This brief blurb caught my eye. Two white men shot and killed a Black man in Wilson 1881? What were the circumstances?
Daily Commercial News (New Bern, N.C.), 20 October 1881.
On 21 October 1881, the Wilson Advance reported the murder and inquest. The available scan of that issue is poor quality; here is a transcription:
MURDER IN WILSON.
SHOT ON THE TRAIN, JUST AS IT WAS LEAVING DEPOT.
On Tuesday morning the usual repose of our peace loving community was sadly broken, and stirred into a state of high excitement by the announcement that Carey Hill, a negro carpenter of our town, and a man of good character, had been murdered in Wilson on the train the night before while on his way to Tarboro. And this excitement was increased and intensified when it became generally known that two young gentlemen of high respectability were implicated in the terrible tragedy — in that awful and pulse-stilling act which had its sombre setting in the [illegible] ending scene of bloody death. It seems that Mr. John Gardner, son of T.J. Gardner, one of our wealthiest and most prominent merchants, and Mr. Ben May, of Pitt, who is connected with some families in this place of the highest social position concluded on Monday afternoon that they would take a trip down to Goldsboro. In returning that night on the 11 o’clock train, they took umbrage at what they conceived to be an offensive remark made by one of the train hands, a colored porter, and determined to redress their grievance and per [illegible] of their displeasure. In their search for the porter, they became engaged in a fuss with Cary Hill the deceased, and from the continuous assault made upon him, as will be seen by following the line of evidence as marked [illegible] by the examination before the Coroner’s Jury, he received the whole fury of the storm which had been nursing its muttering wrath for another, and which was but ready to pour out its slumbering fires upon any who came within its reach.
In order that our reader may know all the circumstances connected with such evidence bearing upon the case as we gained from the witnesses before the Coroner’s Jury — a jury composed of most excellent citizens, to wit: T.C. Davis, J.H. Baker, L.H. Fulcher, A.G. Pearson, Wm. Mercer, and Gray Farmer; and right here we stop, at present, to thank Mr. Peele, the prompt and efficient Coroner, for his courtesy on that occasion.
The first witness, Mr. W.E. Oat[illegible] being sworn testified as follows: “I got on the train Monday night Goldsboro with Mr. Geo. Hackney of Rocky Mount. I heard a fuss on the outside and went to the door to see what it was about. A gentle man, whom I afterward learned to be Mr. Ben May, was talking in a loud tone and seemed to be very angry. A bystander told me a train hand had offended him, and that he was cursing him. About this time the train moved off, and Gardner and May came in and took seats in the first-class car. The colored porter passed through and May stopped him and demanded an apology, which the porter granted. May then told him to go about his business. Before reaching Fremont Gardner and May went to the smoking car, and prompted by curiosity I followed. When I got in, I found them abusing Carey Hill, the deceased, and I saw Gardner strike him twice in the face and made him sit down. The conductor then took May and Gardner back into the first-class car. As they left, May swore that he would whip him when he got to the station. Upon running into Wilson and nearing the depot, May went in the 2nd-class car again, and there met Hill who was in the act of coming out. Hill had a cane, when he raised when he saw May advancing upon him with right hand in hip pocket. Hill backed to the rear of the car, saying “let me alone ,” Gardner rushed [illegible] seized May, whereupon Hill jumped over two seats and made his escape out the door. May and Gardner both followed him out. Gardner then took hold of May, and with the assistance of the conductor got him near the end of the platform. May said, ‘let me go and I won’t go back there any more.’ The conductor let go, when May and Gardner both started back to the car. Just then I went to the back, and about that time the train started, and soon I heard report of pistol and almost immediately saw those young men run across the street to an old house, in full view of the train. When the train stopped and began to run back to the depot the two men ran up Barnes Street. I got on the car, and found Carey Hill on the rear platform of the ladies’ car in a dying condition. We put him in the waiting room of the depot when he breathed heavily for a moment or two and then expired.”
George Hackney being sworn testified: “I took the car at Goldsboro; while waiting for the train to start, I heard a fuss on the outside — cursing, and abusive language used freely; did not get up to see what was it was about; as the train moved off, two young men, John Gardner and Ben May came in and took seats. After the conductor had collected fare, May said ‘let’s go in and settle with that dam scoundrel,’ whereupon both immediately went in the second-class car. In a few moments I heard a fuss and blows. The conductor heard the fuss and went in and brought the two young men out. Gardner bragging about having knocked the negro down. As the train was nearing Fremont, the young men went in again and I soon heard another fuss. I went to the window near the door and looked in, and saw a crowd together in the car, but paid no attention to it. They came back this time on their own accord, but both declaring that they would whip the man when they got too Wilson. Pretty soon May proposed again to go in and settle with the ‘dam scoundrel.’ Gardner tried then to keep him back, but did not succeed, but followed him into the car. I heard another fuss and soon saw the conductor bringing them in again. They took seats and soon both went in again, and soon returned. After leaving Black Creek, May proposed to go in again but Gardner succeeded in keeping him back. When nearing Wilson May went in second-class car, I lost sight of Gardner. May went up to Hill and this was the first time I recognized him as the one against whom their spite was directed. May made a threat by striking his fist and putting his right hand in hip pocket, and said something which I did not understand. Hill told him to get out, that he would knock him down if he came to him, but was retreating all the time. Hill, going as far as he could, jumped over the sears and passed by May, who followed him with pistol drawn. Hill seemed that he wanted to get rid of them. Both got off — May immediately after him, and then I lost sight of both. In a few minutes, I saw May and Gardner come up, both cursing and saying if they could find him they would kill the ‘dam scoundrel.’ As the whistle sounded, Hill got on the car where I was, and seemed terribly excited. He recognized me, and began to tell me how it occurred. As the train was moving off, May and Gardner jumped on the platform, and made for Hill. I stepped between them and seized May. Gardner jumped at Hill, who rain in the first-class car, but could not get through in consequence of aisle being blocked up. Gardner then jumped on him, and began to strike him. Hill then began to use his stick rapidly, and Gardner retreated under the blows to the platform. Just then I turned May loose who was apparently satisfied, although he still had his pistol in the hand, and I then stepped back in the car. Almost immediately I heard Hill said, ‘I am shot,’ but I heard no report of pistol. Hill ran through the first-class car repeating three times, ‘I am shot,’ and fell at the rear end of the car on the platform. I went immediately to him, and raised his head. He recognized me and said, ‘Mr. Hackney, I am dying innocently,’ and expired almost immediately.”
Capt. A.H. Cutts, being sworn testified: “While my train was at Goldsboro on Monday night I heard a fuss about the rear end of the train, and pretty soon I saw a young man walking aside of train and peeping in as if looking for some one. He came in baggage car where I was standing and peeped in. I asked him whom he wanted and he walked off. About then the train started, and when I went through to collect fare I saw this same young man and another one whom I read was Gardner. While collecting fare from Gardner, the other man who was sitting with a lady struck a match and lit a cigar. I told him it was against rules of company to smoke in that car, and he put down the cigar. I then went in second-class car. Pretty soon my colored porter came to me and told me that man was smoking again. I went in and asked him to stop, which he did. Upon nearing Fremont, these young me came out on the platform where I and my porter were standing. May asked if the porter did not tell about his smoking. I replied yes, that was his duty and he did right. May said that the porter was a dam scoundrel, and that he intended to whip him. I told him to go back in the car which he did. Pretty soon they came back in the smoking car, and I told my porter to go in the baggage car and lock the door. They began to curse and roar around, when the deceased spoke out and said he would stand up for the colored porter and see him have fair play. I told him to hush and not have anything to do with it. Gardner then cursed him and asked him if he took it up, and then they began to rustle about, when I took the tough man back in the other car. After getting to Wilson I saw Gardner who asked me to help him get May out. I took him by the arm and got him near the ticket office, when he promised he would not go back. I let him go and he ran across the end of the mail car platform and jumped down on the other side and ran back. Gardner told me to watch at this end and he would keep him back at the other end. About that time, the train started, and when i went to step on the platform I saw Carey Hill on the platform with a hickory stick, waving it and making his threats, saying what he would do, &c. I told him to go in, and I went on to the baggage car. About the time I got there my porter came to me and told me a man had been shot. I pulled the bell-rope, stopped the train and had it backed to depot. I had the man put in the waiting room and he died in a few minutes. I did not see the shooting.”
Jim Peacock, col., corroborated Capt. Cutts as to Hill’s offering to take up for the colored porter. But went further and stated that Gardner pulled Hill’s beard, slapped his face and threatened to kill him when he got to Wilson, saying that he had money to back him, &c.
Charles Freeman, a fireman on the freight train, was in the second-class car that night, and saw May and Gardner come in, and pull Hill’s beard, slap his face, and cuffed him about generally. Hill did nothing and seemed anxious to avoid a difficulty. He was positive of the fact that Hill did not offer to take up for the porter.
At Wilson he saw them fighting and saw two pistol flashes but did not know who did the shooting.
For want to space we had to abbreviate the testimony of Peacock and Freeman, but the above is the substance. Dr. Peacock told where the wounds were located; one six inches below top of chest and a little to left of center, the other four inches below the first. Either would have produced death. In accordance with these facts, the Jury brought in the verdict that the deceased came to his death by shots fired from a pistol in the hand of May or Gardner, or both.
The young men are still at large.
Newspapers across North Carolina picked up the story, including the Gastonia Gazette:
Gastonia Gazette, 22 October 1881.
The Goldsboro Star, a newspaper owned and edited by African-American lawyer George T. Wassom, also published a piece:
The Goldsboro Star, 29 October 1881.
Disturbed by what he viewed as inaccurate reporting about Hill’s murder, Thomas E. Scott, an African-American barber living in Wilmington, N.C., submitted to the Wilmington Post his own eyewitness version of events. He had harsh words for Captain Cutts, the conductor.
Wilmington Post, 13 November 1881.
A month after the murder, King David’s Lodge No. 24, a Prince Hall Masonic lodge in Kinston, North Carolina, submitted to a New Bern newspaper a resolution that was reprinted in the Goldsboro Star:
The Goldsboro Star, 26 November 1881.
The Wilmington Post ran a second letter to the editor on November 27, this one from a Washington, D.C., writer who listed only his initials — R.R.D. — and strongly proclaimed an opinion that May and Gardner should not escape justice.
Wilmington Post, 27 November 1881.
I have found nothing to indicate that either Benjamin May or John Gardner was arrested, tried or convicted. Eleven months after his murder, the Wilson Advance included in an listing of moneys paid out by the Town of Wilson the following expenses related to Carey Hill’s inquest.
Wilson Advance, 29 September 1882.