At the turn of the 20th century, much of the frontier mentality that Waco was founded on remained. At the time, in the early 1900s, Waco – the so-called “Wonder City” – was a sleepy, yet prosperous town with a population of about 30,000 people. It’s estimated that half that amount, around 15,000, would gather to witness the “Waco Horror.”
Around sundown on May 8th, Lucy Fryer, the white wife of a cotton farmer in nearby Robinson, was found clubbed to death, sprawled across the doorway of the farm’s seed shed. It was a grisly scene that included signs of sexual assault. Officials determined a blunt instrument was used as the murder weapon. Suspicion fell almost immediately on Jesse Washington, an illiterate black teenager who, with his brother, had been working as a hired hand for the Fryers for several months.
By that evening, Washington was arrested.
He was found wearing a bloodstained undershirt and pants. After his arrest, Washington was moved to the jail in Hillsborough. McLennan County Sheriff Samuel Fleming did this after hearing rumors of mob violence, says local historian Rick Fair.
“In this initial interview they did with Jesse, he denied all involvement. He said, “I didn’t do it.” Throughout that night, that early morning of May 9th it seemed like there was some pressure from sheriff Fleming and the Hill County sheriff, a guy named of Fred Long”, Fair says. ”
“But eventually in the early morning of May 9th he confessed to raping and murdering Lucy Fryer.”
It was only a week after the murder of Lucy Fryer that the trial of Jesse Washington began in a packed courtroom, presided over by Judge Richard Munroe, at McLennan County Courthouse. Jury selection and preliminary procedures went quickly and the prosecution’s case included testimonies from the medical examiner, deputies, and an investigator. But before the trial even began, someone attempted to murder Washington in the courthouse and was eventually subdued.
For the defendant, only Washington himself took the stand, relating that he had nothing more to add.
After an estimated 4 minutes of deliberation, an all-white jury returned a guilty verdict.
In the wake of the verdict, the room erupted violently, and although accounts of what happened in the courtroom vary, ultimately, a group of men seized Washington and quickly exited the courtroom.
The iron staircase that Jesse Washington was dragged down rests behind the 54th district court dais. The stairs open into an alleyway, and as Washington and his captors emerged on the back stairs of the courthouse, they were met by a mob, people that that had gathered in downtown Waco for the trial.