A Murder, A Mob, and Mose Gibson: Death in the Time of Jim Crow - Part 6: The Execution
Orange County wanted and needed to avoid a lynching. In many ways, the case of Mose Gibson mirrored that of Francisco Torres. Torres was charged with the murder of William McKelvey of Garden Grove in 1892. After going on the run, Torres was caught near San Diego and brought back to Santa Ana. Before he could stand trial, a posse composed of Garden Grove men broke into the prison, strung him up, and left his body for all to see. Rather than wait for justice, the men took it into their own hands.
Mose Gibson's guilt was uncertain, but his need to die was not. Someone needed to pay for the murder of Roy Trapp of Fullerton. After arresting Gibson in Arizona, under the dark of night and along back roads, Orange County authorities snuck him into the region. They knew that if Orange County citizens got him in their grasp, he would be lynched. Accordingly, the Riverside Daily Press reported, "Gibson will be kept in the local jail, Sheriff Jackson of Orange county having declared it would be unsafe to take him to the jail in Santa Ana. Lynch mob sentiment was rife at Fullerton and Anaheim yesterday, according to reports here." Mose Gibson himself echoed this sentiment, as several newspapers across the nation noted his fear of being lynched and preference to be immediately locked up. According to his confession, he pleaded, "Yes s'r: I want to plead guilty. Now as I am in your power (to Sheriff) I have plead guilty to the crime, and of course I have acknowledged I was heavily intoxicated and drinking that wood alcohol: that made my nerves nearly ship-wrecked: of course, that don’t save me, but at the same time, I know it is going to cost my life, but I ask you will let me stay here until my trial come?"
"Justice" moved swiftly in the case of Mose Gibson. The Los Angeles Times noted that, "Foiling any attempt at lynching, stern justice sped on its course today and Mose Gibson, confessed slayer of Roy G. Trapp, Fullerton rancher, was sentenced to be legally hanged on Sept. 24. Tonight he will be on his way to San Quentin. All local records in dealing with a murderer were broken in the case of the negro, but two hours being required for all the formalities."
Even at the time, people criticized the decision to rush to judgment. Housewives Union #1 based in Palo Alto, California, wrote to authorities to save Gibson from the death penalty. The women advocated that caution be exercised so as not to add fuel to the flames of racial prejudice. Firstly, they noted, the "fact that the man is a negro is likely of itself to prevent him from having that consideration before the law which a white man in his humble position might receive." As a Black man charged with the murder and assault of white people, Gibson would not receive fair treatment. Secondly, they argued, "It seems that when a negro is the culprit, that the white man feels it his peculiar privilege to indulge in any amount of brutality, a habit which has aroused deep and increasing resentment among the more intelligent of the negroes." Given the poor state of race relations that dominated the Jim Crow era, they feared that clear bias would decide Gibson's sentence. The Housewives Union noted that when a white man named "Bluebeard" Watson had committed a similar crime, he received life imprisonment.
Still, Gibson had to die. In his final days at San Quentin, he studied the Bible. He was executed on September 24 at accompanied by Father E.P. Carroll of San Rafael. Two Negro ministers, Rev. H. P. Prowd of Los Angeles and Rev. J. A. Dennis of San Francisco, were in attendance. At 10:19 am, Gibson was hung. He was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
After Gibson's arrest, an editorial ran in the Los Angeles Times entitled, "Preventative of Crimes." The article was written in direct response to the Mose Gibson case. Its argument was straightforward: Miscarriages of justice lead to the formation of mobs. In the wake of a crime, people need to be put to death faster in order to prevent mob justice. The piece read, "Swift and certain punishment for fiendish crimes is the surest protection against mob violence, which is in itself a fearful crime against organized society. Mose Gibson, negro degenerate with various aliases, was arraigned Wednesday, pleaded guilty to the charge of criminal assault and murder and was sentenced to hang in the space of fifteen minutes."
Although the facts did not add up and evidence did not point to Gibson, "swift and certain punishment" needed to b enacted to ensure that law and order prevailed. The piece went on to describe that, "When Gibson was apprehended indignant citizens of Fullerton and vicinity demanded that he be delivered to them for immediate lynching. The tragedy in the farm house on the outskirts of Fullerton had awakened such a fury of resentment that men and women said they would not sleep until they saw the carcass of the murdered and violator dangling from the end of the rope." Someone needed to die. The police had arrested two Mexicans and worked on rounding up others, and Mrs. Trapp had suggested it may have been three white men. But as soon as the fiend was given a name, Gibson's fate was sealed. The article put forward that it was not the fault of the citizens that they wanted to carry out a lynching. In fact, their fury was understandable, as they were afraid that a medical panel might declare him incompetent or insane and send him to an institution.
Because Sheriff Jackson and the Orange County authorities acted quickly and ensured Gibson would meet his end at the end of a rope, the Orange County community was given the opportunity to calm down, and "soberly realize they avoided committing a crime."
In the 1920s, American race relations had reached its nadir. In 1915, the release of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation inspired the founding of the Second Ku Klux Klan. In the aftermath of WWI, African Americans migrated out of the South into the urban centers of the North and West in what is known as the Great Migration. Los Angeles saw an increase of its Black population, though Orange County resisted Black settlement. At the time, racial violence was not uncommon. The slate of race riots in 1919 became remembered as Red Summer. Lynching was a spectacle, often photographed and advertised.
The murder of Roy Trapp and the assault of his wife threatened to push Orange County over the edge. With the arrest and execution of Mose Gibson, Orange County was able to avoid becoming a statistic and having to deal with the stain of carrying out an extralegal execution. Was Gibson innocent? It is hard to say. Perhaps he committed some crimes, including burglaries and robberies. Did he commit all the murders he was charged with? It is harder to say. Even at the time, people across the nations doubted his guilt, although authority figures hoped to pin the crimes on him to close the books on their unsolved cases. Nevertheless, by avoiding the lynching of Mose Gibson, Orange County avoided a key marker of the Jim Crow era.
Just because the lynching did not happen there did not mean that lynching could not happen there. Instead, law and order sidestepped justice to keep the peace.