Lynch mob hangs three men in Seattle on January 18, 1882.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 1965
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On January 18, 1882, a mob of Seattleites lynches three men. Two of them, James Sullivan and William Howard, had robbed and fatally wounded businessman George B. Reynolds. A mob hangs Sullivan and Howard shortly after Judge S. F. Coombs arraigns them. The mob then runs to the jail, breaks down the doors, and hangs King County prisoner Benjamin Payne, a suspect in the killing of Seattle police officer David Sires on October 12, 1881. Before the mob hangs him, Payne cries out, "You hang me, and you will hang an innocent man." This entry contains the eyewitness account of Charles Kinnear (1868-?), who witnessed the event as a 14-year-old boy and related it to a WPA writer in 1938.

The Events of the Day

About 6 o'clock in the evening, two men accosted George B. Reynolds at 3rd Avenue and Marion Street. Reynolds was returning from his home to his place of business. He was held up with a pistol and ordered to raise his hands. In self-defense, Reynolds reached for his revolver, and was fatally shot.

A vigilante committee of about 200 men assembled to search for the assailants. About four hours after the shooting, suspects Sullivan and Howard were located under some hay at the Smith & Harrington wharf and turned over to the police.

Lewis V. Wykoff (1828-1882) had been King County Sheriff since 1860. After the two armed robbers were arrested, a mob stormed the jail which was guarded by Wykoff, Chief of Police John H. McGraw (1850-1910), and Policeman Jim Woolery. Armed with a revolver, Wykoff told the mob that they would take the prisoners over his body. The mob backed down and Sheriff Wykoff presented his prisoners in court the next day. (Wykoff's duties "were very exacting and dangerous, and from the effect of his arduous service he died suddenly of heart disease" [Memoirs] two days later. Sheriff Wykoff was the first King County peace officer to die in the line of duty.)

At about 9:30 the next morning, they were arraigned at Yesler Hall (Front Street [now 1st Avenue] and Cherry Street). Just before 1:00 p.m. Justice S. F. Coombs declared: "I am convinced that the evidence is sufficient to hold these men without bail for their appearance to await the action of the grand jury, and they are now turned over to the officers and remanded back to jail." Following is an account of the subsequent events.

"As soon as the justice had ceased speaking, indeed, almost before the sound of his voice had died away, a wild and deafening shout arose. The crowd rushed forward and as many as were able to get within reach grasped the prisoners. At the same instant the officers were seized and overpowered. 'It was a scene of wild and intense excitement. Resistance was useless. The vast throng was moved by a relentless purpose, mad and furious passion seemed to take possession of all. The prisoners were hurried through the alley back of the hall to Occidental square where two scantlings had been placed between the forks of two trees near Mr. Yesler's residence. In another instant both men were beneath the bar. A rope previously prepared, was fastened about the neck of each and the other end was thrown over the timber and grasped by many hands, and within one minute from the time that Justice Coombs remanded the prisoners to the custody of the officers they were dangling in the air in the presence of two thousand citizens. It was an awful spectacle and one never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.' Yet the act was done with the open approval, if not the co-operation, of almost the entire community" (Grant, 184-185).

The mob hanged the men in trees on the north side of James Street between Front Street (1st Avenue) and 2nd Avenue. The scantlings, the boards between the two trees used to lynch the suspects, remained in the trees until the Spring of 1889 as a warning to future criminals.

Another Killing

Within a few minutes after the two men were hanged, someone suggested hanging a King County prisoner Benjamin Payne, who was suspected of killing Seattle police officer David Sires on October 13, 1881. Following is an 1891 account of what happened:

"The crowd was quick to respond to the suggestion. The fire bell again rang out, calling the committee together. The ominous tapping of the bell, three times three, carried to the ears of Payne his doom. It was the rallying signal for five hundred men to proceed to the jail. The tall fencing on the south side of the building was torn down and admission to the jail yard was gained. The heavy outside wooden doors were chopped down and the two iron doors which led to the cell where the doomed man was secreted were battered to pieces with sledges. The trembling wretch was then seized and, with an escort of citizens on either side and several hundred in front and behind, he was marched down to the gallows where Sullivan and Howard were still hanging. For a moment his eyes rested on the ghastly spectacle of two corpses with blackened faces and protruding tongues, suspended from the scantling. ... While the rope was being adjusted about his neck he was asked to make a confession of the killing of Sires, but he protested his innocence, crying out: 'You hang me, and you will hang an innocent man.' If he said anything further it could not be heard, for several hundred voices drowned out all else, and before the uproar subsided the body of Payne took its place between those of the murderers of Reynolds" (Grant, 185-186).

No one was ever arrested for the lynchings. The Seattle Chronicle printed the finding of the coroner's jury:

"We the jury summoned in the above case find that [name] came to his death by hanging, but from the evidence furnished we are unable to find by whose hands. We are satisfied that in his death substantial and speedy justice has been served."

The paper provided letters of congratulations from the citizens of Olympia and Port Townsend.

Charles Kinnear's Eyewitness Account

On December 21, 1938, 70-year-old Charles Kinnear, a Seattleite who was in the real estate business, gave a Works Progress Administration (WPA) writer his eyewitness account of the lynchings. Charles Kinnear had witnessed the murders as a 14-year-old boy. Here is his account:

"A young man, a Mr. Reynolds, held in high esteem by all the citizens of Seattle, left his home one morning for his place of business down town. He had been recently married to a beautiful young woman. She came down to the gate with him that morning. He kissed her good-bye and went down the street while she stood watching him.

"Suddenly two men appeared in front of him with revolvers in their hands and commanded him to give them whatever money he had. Instead, he reached for his revolver. The two robbers shot at the same instant. Mr. Reynolds fell to the sidewalk -- dead.
"The whole town was soon in an uproar. The old fire bell clanged its summons. Men came running from everywhere. They were informed of the terrible affair and told to search in every possible place for the two murders. They scattered about the streets, the woods, and the waterfront. Every place was watched. Holes were bored in all small boats so that no one could escape by water.
"That night, one of the men on guard in the streets, trod on something that went soft under his feet. He stooped down and found it to be a rubber boot with a human foot and leg [inside?] it. He pulled the man out from under the sidewalk where he had been hiding, at the same time yelling for help. They found the second bandit a few feet away.
"The next morning a brief trial took place at Yesler's store. In the meantime, the town sheriff had taken a boat across the Sound to Kitsap County, thus shirking all responsibility for whatever happened.
"The two murderers were taken over to Yesler's home where a row of maple trees had grown up. A strong timber had already been placed across the branches of two trees standing side by side. The men were strung up. The streets were filled with people, men, women and children.
"The crowd was in a sort of frenzy. Men of the town stretched out their hands eagerly to get hold of the ropes. They kept raising and lowering the culprits, keeping time to a 'Heave, Ho! Heave, Ho!'

The scalps and faces of the men were terribly lacerated when they were bumped with great force against the overhanging timber. They tried to shield their faces and heads with their hands and arms. It was an awful sight.

"The mob was not satisfied with the death of the two murderers. They rushed to the town jail, and with heavy timbers broke open the doors, dragged out a prisoner there, took him down to the place of execution under the maple trees, and hanged him also. This man had shot a policeman who had run after him at night. The man, not knowing it was an officer, but believing it to be a robber, shot his pursuer. The policeman died the next day. Before he died, he told people that he himself was to blame, for he had not told the man he was an officer, and he was not wearing his uniform.

"The three men were left hanging on the cross-beam until four o'clock that day. We boys climbed up on the fence and cut off pieces of rope hanging from the necks of the dead men.

"The bodies were cut down and carted off late in the afternoon, and buried in the Potter's Field. Two men were put into one rough casket, and the other man alone. Long ends of rope were left hanging from the coffins, and those ropes were held up while the earth was filled in, so that they lay along he ground outside the graves.

"The boys and girls of the town used to go to the Potter's Field and pull at these ropes to see what would happen. We boys went to school wearing pieces of rope tied to our suspenders, and the girls with pieces of rope tied to their pigtails of braided hair" (Kinnear Interview).


Frederic James Grant, History of Seattle, Washington (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Co., Publishers, 1891), 184-186; Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897," typescript dated 1900-1901, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle, 280; Verna L. Stamolis interview with Charles Kinnear, Seattle, December 21, 1938, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of the City of Seattle and County of King, Washington, (New York: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1903), 160; C. T. Conover, Mirrors of Seattle: Reflecting Some Aged Men of Fifty, (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1923), 188-189; "An Awful Chapter," Seattle Chronicle, January 18, 1882, p. 3; "Death of Lewis V. Wykoff," Ibid., January 20, 1882, p. 3.

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