Police Chief Robert Lilly
Along with the prosperity and economic development brought to West Virginia with the coming of the big lumber operators came the problems associated with a mass movement of a population -crime and violence.
On Monday evening, July 22, 1901, the town of Elkins witnessed one of the worst crimes in the city's entire history: the lynching in the city park.
Elkins at the time was a bustling railroad community with a construction boom unprecedented before or since under way. To the east of town, at the tunnel, the firm of Rosser, Coleman and Company, subcontractors on one of H. G. Davis' projects, the Coal and Iron Railroad, had a number of black and Italian laborers at work on the grading of the road and the tunnel construction. One of the blacks was William Brooks.
The local black community of Elkins has always been for the most part a law abiding group. Brooks was not local. The construction companies were bringing in thousands of laborers from outside West Virginia, some even from overseas, and owing to the fact that one could wander into these construction camps and get a job with few or no questions asked, one could virtually lose himself and his identity. For this reason a number of criminals and former criminals white, black and foreign alike had drifted into the area, and one of these was William Brooks. Various sources give different accounts of Brook's background. Some say he was from North Carolina. Others say Kentucky. The best information would seem to be found in a dispatch from Indianapolis, Ind., to the Wheeling Intelligencer to the affect that William Brooks was from Indianapolis, having several years prior to 1901 worked as a lamplighter there, and being teased by a group of white men killed one in self defense. Some months prior to 1901 Brooks left Indianapolis with a traveling circus company and this would have probably taken him to all of the states mentioned as his origins, and may account for the confusion. He had at some point worked on the Short Line Railroad at Clarksburg, and the Clarksburg newspapers credited him with a record in the police court there. At any rate July of 1901 found Brooks working as a teamster on the Coal and Iron construction.
In Elkins the chief of police was Robert Lilly. Lilly was a well known resident of the area whose family originated in Fairmont and Pennsylvania, but had come to Randolph County prior to the building of the town of Elkins. Lilly's brother Luther had formerly been a police officer in Parkersburg. Bob Lilly had a wife and several children.
On the Monday evening in question William Brooks was found on the river bank near the Wilson Street swinging bridge in a sexual act with a mulatto woman from Washington, Pa. At the time fornication, as well as adultery and cohabitation were misdemeanors punishable by fine. A police officer, Mr. Lantz undertook to arrest Brooks and the woman. This was about 6 p.m. Brooks pulled a revolver, leveled it at Lantz, and told him to beat it. Lantz left the scene for reinforcements.
When word of the trouble was brought to Chief of Police Lilly, he proceeded to Wilson Street to bring the man in. Upon informing Brooks that he was under arrest, a gunfight ensued involving Brooks and his woman companion on one side, Lilly and a bystander named Thomas Dick on the other. Brooks shot Lilly three times, in the bladder, chest and arm. Brooks was hit in the groin, in one arm, and twice in the leg. None-the-less he turned and ran, pursued by Dick and a crowd of spectators. He was able to keep ahead a short distance, but as he reached the railroad shops he was captured by some of the shop crew, on which crew Lilly had formerly worked. He was taken to a crude jail behind B. Wees' store and his wounds were treated by Dr. A.M. Fredlock.
Mayor Fout made arrangements for Brooks to be taken to the county jail at Beverly on the 8:25 train. The train was delayed and at 8:30, Brooks was taken from the cell and placed in a buggy hired from B.F. Whetsell's livery stable. A crowd had gathered and seized Brooks from the officers' custody. He was dragged through the town a few blocks and taken to the east end of the city park, near where Prospect Street now meets Buffalo Street. The rope around his neck was thrown over the bottom limb of an oak tree, pulled back and tied off. The body hung there all night. Someone from Von Alleman's studio came and took pictures. Many of these are still in existence.
Meanwhile Chief Lilly had been taken to Dr. W. W. Golden's office where he was treated but found to be in such a condition as to warrant a trip to the hospital at Cumberland. At 11 p.m. the train left with Lilly, Dr. Golden, Lilly's daughter Daisey, and attorney M. H. King. He was conscious all the way, but suffered terribly from pain and thirst. Upon arrival he was operated on by Dr. B. Curtis Miller who was assisted by Dr. Golden. The operation was thought to be successful but Lilly died the following evening at 9:30.
William Brooks' body was cut down at 10 a.m. the next day and taken to Kendall Funeral Home where it was viewed by hundreds of curious citizens. He was buried on the railroad right of way near the Wilson Street swinging bridge by Thomas Sheets and John Lloyd. The Clarksburg papers, however, reported that one of Brooks' six surviving brothers was on the way from Indianapolis to claim the body. Whether Brooks still lies under the railroad near the river is not clear.
Robert Lilly was buried in Maplewood Cemetery. Immediately following the trouble his home and family were kept under guard as an uprising of the black construction workers was rumored and feared, but never happened. They chose to leave punishment of Brooks' lynchers up to authorities, but no action was ever taken, much to the indignation of Governor White.
Many in Elkins are aware of the lynching of Brooks and it is still occasionally discussed. Lilly was one of two Elkins police officers to die in the turn of the crime wave that swept Randolph County, and one of three in the county as a whole.
William Brooks was dragged through the town a few blocks and taken to city park where he was hanged.
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