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In the early 1880s, Harrison and Ernistina Reid, both in their 50s, lived on their farm southeast of the towns of Winston and Salem, in Waughtown near where the Bowman Gray Stadium now stands. They were known as hard working, yet gentle and decent people.
There were a couple of spots on their farm that were perfectly suited to Sunday school picnics. Even though they were members of Friedland Moravian Church, those picnic spots were open to Sunday schools of other denominations as well.
Three of their six children were still living, and all of them lived and worked on the farm, as did some of their hired hands. Each morning they all gathered in the Reid’s house for breakfast.
About 6 AM on Monday, May 5, 1884, they finished breakfast and headed out to the corn fields…daughters Sarah and Martha and young Cicero, aged 15…along with the mother and wife of one of their tenants, Henry Swaim…leaving Ernistina, called Anna by everyone, to clean up and begin working on lunch. Once everyone had their day’s task in hand, Harrison left on a special mission. Hawks had been wreaking havoc on his chickens. He was determined to find their nest and destroy it.
As he circled back toward the house, he thought he heard a child screaming. But as he came closer to the house, he recognized the voice as that of his wife Anna, so headed directly for the house. As he came through the barnyard gate, he saw Anna stumbling toward him, covered with blood.
Racing to embrace her, he asked “Who did this?” “Henry Swaim.” She whispered it three times, then collapsed into his arms. He carried her to the house, where she died almost instantly.
Word spread quickly and neighbors began gathering at the Reid house. Soon the sheriff, Augustus Fogle, and the coroner, William Barrow, were on the scene. As Barrow began organizing the coroner’s inquest, Sheriff Fogle began organizing a posse. They knew who they were looking for.
Augustus Fogle, easily one of the most interesting people who ever lived in our city, was a Salem resident, a furniture maker, specializing in church pulpits. He served as sheriff of Forsyth County from 1878-1884 and as as mayor of Salem 1868-73, 1876-78, and 1888-89, as well as a justice of the peace and coroner of Forsyth County. He was buried in the Salem God’s Acre in a coffin that he made for himself.
Henry Swaim, a young white man about 21-24 years old, was one of the hired hands who lived on the Reid farm. Originally from Guilford County and considered to be something of a simpleton, he had married a woman “of bad character” and had been working for the Reids for about a year. He and his mother and his wife lived in a small dwelling on the Reid farm.
The sheriff divided his posse into groups of three or four and sent them out to find Henry Swaim. Henry was traced “through the orchard and to a branch where he washed the blood from his hands.” Throughout the morning, the usual reports came in. Henry Swaim had been seen here. He had been seen there. He had even been seen in downtown Winston buying a gun.
Meanwhile, the coroner’s jury, composed of C.A. Reynolds, W.P. Reynolds, I.P. Bodenhammer, James Tucker, L.V. Smith and William Nissen, completed their work in record time. They determined that Anna Reid had died of a “stab in the throat one and 1/2 inches long and 3 inches deep, severing the carotid artery, and sundry blows on the head inflicting various wounds, to-wit: 5 on the left side of the head near the top, 3 on the right side of her head, one on the back of her head, and one on her forehead, said wounds varying in length from 3 to less than 1 inch, all going to the bone, and two crushing the skull bone…said wounds (being) inflicted by a butcher knife, a stone hammer and an old axe, in the hands of Henry Swaim.”
After further medical examination, the jury would later amend its report to state that the carotid artery had not been severed.
Meanwhile, Henry Swaim had indeed purchased a gun in Winston, but had then returned in the direction of his crime to a field on the “Stockton place” and “engaged to help a colored man plant corn”. In mid-afternoon, he was “…found by Mr. John McChristian, Mr. Fiddler and others, and arrested. When the posse approached, he broke to run, but several guns being leveled upon him, when commanded, he halted. He was marched into town about five o’clock and lodged in jail amid the deep indignation of every body.”
John McQuiston (not McChristian), a teacher at the Salem boys school, and William Fiddler, who worked for C.F. Nissen in Waughtown, later stated that they sat there in the field on their horses and debated whether or not to string Henry Swaim up on the spot, ultimately deciding to turn him over to Sheriff Fogle instead.
That afternoon, Henry Swaim’s mother and his wife visited him in the county jail. He told them that he had nothing to do with the death of Anna Reid. But the authorities in Winston were well aware that there was strong feeling against Henry Swaim, so ordered that extra guards be posted at the county jail. About 2 AM, a crowd of 80 or so masked, heavily armed men came from Waughtown up through Salem and into Winston. Mayor John Cameron Buxton was summoned. He pleaded with the mob to disperse, but they soon shouted him down and moved on toward the jail. Winston Police Chief W.G. Bahnson then tried to intervene, but the mob ignored him.
John Cameron Buxton was born in Asheville, but moved to Winston after finishing law training. He was a founder of the Winston school system, which he served as chairman of the board of education for 26 years. He also served the community as mayor and state senator. When he died in 1916, his funeral became the biggest in the history of the city, conducted by five ministers from five different churches and attended by over 5,000 people in Salem Cemetery.
At that point, Sheriff Fogle opened the outer door of the jail to address the mob, but they rushed past him and attacked the inner iron door with crowbars and hammers, beating off the locks. They dragged Henry Swaim out of the jail, tied his arms and marched him back down through Winston and Salem and up the hill to Waughtown. No one interfered.
By this time a crowd had gathered. The mob formed a guard around their prisoner and set a rear guard to keep the crowd back. At the corner of Main and Third they turned left to avoid the bright lights in front of the Central Hotel, continued along Church Street, then back to Main at First, then on across Salem Creek to Waughtown Street.
At a big oak on the hillside, the cavalcade was halted. The following crowd was allowed to approach and Henry was ordered onto his knees and a mock trial was held. It went something like this:
Why did you kill Mrs. Reed?
I don’t know. I wanted money. After the others left I went into the house. When she found out what I was after, we had some words and I struck her over the head with the stone hammer. The butcher knife was laying on the table. I took that and cut her throat.
Did you hit her with the axe?
No, the axe (head) fell off and I struck her on the head with the helve. I cut her throat (for the second time) after she fell on the floor and ran down to the branch where I washed my hands.
At that point, the moon rose, casting “a weird and ghastly lustre over everything.”
“Won’t somebody pray for me?” Henry pleaded.
Two men stepped forward and offered a brief prayer. Then Henry tried his own:
“Oh Lord take me from this world once more! Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more! I know I am guilty and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!”
The rope was brought forth, an inept and grotesque parody of a real hangman’s noose. Henry was bound hand and foot and a handkerchief tied over his eyes. Two men held Henry as high as they could while someone climbed the oak and tied the rope to a limb. The two men let go and Henry’s body swung out with a pop as the rope became taut. Henry’s feet were still barely touching the ground and he stood erect, twitching in agony. One man tried bending his legs, then gave up when he realized what a horrible thing he was doing.
The rope was untied from the limb and Henry fell to the ground, still twitching. “My God men, we must not allow this!” someone said. The rope was again passed over the limb and several men drew Henry’s body up until it hung high above the ground, still twitching. The mob immediately left. A number of the spectators drew their weapons and began shooting at Henry’s body, which was left hanging for the remainder of the day, attracting a huge crowd of sightseers. A later examination showed that none of the spectators, firing at point blank range, had managed to hit the body. Henry’s neck was not broken. He died slowly of asphyxiation. So the members of the mob were no more intelligent or humane than the poor simpleminded victim.
A few days later, Ernestina Reid was buried at Friedland Moravian Church. The service was conducted by Dr. Rondthaler from the Salem Moravian congregation and Elder William Turner from Friedland. The hymn “God moves in mysterious ways” was sung and the text was “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousnesse: I shall bee satisfied, when I awake, with thy likenesse.” (Psalms 17:15, King James Bible, 1611)
One of the local papers published the usual apology for lynch mobs everywhere:
“The details are horrible throughout — the murder and the lynching. Both are afflictions that this community has never been called upon to endure before.
While all men depricate (sic) the hanging, yet there is a sense of relief that the horrible affair throughout is at an end. No one can attach blame to the officials, city or county. It is one of those infractions of law which all good men depricate (sic), yet are unable to prevent. The mob numbered about 75 or 100 men.”
Note: The Reid name is misspelled “Reed” in all contemporary newspaper accounts.
For anyone who thinks that lynching was some sort of justice, the above account shows what really happened when a bunch of yahoos got drunk, put on masks and went out to circumvent due process. This happened almost daily for many decades in US history, in the South, the Midwest, the West and elsewhere. Forsyth County is fortunate in that this is the only known instance of lynching in our history.
And the Western Sentinel stayed on top of this story for some time to come. They reported that local residents found other routes to pass the lynching site at night for fear of encountering Henry Swaim’s ghost. They reported that a certain person, whose name I will not mention here, made a crayon drawing of Henry Swaim hanging from the tree, which became a major attraction at a certain store in Union Cross. They reported that a certain citizen purchased the property beneath the hanging tree and built a house there. And they reported that, a few years after the event, Henry Swaim’s widow was living in that house. Anyone who thinks that fiction surpasses reality is not really paying attention.