Daviess County Jailer Art Magliner wants people to remember William J. Lucas.
The former Daviess County jailer was fatally shot by a mob on July 13, 1884, while Lucas tried to defend Richard “Dick” May, a Black jail inmate, from being lynched. Lucas’ death and May’s subsequent lynching made national news, with accounts being written by the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.
Maglinger, a Daviess County native who had a career in law enforcement before becoming jailer, said Lucas’ story doesn’t seem to be widely known.
“I don’t talk to too many people in the public who would’ve known about it,” Maglinger said, adding that he hopes to honor Lucas’ actions by naming a building on the detention center campus after Lucas.
“I was proud of that history, that someone from the corrections industry died in the line of duty,” Maglinger said. “He chose sacrifice over self.”
Maglinger’s brother, Woody Maglinger, discovered the story while researching lynchings in the region for his history dissertation at Western Kentucky University. Woody Maglinger later turned his dissertation into a book, “Dark Days in the Ohio Valley: Three Western Kentucky Lynchings, 1884-1911.”
“There was a holocaust (of lynchings) that happened across the American South” between Reconstruction and World War I, Woody Maglinger said.
“As someone who grew up in Daviess County my whole life, I had never heard of it,” Woody Maglinger said of Lucas’ story. “This (story), at least to my knowledge, it’s not talked about.”
Lucas was a painter by trade who moved to Daviess County to raise his family, but Lucas’ story starts earlier, in 1861. As a soldier in the Confederate army, Lucas was present on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Federal garrison at Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, starting the Civil War.
In Daviess County, Lucas ran unsuccessfully for jailer in 1878, but was elected to the post in 1882. According to accounts Woody Maglinger found during his research, Lucas was “a very persistent and tough person.”
“I think he had the warrior mentality,” Woody Maglinger said. “... I imagine he had a really strong sense of justice. He was going to make sure he discharged his duties in a way that made his community proud.”
The history of lynchings is filled with incidents where jailers or officials stood aside while a mob killed a Black man. It would have been easy for Lucas to do the same, given that he only had his family with him when the mob came for May.
May was a farm hand to the Kelly family, who lived east of Owensboro. May had worked for the family for seven years at the time he was arrested. Maglinger’s paper describes May as being “trusted and respected” by the family.
On July 4, 1884, while most of the family were not in the house, the family’s 17-year-old daughter claimed May had attempted to “outrage her person,” Maglinger wrote. The girl later told her mother the family dog intervened and bit May, and he threatened to kill her if she told anyone before fleeing.
On July 6, Mrs. Kelly hid her husband’s firearms and then told him about the alleged assault. May fled after being accosted but was captured later by an Owensboro police officer near the river bank, while Kelly and an armed posse searched elsewhere. May was in jail before others knew he had been arrested, the local newspaper, the Semi-Weekly Messenger, reported.
May, who was 23, later told those who arrested him he had propositioned the girl previously, and while she had never agreed to his advances, she had never rebuffed him outright. The newspaper, making no attempt at objectivity, called the incident a “beastly offense.”
The Semi-Weekly Messenger ratcheted up tension in town with its depiction of the attempted assault, calling it “one of the most revolting offenses which, of late, are of such frequent occurrence all over the county — attempted rape.” The paper began reporting rumors of a “mob” that planned to attack the jail. At one point, the paper reported it had sent a reporter out at 2 a.m. to find the mob and tell them to “hurry along, if it was coming, as the MESSENGER must go to press at 3 o’clock.”
Extra guards were put in place by the county judge, and Lucas hid May at times, once in the courthouse and later on a roof. After several days of no activity, however, the judge dismissed the guards, leaving Lucas and his family to watch over the jail.
At 1:30 a.m. on July 13, a group of armed men, wearing masks, surrounded the jail and demanded Lucas turn over May. Some members of the mob fired into the air, and Lucas fired his shotgun, telling the mob, “I’ll swear to God I’ll never give him to you! I’ll die first,” Maglinger wrote.
After Lucas and his son exchanged gunfire with the mob for several minutes, Lucas was struck in the chest from a blast.
The mob was unable to get the keys to the actual jail at first from Lucas’ wife, and eventually had to batter down the jail door. May was hanged from a tree on the courthouse lawn. Woody Maglinger said hanging May at the courthouse was to make the lynching “an official, community-sanctioned event.
“It gave some tacit approval from the community” to the lynching, he said. May’s body was left hanging for some hours, with people coming by to look at his body.
Lucas died hours after being shot, and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery. In the days after the lynching, the white community began to fear reprisals by Black residents, and put armed men on just about every street corner. Of course, the rumored reprisals never materialized.
Given the period, May likely would not have received a fair trial had he lived until then, Woody Maglinger said.
“I know so many times, when a Black man was put on trial for some crime, it was rare he was ever found not at fault,” Maglinger said. “... It’s hard to believe he ever would have gotten a fair trial.”
No one was ever punished for May’s lynching, or even indicted for the crime, Woody Maglinger said.
“It wasn’t until 1911 that there was any attempt to indict the mob” for a lynching, although in that incident, in Livermore, none of the mob were found guilty, he said.
“Nobody was charged or convicted” in May’s death, Art Maglinger said, “and the inmate was denied due process. Basically, he was murdered.”
Art Maglinger said he plans to name the jail’s training building after Lucas, and hopes to be able to do so during next year’s Police Memorial ceremony in the county.
“I feel that sacrifice is worthy of that recognition,” he said. Woody Maglinger said Lucas’ history is “a cautionary tale (against) painting with a broad brush.”
“Here we have William Lucas, a Confederate soldier and white jail official” in 1884, he said. “You wouldn’t think (Lucas) would do what he ended up doing. … He gave his life to carry out justice and make sure justice was done.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse