Not only is the 2006 book Gallows on the Marsh by Brooks Miles Barnes an intriguing little- known history affecting both Maryland and Virginia in 1906, it is a riveting story of likely the oddest execution on the Eastern Shore. The cover photograph and title draw you in like a good novel, as you are left wondering just what was a gallows doing in the marsh, what marsh, and how did this get to be photographed.
The story is about an execution held on a beach, Solomon’s Lump on Smith Island in Somerset County, Maryland, certainly an unlikely place to have a legal execution. William Lee met his death at the gallows at a time when there were few legal or social protections for African Americans and lynchings were real threats. Some historians view legal executions of that time as legal lynchings. Barnes’ book gives a smart background into the history of that time.
I have heard that the oddity of a gallows execution on a remote section of Smith Island remains part of the oral history. The book includes an extraordinary set of photographs, including a few of a handful of watermen who saw the strange sight of officials landing on their shores and erecting a gallows and executing a man. It is also a thought-provoking view of racism on the Eastern Shore.
Brooks Miles Barnes is a historian and reference librarian at the Virginia Eastern Shore library in Accomac. He can be contacted there for copies.