The term “lynching” arises from the American Revolution, when Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter, held irregular courts to punish loyalists with flogging. An extrajudicial killing, lynching is associated with hanging, but can encompass other forms of violence and death.
Tuskegee University has tracked lynchings that took place nationwide from 1882 to 1968. Black people represent 72 percent of the victims from more than 4,700 incidents recorded in this database.
The picture in the Intermountain West, however, varies from the national experience. Here, the number of Black victims represent about 5 percent of 288 lynchings – not surprising given the low percentage of Black residents in the region’s overall population. However, Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and others outside of the local power structure were also victims of the “necktie social” in the West.
Aside from racial power dynamics, another factor driving lynching in the region was the lack of mature government structure, such as well-established courts and police resources. In that absence, vigilante justice ruled the day. As History Colorado notes: “Before Colorado’s statehood in 1876, lynching was the main form of punishment for criminals in many mining towns across the Colorado Territory.”
Utah has had at least a dozen known lynchings – most of which happened before statehood – and the incidents demonstrate both themes. At least five lynchings involved a Black or Asian victim. Other incidents illustrate the vigilante-justice theme, and three of these are the focus of this article, as Park City’s one lynching falls in this category.
On Valentine’s Day in 1873, Charlie Benson was drinking with some associates in Logan. He drew a revolver and shot and killed another of the group, David W. Crockett. Benson fled the scene and hid in a barn, while Sheriff Alvin Crockett (David’s brother) organized a search party.
When Benson left the barn, a searcher spotted him, and the posse followed tracks in the snow. According to Utah Humanities, “A hundred armed men followed the trail and cornered Benson in the willows about two miles southwest of Logan. Charlie gave up and was taken to jail in the basement of the Cache County Courthouse. But some community members were still angry, and a mob formed and stormed the courthouse, dragging Benson out into the cold. They threw a rope over the courthouse sign and hanged Charlie Benson.”
Jobless and Vengeful
In Silver Reef in 1880, Scotsman Thomas Forrest was hired by the California Mine, but proved a problematic employee. An aggressive and disagreeable man, he stirred up trouble, especially among fellow Scottish and Irish immigrants.
In October, the well-respected mine foreman Michael Carbis fired Forrest, who did not take the news well. At home that night, Forrest sharpened his knife, and in the morning, he took it and a revolver and waited by Carbis’ usual route to work. When Carbis passed by, Forrest accosted him and fatally stabbed the foreman with the knife. A nearby constable attempted to arrest Forrest, but the murderer brandished the revolver and escaped.
A posse found Forrest hiding in an idle shaft of the Tecumseh Mine and placed him in the Silver Reef jail. After a confrontation with Carbis’ son, the constable transferred Forrest to the county jail in St. George. A few days later (after the Carbis funeral), a mob subdued the St. George sheriff and hung Forrest from a cottonwood tree.
A Hatful of Ore
Here in Park City in August 1883, overlapping mining claims near Iron Mountain were the cause of conflict between “Black Jack” Murphy and W.M. Brennan. Accounts vary as to whether Murphy got the drop on Brennan when the latter – armed with a shot gun – showed up at Murphy’s cabin to contest ownership of the claims. Or, as several witnesses asserted and most researchers concur, Murphy took aim from hiding and “drygulched” Brennan as he rode nearby. In any case, Murphy turned himself in, and the sheriff transported him to Coalville for safekeeping.
Several nights later, a Park City mob took control of a Utah and Eastern train, rode it to Coalville, extracted Murphy from the sheriff’s care, and rode the train back to Park City. The vigilantes then hanged Murphy from a telegraph pole near Main Street.
Ironically one writer observed that the contested claims never produced so much as “a hatful of ore.” Read more about Black Jack Murphy here.
Were there any repercussions for these three vigilante actions? As is typical in the national experience, post-lynching investigations (if any) were perfunctory, and no one was arrested or prosecuted. Such was the consent of the governed in the Wild West. The Park City Museum is hosting an in-person lecture titled “Murder, Lynching, and Vigilantes in the Old West,” presented by author Michael Rutter on Tuesday, December 6 from 5-6 p.m. at their Education and Collections Center at 2079 Sidewinder Drive. Register here.