Mary Turner was an eight-month pregnant African American woman who, in 1918, faced a brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Lowndes County, Georgia. Her “crime” was daring to speak out against the lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner, and publicly denouncing those accountable for his lynching..
The chain of events that led to Mary Turner’s brutal lynching began with the murder of Hampton Smith, an abusive and domineering white plantation owner. He was known among black workers for being an abusive boss, making it difficult for him to recruit farm labor. Smith resolved the labor shortage through using convict labor; he would pay the fees that black men were assessed for infractions and lease their labor for a period of time, paying the local jurisdiction the fees.
One individual caught up in this system was Sidney Johnson, who had to pay a $30 fine following his conviction for “playing dice.” Smith recruited Johnson after settling his fine with the police. Unfortunately, the oversight over this convict leasing practice was minimal, allowing for widespread abuse.
Sidney Johnson suffered multiple beatings inflicted by Smith, including a particularly harsh one for refusing to work while sick . Smith’s history of violence extended beyond Johnson; he had previously assaulted Mary Turner. In response to this incident, Mary’s husband, Hayes Turner, issued a threat against Smith. Unfortunately, Turner’s actions resulted in his conviction by an all-white jury, leading to a sentence on a chain gang—a dehumanizing type of penal labor that involved chaining prisoners, often convicts, together to perform physically demanding work.
After recovering from Smith’s beating, Johnson retaliated by shooting Smith and his wife through the window of their home. Smith died in the attack, while his wife was injured. Following the shooting, Johnson eluded capture for several days, taking refuge in Valdosta, Georgia.
Following Smith’s murder, a wave of racial violence and retaliation swept through the region. A white mob embarked on a merciless manhunt, targeting African Americans in the surrounding area. At least 13 black people were killed by the mob in the two weeks that followed.
Hayes Turner, Mary Turner’s husband, was one of the black males caught up in the hunt for Smith’s murderer. He was arrested and taken to jail. Later that day, he was kidnapped and lynched along the Okapilco Creek in Brooks County by a white mob.
Devastated by her husband’s death and fueled by grief and anger, Mary Turner boldly spoke out against the violence that had torn her family apart.
After her husband’s lynching, Mary Turner’s resilience and determination to seek justice for her husband set her on a collision course with a white mob. Instead of succumbing to the fear that permeated the black community during that time, Mary bravely publicly denounced her husband’s lynching. She rejected the accusations that her husband was involved in Smith’s murder and even threatened to have the members of the mob arrested.
However, this act of defiance would prove to be her undoing. The mob, incensed by her audacity, turned its fury towards her.
Despite being eight months pregnant, Mary was abducted and taken to Folsom’s Bridge, near the Brooks County border. There, her life was violently extinguished in a horrifying act of public lynching.
According to reports, Mary Turner was tied upside down by her ankles, doused in gasoline, and set on fire. While she was still alive, the mob members cut open her stomach, causing her unborn child to fall out. The child was then stomped and crushed to death. Her body and that of her unborn baby were then left hanging from the tree as a gruesome warning to the Black community.
The alleged “real killer of Smith” Sidney Johnson, was later found in Valdosta. Following an intense shootout with law enforcement, his lifeless body was eventually discovered within the confines of the house he had taken refuge in.
The lynching of Mary Turner shocked and angered people in the local area and across the country. The extreme violence of the crime, especially because it involved a pregnant woman, received strong criticism. Tragically, no one was held accountable for this heinous act, as local authorities turned a blind eye to the situation and failed to pursue justice.
Today, Turner’s lynching stands as a symbol of the violence and cruelty that African Americans endured during the Jim Crow era.