May God Have Pity on You - The Lynching of Robert Marshall - Carbon County, 1925

 by Peter

Note: This post contains somewhat graphic descriptions of violence, including assault, murder, and lynching. Please be aware before you read.

I am black man of woods
where old trees root
like men
in the wind
for lost children,
where folds of knotted skin
break off
and stab the ground, and fat
black fingers
sky-scratch a warning:

there is no hiding, there is no home
in wet woods or this soil.

Here a leaf
drops like a dead bird.
Listen, the woods weep.
My fingers grip the dirt where I fall.

-Wood and Rain by Melvin Dixon from Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.

This is the story of a black man, arrested for the murder of a white police officer, lynched by a white mob spurred on by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This is a story of complicated racial politics in Carbon County as men and women of many ethnicities and races were drawn to the jobs available in and around the coal mines. This is a story of interlocking and overlapping quests for justice, and how that justice was denied. Unfortunately, like most history, this is also a story of unanswered questions and unknown feelings and attitudes. 

Castle Valley
Because of the dual presence of the coal mines and railroad, Castle Valley, including Price and its surrounding communities and extending down into Emery County, was one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Utah. Repeated waves of immigration brought members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the 1870s and 80s, Italians in the 1890s, and Greeks, Japanese, and a few African-Americans in the first decade of the 20th Century. After the Latter-Day Saints, each of these groups was recruited by mine owners to break strikes held by the previous groups. There was considerable tension in the first decades of the 20th Century as local law enforcement and the National Guard were repeatedly called in to break strikes, prevent striking miners from interfering with mine operations, and even drive families from their company-owned homes. Aside from the tension between owners and labor, there were also ethnic tensions as earlier groups resented their replacement by newcomers. By 1925, there were an estimate 100-150 black residents of Carbon County.

Miners underground at Castle Date. Copyright held by Utah State Historical Society.

The roll of miners killed in the 1924 disaster at Castle Gate mine, when 171 miners were killed in a major explosion. The tally included 74 American-born miners, 49 Greeks, 22 Italians, 8 Japanese, 7 English, 6 Austrians (likely including other ethnic groups previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), 2 Scots, 2 African-Americans, and one Belgian.

Funeral of miners killed at Castle Gate. Copyright held by Utah State Historic Society.

KKK in Carbon County
The KKK came to Utah around 1921, part of a growth spurt nationally in the second flowering of the racist group. By the mid-1920s, the KKK had over 4 million members nationwide and was considered respectable. Many of the early members in Utah were business owners who seem to have viewed it as a fraternal organization like the Masons or the Elks and were seeking opportunities to expand their businesses.

Branches were established in Salt Lake and Ogden and they carried out some activities there, including burning a cross on Ensign Peak. However, they seem to have found fertile ground in the ethnically diverse Carbon County where resentment of recent immigrants ran high. In 1924, a large cross was burned on a hill east of Helper and that year, the KKK swayed the election for county attorney, defeating the incumbent, of Italian descent and replacing him with a reputed Klansman. Not confining themselves to acting against black residents, they also threatened essentially all other immigrants in the County. Based on information gathered at the time of the lynching, members of the KKK included officials with coal companies and members of local law enforcement. Immigrant residents banded together in opposition, forming a spy system to root out Klansmen and burning circles on the hills to show their presence.

James Milton Burns
James Milton Burns (often called Milton or Milt) was born at Mount Pleasant, Sanpete County in 1873. He married Olivia Peacock of Manti at the age of 23. Milt followed his father, James Burns, into law enforcement. His father had been a constable in Thistle and was serving his third term as Sanpete County Sheriff when he was killed in 1894 by sheep rustlers. Milt was the city marshal in Manti between 1904 and 1906, then a deputy Sanpete sheriff from 1906 to 1914. He succeeded in election as sheriff in 1914 and continued in that position until 1919. He was also elected vice president of the newly-formed Utah Sheriffs Association in 1915. After losing re-election in 1918, Milt looked around for a new place to settle, considering Moab. Apparently he found his way to Carbon County, as he was the victorious Republican candidate for Castle Gate town constable in 1922. 

James Milton Burns

By all accounts, Milt was a popular man. Eulogies at his funeral emphasized his fearlessness and strict attention to duty. He also gave children rides on his horse as he made his rounds through the town. As town constable, he was actually employed by the owners of the mine, the Utah Fuel Company (a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway). According to some sources, he was also a member of the KKK.

Robert Marshall
Little is known about Robert Marshall. He was born around 1888. One source states that he had a wife, Pearl, in Arkansas and like many of the black residents of Carbon County, he may have been attempting to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South. Robert was known to carry a gun and had been involved in one or two previous shootings in the region. In one, on February 6, 1925, he shot another black man twice in Thompson (located north of I-70 near the turn-off to Moab). Robert was held while the wounded man recovered, but was released when he was healed and testimony from the wounded man and the wounded man's wife showed that Robert was defending the wife from a violent attack by her husband. It was not uncommon at this time of labor troubles for miners to go armed.

The Murder
In June 1925, Robert had a run-in of some kind with Milt Burns and possibly another officer from the coal company. Little is known about this occurrence except that Milt confiscated Robert's gun. Robert drew his time (quitting and receiving a final paycheck) and was presumed to be leaving the area. On the evening of June 15, 1925, two young boys passed a black man they later identified as Robert Marshall on the road in Castle Gate, near the point where it crossed the railroad. One account has them taunting him with racist epithets. As the reached the bridge over the railroad, the boys found Milt Burns leaning on the railing. He asked them why they were out so late. They continued on their way home.

Accounts state that when Robert approached the bridge, Milt asked him what he was doing there. Robert reached into a paper sack he was carrying, removed a pistol and shot Milt twice. Another account has Robert carrying a rifle which Milt tries to take away from him. I have not found an explanation of how either of these accounts come to us, as the boys were the only eye-witnesses and elsewhere are said to have turned around at the sound of the first shots. In any event, Robert is said to have then struck Milt with his gun, shot him three more times, stomped or kneed him in the face, then robbed him of his wallet and gun. He fled into the hills above Castle Gate. The boys ran for help and Milt was taken to a doctor. Despite surgery to address two wounds in his thighs and three in his abdomen, he died the next day. His death certificate states that he was killed by homicidal gunshot wounds to the abdomen, thighs, and lumbar region and contusions of the head. He was buried in Mount Pleasant.

The Search
The Carbon County Sheriff, Ray Deming, organized a posse to search for the fugitive. This group, numbering between 40 and 150, staked out various areas of the county where he might have fled. However, Robert eluded capture that night and the next day. The next evening, June 17th, he returned to the shack where he lived with another black miner, George Gray. This was only a half-mile from the site of Milt's murder. The next morning, Gray either hoping to claim a $250 reward for Robert's capture, or fearing to be associated with him in murder, went to the Utah Fuel Company office while Robert slept and turned him in. 

Deputy Sheriff Henry East gathered together a 9-man posse and closed in on the cabin around 9:30 am on June 18th. Robert was captured without a struggle and disarmed. Some accounts claim that he admitted to the murder as Henry East accused him (and potentially beat him with his pistol). Robert Marshall was loaded into the lead car of three for the drive into Price to the courthouse, where he could be securely held.

The Lynching
In the meantime, Sheriff Deming had received news of the capture and also intelligence that a mob was forming to lynch Robert. He sped out towards Castle Gate, intercepting the convoy. Hearing that they were taking Robert to the courthouse, he turned around and headed for the area he thought the mob was gathering. He was unfortunately mistaken.

When the convoy arrived at the courthouse, accounts differ. Some state that the peace officers were overwhelmed and disarmed by the crowd. Others state that Henry East left Robert alone in the car while he and the others went into the courthouse. In any event, whether through force or negligence, the mob took the car with Robert. Followed by a parade of at least 100 cars, they headed approximately 2.5 miles east of Price, either to the Horsley Ranch or Critchlow farm. They found a suitably tall cottonwood tree and threw the rope over a branch.

The crowd numbered in the hundreds, possibly over a thousand, men, women, and children. Apparently wanting Robert to suffer, they raised him slowly, only a couple of feet off the ground. After 9 minutes, additional deputies arrived and cut him down. As they dragged him back to their car, Robert started to revive. The angry mob set on the deputies, disarmed them, and raised Robert again. This time, they tied the knot three feet off the ground, then raised him 30 feet in the air and dropped him. This broke his neck and killed him. Robert Marshall's death certificate states that he was killed by fractures of the first four cervical vertebrae. Hanging - Lynched.

Raising him back up, the mob tied off the rope and took photographs of Robert's body. These photographs were sold door-to-door in Price over the next days. 

Sheriff Deming, who had crashed his car, lost a wheel, and had to hitchhike to the lynching site, arrived shortly after Robert's death. The few black residents of Carbon County took up a collection to raise enough money to bury him. They lacked the funds to place a marker.

I won't put this photograph into this post, but the University of Utah Archives contains a photo of the lynching here.

The Grand Jury
District Attorney Fred Keller, of Monticello, was tasked by acting governor H.E. Crockett with investigating the lynching in cooperation with Sheriff Deming. It appears that those responsible for the lynching were easily identifiable as Keller issued warrants for the arrests of five ringleaders (four charged with "pulling the rope") on June 20th, only two days later. These five included four men from Price and Henry East, the deputy sheriff who had captured Robert Marshall.

Fred Keller, in later years as a judge.

On the 21st, Keller issued warrants for the arrest of an additional six. These were the Price city marshal and five employees of the Utah Fuel Company, including its superintendent.

Under pressure from Governor George Dern and Attorney General Harvey Cluff, Keller withdrew the warrants and empaneled a grand jury. Although he had identified at least 125 witnesses to the lynching, none could be found to testify against the men. Whether through intimidation or solidarity, no one could positively identify the perpetrators of the crime. Finding insufficient evidence to indict, the grand jury concluded and the men were released.

Keller, at the conclusion of the investigation, said, "I am ashamed at the disgraceful mockery of the law and order which has resulted in the affair right from the beginning, and the manner in which the state may have been held up to ridicule. May God have pity on you."

The Aftermath
The lynching of George Marshall is sometimes called the last lynching in the west. I have not done the research to know whether this is true, but it did come some 40 years later than the previous lynchings in the state (there may have been as many as 11). Lynching continued in the South into the 1960s.

Because of events like this, the KKK lost its veneer of credibility and had essentially died out in Utah by the early 1930s. 

In 1998, former Kenilworth resident Matt Gilmour, who had been a high school student at the time of the lynching, organized a Day of Reconciliation. A service was held for Robert Marshall and a donated headstone installed at his grave in the Price Cemetery. It reads, "Robert Marshall: Lynched June 18, 1925, A Victim of Intolerance. May God Forgive."

Gerlach, Larry R. 1998. "Justice Denied: The Lynching of Robert Marshall." in Utah Historic Quarterly, Volume 66, Number 4, 1998

Lacy, Steve and Trevor Curb. 2018. "A True Story of Murder and the 1925 Lynching of Robert Marshall by a Carbon County Mob." in ETV Sun Advocate, October 1, 2018 (Part I) and October 5, 2018 (Part II), reprint.

Taniguchi, Nancy J. 2004. Castle Valley American: Hard Land, Hard-won Home.

Thomas, Erin Ann. 2012. Coal in our Veins: A Personal Journey.


Popular Posts