PICKENS COUNTY — On the morning of Feb. 17, 1947, — almost 70 years ago — an angry mob stormed the Pickens County Jail (now the Pickens County Museum) and demanded a prisoner be turned over to them.
The jailer complied and an hour later, an anonymous phone call placed to a funeral home in Greenville led the mortician to the body of 24-year-old Willie Earle — the last recorded lynching victim in the state of South Carolina.
Earle was found beaten, stabbed and shot.
The mob was formed following the news that Thomas Brown — a Yellow Cab driver out of Greenville — had been stabbed and robbed of his fares.
Two days prior, on Feb. 15, Brown had been found bleeding on the side of the old Liberty-Pickens road. Police arrested Earle the next day for the assault and robbery of the cabbie.
Whether Earle was guilty of the crime will never be known. He was murdered before his trial and evidence against him was circumstantial at best — even for the times.
Police based their arrest on a statement from a now unknown witness that claimed “at least one black male” had been among Brown’s last fares of the night.
Footprints reportedly led from the scene to the Earle residence — which was located a mile away — where reports state money, a knife and a blood-stained jacket were found.
Family members insisted on Earle’s innocence — saying such an attack was out of character for the mild mannered young man — and Earle’s grandmother claimed to have seen Earle the evening Brown was attacked outside the diner where she worked in Liberty.
Regardless, Earle, who had no priors, was arrested and taken to the Pickens County Jail until the morning of the 17th, when Brown’s fellow taxi drivers decided to take matters into their own hands.
A few hours later, Brown died.
In a move that was rare at the time, Gov. Strom Thurmond condemned Earle’s murder and ordered the state police to work with the FBI to find the men who comprised the mob and hold them accountable.
According to records, over 150 suspects were questioned before 31 men — all of them white —were eventually charged with murder.
All but three of the accused were taxi drivers.
The case captured the eyes of the nation as the men were put on trial for Earle’s death. But despite having confessions from several of the men — and 26 of the 31 admitting to being part of the mob — they were acquitted within hours by an all white jury.
Although the lynching and subsequent trial drew national attention, not much is known about the life of Earle other than his tragic end.
A 2011 article by Vince Jackson of The Independent Mail states Earle suffered from Epilepsy and his mother, Roseman Earle, was deeply affected by her son’s death and never got over it.
A historical marker was placed at the site of his death on Old Easley Highway near Bramlett Road in Greeville County in 2010. It was stolen two years later.
Willie Earle’s grave — unmarked until 1997 due to the family’s fear of reprisals — is located in Clemson at Abel Baptist Church.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.