A memory. I am at the Martin County Public Library in Williamston, N.C. I am giving a lecture based on my first book, Along Freedom Road. When I introduce myself, I mention a few of the historical subjects in Martin County about which I’ve written over the years. I tell the audience that, among other things, I wrote a newspaper story a decade ago about the lynching of a young African American man in 1957 that occurred at Devil’s Gut, a few miles east of Williamston.
When I do, I hear a gentleman in the back row murmur under his breath, barely loud enough for me to hear, “Well heck, you didn’t even have to be black to get lynched in Martin County.”
Well, that got my attention. So did a wave of anxiety and restlessness that I felt moving through the crowd.
The bare bones of the story emerged later that evening. At the reception after my lecture, several people told me what the gentleman in the back row had been referring to: in 1925 a mob of white men broke into the Martin County jail and removed a young Jewish man named Joseph Needleman, who had been accused of raping a local woman named Effie Griffin.
They had carried him to the cemetery at the Skewarkey Primitive Baptist Church, where they castrated him and left him for dead.
Needleman barely survived his wounds. He stumbled into town to find help and somebody rushed him to a hospital in Washington, N.C., for emergency surgery. A grand jury later found him innocent of rape, but another jury convicted 18 of his assailants and sent 10 to prison. It appears to be the first successful prosecution of a lynch mob in the state’s history.
I also learned that the name of the man in the back row was Paul Peel, Jr., and that maybe nobody alive was in a better position to know what happened in the Skewarkey church’s cemetery that night. One of the men in the mob was his grandfather.
A Journey Begins
Later that evening I met Mr. Peel and we had a little time to chat. He was a thoughtful, plainspoken 83-year old who had grown up on a tobacco farm in Griffin Township, several miles south of Williamston. He had come to my lecture because I wrote a story about his mother a decade earlier. He said the story had meant a great deal to her and to him.
I remembered Myrtle Peel well. She was a delightful, engaging farmwoman and I had spent a long and very pleasant day with her. I recorded a lengthy oral history that covered much of her life, but my article focused on her pioneering work as Martin County’s first bookmobile librarian in the 1940s.
That evening was the beginning of a search into the town’s past for Mr. Peel and me, as we tried to get to the bottom of what happened that night in Skewarkey church’s cemetery.
At Mr. Peel’s invitation, I soon visited him at his home in Rocky Mount, a 45-minute drive west of Williamston. He had moved there with his family as a senior executive for Belk-Tyler, a chain of department stores that once had branches in many small towns in eastern North Carolina.
Rocky Mount was a good-sized town, but Mr. Peel had never lost touch with his rural roots. Even when I visited him, he regularly returned to his family’s old home in Griffin Township to spend a night or two on the farm and preserve his ties to friends and family there.
We talked about the Needleman case all morning, and then we talked some more at a diner downtown. He had dug into the case after we met in Williamston. He had looked at court records and the case’s extensive newspaper coverage. He had also talked with other descendants of the men in the mob. Quite a few were his cousins or old family friends from Griffin Township.
I had done a fair bit of digging on my own as well. The case’s state and national level news coverage had absorbed me. With the help of old friends who had grown up there, I had also made a special effort to learn about a sizable group of the mob’s members who hailed from Robersonville, a small town west of Williamston.
Mr. Peel’s recollections of the 25 to 30 men in the mob may have been the most arresting. He certainly did not defend them. Not even his grandfather was absolved from his critical scrutiny and moral judgment: like a number of others, his grandfather had joined the mob, but evidently backed away from the scene when the night took a bloody turn.
I admired how Mr. Peel loved and revered his grandfather, whom he said had been like a father to him, but also how he insisted on looking at his ancestor wholly, with all his virtues and sins intact.
Mr. Peel pushed me not to come to any easy conclusions about those men’s souls, either. “They were honorable men,” he told me. Clarence Gurkins, a Sunday school teacher and lay preacher at the Macedonia Christian Church, Mr. Peel recalled, was “a pillar of the church.”
Another, Johnny Gurkin, was a prosperous farmer with business interests in tobacco and peanut warehouses. He had invested in the Dixie Motor Co., one of Williamston’s first automobile dealerships. “If you took the five most respected men in the county, he was one of them,” Mr. Peel said.
Mr. Peel’s grandfather, John Smithwick, along with several of the others, was a successful farmer. They were churchgoing people, respectable, family men, pillars of the community. At least many of them.
The Book of Genesis
Mr. Peel also wanted me to understand that the men in the mob were not all of one mind. Some were, as he said, “hot heads.” Among the hot heads, he included Dennis Griffin, the man who wielded the pocketknife with which they mutilated Needleman. Mr. Peel’s family knew a little about Dennis Griffin because he had rented a room from Mr. Peel’s aunt.
As Mr. Peel saw it, blind loyalty drove many of the men to go along that night. They were fathers, brothers, cousins or close friends of Effie’s family or the kin of another of Effie’s suitors. (More on him in a second.) Some thought the vigilantes would just rough up Joseph, but they apparently never expected they might seriously harm him, much less castrate or kill him. Others were out for blood.
Mr. Peel encouraged me to see the incident in terms of the Bible and what people used to call the “Biblical way of life” that governed right and wrong in eastern North Carolina in those days. He believed that his grandfather and the other men in the mob would have seen the situation that way.
Pointing to the Book of Genesis, Mr. Peel compared Effie’s alleged rape with the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In Genesis, in revenge for Dinah’s rape, her brothers found justice by killing all the men in the assailants’ village, kidnapping their women and children and confiscating their belongings.
On the opposite end of things, Mr. Peel referred again to Genesis, where the Scripture narrates the events that led to God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh. In Genesis 19: 1-22, the patriarch Lot sacrifices his daughters to a mob bent on rape in order to protect two angels that God had sent to his home.
At Skewarkey cemetery, that violated the mob’s way of thinking. “Johnnie [Gurkins] and his companions could not live with Lot,” Mr. Peel explained to me.
Some members of the mob accepted that Old Testament outlook on their night in Skewarkey cemetery and afterwards moved forward in their lives apparently untroubled by their consciences. In their eyes, they had only acted like Dinah’s brothers. Quite a few remained upstanding figures in the community, even after they served time in prison.
But not all: a few days before the trial, one of the assailants, Tom Lilly, shot himself with a .22 rifle.
I appreciated Mr. Peel’s outlook. I thought he was wise to steer me toward trying to see what happened in Skewarkey cemetery through the mob’s eyes, as well as the eyes of Effie and Joseph. In the end, though, I wasn’t sure if the Old Testament was the best place to look to understand that night. Or at least, perhaps Scripture was not the only place to look to understand that night.
For one thing, there was so much that Mr. Peel and I never uncovered about the Needleman case. Despite our best efforts, he agreed, many crucial aspects of the story remained a mystery.
For example, did Joseph really rape Effie? Possibly, but the grand jury did not think so, and they had their reasons.
For example, one eyewitness testified that he had seen Joseph and Effie together after the alleged rape, but before Joseph’s arrest. This witness swore that Joseph had visited Effie at the dress shop where she worked in Williamston. They had acted cordially to one another, the witness recalled, and Joseph had helped Effie with a window display.
Another possibility, one whispered to this day, is that Joseph and Effie had actually been clandestine lovers, as he declared in court, and they had been found out by her family. Several older people in Williamston who grew up around Effie and her family told me that they believed that the most likely scenario.
If they really knew, however, they did not tell me so.
A number of locals believed that Joseph and Effie were star-crossed lovers, but their accounts were always secondhand.
The Klan and Anti-Semitism
Other questions abound. Did Effie’s kinsmen and their friends attack Joseph because he was Jewish? State and national Jewish advocacy groups certainly assumed that was true. Many observers believed that the governor’s urgency to see the mob prosecuted derived from his concern that such a horrible act of bigotry would alienate Jewish business leaders and make them less likely to invest their money in North Carolina’s textile mills or other industries.
And no wonder: anti-Semitism had soared in North Carolina and across the South over the previous decade. During the Ku Klux Klan’s heyday in the 1920s, when KKK membership probably ran into the millions, North Carolina was one of the hotbeds of the hooded order, which had repeatedly targeted Jews.
In 1925, the Klan resurgence was reaching its height. While I did not see evidence of anti-Jewish violence in Williamston in those years, the Klan was active in most of eastern North Carolina’s towns.
Unfortunately, I failed to locate descendants of the three or four Jewish families that lived in Williamston at that time. Their perspective would likely have been helpful. I had certainly seen evidence of longstanding anti-Jewish sentiment in the historical record for nearby parts of North Carolina.
Another question: did it matter that Joseph was an outsider—a Yankee, as people would have said? He had grown up in Philadelphia and seems to have had family in New Jersey. He had only lived in eastern North Carolina for a few years, and he made his living as a traveling tobacco salesman.
The questions go on and on. For instance, how do we explain Effie’s marriage to Fernie Sparrow? Effie married Sparrow only hours after he had been part of the mob at Skewarkey cemetery. If Effie and Sparrow had been a couple, could Joseph’s mutilation have been Sparrow’s revenge for the rape of his girlfriend?
Or if Effie and Joseph had fallen in love, pushing her boyfriend aside, could the attack have been, at least in part, Sparrow’s reassertion of what he regarded as his right to marry Effie?
It is also conceivable that Effie persuaded Sparrow to marry her for other reasons. That was one of the possibilities that Mr. Peel considered seriously. Effie was later a successful businesswoman in Williamston, at a time when few women made it on their own in the small town South. Based on the shrewdness that she later displayed in her business decisions, Mr. Peel wondered if Effie would have rushed into a marriage unless she considered it necessary for weathering the scandal and building a future.
Perhaps, he speculated, she was even pregnant.
Another possibility loomed large, however, and seemed as likely as any of the others. Was it possible that the men in Effie’s family pushed her into the marriage to preserve the family’s honor, after the story of what they considered her illicit relationship with the Jewish outsider came to light?
These scenarios are all terrible. Yet the possibility that Joseph and Effie had actually been lovers somehow seems the most tragic of all. Could they have really been in love, and then their discovery led to his mutilation and to her forced marriage to a man that she didn’t love?
Some people seem to think so. And though it proves nothing in particular, Effie separated from her husband only a few years later.
Like so much else about the case, Mr. Peel and I do not know if that is what happened to Joseph and Effie, though that did not mean that we didn’t do our share of speculating.
Passing Skewarkey Church
In so much of my historical research, the past gradually comes into clearer and clearer focus as I work my way through the layers of evidence. That was not true of the mob castration of Joseph Needleman. The more people I talked with, the more accounts of the trial and its aftermath that I read, the less sure I became about anything.
It didn’t help that a few of the people closest to the case did not want to discuss it. They agreed with one of Mr. Peel’s cousins, who simply told him, no animus intended, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Most people were willing to talk with one or the other of us, but they had little to offer. They had been young children at the time, and their elders had kept silent when it came to Joseph and Effie.
Eventually, I gave up trying to write about the incident, until now, I mean. But I have certainly never forgot what I learned from Mr. Peel and my time in Williamston. Now, all these years later, I still drive by the Skewarkey Primitive Baptist Church 2 or 3 times a year. And when I do, I ponder the things of which even good people are capable, whether blinded by anger and prejudice or simply too fearful to intervene. I think about that night in 1925 and the people involved— Joseph, Effie, the men in the mob. And I try to say a little prayer for them all.