On the eve of Easter Sunday in April 1906, a mob of thousands of white, men, boys, and spectators terrorized three Black men – Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen – who were all awaiting trial in the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Missouri. Before midnight on April 14, the mob stormed the county jail, kidnapped Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker, dragged them to the city square, and publicly hanged and burned them before thousands of onlookers, including women, children, and police officers who did not intervene. Unsatisfied, the mob returned to the jail in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday on April 15, abducted Mr. Allen, and lynched him in the same location and manner as Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker. Even though the public spectacle lynchings of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen happened before thousands of witnesses and in the presence of law enforcement officers, no one was ever convicted and held legally accountable for their deaths.
Before April 1906, Springfield, Missouri was a city with a thriving Black community of approximately 2,300 residents – nearly 10 percent of Springfield’s population at the time. African American doctors, lawyers, clergy, educators, professionals and business owners all contributed to Springfield’s growing economy and community. However, racial animosity against Springfield’s Black community began to peak during the spring of 1906. Press accounts indicated that white Springfield residents began to develop “a strong anti-negro feeling” after several news reports were released about white men who were presumed to have been killed by Black men. One highly publicized case was the death of an older white man named O. M. Rouark, who was fatally shot on January 11, 1906 while walking across a college campus in Springfield. Before Rouark died, he told police officers that his assailants had been two Black men. This animosity was heightened further after white Springfield residents and officials allowed the local presentation of a play called “The Clansmen” to be shown, despite the appeals of Black residents to prevent the play from coming to Springfield. These foreboding events caused Black residents of Springfield to “fear that a tragedy would be enacted” in their wake. Indeed, by that April, the Salina Evening Journal of Salina, Kansas described the mob that brutally lynched Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen as being “filled with the spirit of ‘The Clansmen’” as they set out to inflict “the vengeance of the whites upon the blacks.”
Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen became targets for the mob’s vengeance after each man was accused of crimes of violence against white people. During this era, the mere suggestion of Black-on-white violence could easily provoke white mob violence and lynching before local judicial systems could or would act – even when there was no evidence tying the accused to an alleged offense. Of the African American lynching victims killed between 1877 and 1950, at least 30 percent were accused of murder and 25 percent were
accused of sexual assault, at a time when allegations made by white people against Black people were rarely subject to serious scrutiny and many Black people faced the threat of false accusations of violent crime. Like nearly all victims of racial terror lynching, Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen were denied the opportunity to have a fair investigation and trial and were killed by a white mob that displayed complete disregard for their humanity and the functioning legal systems of Springfield and Greene County.
While little is known about William Allen’s early life, Mr. Allen was about 25 years old by April 1906. Mr. Allen became a target for white rage and retaliation after the coroner’s jury investigating the January murder of O. M. Rouark released a verdict in February 1906, charging Mr. Allen and another Black man known as Bus Cane with the fatal shooting. Both Mr. Allen and Bus Cane, whose real name was reported as John McGee or George McGee, left Springfield shortly after Rouark was shot. News reports indicated that there was “no evidence that [warranted]...the arrest of any one of the several persons suspected” when the coroner’s inquest began. However, testimony from a relative of Bus Cane and two other individuals was used to implicate him and Mr. Allen, and warrants for their arrest were issued. It is not clear under what circumstances these men shared their testimonies. However, it was common during this era for Black people to be threatened and coerced into “confessing” or rendering testimony that might implicate others after crimes were reported. Law enforcement officers found and arrested Bus Cane in St. Louis, Missouri on February 14, and Mr. Allen was eventually arrested on March 19 in Neodesha, Kansas, where he had found employment as a hotel porter. When both men were brought back to Springfield, they were placed in the Greene County Jail to await trial.
Horace Duncan, 20 years old, and Fred Coker, 21 years old, both faced the threat of imminent lethal violence after a crime was reported involving a white woman. Prior to this, Mr. Duncan lived in Springfield with his parents, and Mr. Coker lived with his grandfather, King Coker, who was known as a leader in Springfield’s Black community. Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were known to be good friends, and they worked together at the Pickwick Livery and Transfer Company in Springfield, which managed the stabling of horses and buggies for hire. On April 13, while Mr. Duncan and Mr. Allen were at work that evening, it was reported that a white woman named Mina Edwards and a white man named Charles Cooper were attacked by two Black men wearing masks while they were together in the west part of Springfield. Mina Edwards alleged that she had been assaulted by the assailants, who overpowered Cooper and left him unconscious. The police began to search for suspects, and Cooper reportedly told the police that he recognized Mr. Duncan as one of the assailants. The police arrested Mr. Duncan that evening. Simply because Mr. Coker was with Mr. Duncan that evening, Mr. Coker was also arrested.
After Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were arrested, it was quickly established that “there was no evidence against them.” Mr. Duncan’s and Mr. Coker’s white employer at the Pickwick Livery and Transfer Company provided an alibi in their behalf indicating that they “were at work...on that night and did not leave their work earlier than ten o’clock,” whereas the reported crime allegedly took place closer to 9:00 p.m. at least a mile from the livery. When Mina Edwards was asked to identify whether Mr. Coker was one of her alleged assailants, “she said positively that he was not one of the guilty parties.” On the basis of Edwards’s testimony and their employer’s alibi, the police officers were reportedly “convinced, that they were innocent.” Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were released and the charges against them were dropped. However, Cooper once again targeted Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker, this time accusing them of robbing him of $14.75 and other personal affects, and they were re-arrested on charges of theft.
It was not uncommon during this era for Black men, women, and children to face hostile suspicion after crimes were reported. Burdened by a presumption of guilt, Black people often became vulnerable to white mob retaliation after accusations were made, even when evidence did not support the allegations against them. White mobs lynched many African Americans based on false allegations, accusations of non-serious crimes, and even for non-criminal violations of social customs and racial expectations. These terror lynchings were meant to send a broader message to the entire African American community that racial hierarchy would be enforced, even through extrajudicial violence and brutality. The Sedalia Democrat of Sedalia, Missouri later reported that the white mob that killed Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen had been “in no mood to discriminate between guilt and innocence” prior to the lynching. Indeed, race – rather than culpability – contributed most to terror lynchings.
By the afternoon of April 14, rumors were spreading throughout Springfield that a mob was forming with the intent to hang Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker that evening. The Greene County Sheriff, Everett Horner, sent deputies to the north and south parts of the city to determine to what extent the rumors were true. The officers reported back that “there was no danger.” However, “soon after supper,” white men and boys “from all parts of the city were drawn to the public square...in anticipation of the excitement in prospect” of a lynching.
Police officers later testified that they had heard rumors of the mob forming, but “they did not secure more definite information.” In many cases of racial terror lynchings, law enforcement officers would respond with marked indifference to threats of lynching towards Black men, women, and children in their custody, often failing to prepare ahead of any rumored attacks to secure jails, courtrooms, or even transports from one custody site to another. At times, police officers were also complicit in the mob violence and lynchings that followed. Despite the fact that the mob of white men and boys continued to grow in the public square, officers continued to report that no immediate threat was emerging. After someone from the growing mob stepped forward saying, “Come on, boys, let’s get busy,” the mob began to process towards the city jail, gathering new participants as they went, “shouting and making all the notice possible.”
The mob made its way first to the police headquarters and city jail, just about two blocks away from the square. Upon learning that Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were not in the city jail, the mob began to head towards the county jail. Yet, still no intervention was mounted to disperse the mob. When the mob reached the county jail around 9:00 p.m., no reinforcements had been called nor were plans made to ward off the now nearly 3,000 mob participants. Sheriff Horner locked the jail doors and put the keys in a safe before addressing the mob. When he “called for the aid of all the law abiding men in the crowd...[,] a few unarmed citizens responded, but it was then too late.”
The angry mob surged forward and stormed the jail. Using sledge hammers and other tools, the mob “literally tore the jail to pieces” and “ransacked” the sheriff’s home attached to the jail. At the mob’s advance, Sheriff Horner restrained his deputies from using their firearms to repel the mob, despite their legal authority to use force and legal responsibility to secure the safety of those in their custody. As the mob pressed their way into the jail, a local official managed to sneak into the jail’s basement and turn off the gas source to the jail to cut off the lights. The mob, however, was undeterred, and instead made torches to find their way towards the detained men’s cells.
The mob found Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker, dragged them from the jail, and “marched down one of the principal streets of the town, shouting and firing pistols.” As they marched, the mob shouted various threats, screaming “Hang ‘em!,” Burn ‘em!,” and “Kill ‘em!” as they headed to the public square. In the middle of the public square was an electric light tower known as the Gottfried Tower that was topped with a statute called “the Goddess of Liberty,” and the mob chose to hang Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker from the tower. The mob also
built a fire at the base of the tower for additional torture. Before midnight and in the presence of a crowd of up to 5,000 white women, men, and children, the mob leaders hanged Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker and let their bodies be consumed in the flames below. Despite the near complete destruction of the jail, the sheriff’s home, and the public spectacle lynchings of Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, Sheriff Horner’s attempts to call the city jail for back up failed to yield reinforcements. Horner’s deputies and other local police officers also failed to
restrain, arrest, and disperse the mob participants, even hours after Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker had been lynched. With no intervention, “the mob, now bloodthirsty and wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement, readily took up the cry” to continue their reign of terror.
Nearly two hours after Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were lynched, someone in the crowd suggested that the mob also lynch William Allen and Bus Cane. Between 1:45 a.m. to 2:15 a.m. on April 15, the mob quickly headed back to the county jail. When the mob reached the jail, Mr. Allen was still in his cell because the lock on the door was jammed. Bus Cane, along with several other prisoners, had escaped after the mob took Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker. Some accounts reported that the mob found Mr. Allen hiding under a cot from terror, while others stated that Mr. Allen fought to defend himself from the mob. Once the mob broke the lock, the mob seized Mr. Allen with his hands bound behind his back, placed a noose over his neck, and brought him back to the public square. It was later reported that at least five police officers and the city marshal were
standing near the corner of the square laughing as the mob brought Mr. Allen into the square. Again, no attempt to intervene was made. The mob therefore proceeded to hang Mr. Allen to the same tower where Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker were hanged. When the rope broke and Mr. Allen fell into the still burning fire below him, the mob pulled him from the flames and re-hanged him. Despite this torturous experience, Mr. Allen maintained his innocence in his dying words.
By early Easter Sunday morning on April 15, the charred bodies of Mr. Duncan, Mr. Coker, and Mr. Allen remained at the base of the electric tower. Church bells still rang, and white families stopped on their way to Sunday schools to “look and [prod]...the ashes for relics” of the lynching. These relics were soon being offered for sale, with “a piece of the hangman’s rope [bringing] twenty-five cents.” Reports of the lynching created immediate terror for Springfield’s Black community, who were “panic stricken as a result of the lynching.” Black community leaders warned Black citizens to “[keep] off the streets.” The Salina Evening Journal reported that many Black Springfield residents “abandoned their work at hotels and other public places and hid. Many
moved their families out into the country and planned spending the night in the fields and woods.”
Public spectacle lynchings like those of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen during this era often took on carnival-like atmospheres, where hundreds to thousands of white spectators would gather to watch brutal and de-humanizing terror lynchings of Black people without fear of legal or social repercussions. In some cases, white spectators would pose morbidly for photographs after lynchings took place and sometimes collected remains from lynching victims as “souvenirs,” as was the case in Springfield. These lynchings often took place in prominent community locations, such as the Springfield city square, in order to evoke fear and instill intimidation into the entire Black community. It was also not uncommon for the violence of white mobs to expand beyond the victims of lynching in order to terrorize other Black people in the mob’s path. By the evening of April 15, a white mob of about 300 participants began to regroup in the public square with the “avowed purpose of burning out Black residents and running them out of town.” However, a group of deputized citizens were able to disperse the mob before further violence ensued.
Though reinforcements had not been prepared or sent to dispel the mob that killed Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen on April 14 through April 15, Missouri’s Governor Joseph Folk eventually sent militia groups into Springfield to regain order later on April 15 and 16. Reports indicated that the militia’s presence deterred further violence, but some white Springfield residents openly jeered at the troops in favor of the lynching, while other white residents condemned the lynching. Although Governor Folk sent orders for Sheriff Horner to arrest leaders of the mob, the orders were not carried out. In an effort to draw out information on who participated in the mob’s formation and subsequent lynchings, Governor Folk also permitted rewards of $300, the maximum allowed by law, for the arrest and conviction of the mob members.
A coroner’s jury was empaneled but reported difficulty in completing the inquest. The local judge of the criminal court ordered a special grand jury to commence on Tuesday, April 17 to begin a detailed investigation into the mob’s lawlessness and the racial terror lynchings. As the grand jury commenced that Tuesday, the remains of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen were all buried in Hazelwood Cemetery. The parents and relatives of Mr. Duncan and Mr. Coker agreed to bury the men’s remains in the same casket in a single plot, and Mr. Allen’s remains were buried separately.
In most cases of racial terror lynching, official responses were limited to preserving the reputation or safety of white communities after lynchings took place, but rarely focused on the greater harms that lynchings inflicted on the African American community. By April 18, the militia’s presence had restored order in the city, but during this era, the “restored order” described in press accounts rarely left Black people feeling safe and not in fear for their lives. The Kansas City Star reported that Springfield’s Black residents were “staying in their homes, and not a dozen have been seen on the downtown streets.... Several hotels, the Springfield club and the Y.M.C.A. have been deserted by their [Black employees]” as a result of the continuing terror after the lynching. Lynchings created fearful environments in which surviving Black residents had to navigate arbitrary and lethal racial hierarchies thereafter.
On April 19, the prosecuting attorney moved forward with having twenty- five warrants issued charging murder in the first degree. When four white men were actually arrested, it was reported that many of the mob participants “became alarmed and left the streets.” However, these men were eventually allreleased on bail or had charges dropped against them. The grand jury was in continuous session for at least five weeks before releasing a report on May 23.The grand jury had encountered various challenges when trying to contact key
witnesses, such as Mina Edwards and Charles Cooper, who both fled Springfield after the lynching and had not been found. In their findings, the grand jury ruled that the lynchings of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen were “acts of lawlessness that were absolutely barbarous and fiendish, [that]...were nothing more or less than the outward exhibition of...real inward criminality.” The jury concluded that it was unlikely that Mina Edwards had actually been assaulted, and that Horace Duncan and Fred Coker were innocent of the accusations against them. The jury’s report also indicated that Springfield police force had shown gross negligence in their duties, though no recommendations for removing the officers were suggested.
The grand jury issued indictments against at least 22 white men for charges of murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, burglary, jailbreaking, and perjury. Eighteen men were eventually indicted, including a former police officer. The first trial to prosecute an accused mob participant was held in August 1906 and ended in acquittal. All charges against the other white men who were indicted were eventually dropped. In the end, no one was held legally accountable for the racial terror lynchings of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen despite thousands of witnesses.
Such impunity was a stunning indication that white lives held a heightened value during this era compared to the lives of Black people, and that professed outrage about racial violence did not lead to action that protected
Black life. This was only further reinforced when, a week after the lynchings of Mr. Duncan, Mr. Coker, and Mr. Allen, another white man shot and killed a Black man in the community. This white man not only was afforded access to the criminal justice system, but also, despite public knowledge that he shot a Black man, was acquitted of those charges within two days of his trial proceedings. The continual failure to hold white mobs and white community members accountable for racial terror lynchings enabled this racial terrorism to persist for decades, claiming the lives of nearly 4,400 Black women, men, and children between 1877 and 1950.
Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and William Allen were three of at least 60 documented African American victims of racial terror lynching in the State of Missouri between 1877 and 1950.
Springfield Weekly Republican, (Springfield, Missouri), February 1, 1906.
Springfield Leader and Press, (Springfield, Missouri), January 31, 1906.
Springfield Weekly Republican, (Springfield, Missouri), February 15, 1906.
The Springfield News-Leader, (Springfield, Missouri), March 20, 1906.
The Springfield News-Leader, (Springfield, Missouri), March 21, 1906.
The Sedalia Democrat, (Sedalia, Missouri), April 16, 1906.
Custer Courier, (Custer City, Oklahoma), April 19. 1906.
The Salina Evening Journal, (Salina, Kansas), April 16, 1906.
The Huntington Herald, (Huntington, Indiana), April 16, 1906.
The Citizen, (Berea, Kentucky), April 19, 1906.
The Daily Tribune, (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin), April 25, 1906.
The Clarence Courier, (Clarence, Missouri), April 18, 1906.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (St. Louis, Missouri), April 16, 1906.
The Nebraska State Journal, (Lincoln, Nebraska), April 20, 1906.
The Topeka Daily Capital, (Topeka, Kansas), April 15, 1906.
The Daily Times, (Davenport, Iowa), April 16, 1906.
The Kansas City Star, (Kansas City, Missouri), April 18, 1906.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (St. Louis, Missouri), May 23, 1906.
Springfield Weekly Republican, (Springfield, Missouri), May 24, 1906.
Crawford Mirror, (Steelville, Missouri), May 31, 1906.
St. Joseph News-Press, (St. Joseph, Missouri), May 25, 1906.
Springfield Leader and Press, (Springfield, Missouri), June 6, 1906.
The Kansas City Times, (Kansas City, Missouri), August 9, 1906.
“William Allen.” Find a Grave Index database. Familysearch.org. Accessed
“Horace Duncan.” Find a Grave Index. Findagrave.com. Accessed online at
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13957170/horace-duncan. Includes image
of Fred Coker’s and Horace Duncan’s shared headstone.
Lederer, Katherine. "And Then They Sang a Sabbath Song," Springfield!
Magazine. A three-part series published on April 1981, pp. 26-29, 33-36 and
June 1981, pp. 24- 26.
Fillmer, Jenny. 2006. “1906 lynchings grew from tensions, racism -- Thriving
black community died.” Springfield News-Leader. Accessed online at
Pokin, Steve. 2017. “Pokin Around: In 1996, Hillcrest students decided two
lynched men deserved a grave marker.” Springfield News-Leader. Accessed
online at http://sgfnow.co/2BJNfVp.
On September 19th at 1:00 PM Central, the Springfield and Green County Remembrance Coalition hosted a soil collection ceremony at Park Central Square, the site at which three African American men, Fred Coker, Horace B. Duncan and Will Allen, were lynched in 1906 following false allegations and the growing terror of white lynch mobs in Springfield, Missouri.
A small group gathered at Park Central Square for the ceremony of the soil collection and service honoring the lives of Red Coker, Horace Duncan, and Will Allen. Due to COVID-19 a live video stream of the service was provided for the general public on the African American Heritage Trail website. The labeled jars of soil were transported to the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City where they will be on display in an exhibit recognizing lynching victims across the state of Missouri, creating a memorial that acknowledging the horrors of racial injustice.
“We bear witness to the devastation these murders wrought upon individuals, families, and our community. We invite the public to join our effort to help this nation confront and recover from tragic histories of racial violence and terrorism and to create an environment where there can truly be equal justice for all,” said Springfield Mayor Ken McClure.
The National Memorial in Montgomery Alabama contains over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the US where racial terror lynchings took place. It is our mission to bring home the Greene County Monument from an adjoining park which contains identical monuments waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the US have confronted the truth of this terror, and which parts have not expressed this willingness to face the past.