On the morning of 12 October 1927, George Hobbs died quietly at his home “across N.& S.R.R.” in Wilson. As a 59 year-old railroad section laborer (and former farmer), he had likely seen a lifetime of hard, debilitating labor, and he succumbed to kidney disease. Two days later, Hobbs was laid to rest in “Rountrees Cemetery” — almost certainly what we now call Vick Cemetery.
Hobbs’ quiet end gave no hint of the events that had upended his life seven years earlier when he narrowly escaped a Cumberland County, North Carolina, lynch mob.
I was trying to glean the facts of Hobbs’ ordeal from contemporary news reports when I found Betty Richardson’s “Trouble at Victory Mill Villages.” Richardson, too, pulled an outline from news article, but not without interrogation. Interspersing recollections from eyewitnesses and contemporaries, Richardson questions the accepted account of the events that sent George Hobbs to prison. That Hobbs served fewer than seven years of two sheriff’s deputies suggests her skepticism is well-founded.
“Cars packed with armed men jammed the rain drenched streets between Fayetteville and Victory Mill Village on Friday night, May 21, 1920.
“Women and children peeked from behind window curtains along Camden Road as the roar of the cars and the yells of the angry gunmen were occasionally punctuated by rifle fire.
“An orange glow in the sky added to the frightening scenario as members of the giant posse used torches to set fire to the home of a black mill worker named George Hobbs.
“Sheriff N.H. McGeachy and his handful of deputies tried to bring some order to the confusion ‘but was unable to do very much on account of the unorganized crowd of excited villagers,’ the Fayetteville Observer reported on Saturday, May 22.
“At Camp Bragg, the commanding officer ordered 500 soldiers into trucks, and they were standing by to move into Victory Mill Village (known as Lakedale today), but the governor called off the Army, saying the trouble was not a race riot, ‘but an effort to get one Negro.’
“One Cumberland County deputy had been killed and another mortally wounded late Friday afternoon, and the mob wanted vengeance.
“‘There was no race riot as stated in the papers of other cities,’ the Observer declared. ‘It was merely an effort on the part of the villagers to bring to justice the colored man who had taken the life of Deputy Sheriff Herman Butler.’
“Butler died when a bullet struck him in the neck as he and another deputy, W.G. ‘Billy’ Moore, marched toward the barn where Hobbs had barricaded himself against the mob. Moore was shot in the back and died at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Pittman Hospital. William Garrison Moore’s death certificate states: “Bullet wound in abdomen.” [italics in original]
“A coroner’s report by Dr. Vance McGougan was to show the deputies were not shot with the same weapon.
“It all started on Thursday when Hobbs’ daughter and two white girls, Bessie Wrenn and an unidentified friend, met while walking along the Cut — a deep ravine between Camden Road and Southern Avenue where a trolley once ran between Fayetteville and Victory Mills.
“Newspaper reports stated, ‘The trouble arose when the daughter of Hobbs brushed against two white girls while on their way to the mill and, after knocking one of the white girls several feet, she [one of the white girls] came back and handed the Hobbs woman a thrashing.’
“The Observer, in its May 22nd edition, states that on the following day, Friday, ‘the Hobbs woman used vile threats and fired a pistol several times in the air, using at the same time profane language of the worst kind. She was pursued down the railroad cut by several white men. She went to her home, reloading her pistol and came back and finding the same two white girls with whom she had had the previous trouble fired five times at them, none of the bullets hitting their mark.'”
“There are some wide differences in the story told in newspapers in 1920 and the recollections today of a granddaughter of Deputy Moore — Mrs. Doc Jackson, who lives in Pearces Mill Township. Mrs. Jackson remembers stories told by her grandmother, Mrs. Lizzie Newton Moore, and other older Massey Hill residents, and those stories indicated the Wrenn girl went to Puritan Mill, where her brothers worked, and told them about the fight, that the brothers ran home and got their guns to go look for Hobbs’ daughter.
“The Observer continues its report of the trouble: ‘About 6 o’clock, a couple of white men (not identified by the newspaper but probably members of the Wrenn family) went to the home of Hobbs (which was located near Camden Road and Orlando Street, not far from the Massey Hill Recreation Center) and finding the Negro with his wife sitting on the porch, informed them the trouble must cease. Instantly, the two Negroes dashed into the house and in a moment one of them fired a shotgun through the window at the white men, one of them being peppered on the neck with bird shot. He then leveled his gun and fired into the house, and the Negroes scattered, the women members of the family going off toward the top of the hill and Hobbs going into his barn.’
“Mrs. Jackson remembers her grandmother’s oft-told story. Deputy Moore was at home, having just completed his regular duty tour. Butler came to the house and urged Moore to go with him, saying there was going to be serious trouble. Moore, who was 70, agreed, and the two officers drove to Hobbs’ home.
“Newspaper reports state Butler walked to a spot near the barn, carrying a lantern on his arm. A bullet was fired from the barn, the newspapers said, and Butler was hit. The bullet struck him in the neck and exited his body on his left side near the heart.
“A huge crowd of villagers began to gather, most of them armed. ‘Hearing of the deputy’s death, they became incensed and set fire to the dwelling house of Hobbs, also to the dwelling house of his sister,’ the Observer reported. (The newspaper erred in its report. The men actually burned the home of Hobbs’s wife’s sister, Rebecca Evans, according to recorded deeds.)
“Moore apparently tried to reach the barn and was shot. The bullet entered his body near the end of his spine and came out through his stomach.
“The crowd finally discovered that Hobbs had escaped from the barn during the confusion. Angrily, men set fire to the barn and chased Hobbs’ stock off into the darkness.
“Hobbs’ 15-year-old son [Preston Hobbs] was captured by members of the posse and turned over to deputies. The youngster had been shot in the legs during the gunfire. McGeachy found Hobbs’ wife, Alice, and took her to Fayetteville and placed her in the Cumberland County Jail.
“Mrs. Cathleen Turner was a teenager whose family lived next door to Deputy Moore. ‘I’ll never forget that night,’ she says. ‘We had been to Tolar-Hart that afternoon and were coming home when we saw the glow of the flames from Hobbs’ house in the sky. We heard the shooting and daddy told us not to leave the house when we got home. I remember it was raining that night and we could see the people passing by through our windows,’ she says.
“Law enforcement in 1920 was still a long way from becoming a science. There were no ballistic tests, no fingerprint experts. Apparently, the crowd and the officers refused to accept the significance of the fact that Moore was shot in the back while walking toward the barn where Hobbs was believed to have been barricaded. The angle of the bullet striking Butler also failed to raise any doubt in the minds of the investigators.
“The size of the mob continued to increase, and search parties scattered in all directions. Dozens of armed men remained throughout the night around the ashes of the fires that had destroyed two homes and a barn.
“The search continued through the weekend. On Monday, May 24, the Observer reported Hobbs was still a fugitive roaming the swamps somewhere in lower Cumberland. ‘Armed men are continuing the hunt all along the country roads and woods where he is suspected of being,’ the newspaper stated.
“Hobbs reportedly had gone to Butler’s Store near Cumberland Mill on Saturday night, carrying a pistol wrapped in a handkerchief in his right hand and a rifle under his left arm.
“There is an account from ‘a traveling man’ (apparently a traveling salesman) who was quoted by the Observer saying he had been stopped by a black man as he drove toward Fayetteville from Hope Mills, that the man asked him if he was hunting him. The traveling man said he assured the man he was not, that he didn’t even know what he was being hunted for.
“Deputies and members of the posse stationed themselves in Ardlussa, the community where Hobbs’ wife had been born and where she had a number of relatives living. But they couldn’t find their quarry.
“Moore, born in Pender County, had lived in Cumberland for 21 years. He had been a deputy for 16 years. He was buried in a graveyard next to his home on Camden Road. Approximately 2,000 persons crowded into his front yard and the cemetery near his house late Sunday afternoon for the final rites.
“Butler’s body was taken to his native Clinton in Sampson County for burial. He had lived in Fayetteville for about 20 years and owned an automobile delivery business here.
“Finally, on Wednesday, May 26, Charles Young, a friend of Hobbs, contacted Sheriff McGeachy and announced Hobbs was ready to surrender, but only to the sheriff or Deputy Al Pate, that he feared the other members of the department.
“McGeachy and Pate drove to Snow Hill Church, just beyond Little Sandy River, about four miles from Fayetteville.
“At 8 p.m., Young arrived at the church and told McGeachy that Hobbs was hiding nearby. In a few minutes Hobbs walked out of the woods, unarmed and holding his hands above his head. McGeachy drove to Fayetteville and switched cars. He and Pate slipped Hobbs to Raleigh for safekeeping. Hobbs told McGeachy he had wanted to give himself up earlier but could not get word to the sheriff or Pate.
“McGeachy said Hobbs was worried about his family, and the officers assured him they were safe. Hobbs said he was tired and went to sleep after hearing the news about his family. He slept on the back seat most of the way to Raleigh.
“Hobbs remained in state prison until Sept. 1 when Deputy A. O. Patrick brought him back to Fayetteville to stand trial. They arrived at about midnight, and the trial was scheduled to begin in superior court on Sept. 2. Judge Owen H. Guion of Craven County was presiding and Solicitor S. B. McLean was prosecutor. But as the arraignment began, defense attorneys H. L. Cook, John H. Cook, John G. Shaw, and Duncan Shaw announced they wanted a conference with their client. Judge Guion granted the request.
“The lawyers and Hobbs left the courtroom and shut themselves behind closed doors in an anteroom. They returned about two hours later. Hobbs was flanked by his wife, daughter and son.
“Attorney H. L. Cook in a brief speech to the court announced that Hobbs was pleading guilty to second degree murder, saying he and the other lawyers had advised the defendant to plead guilty to second degree.
“Cook said the defense counsel had searched the state’s evidence and he did not believe state could find Hobbs guilty of first degree murder. He also said there would be much difficulty in even proving he fired the shots that killed Butler and Moore, that ‘in fairness and justice to all’ he felt that ‘the ends of justice would be met by letting him serve a term in state prison.’
“Judge Guion congratulated the attorneys for the defense, as well as the prosecutor. ‘The tremendous crowd that packed every inch of space listened intently at every word, spoken slow and deliberately by his honor,’ according to a reporter’s account of the court proceedings published in the Observer on Sept.2.
“It is obvious today, reading the accounts of the proceedings, that Solicitor McLean and the defense lawyers had been involved in some fancy plea bargaining before the day of the trial.
“Judge Guion told McLean that he had ‘served the state and county well,’ Guoin said, ‘I heartily concur in your course. You are doing the best that can be done that the ends of justice be served.’
“Later in the day, Guion sentenced Hobbs to serve from two to 20 years in prison.
“On the surface, it was an amazing sentence. A black man accused of murdering two white deputies in a mill village in 1920 would be eligible for parole in less than a year.
“But the action of the attorneys spotlights the weakness of the state’s case and prompts speculation that Moore and Butler probably were shot by members of the giant posse that had cornered Hobbs in his barn.”
Fayetteville Observer, 26 May 1920.
In the 1900 census of Pearces Mill township, Cumberland County: section hand George Hobbs, 33; wife Alice, 28; children Mable, 7, Georgia, 6, and Lear, 2; and stepdaughter Pearl Williams, 9.
In the 1910 census of Pearces Mill township, Cumberland County: George Hobbs, 47; wife Alice, 34; children Mabell, 16, Georgia, 14, Lena, 11, Preston, 5, and Tinie, 2; and stepdaughter Pearl Williams, 19.
On 27 June 1918, Georgia Hobbs, 21, daughter of George and Alice Hobbs, married Cicero Campbell, 20, son of Martin and Frances Campbell, in Cumberland County.
In the 1920 census of Pearces Mill township, Cumberland County: cotton mill watchman George Hobbs, 50; wife Alice, 46; and children Mable, 24, silk mill winder, Georgia, 21, silk mill winder, Preston, 14, Tiny, 11, Ila, 8, and Otha, 7.
In the 1928 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory, entries appear for Alice, Georgia, Mabel, Otha, and Preston Hobbs, all living at 900 New Street. Alice and Georgia worked as laundresses; Mabel as a domestic; and Otha and Preston as laborers.
Perhaps feeling it was then safe to do so, the Hobbses returned to Cumberland County en masse within a year or two of George Hobbs’ death.
In the 1930 census of Cross Creek township, Cumberland County: widow Alice Gibbs, 56, and children Mabel Hobbs, 36, silk mill doubler, Georgia Cameron, 31, silk mill doubler, Preston Hobbs, 27, cafe cook, and Illa, silk mill doubler, 19.
Preston Hobbs died 21 November 1942 in Friendship township, Clarendon County, South Carolina. Per his death certificate, he was 35 years old; was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to George Hobbs and Alice Evans; was single; and worked as a laborer.
Otha Hobbs died 23 August 1952 in Fayetteville, Cumberland County. Per his death certificate, he was born 7 May 1902 in Fayetteville to George Hobbs and Alice Evans and worked as a cook.
Alice Hobbs died 12 February 1962 in Fayetteville, Cumberland County. Per her death certificate, she was born 4 June 1875 in Cumberland County to Mars Evans and Rebecca [maiden name unknown] and was the widow of George Hobbs.
Alice Evans Williams Hobbs. (Detail of) photo courtesy of Ancestry.com user HerbertLorenza.
Georgia Campbell died 29 June 1964 in Fayetteville, Cumberland County. Per her death certificate, she was born 14 October 1900 in Cumberland County to George Hobbs and Alice Evans and was married to Cicero Campbell.
Mable Hobbs died 6 November 1968 in Fayetteville, Cumberland County. Per her death certificate, she was born 15 November 1896 to George Hobbs and Alice Williams and worked as a silk mill employee.
My thanks to Francena F.L. Turner for bringing George Hobbs to my attention.