Major Terry, 9 Nov 1891. United States, Bureau of Land Management. Alabama, Homestead and Cash Entry Patents, Pre-1908.
Escaped Attempted Lynching:
July 13, 1897- near Enterprise, Alabama
March 17, 1899- Elba, Alabama
Born into slavery around 1840 in Georgia, Major Terry gained his freedom from J.H. Terry as a young man with the passage of the 13th Amendment. Within a few years, Terry and his wife Caroline moved their family to southern Alabama, where they built a large family and a successful life. Although illiterate, Terry managed to purchase eighty acres of his own land, a difficult feat for many African Americans during Jim Crow, raised at least nine children, and began welcoming grandchildren. In the summer of 1897, however, Major “Mage” Terry was accused of a brutal crime, nearly lynched, tried, and then publicly executed in March 1899.
During the night of July 12, 1897, Mrs. Mary Vann Thomas’ children allegedly found her in her bed assaulted, beaten, killed, and set on fire. The community immediately turned its suspicion on Major Terry, who lived nearby and openly admitted having spent the evening with the white Thomas family, described in court records as belonging to the “poor, laboring class of persons.” Terry often came to the Thomas’s house to help with chores, and frequently brought them milk, as he had on the evening before Mrs. Thomas death.
Despite his valid reason for being at the Thomas household and his denial of any knowledge of the crime, authorities arrested Terry and brought him to be held in Enterprise, where a mob began forming. Terry managed to escape from the mob and hid in the surrounding woods for a couple of weeks while search parties scoured the countryside for him. The governor offered a four hundred dollar reward for his arrest, and the citizens of Enterprise added one hundred and fifty dollars to the reward. Eventually, hungry and weakened, he turned himself in to a sympathetic white neighbor, was returned to jail, and quickly tried and convicted of the assault and murder of Mrs. Thomas.
Another mob formed outside the courthouse during Terry’s trial, threatening to kill him if he was not found guilty. The jury sentenced Terry to hang, but he appealed the decision, and upon learning that his execution had been delayed, yet another mob began forming and making threats against Terry. Several months after he was first to be hanged, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the initial decision and granted Terry a new trial. However, despite the ongoing threat of mob violence, numerous newspaper accounts of mobs forming, and affidavits from seven local citizens attesting to ongoing threats of violence, Terry’s request for a change of venue for his next trial was denied.
During his trials, Mrs. Thomas’ oldest daughter Valley, about sixteen years old, testified that when she went to bed the night of the murder, her mother and Terry had still been in the kitchen, washing dishes, and her five younger siblings were in the other room asleep. Around 3 am, she heard her sister crying and woke to find her mother on the floor near her bed, dead, and on fire. Reports indicate that Mrs. Thomas had been choked, violently assaulted with a blunt instrument, probably a chair found broken and bloody at the crime scene, and her skull crushed before she was set on fire, yet, apparently, none of the six children in the room woke up and heard or saw anything until the perpetrator was gone. This stretches disbelief to the point that the accounts and testimony of these children come under serious question.
The prosecution produced only circumstantial evidence against Terry at his trial, a fact which numerous journalists, even those who openly believed in his guilt, commented on, even while insisting that the “only circumstantial” evidence nonetheless proved Terry’s guilt. One such argument for Terry’s guilt hinged on the discovery of his footprints leading away from Thomas’ house toward his own about a mile away. Terry, however, freely admitted to having made the footprints returning home the night of the crime, after bringing milk to Mrs. Thomas and helping her with chores. A few witnesses claimed to have seen small drops of what could have been blood on Terry’s pants and shoes hours after the murder, but other witnesses testified that the spots were Terry’s tears from crying during his arrest. Certainly, as a farmer, Terry would have daily encountered numerous substances that could stain clothes, including blood from the cow that Valley Thomas said he slaughtered the day before the murder to provide meat for the Thomas children. Terry himself said the stain was from chewing tobacco. This was the entirety of the evidence upon which Terry was convicted and executed.
No witnesses were called to support Terry’s account of the events and his alibi, not even his teenage son, who Terry testified had seen him go to bed hours before the murder was committed. This lack of even a basic defense is characteristic of the lack of justice African Americans suffered under Jim Crow, as they were represented, prosecuted, and judged by all white men who often shared the prejudices of the time period.
Not only was the evidence against Terry weak and circumstantial, but some newspaper reports even openly speculated that Terry had been blamed for a crime he did not commit. According to the Eufala Daily Times, for example, “some of the best people do not believe Terry is guilty,” as “he is an old slavery darkey of good character,” unlike “all sorts of young negroes” working at a nearby railroad camp, who some community members believed more likely to have committed the crime. The month after his execution, another article reported that a “prominent gentleman” from the area suspected Mrs. Thomas’ husband of the crime for which Terry had been hanged.
Despite the weak case against him and doubt of his guilt from some members of the community, racial prejudice clearly ran high in this case, with mobs repeatedly forming over the space of two years, and newspapers constantly emphasizing the gory details of the crime. After a second appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court failed, with the Court affirming the guilty verdict, Terry was publicly executed by hanging in front of a crowd “conservatively estimated” at two thousand people, in Elba, Alabama on March 17, 1899. He left a wife, at least nine children, and several grandchildren. Many of his descendants still live in the Enterprise and Elba area of Alabama.
Major Terry, 9 Nov 1891. United States, Bureau of Land Management. Alabama, Homestead and Cash Entry Patents, Pre-1908, ancestry.com.
For more on post-War African American land ownership, see Keri Leigh Merritt, “Land and the Roots of African American Poverty,” https://aeon.co/ideas/land-and-the-roots-of-african-american-poverty.
Major Terry vs. the State of Alabama, Alabama Supreme Court, 4th Div. 515_188 (February 1899).
Major Terry, Manuscript Census Returns, Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Township 5 Range 21, Coffee, Alabama; Roll: M593_9; Page: 456A; Family History Library Film: 545508, ancestry.com.
Major Terry, Manuscript Census Returns, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Clintonville, Coffee, Alabama; Roll: 8; Page: 294C; Enumeration District: 044, ancestry.com.
“Another Account of the Elba Affair,” Eufaula Daily Times, 18 Jul 1897, p. 1.
“A Brutal Murder,” Luverne Journal, 22 Jul 1897, p. 3.
“The Star’s Account: That Horrible Affair in Dale…,” Eufaula Daily Times, 23 Jul 1897, p. 2.
“Lynch Law,” Free Press (Ozark, AL), 25 Jul 1897, p. 2.
“A Story of a Terrible Crime,” Troy Messenger, 28 Jul 1897, p. 2.
“Local Happenings,” Free Press (Ozark, AL), 12 Aug 1897, p. 3.
“Local Happenings,” Covington Crescent (Andalusia, AL), 19 Aug 1897, p. 1.
“Major Terry Arrested,” Eufaula Daily Times, 5 Sep 1897, p. 1.
“Talk of Lynching,” Montgomery Advertiser, 5 Sep 1897, p. 10.
“Major Terry Arrested,” Troy Messenger, 8 Sep 1897, p. 6.
“Local Happenings,” Free Press (Ozark, AL), 9 Sep 1897, p. 2.
“Major Terrel Arrested,” Gleaner (Rutledge, AL), 10 Sep 1897, p. 1.
“Mage Gave Himself Up,” Eufaula Daily Times, 12 Sep 1897, p. 1.
“The Death Penalty,” Troy Messenger, 15 Sep 1897, p. 5.
“Local Happenings,” Free Press (Ozark, AL), 16 Sep 1897, p. 3.
“The Death Penalty,” Times and News (Eufauala, AL), 16 Sep 1897, p. 4.
“Mob Law Not Necessary,” Montgomery Advertiser, 25 Sep 1897, p. 4.
“Major Terry,” Eufaula Daily Times, 31 Oct 1897, p. 2.
“Major Terry’s Case Appealed to the Supreme Court,” Montgomery Advertiser, 2 Nov 1897, p. 3.
Free Press (Ozark, AL), 4 Nov 1897, p. 3.
“Major Terry,” Times and News (Eufaula, AL), 4 Nov 1897, p. 4.
“Maje Terry in Luverne,” Gleaner (Rutledge, AL), 5 Nov 1897, p. 3.
“Major Terry’s Case Appealed to the Supreme Court,” Montgomery Advertiser, 5 Nov 1897, p. 3.
“Local Happenings,” Gleaner (Rutledge, AL), 28 Jan 1898, p. 3.
“A Day with the Law,” Montgomery Advertiser, 24 Jun 1898, p. 8.
“Local Happenings,” Geneva Tribune (AL), 30 Jun 1898, p. 1.
“The Major Terry Case,” Eufaula Daily Times, 15 Sep 1898, p. 2.
“Sentenced to Hang,” Eufaula Daily Times, 1 Nov 1898, p. 2.
“Montgomery,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), 3 Nov 1898, p. 12.
“Sentenced to Hang,” Times and News (Eufaula, AL), 3 Nov 1898, p. 3.
“Major Terry Convicted of Murder and Sentenced to Hang,” Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery), 4 Nov 1898, p. 8.
“Major Terry Will Be Hanged,” Atlanta Constitution, 8 Nov 1898, p. 4.
“A Plum for Bill,” Troy Messenger, 9 Nov 1898, p. 3.
“Major Terry will Hang,” Times and News (Eufaula, AL), 17 Nov 1898, p. 4.
“Personal Paragraphs,” Luverne Journal (AL), 22 Dec 1898, p. 3.
“Snap Shots,” Eufaula Daily Times, 27 Dec 1898, p. 2.
“Alabama Legislature,” Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), 3 Feb 1899, p. 4.
“Supreme Court,” Montgomery Advertiser, 3 Feb 1899, p. 2.
“Major Terry,” Troy Messenger, 8 Feb 1899, p. 2.
“Maje Terry,” Troy Messenger, 22 Feb 1899, p. 3.
“Major Terry Hanged for the Murder of Mrs. Mary Thomas,” Montgomery Advertiser, 19 Mar 1899, p. 2.
“State and General News,” Pine Belt News (Brewton, AL), 23 Mar 1899, p. 2.
“Major Terry Hanged for the Murder of Mrs. Mary Thomas,” Weekly Advertiser, 24 Mar 1899, p. 8.
“Ozark,” Montgomery Advertiser, 1 Apr 1899, p. 3.