It is remembered today as the most horrific period in Rowan County history. The facts alone are staggering and need no embellishment. Isaac Lyerly, his wife Augusta Barringer Lyerly, and their five children lived in a hundred-year-old two-story frame house about 11 miles west of Salisbury. The old farmhouse had double chimneys and sat on a knoll near the Barber Junction Depot on old U.S. Highway 70 between Statesville and Salisbury.
The Lyerly place was referred to locally as a “plantation,” and indeed, Isaac Lyerly was born into a slave owning family and served in the Confederate army as a Corporal in Co. C, N.C. 49th Regiment, during the Civil War. The home was located only a short distance from the Barber Junction Depot.
On Friday, the 13th, July, 1906, the Lyerly family went to bed around 9 p.m. The three oldest daughters, Mary A., 17, Addie L., 14, and Janie E., 10, slept upstairs while Isaac and Augusta slept downstairs with a younger daughter and son. Sometime before midnight Addie woke up to the smell of smoke.
Rushing down to her parents’ bedroom Addie found her father’s bed on fire. Lying covered in blood on the bed was her father, Isaac Lyerly, 68, and her younger brother John H., 8.
In the other bed lay her mother, Augusta Barringer Lyerly, 42, and her youngest sister Alice, 6. Addie quickly pulled her father and brother off the burning bed and ran upstairs for her sisters. The three girls doused the fire with water and pulled their father’s now smoldering bedding into the yard
Their parents and brother were dead, but little Alice was still clinging to life. Carrying their sister, the girls rushed to a neighbor’s house for help. By the time daylight arrived a few hours later the Lyerly yard was full of law enforcement, neighbors, and reporters. Alice died later that day.
Someone had attacked and killed the Lyerly’s and their children as they slept and then poured kerosene over them before setting them afire. The bloody murder weapon used was found discarded by the front door. It was the Lyerly family’s axe.
By evening Rowan County Sheriff David R. Julian and his deputies had arrested
Nease Gillespie, 55, and his sons, John Gillespie, 15, and Henry Lee Gillespie, 18-20. Also arrested were George Ervin, 29-30, Jack Dillingham, late 20s or 30s and his wife, Della Young Dillingham. Both the Gillespie’s and Dillingham’s were African Americans and worked and lived on the Lyerly farm as sharecroppers.
There was no physical evidence or witnesses linking the Gillespie’s and Dillingham’s to the crime, but fear and anger gripped Rowan County. The newspapers declared them murderers and a mob mentality swelled among the people forcing the prisoners to be taken to Mecklenburg County for safety. The motive for the attack was said to be a dispute between Nease Gillespie and Isaac Lyerly over the sale of the farm’s wheat crop.
On August 6th, the prisoners were returned to the Salisbury jail for the grand jury hearing with Judge Benjamin Franklin Long of Statesville presiding. A true bill was returned and trail was set to begin the following day on the 7th. Several times during the hearing Judge Long asked the people in the court room to stay calm and let the legal system do its job.
That evening a mob gathered on the streets outside the jail demanding the prisoners. The county jail offered little protection as it was a former three-story home with six windows on the sides and five on the front. Sheriff Julian had brought in extra deputies and sent for the county’s local militia troop, the Rowan Rifles, to help protect the jail and its prisoners. Sheriff Julian, Salisbury Mayor Archibald Henderson Boyden, prosecuting attorney William Cicero Hammer, and Judge Long all addressed the crowd as the evening went on imploring them to disband.
By 11 p.m. that night on Aug. 6, 1906, the crowd had grown to nearly 3,000 people including women and children and angry and drunk men. At around 11:30 p.m. a mob of perhaps 500 men surged forward overwhelming the men guarding the jail. Sheriff Julian and the leader of the militia ordered their men to hold fire and step aside refusing to commit a massacre to protect the six prisoners.
The tragedy that began at the Lyerly home now grew worse. Nease Gillespie and his two sons were taken from the jail and led through Salisbury on ropes to a large oak tree in Worth Park. The mob beat and tortured the Gillespie’s to obtain a confession, but the three refused and swore their innocence.
Twenty-four days after the Lyerly murders the three Gillespie’s, including 15-year-old John Gillespie, were hung from the oak trees branches and then shot repeatedly by the lynch mob. Young John Gillespie cried and maintained his innocence to the end. The horror was not over.
The following day the Gillespie’s mutilated bodies were left hanging in Salisbury. Men, women, and children all came to stare. Even worse people began cutting off fingernails, fingers, and toes for souvenirs. A photographer came to make pictures to be sold on postcards. Passengers on trains coming through Salisbury looked out the windows and saw the bodies of two black men and a boy hanging from the oak tree.
The Charlotte Observer reported later on August 15th that, “The entire civilized world had its eyes on Salisbury last week.” Perhaps feeling at least partly responsible, Judge Long and local law enforcement arrested several men believed to have been part of the lynch mob. All were evidently released except George Hall who was surprisingly convicted and given a 15-year prison sentence by Judge Long.
George Ervin and Jack and Della Dillingham who had also been arrested were later brought to Statesville to be tried, but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. Statesville natives Betty Boyd and William “Bill” Powell would later recall their parents pointing to the Lyerly home on the way to Salisbury when they were growing up. They called it, “The Murder House.”
The house burned down in the 1950s though one chimney stood marking the spot for years to come. The site where the house stood is on old highway 70 just west of Hwy 801 next to an athletic field. The Barber Junction Depot was later moved to Salisbury and still exists.
It has generally been accepted that the Gillespie’s and Dillingham’s were innocent and the lynching a terrible miscarriage of justice. So, who did attack and kill four members of the Lyerly family with an axe nearly 114 years ago?
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
June 3, 2020