American Story: Lynch Law


Lynch Law

Camp Springs Cemetery and Church is a well-tended sanctuary. To the west, behind the screen of mature trees surrounding the church, miles of natural regrowth stretch to the wetlands of Okatuppa Creek, and to the uplands of Piney Ridge beyond. On the edge of wilderness, apparently unfenced and unfarmed, it seems a suitable resting place for the generations of Boykins that are buried there.

Among these graves are two of Burrell's boys, the Confederate veterans Henry Clark and Solomon (spelled Solomin on his headstone). With them are Henry H., WWI Alabama Pvt. Field Artillery; Andrew, WWI Alabama Pvt. Infantry; Lester Earl, WWII TEC4 US Army; and Burnice, WWII SI US Navy.

The Boykins were certainly patriotic Americans. If the service of Solomon Jr. in the War of Independence and Burwell in the War of 1812 are recalled, then the family were represented in every significant conflict that involved the American military between 1775 and 1945.

Neither of the family patriarchs, Solomon Boykin Jr. (1743-1821) or Burwell Boykin (1787-1860), are buried here. There are about 180 graves in Camp Springs cemetery, but the first known internment was not until 1899. In Burwell's case, the US web-site classifies the circumstances of his burial as "Body lost or destroyed".

This source goes on to state that Burwell and his wife Margaret "owned a plantation in Choctaw County, Alabama near Camp Springs Church and Cemetery". The district around the church grounds is therefore, in a symbolic sense, the traditional 'home' of Burwell's descendants. It is 'where they come from'.

Camp Springs Church is affiliated with the Methodist denomination and the Boykin family was presumably also of this persuasion. In 1846 the Methodist Episcopal Church,South, split off from the Northern Conferences over the contentious issue of slavery. During the Civil War it was known as the Methodist Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. In 1870, after the war, the Coloured Methodist Episcopal Church was split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to provide for African-American Methodists. 

In a region sometimes called the Bible Belt, whites-only Methodist churches might be regarded as conventionally orthodox in doctrine and worship. This was not always the case. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Methodist 'camp meetings' were among the most lively religious services. But by the mid to late nineteenth century, Methodist practice had become less emotional. With worship more restrained and sermons more 'reasonable',  church-going became 'respectable'.

Not everyone welcomed the quietness. At Womack Hill, in the southern part of Choctaw County near Bladen Springs, religious disagreement turned violent. In what has since been called Sims War, psychotic personalities, biblical literalism, whisky distilling, and far too many guns, exploded into arson, murder and lynching. This is a grim tale, but a valuable one to tell. Sims War is toxic cultural heritage, a cauldron of community contradictions.

Robert 'Bloody Bob' Sims was a Confederate Army veteran who served in the 22nd Alabama Infantry. He was wounded early in the Atlanta campaign, captured and then interned in a Union prison camp for the reminder of the war. On his release he returned to Choctaw County and resumed farming. He seems to have been a law abiding citizen until 1877, when a heated dispute with his brother in law over land led to the county circuit court convicting him of using insulting language in public, fining him $20 for his unseemly demonstration.

At the beginning of 1877 Sims began attending the Womack Hill Methodist Church. This ended abruptly one Sunday when he interrupted the service to loudly proclaim that the Gospel was being "abused". After leaving the church building he remained outside in the yard where he continued to berate the pastor and his congregation at such a pitch that they had to close the meeting early, Disturbing the peace of Sunday worship was an offence in Alabama and in March 1878 the county circuit court convicted him of disturbing a church service, fining him $75.

For a time things seem to settle down. But in 1889 Sims began to publish a tract called The Veil is Rent, which professed to show the "Truth of God as it is written, and its perversion by the Devil's Iscariots". The sheet's first edition denounced the community's mainline churches as "Satan's shrines" and unmarried "harlots", their ministers demons. Immersing himself in Old Testament prophecies and condemning those who did not agree with his interpretations, Sims vitriol against all religious and civil authorities escalated to threats and intimidation.

Things went badly awry when the Baptist preacher Richard Carroll was shot dead on his front porch on the night of 1 May 1891. Carroll had preached fervently against Sims views and had forbidden a young man to court a young woman in his flock because his family was associated with the "perverse prophet". Fearing for his life, Reverend Lamar, the Methodist preacher at Bladen Springs, "left his charge". His replacement, Reverend Cooper, was made of sterner stuff, but he too was shot at from the bushes near his home a couple of times.

By 1891, Sims had gathered around him upwards of 100 fanatical followers. Things were clearly getting out of hand and the response from some of his concerned neighbours was to 'dob him in' to the federal marshalls for 'moonshining'. It was no secret that Sims operated a profitable  whiskey still, and that he claimed divine exemption from paying duly levied duties and taxes thereon.

The problem for the marshalls was that on the first four occasions they approached Sims' still to present the papers and arrest him, their federal posse of agents were outnumbered, and therefore outgunned, by his supporters. On the fifth attempt, a deputy-marshall finally managed to serve the warrant on him for illegal production of alcohol. Only to have Sims tear the document in pieces and declare he was under no man's authority, that the Bible was his only Law.

It was not until December of that year that the marshalls found Sims in a situation where they could take him alive. They hurried their bound prisoner to Bladon Springs, where they placed him under armed guard until the Tombigbee River steam-boat could arrived and take him to trial in Mobile.

That night, Sims' two brothers Jim and Neal, his son Bailey, and three others rode to Bladen Springs to rescue him. In the gun battle that followed around the Bladen Springs Hotel, Sims escaped, two were killed including his son Bailey, and two were badly wounded including his brother Jim. Sims' wounded brother was captured and taken into custody, from where he was taken "early in the pre-dawn hours" by an enraged mob of citizens and "hanged in a tree near the hotel".

From there on "Bloody Bob" completely lost the plot. Believing that a Paragon storekeeper named John McMillan was the federal agents' informant, Sims and an accomplice hijacked one of his freight wagons. They let the driver go but with instructions to tell his employer that they were coming to burn his house and kill him. 

'They' came a few nights later. 'They' set fire to McMillan's house. And as the seventeen occupants tried to flee the burning house into the darkness, 'they' opened up with a murderous hail of gunfire. Two adults and three children were killed outright and nine were wounded. Public opinion was outraged.

The next day, after counting the carnage, the Choctaw County Sheriff and a posse of armed deputies surrounded Bob Sims house. So too did a mob of angry people. Sims refused to surrender and gunfire was exchanged all night until the next day. At some point the angry mob threatened to get a piece of field artillery to blast him out. This may have been the motivation for the madman to negotiate terms. 

After argument it was agreed that Sims, the three others with him, and all their womenfolk, would travel to the county jail in Butler in two wagons. Their safety would be guaranteed by the sheriff and an armed escort of 25 men. The cavalcade set out.

On the road they met an armed mob of three hundred Choctaw residents. The four male prisoners were pulled out of the first wagon and hung from a tree at Old Samuel crossroads. The women in the second wagon were allowed to proceed to their incarceration in Butler. It was Christmas Day 1891, and the crowd's work of retribution was not yet done. In the next few days another 6 or 7 of Sims' converts were found throughout the countryside and subjected to the same fate as their leader.

The indisputable homicidal mania of the 'prophet' and his followers is not the issue here. That was never in doubt. Robert Sims was responsible for the deaths of eight and the wounding of another nine, all innocent people. He must also bear the burden of his supporters, family and friends, who died to defend his ideas - a minimum of nine but more likely thirteen.

The real significance of the Sims War lynchings in this context is that the victims were white, not black. It means that the motive for extra-judicial killing in Choctaw County was not always about intimidating African American voters.

In white minds, the excoriated Southern way of immediate and absolute 'justice' was more sensible than it seemed. Their vigilante executions were a form of instant retribution against all who offended against accepted social values, not just freed slaves. Some crimes were so abhorrent that they demanded instant solution. In these instances, lawful process was too slow and too weak.

This 'excuse' does not alter the fact that lynchings were far more frequently inflicted on blacks than whites. One recently revised count of the number of lynchings in the  Deep South between 1882 and 1930 indicates a total of 2,041 deaths. Of these unlawfully hung individuals, 1,844 (or 90%) were black. 

From a white perspective, their tradition of lethal mob violence may have seemed a type of punishment policing against all wrongdoers in society. From a black perspective, lynching remained the principal and preferred method of launching terror on the black community.

It is right to note that there is no evidence of involvement of Burwell Boykin's sons or grandsons in Sims War. Just as there is no record of their being participants in, or supporters of, the Turner lynching in 1883, so too there is no mention of them in the Sims lynchings in 1891. It is impossible to assess from their 'silent anonymity' whether they approved or disapproved. But this was they society they lived in.


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