A patron of the Pioneer Memorial Public Library was in the other day talking about a man named Joe Brown who was lynched in Whitmer, WV in 1909. He said that he had heard that chief of police of Whitmer, Scott White, admired two pearl-handled pistols of Joe Brown and had confiscated them when he arrested Brown. Later, Brown shot Scott in the head wounding him severely and the townspeople of Whitmer took Joe Brown and hung him for his offenses. What follows is an interesting piece of West Virginia history.
Who Was Joe Brown?
As a amateur historian and folklore follower I had to ask, 'Who was Joe Brown?' It turns out there is quite a bit that has been published regarding this episode in West Virginia history. An article from the now defunct Randolph Enterprise from March 25, 1909 reports that, "Joe Brown, a notorious character who had earned the reputation of an outlaw expiated his crime in shooting Scott White, Chief of Police of Whitmer and a son of Wash White mayor of the same town, early last Friday morning when Brown was taken from the jail at Whitmer by an orderly party of masked men and strung up to a flag pole on the principal street of the town."
Just this one paragraph leaves many questions about the events leading up to the lynching of Joe Brown. Allegedly, a party of 50-100 masked men overcame the prison guards at gun point and took Joe Brown to be hung. In a town as small as Whitmer, I speculate that the masked vigilantes would have been known to most. Also, the Chief of Police, Scott White, was the son of Whitmer Mayor, Wash White, implying that the power in the town of Whitmer was held by the White family.
Outlaw or Victim?
Another line from the above-referenced article says, "It was generally understood here that Brown also was to be brought to Elkins to have his arm dressed but these plans were altered and Brown retained in the Whitmer jail." The Chief of Police was taken to Elkins for medical attention on that evening's train. Joe Brown had a shattered shooting arm, and yet he was not taken for medical attention. This might imply that the animosity for Joe Brown was so great that he was left in the jail to suffer and to possibly allow for the capture and lynching to take place. Clearly, Joe Brown had a lot going against him in Whitmer.
The final line in the news article also reveals that, "Learning of the lynching upon his return from Washington, Governor Glasscock immediate[e]ly communicated with the Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney, insisting upon a complete investigation. It is possible that the lynching may be investigated but it is doubtful if any more information could be secured than is now known for Brown was so cordially hated by the people of Dry Fork that those who composed the lynching party would be protected in every way even by those who did happen to known everything connected with the lynching." To this researcher's knowledge, no one was ever held accountable for the death of Joe Brown.
So, who was Joe Brown? Where did he come from? What are the true facts of his life and death? According to the same article, Joe Brown was born in Tazewell County, Virginia around 1861. He was hung around 1:30am on Friday, March 19, 1909. The story made the New York Times. This article says that Brown was hung from a telegraph pole while others say it was a flag pole. Either way, it was not a pretty sight. There is a photograph that was published of the dead man hanging but I will spare gentle readers from this sight.
According to historian David Armstrong, Joseph Brown was born in Tazewell County, Virginia, on June 29, 1868, to parents William Patton Brown and Lucinda (Whitt) Brown. Joe Brown married Susan Snyder Summerfield in Harman, WV. Brown's death record gives him a first initial of "W." and indicates that he was married and aged 45 at his death. I do like that Armstrong tries to give more positive attributions to Brown, but by most accounts he was a violent alcoholic and sure shot who enjoyed shooting men's suspenders off for fun.
Side Effects of the Lynching
The lynching of Joe Brown had many repercussions. In the book "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside" by Ronald L. Lewis, it is stated that Joe Brown had a sock stuffed down his throat after he was lynched in an attempt to speed up the dying process. Lewis also says that Whitmer could not get a liquor license approved two months later perhaps due to the drunken and violent nature of Joe Brown and his lynching. In an anecdotal telling of the tale on WV Angler, it is said that the lynch mob spent some time drinking before they did the deed.On December 13, 1911, The Randolph Enterprise reports that Charles Edward Hedrick committed suicide because he was involved in the lynching of Joe Brown and could not resolve his actions. He was found by the railroad tracks with a self-inflicted bullet to the head. Hedrick was once a constable of the Dry Fork district and later served as chief of police for Whitmer.
The real facts about Joe Brown, who he was, and what happened over a hundred years ago in a remote rural town in West Virginia may never be known. What is fascinating is that people today are still talking about it and asking questions about the life and death of Joe Brown. There is no doubt that in the 19th century, wild and wonderful West Virginia was also wild and wooly.
Do you love West Virginia history? Check out the West Virginia section at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library the next time you are in Harman.