Editor’s note: This article was written in 1985 as part of a history series which appeared in the LaBelle Leader, which was later merged with the Caloosa Belle.
LABELLE — Like most frontier towns, LaBelle’s history includes some violence and frontier justice. In the summer of 1926, a misunderstanding resulted in a lynching.
LaBelle was a pioneer town, settled by ranchers, farmers, sawyers, and shop keepers - a mixture of people who had come from different states and even from other countries. Black people were rare in the LaBelle area at the time. Residents who were in LaBelle at that time remember one lone black family who had a farm just outside of town.
“The City of LaBelle brought 1,200 blacks to LaBelle to build the streets,” remembered Glenn Dyess. “I don’t know what happened to that project or the money. They never did get the streets built. They said 1,200. I don’t remember that many. They kept them at a camp, with some old houses as a dorm and a commissary where they fed them.”
Most people in LaBelle knew each other at that time. A stranger in town didn’t stay a stranger long. The small farming community was understandably suspicious about such a large group of outsiders. One woman was especially wary of the blacks. She had lived in a logging town before moving to LaBelle. Her first husband had been killed in a dispute with a black man.
In the summer of 1926, a black man came to her door and she panicked.
“They say this man didn’t come through the front gate. He climbed over the fence, climbed over the back fence, and went to the back door. Some people say he was after a drink of water. I don’t know what he was after,” said Dyess.
The woman had been ironing that afternoon. She looked up and saw the black man at her back door. She screamed, and threw the hot iron at him. “He run,” said Dyess, “and she got ahold of her husband, and he thought the black man had tried to rape her.”
It didn’t take long for the story to get around town, or the men of LaBelle to begin a search for the fugitive. They caught him, put him in a car and headed downtown. At that time, the courthouse had not been completed, so trials were held at the Everett Hotel. Where the men planned to take their captive is unclear, since he didn’t wait to find out.
“By the time I got into town, they had already caught him,” remembered Ed Yeomans. “They were driving down the street and they had him on the floor board of the car. Whenever he would stick his head up, they’d shove him down.”
Near what is now the intersection of highway 29 and State Road 80, the man made his break for freedom. He managed to get out of the car, and tried to run.
“He started running. They said to the woman’s husband, ‘There he is. Go ahead and kill him.’ He didn’t shoot, but a lot of others did,” said Dyess. “Some of the younger fellers were hot headed. They finally put him on the side of the car and went on out of town and hung him.”
Most witnesses agree the man was already dead before they hung him.
“Circumstances looked like that’s what it was (rape) and they didn’t wait to have a trial,” said Only O’Banion. “They just didn’t wait to find out. They took my little brother and put him up the tree to tie the rope. I think that affected him. I don’t think he ever forgot it.”
“Mr. Rider was the judge here. He went down with some men and cut him down. You know a person has to be crazy to kill somebody. That’s the way those boys were, they just went a little crazy and started shooting,” said Dyess.
When everything had settled down, and the hysterical woman was calm enough to tell the judge what had really happened, at least a dozen men were arrested and taken to Arcadia. Some residents thought there may have been as many as 20 men arrested. The trial was held in LaBelle, in the Everett Hotel on Bridge Street.
The judge ruled that there were so many bullet holes in the man, it was impossible to determine which one killed him, and that there were so many people involved in the search and hanging afterwards, it was impossible to know who actually did the shooting.
The men who had been arrested were released. The tree that had been used for the lynching was painted black. And the town of LaBelle gradually forgot about the incident. The road work, however, did not continue. The road crews were so frightened by the lynching that they deserted their camp.