Lewis Houston

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Lewis Houston (born 1863 in Chilton County; died November 24, 1883 at Capitol Park) was a laborer for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in Birmingham who was killed by a lynch mob.

Houston was one of four children born to Ned and Lucy Houston of Chilton County. He worked as a porter in Clanton before moving to the booming city of Birmingham in early 1883. He worked briefly assisting a hostler and then, on June 5, was hired as a car coupler and general helper at the L & N Roundhouse on the Railroad Reservation between 16th and 17th Streets. He was supervised there by foreman C. F. Giles. who had judged him "well-disposed".

Houston was accused on November 23 that year of having assaulted a white woman who lived nearby his boarding house. A widow who lived on 4th Avenue South said that on Thursday evening November 22 she was awakened by rustling noises in her room and, just as she started to scream, was silenced with a hand over her mouth. Her children, asleep in the same room, were awakened by the scuffle, and the Black man fled through the same window which had apparently been his means of entry.

She did not report the crime until late on Friday, when she sent for City Marshal W. G. Oliver with word that the offender was then at his home. She declined to repeat her story to a police officer who was dispatched in Oliver's place. By the time Oliver arrived to hear her report in person, she told him that the man had gone to the L & N Roundhouse where he worked.

Interviewed later, Houston's coworkers could not agree on whether his disposition during his shift was out of the ordinary. One related that as police arrived, he expressed that he would not be surprised to be questioned about a break-in near his house the previous night. The other boarders at his residence agreed that Houston had gone to bed in his room Thursday evening, and answered their calls from behind his door when the disturbance broke out. Their account was contradicted by J. M. Davidson, L&N's night foreman, who claimed to have encountered Houston at the roundhouse around midnight.

The police brought Houston first to the widow's house. Upon seeing him she let out a cry and exclaimed, "That's the man!". He was then taken to the Jefferson County Jail without incident, as word of the crime had not yet spread. A writer for the Birmingham Iron Age interviewed him in his cell, reporting that he maintained his innocence and expected to able to prove that he was asleep in his room when the crime was alleged to have taken place.

It was during the day on Saturday that a plot to take Houston from the jail by force and kill him took shape. Hard talk circulated among the crowd of onlookers gathered outside the jail. Despite this, officials claimed they had no intimation that a lynch mob would form, at least not before midnight or the early hours of Sunday. Two police officers were assigned to patrol in the vicinity of the jail all day. They and other officers in town were apparently deceived by men who hinted that no disturbance was likely before 3:00 AM. Police captain J. S. Brannon later suspected that these comments were part of an organized ruse to "throw police off the scent of any early attempt to lynch."

A group of 3 men armed with pistols, and backed by a larger group numbering as many as 150, overpowered Hagood the jailor at about 10:30 PM Saturday. They broke Houston out of his cell and dragged him toward Capitol Park. Having been admitted to the scene by a succession of armed men wearing masks, a reporter for the Birmingham Iron Age was able to describe the events.

The mob's leaders brought Houston to a pine tree on the north edge of the park and ordered the captive to confess his crime. He responded by pledging, "Gentleman, before God, I didn't do it," and adding that he had never set foot on the woman's premises. Unsatisfied, members of them mob granted him five minutes to pray. He sang a low prayer, and then raised his voice promising to speak truthfully. Allowed to speak again, he again claimed innocence, but the mob was unmoved. As the group wrapped a thick well rope around his neck and over a limb of the tree, several hands took hold of the loose end and, when given the word to proceed, pulled together, raising him several feet off the ground. Houston cried "Jesus, take me home" with his last words. Once the rope was fastened to the tree's trunk, "an order was given that the crowd disperse, each man being enjoined to make no display or use of fire-arms." Within 45 minutes of the jailbreak the mob had finished its business and vanished into the starless night.

The following morning, another Iron Age reporter visited the place where Houston's lifeless body was still hanging, now only a few feet off the ground. A crowd of about 200 remained on the scene. A reporter said most of the crowd were Black and added, "Some excited talking was done by them, but no greater disturbance than this was raised." Houston's body was cut down at around 10:00 AM and was taken to Edward Erswell's undertakers on 2nd Avenue.

Attorney, Civil Rights activist and Black militia leader James A. Scott attempted to mount a general protest against lynch mobs in the aftermath of Houston's murder. Rumors of retaliation spread on Sunday evening. At around 11:00 PM Mayor A. O. Lane sent messages to Sam Thompson of the Birmingham Rifles and R. J. Love of the Birmingham Artillery, asking them to assemble their militiamen. Additional volunteers patrolled the streets on horseback and on foot. The following morning it was remarked that, "not a dozen negroes altogether were seen on the streets after 10 o'clock, and none were to be found at the places where they usually congregate on Sunday night."

Meanwhile, the Jefferson County Coroner had summoned a jury and a physician to examine the body at Erswell's and to interview witnesses. Their verdict was that, "the deceased had come to his death by hanging at the hands of parties unknown." Jefferson County Circuit Court judge Samuel Sprott charged his grand jury on Tuesday November 27 "to investigate the matter thoroughly, and, if possible, bring those implicated to justice." No one was ever charged with any crime in connection with Houston's lynching. He was buried in a pauper's grave at Oak Hill Cemetery.


In 2019 the Jefferson County Memorial Project researched the circumstances of Houston's death, which it highlights as the first of 30 documented lynchings in Birmingham. The group has proposed erecting a monument at the site of the hanging, in today's Linn Park, as part of a larger project by the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative to memorialize the victims of lynchings across the United States. That proposal has been accepted in plans for a larger redesign of the park.


  • "The Lynching of Lewis Houston" (November 27, 1883) The Atlanta Constitution p. 2
  • "Lynched." (November 29, 1883) The Birmingham Iron Age, p. 3
  • "Circuit Court" (November 29, 1883) The Birmingham Iron Age, p. 2
  • Cantu, Madelyn Lisette (February 27, 2019) "Lewis Houston, Nov. 24, 1883, Linn Park" BirminghamWatch

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