Whites’ hypervigilant enforcement of the racial hierarchy and wildly distorted fear of interracial sex permeated society at the turn of the century. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, often aroused a mob and resulted in lynching.
In 1901, the body of a white woman was found in Pierce City, Missouri. The victim had a fractured finger but there was no evidence she had been raped. William Godley, a black man, was arrested and charged with rape and murder. A conviction ten years earlier for the rape of a white woman, based on a questionable eyewitness identification, had given Mr. Godley a reputation as a sexual aggressor. On August 20, 1901, Mr. Godley was seized from the city jail by a mob of white men and lynched.
Rumors circulated that a black man had attempted to shoot at the perpetrators during the lynching, and the mob moved from outside the jail to the black section of Pierce City, where Mr. Godley’s grandfather, French Godley, was shot to death and Peter Hampton was burned alive in his home.
The violence and terror lasted nearly 15 hours. African American residents fled for their lives, and the black population of Lawrence County declined from 400 at the turn of the century to only 91 people by 1910.