OKFUSKEE COUNTY, Okla. — Descriptions of this crime are difficult to read. FOX23 has decided to show photographs of the lynching to provide both transparency and to show the historical significance of the crime. Please be advised.
It has been 111 years since a woman and her 12-year-old son were lynched, hung from a bridge in Okfuskee County. 111 years since a horrendous and devastating crime took place.
However, there is a mystery surrounding the murders.
The remnants of Yarbrough Crossing still stands today. It was a bridge that used to cross the North Canadian River near Okemah and Boley.
On May 25, 1911, a group of men and children stood and stared at a barefoot woman, wearing a dress with a rope around her neck. Her son hung next to her, his pants pulled down, his hands bound, and his mouth gagged.
87-year-old Henrietta Hicks grew up in Boley, among a family of educators. Those in Boley consider Henrietta as the town historian.
“I tease them all the time, maybe it’s because I’m old,” said Henrietta.
Boley was a predominately black community in 1911, and nearby Okemah was a white community. “Back in that day, black folk didn’t live in Okemah,” said Henrietta.
But people living in both towns knew about the lynching. “I think they didn’t talk about it too much because they didn’t want to scare us,” said Henrietta.
Newspapers in Okemah published inconsistent facts about the lynching. Henrietta says nothing was written down in Boley. All details were passed down orally, from generation to generation.
Families quietly kept the story alive. Of the lynching and the mystery of the baby.
The 1910 census shows that Austin Nelson, his wife Laura, their son L.D., and their daughter Carrie lived north of Boley, about six miles from Paden, Oklahoma.
“They were very poor people. They needed food, so he stole a cow,” said Henrietta. Newspaper articles say Paden’s sheriff went to the Nelson home to search for the stolen meat.
Austin confessed and was arrested. There were rumors that Austin also had a rifle, so deputies returned to the home.
Austin’s wife, Laura, grabbed the gun.
“There was a tussle over the gun, and the gun went off. No one knows to this day who pulled the trigger,” said Henrietta. The bullet hit the sheriff, who bled out quickly.
Austin went to prison in McAlester, and Laura and L.D. were taken to jail. Most newspaper articles don’t mention anything about a baby.
But an article from 1911 called “The Crisis” talks about the lynching and mention Laura’s “suckling babe.”
It’s believed that a mob broke into the jail and took Laura and L.D. Henrietta believes that the mob had some help. “My mind tells me you didn’t tell the truth, this was the time of Jim Crow, and hatred. And you tell black folks to stay in their place.”
Henrietta believes a baby was in jail with Laura.
The mob took Laura and L.D. away from the jail, bound and gagged. “They took them out, took them down to that bridge. They raped her. And then they hung them, over the bridge, dropped them 20 feet down,” said Henrietta.
A photographer took photographs of Laura and 12-year-old L.D. “That photograph of Laura is the only photography of a lynched black woman that I know of,” said Henrietta.
Newspaper articles say no one faced any consequences after the lynching.
Setting the Story Straight
Luke Bennett used to teach high school history. Now, he and former Langston University professor Benjamin Bates are working together to set the story straight.
They are helping Luke’s uncle Wayland Bishop, the curator at the Okfuskee County Historical Society in Okemah.
“I want the accuracy of history,” said Wayland.
One man suspected of being in the mob that night was Ku Klux Klan member Charlie Guthrie, the father of famous Oklahoma songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Woody was born the year after the lynching, in 1912.
“Woody would have grown up with the story,” said Luke. Woody wrote an eerie song about the lynching called, “Don’t Kill by Baby and my Son.”
“Laura is arguing with the men about her baby, and I think this is the origin of the Woody Guthrie story,” said Luke.
In addition to songwriting, Woody also sketched. These sketches are now displayed in the Woody Guthrie Museum in Tulsa.
One of the sketches resembles the lynching.
“That must’ve been something in his mind, bad,” said Henrietta. The sketches don’t show the baby, just Laura and L.D.
There have been speculation about what happened to the baby.
“Some say they threw her in the river. Some say they left her on the ground and a person from Okemah had a heart and picked her up and took her with them,” said Henrietta.
In a book written in the 1960s, the author wrote the following paragraph:
“After they had hung them up, those men just walked off and left the baby lying there. One of my neighbors was there, and she picked the baby up and brought it back to town, and we took care of it. It’s all grown up now and lives here.”
“If you look in Okemah for a black male, you have one option. His name is Booker, he goes by Booker Berry,” said Luke. “Booker lived here his entire life.”
The 1910 census shows that in April 1910, Austin was 35, Laura was 27, L.D. was 11, and Carrie was 12-months-old. By May 1911, when the lynching took place, Carrie would have been older than 2.
Luke thinks a baby was born after Carrie. But Henrietta disagrees, despite the accounts of Laura nursing while she was in jail.
She doesn’t believe that Booker Barry was that baby. According to a 1996 article from The New Yorker, a white couple in Okemah had a black servant. “This woman became suddenly ill and died. But before she died, she asked Mrs. Berry if she would take care of her son. She told her yes, he won’t suffer for anything.”
Henrietta said the Berry Family were rich and they owned a car dealership. She believes that someone from Okemah picked up Carrie by the bridge and took her in. She may have stayed in Okemah for a few years but eventually moved away.
This group wants to find the truth, regardless of what it is.
Luke believes that information about Booker Berry being the son of the servant might be a cover story, just for his protection growing up in Okemah. He believes that Booker was the baby by the bridge.
Benjamin is working with a museum in Alabama to build a memorial in Okemah called the Laura Nelson Project.
If you have any information about this mystery, contact the FOX23 Investigation team at email@example.com.
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