Before at least a 1,000 mob, African-American Luther Holbert and his wife Mary were both burned at the stake for killing James Eastland, a prominent white planter and John Carr, another black man on the Eastland plantation, two miles from Doddsville, Mississippi.
Historian, Chris Myers Asch, in his book, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer noted that the exact nature of the conflict leading to the lynching of the Holberts in February, 1904 is not precisely clear but it had to do with love.
He stated that Luther Holbert, a worker on the James Eastland plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, had been living with Mary who was likely the ex-wife of another worker, Albert Carr. Holbert and Carr had a dispute over the romance and eventually Eastland intervened. Carr and Eastland went to the Holbert’s cabin armed with guns. It is here that what exactly happened in the cabin is unknown except both Eastland and Carr ended up dead at the hands of Luther Holbert.
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For a black man to kill a white man will result in death as punishment so fearing for their lives, Luther and Mary Holbert bolted. The chase was led by Eastland’s brother, Woods Caperton Eastland. The alleged crime incited the white population as over 200 white men pursued the Holberts with two packs of bloodhounds chasing across four counties to find the accused.
By the time the posse arrived at the Eastland’s plantation, Holbert and his wife had fled. Other posses were formed at Greenville, Ittaben, Cleveland and other points with the pursuit of Holbert and his wife starting with horses and bloodhounds. The chase, which started on Wednesday morning was continued until Holbert and his wife were captured three days later, worn out from traveling over 100 miles on foot through canebrakes and swamps. They were found asleep in a heavy belt of timber three miles east of Sheppardstown. The two were taken back to Doddsville and burned at the stake by a large mob in the shadow of a black church. There was never an indication that Holbert’s wife had any part of the crime.
The lynching of Holbert and his wife also resulted in eight people losing their lives.
The newspapers report of their lynching read: “When the two Negroes were captured, they were tied to trees and while the funeral pyres were being prepared, they were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears of the murderers were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull was fractured and one of his eyes, knocked out with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket. “Some of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore into the flesh of the man and woman. It was applied to their arms, legs and body, then pulled out, the spirals tearing out big pieces of raw, quivering flesh every time it was withdrawn.”
Lynching, the wanton killing of blacks for perceived slight served a public purpose. These murders were designed to instill a sense of fear in black populations and most effective lynchings were premeditated affairs in which the whole community was invited to observe the spectacle of Black Death.
To that end, the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert didn’t happen immediately. It was planned for the next day, a Sunday afternoon after church so a large crowd could gather and send a message to all black people in the area that no place was safe from white supremacy.
The Holberts who despite the torture were still alive, were taken to a pyre. The white men cruelly forced two black men under threat of death to drag the Holberts to the fires. They then burned Mary first so Luther could see his beloved killed. Then they burned him.
Woods Eastland, who led the mob, faced charges in the murder. But his acquittal was a foregone conclusion. After the all-white jury found him innocent, Eastland hosted a party on his plantation to celebrate.
While records are scanty, nearly 4,000 lynchings took place in the period between 1880-1930.