranger in the town"? Was that the assault with a firearm that was supposedly on a boy? Even the newspapers noted that the "boy" mentioned in the articles was not a "boy," certainly not a child. And more so, the newspapers did say that the "boy" was his traveling companion "18 or 20 years of age and weighs about 160 pounds." So really, who knows what that was all about since the young man disappeared when James Cummings was arrested for vagrancy.

Then there is the report of Cummings' burial and how truly horrible that was. Reports stated that the dead body of James Cummings lay on a board on the floor of the jail for a long time completely unattended.

Then, as if adding insult to injury, his body was prepared for the grave by two other hobos after they were hired to do the job for $15. It's said those hobos prepared his body by scraping most of the blood and the tar and feathers from his face and body. They then built a rough box in which Cummings' body was placed. After getting him ready, the hobos dug his grave by the light of two lanterns.

James Cummings was taken from the jail to be buried after the hobos loaded his "coffin" onto a butcher's handcart. It was reported that "Those who saw the funeral procession of drunken hobos, laughing, jeering and singing parodies on sacred songs, will never forget the scene. It has developed as the result of the Coroner's Inquest that there was nothing upon which to base a serious terge against the negro."

Though most involved didn't pay for what they did as they should have, and the fifth ringleader of the mob was never found, it's good to know that justice did not sleep in this case. Believe it or not, unlike many other instances when something similar took place and a mob of no-goods took someone, black, white, or another race from a cell, at least there were arrests made in this case. 

It was because of extremely diligent police work that the perpetrators were arrested. It was because law enforcement did not bow down to the pressures of some that the killer ended up in Folsom Prison. And here's something else to think about, while some today push the untruth that "no one has ever been made to answer for lynching a black man," the person who is believed to have fired the shot that killed James Cummings was arrested, tried, and convicted to the full extent that the law allowed.

While I and others may think that Cowan getting 8 years for manslaughter for shooting Cummings was a light sentence, I keep in mind what Folsom Prison was like in 1904. Folsom was a place where nothing was tolerated. It was a place where it was not unusual for convicts to be locked up in a dungeon for merely being suspected of stirring up trouble. Back then, it was described as a "Hell on Earth" where the convicts were "cowed." Yes, a place where convicts were frightened into compliance. 

Tom Correa

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