At approximately 2:00 pm, Thursday, March 16, 1922, the body of George Tompkins was found tied to a tree at the south end of Cold Springs Woods, now Coffin Municipal Golf course. He had left home around 7:30 am and was last noticed by Jacob Selzer, who lived nearby, walking west on the Emrichville Bridge over White River around 12:00 pm. Joseph Bostar, a pedestrian, discovered the 21-year-olds lifeless body, suspended by the neck, his hands loosely bound behind his back—his body still warm in the cool March air. Bostar ran to the Casino Gardens on Lafayette Road, and the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) was notified. Soon the area was swarming with police officers and detectives. It did not take long for the press to learn of the body in the grove, and reporters quickly arrived, with many of the same questions as police. Who was this young man? How did he come to be tied by the neck to a tree? Why was he found in this out-of-the-way area?
The Marion County Coroner, Paul F. Robinson, MD, was summoned to the scene before the body was moved. Initially, Robinson and IPD Inspector of Detectives John Mullin expressed the view that Tompkins had been murdered “lynched” tied by the neck to a tree, “a sapling,” too small to support his weight five-foot, four-inch, 137-pound frame. Robinson also suggested that he believed Tompkins could have been killed somewhere else and moved to the site in an automobile, but that the tall grass made locating tire tracks or footprints impossible.
According to the Indianapolis Star: “The position in which the body was found, leaning loosely against a small sapling almost too small to bear the weight, the feet crossed, the rope loosely knotted, and the clothing disarrayed and covered with dirt, made any thought of suicide ridiculous, in the opinion of IPD Inspector Cletus Weaver and others.” Additionally, “Several officers suggested the taking of the body to Riverside Park was not only an attempt to conceal the identity of those implicated in the affair but was also intended as a warning to other Negros.”
In the following days, IPD Sergeant Edgar Deeter and Detectives Thomas Barnaby and Jonathan Marren began to express their opinion that Tompkins had taken his own life. This claim was made in contradiction of the facts that his sister, brother-in-law, Robert Smith, and friends told authorities that Tompkins had not been despondent in the days leading up to his death, nor had he left any notes indicating his intent to harm himself. His cousin, Harvey Carroll, indicated that before his death, Tompkins had been gainfully employed at the Fairmount Glass Works on south Keystone Avenue; he had been laid-off approximately two weeks before his death.
Deputy Coroners George R. Christian MD, and Clarence A. Toles MD, performed the post-mortem on George Tompkins the same day his body was discovered. They found no signs of trauma to the body other than that caused by the rope taut around his neck. Dr. Christian completed and signed the death certificate, listing the cause of death as strangulation and the contributory cause of death as “open verdict.”
On May 24, 1922, Robinson submitted the verdict form to the Marion County Clerk’s office; also, someone, probably Robinson, changed the contributory cause of death to “suicide” (on the official death certificate, someone literally scratched out the word open and wrote in suicide). No reason was provided on the verdict form nor the death certificate for Robinson’s decision. The use of verdict form suggests that Robinson held a coroner’s inquest where a coroner’s jury may have decided the cause of death was suicide. Robinson’s decision ended the official investigation into Tompkins’s death, but it did not answer the questions that linger today. If Tompkins wanted to take his own life, why choose the smallest and weakest tree in the grove, a tree that bent and could have broken under his weight? Why would Tompkins choose a tree that would force him to bend his knees and endure a slow, agonizing death by strangulation? If Tomkins wanted to take his own life, why would he choose a location where his body may not have been found for days or weeks? The answer, obviously, he would not.
Someone, a small group of about two or three people (a large crowd would have trampled the grass), without any forethought or preparation, placed Thompkins body in that grove of trees. Without the collective strength and the needed tool for a typical spectacle lynching—rope. Thompkins body was hurriedly and clumsily moved to the only tree they could reach with a short rope, bound, and then suspended to the spindly sapling—which immediately bent under his weight. Then as quickly as they arrived, they fled the scene for the Haughville neighborhood.
A mob commits a spectacle lynching in a carnival-like atmosphere, where great violence is committed on the lynched. It is done with the intent of terrorizing the targeted group and their allies. Time is often allowed for word to spread of the impending brutality, allowing time for a crowd to gather. The lynchers openly take credit for their actions and fear no sanctions. This did not happen with the George Tompkins case.
On the other hand, a revenge lynching is committed by a small group angered or offended by the lynched individual. The person is killed in a fit of rage; the killers quickly regret their actions and fear the condemnation or retribution of their community. Tompkins’s anonymous killers hastily placed his body in the tree, hoping that the act would be written off as a random act of racial violence. Lynchings go unsolved because the authorities charged with their investigation refuse to investigate them as crimes or simply close the case. Deeming an inconvenient death, a suicide, the lynching becomes an act of state-sanctioned violence—a lynching.
Note: The Indiana Remembrance Coalition will memorialize George Tompkins, the victim of an all-but-forgotten lynching in Indianapolis 100 years ago. The program, followed by dedication of a headstone for his unmarked grave, begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 12, at Floral Park Funeral Home, 425 N. Holt Rd. Click here for details.
Leon Bates, an Indianapolis native, is a Ph.D. student in Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Pan African Studies from the University of Louisville, and a Master of Arts in Public History with a Certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University.