Summary: We were all there. A sermon for Good Friday

“And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened began to return, beating their breasts.”

“A time to mourn and a time to dance” – Eccl 3:4b

On July 5th, 1893, Mary and Ruby, the sixteen and twelve year old daughters of John Ray of Bardwell, Kentucky, went berry picking. They never returned. The bodies of the two girls were found later lying next to each other, their throats slit with a razor. Later examination determined they had been raped.

Some neighbors reported that they had seen a light-skinned man, possibly of mixed race, running from that area earlier in the day. A search ensued, and the numbers of searchers grew as the story spread. John Ray wanted justice. He wanted to see the man who had done this to his little girls get his just reward.

The next morning they got news that officials in Sikeston, Missouri, about 30 miles away, had arrested a young black man named C.J. Miller, who had been waiting for a train there.

They said his clothing roughly matched the reports and he had two rings in his pocket that had the names of the girls inscribed on them.

A large group, including two deputies, two witnesses and 30 armed men accompanied John Ray to Sikeston, arriving there at nine that evening. John Ray was surprised to see that C.J. was dark-skinned, since the reports had been that the offender was almost white.

In addition, the two witnesses said they could not be sure C. J. Miller was the right man, his clothes did not really fit the description after all, and the rings he had on him had nothing engraved on them, and John Ray said they did not belong to his daughters.

Nevertheless, Miller was turned over to the group from Bardwell, and transported back to that town for investigation.

John Ray tried to reason with those with him, saying that the evidence mounting up was indicating that they had the wrong man. But he was being ignored.

By eleven o’clock on the morning of July 7th hundreds of people, many of them armed, had gathered in Bardwell to meet the incoming train. All that kept the crowd from taking Miller by force was their respect for the father of the victims and his insistent pleas for order.

Well, the investigation continued, turning up nothing of note, and as it did the crowd continued to grow in numbers and in emotional intensity. By afternoon and despite the repeated objections by John Ray, people were gathering wood and throwing it into a pile for a bonfire.

Yelling for the crowd to give him a moment’s silence, Ray stood up and said, “I am not convinced this is the culprit who murdered my little girls. Please, do not torture this man. You must not burn him alive.”

The crowd was still for a moment, then someone yelled, “Hang him!” Immediately other voices joined in and began to chant. “Hang him! Hang him!”

The crowd rushed forward and took Miller out of the jail. They ripped his clothes off and used his shirt to put around his loins. A log chain, nearly a hundred feet in length and weighing more than a hundred pounds was wrapped around his neck and body.

They dragged him through the streets to the platform they had built, wrapped the chain around his neck and tossed the other end over the cross arm of a telegraph pole.

They lifted Miller several feet off the ground and let him drop. That first fall broke his neck, but the body was repeatedly raised and lowered while the men shot C. J. full of holes.

The corpse hung there for more than two hours while photographs were taken, the man’s fingers and toes were cut off for souvenirs, then finally the chain was released and the body of this innocent man dropped into the fire that had been lit below.

Miller, when arrested, had been waiting for the train that would have taken him home to his wife in Springfield, Illinois.

(taken from: “Under God”, Mac & Tait, Bethany House, 2004, pg 94-97)

The story of C. J. Miller is not an isolated one. History is full of accounts of mob rule and the terrible things that happen when reason is abandoned and mad blood-lust takes control.

And even now, one hundred and twelve years later, our hearts are made to grieve for this poor man in his innocence, and his unsuspecting young wife, waiting at home for her husband to return from his business, not knowing as his body lies turning to charcoal in the fire of a town’s wrath that she’ll never see his face again.

Yet there are two sobering thoughts that must be addressed here for the sake of honesty. One is that while we grieve we must also admit that had we been there at that time some if not all of us may have been in that mob.

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