COLUMBIA — Nearly a century after James T. Scott's lynching, Columbia Daily Tribune editor and proprietor Edward M. Watson was found guilty of second-degree murder. 

Watson, of course, has been dead for decades. But that didn't stop the MU School of Law's Historical and Theatrical Trial Society from staging a fictional trial.

In the performance, Watson was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in knowingly aiding, abetting and encouraging the murder of Scott, an MU custodian who was lynched after being accused of sexually assaulting a professor's daughter in 1923.

About 100 people attended the trial. Hank Waters, who owned the Tribune until it was sold to Gatehouse Media in October, attended with his family. Watson was his great-uncle.

Professor Frank O. Bowman, the society's faculty adviser, said in an interview that the annual mock trial is meant to create trials that "might've been, but never were." All trials put on by the group stem from historical incidents. Past defendants have included Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde and Thomas Putnam from the Salem witch trials. The trials are always unscripted, Bowman said. The prosecution and defense prepared for Thursday night's trial just as they would for a legitimate trial. Historical accuracy is emphasized.

In the real trial, Watson was never charged. Five men were, and of those, one with murder, but all were acquitted.

This year, Bowman was one of the prosecuting attorneys, along with law student Michael Leahy. Public defender Troy Stabenow and law student Habib Hassan worked as the defense for Watson, who was portrayed by law professor Ben Trachtenberg.

Scott was accused in 1923 of sexually assaulting German professor Hermann Almstedt's daughter, Regina Almstedt who was 14 at the time. She said she had been forced into the woods on April 20, 1923 by a black man, who told her he wanted to get even because he thought his wife had been stolen by a white man.

Almstedt was beaten but escaped. On April 25, a witness said Scott had been seen near the woods at the time of the attack. Almstedt identified Scott as the man who attacked her, and he was arrested and charged with attempted rape, according to previous Missourian reporting. After being arrested, a mob broke Scott out of jail and hanged him over the Stewart Road Bridge, near where Regina Almstedt said she had been attacked.

Putting news coverage on trial

The prosecution's argument Thursday centered around Edward Watson's newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune,  which the prosecution argued played a role in inciting the mob.

Tribune editor Hollis Edwards, portrayed by journalism professor Berkley Hudson, published a series of stories that called for "swift justice" in the Almstedt case, a phrase he conceded at the trial could imply vengeance rather than a trial.

The paper's coverage culminated in an editorial  in which Watson called for the trio of accused men to feel the "halter draw," which the prosecution argued implied lynching.

"Words are powerful. Words are persuasive," Leahy said in the opening statement. "Words can push us to hurt one another."

While Watson's actions did not result in Scott's death, Leahy argued, the words he approved and wrote for publication did "stoke popular passions."

George Barkwell, the man who pushed Scott over the Stewart Road Bridge, testified that he read "every drop" of the Tribune's reporting that week. Two other black men had also been arrested that week for rape of two black girls and Barkwell said he wanted to "nip it in the bud."

The defense argued that Watson was simply doing his journalistic duty to ask for a speedy trial, especially because an attempted rape was a threat to the community.

The prosecution also explained that regardless of whether Watson called for execution, by the community or through a trial, he was wrong, because Scott had been charged with attempted rape. In 1923, rape was a capital crime, but attempted rape was not. This bolstered the prosecution's argument that Watson tried to incite violent against Scott.

The Columbia Missourian also reported on the Almstedt case, Stabenow said, and the newspaper, a "student experiment," was not tied into the community and was based on neutral, fact-based reporting. The Tribune, he said, reflected Columbia's fear and anger about the attack.

Charles Nutter, the Columbia Missourian reporter who covered the case, defended the newspaper.   

"Unlike the Tribune, we stick to straight reporting," said Nutter, who was portrayed by Missourian Assistant City Editor Sky Chadde.

Deprived of a trial

Scott's wife, Gertrude Carter Scott, testified that her husband did not commit the attack and described him as a kind man devoted to her and to the community. Gertrude Scott, portrayed by law student Valencia Clemons-Bush, said it was common at the time to accuse black men of sexual assault.

Scott was a decorated solider in World War I, and moved to Columbia after the war. He worked as a custodian making $65 a month, according to previous Missourian reporting. He and Gertrude, who was a teacher at the Frederick Douglass School, were considered pillars of the black community. The prosecution pointed out that the man who attacked Almstedt said he wanted revenge because a white man stole his wife, but the Scotts had no marital problems, so it didn't make sense that James Scott would attack Regina Almstedt.

Even if he were guilty, the prosecution argued, Scott did not have a fair trial. On April 28, a mob broke into the jail. The judge and policemen at the jail tried to talk the mob down, but the mob proceeded to drag Scott out of jail with a noose around his neck. Cheered on by a growing crowd , the group took him to the Stewart Road Bridge to be lynched. It was reported that 2,000 people witnessed the lynching.

Barkwell, portrayed by law student Byron Jeske, willingly admitted in Thursday's trial that he lynched Scott. Barkwell said when he found out Scott's trial was set for May instead of sooner, he became angry and decided to take matters into his own hands, along with many other townspeople.

"I put that rope around his neck, and I shoved that negro rapist and sent him to hell where he belonged," Barkwell said.

Witness testimonies about Scott's death elicited visceral reactions from the audience. People murmured and shook their heads as they watched. 

The day after the lynching, the prosecution said, the Missourian published an editorial condemning the lynching. The Tribune did not publish an editorial about it for two days. And even then, the editorial condemned a professor who criticized Columbia for the lynching. The defense argued that the editorial was not condoning lynching, but was simply a defense of Columbia, which Watson saw as under attack.

'Swift justice'

Watson took the stand as the final witness in the trial. He said "swift justice" meant he wanted a speedy trial for Scott. The intent of the editorial, he said, was to make sure an innocent man wasn't attacked. 

In Thursday' closing arguments, the prosecution said the community members were "secure in the knowledge" that they could lynch Scott because men like Watson "fanned the flames" and normalized the attack. In an impassioned speech for "American justice" rather than "swift justice," the prosecution said the wounds of Scott's lynching couldn't be undone, but justice could still be imparted.

The defense said the Tribune "reflected and reported accurately the sentiment" of the community. 

The jury, the first row of the audience, which included some professors, found Watson guilty of second-degree murder in a vote of 8-4. He was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in a vote of 4-8.

Former judge Gary Oxenhandler, who presided over the mock trial, noted that in the case of a real trial, the vote would need to be unanimous to find the defendant guilty.

Supervising editor is Ellen Cagle.

  • Former assistant city editor, copy editor, and public safety and health reporter.

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