Sunday, February 13, 2011
The Lynching of Fred Rochelle: Bartow, Florida, May 28, 1901
Information about the lynching of Fred Rochelle is scarcely documented, as very few cases of this type of punishment never reached the courts. This fact is not surprising, as Southern White newspapers helped mold together the racist disquisitions of the times.
Rena Smith Taggart, the 26 year-old wife of baker, Ed Taggart, was a descendent from one of Bartow’s first families. Her grandfather was Streaty Parker, who came to the area in 1851 with his father-in-law, Reading Blount. On May 28, 1901, Rena Smith Taggart was killed near the Peace River Bridge; her body was found lying in the swamp, covered in mud and water. Her throat had been allegedly cut.
The Bartow Courier-Informant reported, “From the innumerable stabs in her throat and breast, the horrible bruises on her body and limbs, it is evident a desperate struggle ensued.” A black man had witnessed 16 year-old Fred Rochelle (who was also black) with the body, and immediately alerted several Whites about the murder. A manhunt for Rochelle was hereupon initiated with no particular concern for the law.
On May 29, 1901, the Bartow Courier-Informant reported, “While there is an air of quiet determination about the men of the community, there is no undue excitement apparent and it’s safe to say cool judgment prevails.” The newspaper’s headline read the following:
BLACK BRUTE’S HEINOUS CRIME! A Well Known White Woman Murdered Near Peace River Bridge – Men scouring County – Lynching Almost Certain – Wednesday, Bartow Courier-Informant May 29, 1901
Another article from the Bartow Courier-Informant a week later stated the following:
BURNED AT THE STAKE – Rochelle Meets Death at Hands of Mob - Taken from the Scene of the Crime – Placed on a Hogshead, Coal Poured On and Match Touched – Mob Quiet But Determined. Bartow Courier-Informant June 5, 1901
The article continued: "Fred Rochelle, the fiend who outraged, tortured and stabbed to death Mrs. Taggart on Tuesday morning of last week, was not captured until late Wednesday afternoon. Several colored men had voluntarily joined in the search and, though he had been seen by several persons, both white and colored, at various points, they had not at the time known of his fiendish crime.”
“Three colored men, Max Bruton, James Alexander and James Hodge, were going to their work about three miles southwest of town, when Rochelle called to them and asked if that was not Bruton who said, ‘Yes, come over here, Fred, I want to talk to you.’ Rochelle approached and in answer to questions, told the awful story, but, when he found the men intended to arrest him he broke and ran. Two of them gave chase while Hodge, not believing the other two could catch Rochelle, jumped on his wheel and started to town to give the alarm. But, after a long chase, Bruton and Alexander caught the brute, and intended to bring him in when two young white men came along and they turned him over to them.”
"The young men brought the prisoner to town where a crowd of cool headed, but determined citizens took charge of him, despite the sheriff and his deputies. In the presence of the throng, he answered the questions put to him as cool and unconcerned as though the matter was an everyday occurrence, detailing the awful crime in a perfectly unmoved way. To the credit of this community, it should be remembered that the whole affair was conducted so quietly that those living three blocks away heard nothing of it.”
"After due deliberation, it was decided to take him to the scene of his hideous crime. As they passed his victim's home, her stepfather asked that further action be deferred until the men who had been scouring the country could get back, most of them having already been notified by telephone. The crowd consented, and at about 7 o'clock he was placed upon a hogshead filled with inflammatory material, and chained to the trunk of a tree. Around the hogs head, light wood was piled, but it was a few minutes past 8 when coal oil was poured over the pile. The Negro, who maintained his utter indifference, saying he knew he was going to hell, at last, asked if he was ready he said, ‘All right,’ and the husband of his victim touched a lighted match to the pile, there was a burst of flame, and in eight minutes there was only a charred mass to tell the tale. Awestruck, the throng turned homeward, and by midnight the town was as peaceful as ever, and ever since has been trying to forget."
The Bartow Courier-Informant’s reporting demonstrates a very common portrayal of lynching as a justified punishment such that the victim's family participated in the very punishment itself. Moreover, one can note the insinuating remarks in the Bartow Courrier-Informant’s headline, “Lynching Almost Certain," which would entail punishment by a mob of people taking justice into their own hands. However, the body of the text states, “there is no undue excitement apparent and it’s safe to say cool judgment prevails,” thus conveying that there is no public outcry occurring and that legal, hence, "cool" justice will be sought.
It should be noted that some crucial elements leading to a lynching in the 19th century often described a colored man carrying out a crime on a white man or woman, public outrage, and frontier justice; however, this sort of violence was not a common practice in Polk County. Cantor Brown writes in his, In the Midst of All That Makes Life Worth Living that “Polk for the most part--with the possible exception of the Mulberry vicinity--has [had] resisted this trend (mob violence) from the early 1870’s until 1901, when a Bartow mob lynched accused rapist/murderer Fred Rochelle, hanging then burning him alive…”
Indietop20 at 4:25 PM