The Lynching of Joe Coe (George Smith), Omaha, Nebraska, October 1891

Read Mark 15:1-5

“The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.” — James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, page 31.

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Joe Coe, known in official documents as “George Smith,” lived on between North 11th and North 12th Streets in Omaha, Nebraska. He worked as a railroad porter and as a waiter at the Murray Hotel. Coe was married and the father of one or two children (newspaper reports vary on the details of his life).

On September 17, 1891, a dance for African Americans took place near Courtland Beach, in what is now Carter Lake, Iowa. A girl named Dot Gannley (or Dollie Gunn) accused George Smith (Joe Coe) of assaulting her. He fled the scene before he could be captured and lynched on the spot, but he was arrested the next morning in Omaha. Following this arrest, Coe was released from custody.

Two weeks later, Coe was accused of raping Lizzie Yates, a five-year-old white girl. Coe had both a legitimate alibi and witnesses to support his testimony. Nonetheless, he was arrested, jailed in the Douglas County Courthouse and held on $2,000 bail. While he was in jail, the Omaha Bee alleged that the little girl had died from injuries suffered during the assault.

That report was false and was based, at best, on rumors in the local white community. The Bee also reported that the maximum penalty for the alleged crime was a twenty-year prison sentence. White Omaha residents were enraged by the prospect of this “light” sentence and demanded the immediate execution of Coe.

“White women and girls played a central role as accusers and thus instigators of lynchings,” notes the Equal Justice Initiative report on lynching in America. In the lynchings committed in reaction to rape accusations, white adolescent girls accounted for more than half of the accusers. Even when rape accusations were disproved or directly contradicted, the white women and girls responsible for the claims “suffered neither social stigma nor criminal prosecution” for their role in instigating the murders of innocent black men and boys. Socializing girls in such an amoral framework communicated a devaluation of black life and inflicted psychological damage on them.” [Lynching in America, page 71]

A lynch mob of somewhere between one thousand and five  thousand men approached and surrounded the Douglas County jail. The mob demanded that the jailers would turn over Coe to them, but the guards refused. The county sheriff spoke to the crowd and insisted that it was his duty to protect the prisoner. The crowd took the sheriff into custody and held him prisoner at the Omaha High School.

A local judge and the state governor addressed the crowd and ordered them to disperse. The crowd refused. The dozen or so city police officers were both outnumbered and unwilling to intervene. By this time the crowd may have numbered up to ten thousand. The Omaha fire department tried to disperse the crowd with fire hoses, but the mob cut the hoses.

The crowd screamed racist epithets. They rammed the courthouse doors with iron streetcar rails and broke out the windows. Members of the mob invaded the building and discovered Coe locked in a steel cage. They sent out urgent demands for equipment, and other members of the mob brought crowbars, chisels and sledgehammers. It took two hours for the attackers to batter their way into the cage. Coe protested his innocence to the crowd, but his words were ignored.

The mob beat Coe, and dragged him through the streets with a rope around his neck. They tried to hang him from a telegraph pole but were not successful. They then hanged him from the streetcar cable in front of a local opera house at about 17th and Harney Streets. Members of the lynch mob delivered speeches of self-congratulation while Coe’s corpse hung overhead. Some members of the mob collected pieces of the rope used to hang Coe as souvenirs to be sold afterward.

As Coe’s body swung from the cable, several local newspapers noted that the report of Lizzie Yates’ death had been in error. Seven white men, including the local police captain, who were arrested for coordinating the lynching were never prosecuted.

The coroner’s report produced by an inquest jury indicated that Coe had suffered sixteen bodily wounds and three broken vertebrae. Despite the severe physical injuries inflicted, the coroner concluded that Mr. Coe had died of “fright.” The coroner testified, “[T]he heart was so contracted, and the blood was in such a condition that the doctor was satisfied that the man was literally scared to death.” County Attorney Mahoney said he would have to modify the charges against the lynchers. The grand jury decided not to prosecute.

Omaha mayor Richard C. Cushing called the lynching “the most deplorable thing that has ever happened in the history of the country.” As an adult, Lizzie Yates admitted that she had not been attacked by Mr. Coe.

In 1895, the Nebraska State Legislature voted to condemn the lynching of George Smith. The resolution stated, “Whereas, on the 10th day of October 1891, one George Smith, a man who had never been given a trial in any court, and a man now generally regarded as innocent of the crime charge; and, Whereas no sincere effort has ever been made to the constituted authorities to punish the murderers of said Smith; therefore, Resolved, that this house strongly condemn the cowardly course of the people of Omaha who participated in the work of that fiendish mob, and also denounce as cowardly in the extreme the conduct of the Douglas officials, whose duty was to have meted out justice to the murderers, and the governor is hereby requested to offer a suitable reward for the capture and conviction of the murderers of said George Smith.”

Nothing further happened in the case.

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When men in power compromise, the powerless suffer and die. After enduring a night of interrogation, torture, ridicule, abuse, betrayal and abandonment, Jesus is handed over to Pilate. While the Jerusalem authorities seek evidence for the crime of blasphemy, Pilate has no interest in such “superstitions.” Pilate maintains Roman domination and superiority. Only a perceived threat to that political status quo could move Pilate to bother with this otherwise low-level, intra-Jewish kerfuffle.

False testimony was used to support charges against the accused — both in the case of Joe Coe and that of Jesus. The powerless man was sacrificed and slaughtered in order to keep the peace between the powerful — both in the case of Joe Coe and that of Jesus. Both are silent in the presence of their accusers, and soon both will be hanging dead from a pole, surrounded by jeering crowds titillated by the bloody spectacle.

“The lynching tree — so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgotha — should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’ death,” James Cone writes, “But it does not. In fact, the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections about Jesus’ cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, page 30).

The lynching tree is absent from our white Christian reflections because we are the perpetrators of the crime, not the victim. If we are to identify with anyone in the Passion account of Mark at this point, it is with those who condemned and executed Jesus in order to maintain and strengthen the status quo of political power.

Jesus was silent in the face of Pilate’s questioning. This is a vibration brought forward from the vision of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. As a mirror image, we are silent in the face of Jesus’ questioning. Why do we say nothing as the violence against people of color continues in small ways and large? Perhaps we are living out the continuing psychological trauma identified by the EJI report on lynching. We cannot make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree because we fear the truth will destroy us who are the perpetrators.

Was Pilate conducting an investigation? Of course not. He was simply constructing a narrative to underwrite the decision he had already taken. Jesus had no interest in cooperating with such a farce. If he had spoken fully (as is narrated in other gospel accounts) he would have suffered more abuse. “The oppressor demands silence both of the victims of the oppression and of the passive beneficiaries,” writes Sherrilyn Ifill in On the Courthouse Lawn. “Only one story may be told — the one constructed by the oppressor. Counternarratives threaten the power of the oppressor” (page 133).

As Jesus stood silent before his accusers and executioners, so we who have been complicity are required to speak in order to bring healing to our souls and our communities.

References and Resources

Equal Justice Initiative. “Lynching in America.” https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. New York: Orbis Books, 2011.

Ifill, Sherrilyn A. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2007 (2017).

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