The Mill Children
(Used by Permission of Old Huntsville Magazine)

A Poor Mill Child

The news spread quickly throughout Dallas Village. Like a brushfire caught in cyclonic winds, the story passed from person to person, building on its own momentum and stirring emotions of anger and frustration that had been repressed for years.

Another young girl, Susie Priest, a ten year old mill worker, had been brutally raped. Crimes of this nature had become almost commonplace in the village but were usually ignored by most of Huntsville's citizens. Dallas Village was outside the Huntsville Police jurisdiction and the sheriff, who depended on the mill owners for political support, rarely ventured onto their turf.

The mill owners preferred it this way as it allowed for more control of the workers.

Anger among the mill workers had been building for months. Most of them were ex-share croppers who had fled the fields in search of a better life, lured by the promises of the mill owners in search of cheap labor.

The Utopian life that had been guaranteed to the workers never materialized. Wages of 68 cents a day in 1892 for an able bodied male worker were reduced by 1900 to a mere 34 cents per day.

Even the homes that had been assured the workers seemed more like a fantasy than a reality. Dallas Mills had begun building a few "mill homes" in early 1900, but these were quickly claimed by the blue-coated foremen. The rest of the workers were forced to live in makeshift shanty towns, often with nothing but a piece of canvas to protect them from the weather.

The worst thing for the village residents, however, was the feeling of having become second class citizens. Families who for generations had been raised to be independent now found themselves reduced to being referred to as "lintheads."

From the groceries bought at the company store, to the fire wood burned in the kitchen stove, to the mill whistle that sounded the wake up call at 4:00 in the morning, every aspect of life in the village was controlled by the mill owners.

But, however harsh the conditions, it was the children who suffered the most. There were no child labor laws and many families were forced to put their children to work in order to survive. Making an average of ten cents a day, children would report to Dallas Mills at 5:45 in the morning where they would labor until 6 that evening.

Mill owners actively encouraged the use of children as a "prime source of labor" and Huntsville newspapers praised the mills for teaching the kids "work ethics."

In Alabama, almost one out of every four mill workers was a child.

A social activist of the time, Mrs. John Van Vorst, visited many of the mills and found conditions so appalling as to defy belief. One child, who was "going on twelve," had worked at the mill for almost four years. He had never attended school but worked a twelve-hour shift, six days a week.

Another child, working as a sweeper for ten cents a day, was only eight years old. He had been working at the mill for almost two years. Whatever maternal instincts the parents had were often suppressed by the overpowering need to simply survive.

On July 23, 1900, two sisters, Nellie and Susie Priest, 10 and 12 years respectively, were on their way home for lunch break from Dallas Mills. As was their habit, they cut across the corner of a nearby field in order to save a few steps. Though they noticed a stranger loitering nearby, he was the last thing on their minds. They had been working since 6:00 that morning and all they wanted to do was to eat lunch and rest for a few minutes before returning to the mill.

The man approached them, as if asking for directions, when suddenly he knocked Susie to the ground and grabbed Nellie by the throat. Screaming and fighting, Nellie managed to break loose, only to see the assailant turn his attention to Susie, who was lying helplessly on the ground.

Terrified, Nellie ran back to the mill for help.

Several men, enjoying a last smoke before returning to work, met her and after a brief questioning, gathered a group of other men to go with them in pursuit of the attacker.

The men found Susie Priest lying on the ground, curled in a fetal position, crying hysterically and with a trickle of blood running down her chin where she had been beaten. Her clothes had been brutally torn from her body and the ground bore evidence of the struggle that had taken place.

A brief round of questions established the assailant's name, Elijah Clark, a man twenty years old and employed part time as a teamster for a local freight company. Within minutes, more men had gathered at the scene. As they learned what had taken place, their frustrations began pouring out.

"It ain't right," one man said. "They treat us like slaves, work us like dogs, and even our children ain't safe."

"If they would pay decent wages," another man cried, "our children wouldn't have to work and this would never have happened."

Suddenly the spell was broken by two mill foremen who pushed their way through the crowd. "Back to work," they ordered. "Anyone not going back to work will be docked for the whole day."

One of the men protested, saying that he was going to look for the assailant, "and the mill be damned." He was fired on the spot.

Silently, the other men reluctantly returned to the mill. Regardless of how badly they were treated, the men could ill afford to lose their jobs.

Though work resumed after lunch, there was a strong undercurrent of resentment growing among the workers. News of the rape was the topic of every conversation.

After digesting what was already known, people's anger invariably turned toward the mill owners for their callous policy of child labor.

Less than an hour later, with excitement already at a fever pitch, a ten year-old boy employed as a lamp filler was involved in an accident. A heavy piece of machinery had fallen and crushed one of his legs.

Again, the foremen were on the scene immediately ordering people back to work.

As the workers watched the mangled boy being carried from the plant the anger that had been building all day finally exploded. When one of the foremen grabbed a worker by the collar and ordered him back to work, the worker responded by knocking him to the floor.

Within minutes over 1,000 employees of Dallas Mills walked out, effectively shutting the mill down. News of the shut-down spread.

As the stockholders heard the news, they began calling the mill demanding that something be done. The mill manager in turn called the sheriff demanding the culprit who raped the young Priest gird be apprehended, "and fast."

Undoubtedly, the manager was hoping that with a quick arrest, things would return to normal.

Early the next morning, word spread around Huntsville that Elijah Clark had been arrested and was lodged in the jail. He had readily confessed to the rape of the young girl, though he was not sure what everyone was upset about. "After all," he said, "it was just a poor little mill girl."

As was hoped by the mill owners, most of the employees returned to work. At first it seemed as if the affair was over. Though disgruntled, the employees went about their jobs. As the morning wore on however, people began remembering another case that had recently been tried in the courts.

Albert Thompson, a twenty-nine-year old cavalryman stationed in Huntsville, had raped a mill woman and was sentenced to only a few years in the penitentiary. That very day, the same judge had also sentenced a Negro to six years for "cursing" in the presence of women.

In their minds the mill workers probably saw Elijah Clark receiving the same sentence - a mere slap on the wrist, in their opinion.

Someone, no one is sure who, angrily declared that Clark should be lynched. With the unspoken words finally out in the open, it gave the workers a direction in which to vent their anger and frustrations. A mob began making its way toward the jail. Men, young boys, and in some cases even women, were armed with shotguns, rifles and pistols. At every street corner the mob increased in size and anger as word spread.

Wives who had been preparing supper for their families, left the food sitting on the tables and joined the mob. Storekeepers, mechanics and lawyers all abandoned their businesses and joined the Dallas Mill workers.

Within the hour the jail was completely surrounded by a mob of almost two thousand people demanding that Elijah Clark be handed over to them.

Sheriff Fulgham had received word of the mob's intentions and had hastily deputized six men to help guard the jail. Though armed with repeating Winchester rifles, the deputies' bravado quickly disappeared when faced with the relentless and bloodthirsty mob.

Deciding to save their own skins, most of the deputies beat a hasty exit out the back door.

The sheriff, however, resolved to face the mob. Though inwardly sympathizing with them, he was nevertheless sworn to uphold the law.

When one of the mob demanded the keys, Fulgham declared they would "have to walk over my dead body first."

Angrily, the mob surged forward. Several of the men, armed with a large piece of timber from a nearby construction site, began battering the front door.

As the door gave way the mob was met by the sheriff and the few remaining deputies, who immediately opened fire. Will Vining, an electric light worker, fell to the ground, wounded by almost two hundred pellets of buck shot. The crown hastily retreated, but only for a few moments.

Cheered on by thousands of Huntsville's citizens, the mob next procured several sticks of dynamite, which they placed by the jail. Again they asked for the sheriff to surrender and again he refused.

At this point Milton Humes and Daniel Coleman, two respected Huntsville businessmen, mounted a nearby buggy and began an impassioned speech, imploring the mob to return home.

Their efforts were met by loud jeers and a torrent of rocks.

The dynamite placed next to the jail had failed to explode, and one of the mob, after checking the fuse, relit it and threw it inside the jail. The explosive wrecked most of the downstairs, but fortunately the sheriff and his prisoner had retreated to the second floor.

Sheriff Fulgham, realizing the seriousness of the situation, told the few remaining deputies they could leave if they wanted to. Both of the deputies left by jumping out a back window. They then joined the mob besieging the jail.

Next the mob decided to try to smoke the sheriff out. A barrel of oil, a large amount of sulphur and several bushels of chicken feathers were placed on the ground floor of the jail and lit. Moments later the jail was engulfed in a billowing cloud of nauseating smoke. The fumes were so bad that even the mob beat a hasty retreat.

Chief of Police D.D. Overton, who had been standing by and watching the crowd for some time, now asked to be allowed to enter the jail and try to talk the sheriff into surrendering.

After convincing Fulgham of the helpfulness of his situation, Overton assisted the sheriff out of the jail where he was placed in the care of a doctor, who treated him for smoke inhalation.

With the sheriff out of the way, the mob surged to the second floor where Clark was lodged in a cell. Fulgham had wisely thrown away the keys and the mob was forced to use hammer and chisel to break into the cell.

The men went to work with a vengeance, interrupted only by a steady flow of sightseers filing through the jail. During this whole time, Clark sat in a corner of the jail softly moaning about the fate he was about to meet.

Finally the prisoner was taken into custody by the mob, and as they prepared to leave the jail one of its members mounted the jail steps and shouted:

"Now gentlemen, you must put up your guns. We are going to hang this man and if no one interferes, no one will be hurt."

Guarded by twenty armed men, Clark was escorted to the home of Susie Priest, who readily identified him. By this time the crowd had grown to almost 2,000 people.

At this point Clark, frozen with terror, lost control of his legs and had to be carried. When he made an effort to escape, a rope was placed around his neck and he was half dragged the short distance to Moores Grove.

Waiting at the Grove was another crowd of approximately 4,000 people taking part in the mob action.

The only pause in the affair came when they called for Will Priest, an elder brother of Susie, to throw the rope over a limb of the tree. After asking if Clark had any last words to say, Priest slapped the horse on its side, leaving the accused hanging by the neck.

At first the crowd was silent, awed by the experience of watching a life being taken. For a full ten minutes, they simply stood and stared.

Suddenly, as if hanging itself was not enough, the young Priest grabbed a gun and began firing at the dead body swinging softly in the breeze. This served as a signal for others in the mob, who immediately began firing their guns also.

A witness later reported that over 150 shots were fired at Clark's body within a matter of minutes.

The mob slowly broke up and began returning to their homes. The only excitement left was when an occasional young boy, egged on by his companions, would dart up to the body to cut a piece of fabric from the dead man's clothing as a souvenir.

Dallas Mills opened the next morning, right on time. The workers, though still embittered, realized nothing else could be done, so the men, women and children wearily returned to work.

The owners and manager of the mill quickly took steps to regain control over the workers. The ringleaders of the mob, as well as anyone else who had voiced a complaint, were fired.

Susie Priest, along with her sister, brother and parents, were also fired.

In an attempt to pacify city officials who blamed the mill for the destruction, the mill owners offered to pay for the rebuilding of the jail.

Needless to say, no one was ever tried for the lynching. Though there were over 6,000 people at the scene, the official explanation given was "no witnesses."

Child labor, which had helped to spark the incident, was proclaimed to be nonexistent at the mill. One owner actually explained away the diminutive size of some of his employees by calling them, "mountain dwarfs."

In 1924 an exhibition of photographs taken by Lewis Hines was held in Huntsville. Hines had toured America taking photographs of children forced to work in subhuman and appalling conditions.

The photographs, in their stark black and white reality, portrayed the brutal and callous treatment of young children enslaved by the cultural revolution.

The event was well received by Huntsville's elite, with many people commenting on the cruelty of a system that would allow such a thing to happen.

The irony was that many of the captions had been removed from the bottom of the photographs to spare the feelings of the local business community.

Many of the photographs had been taken in Huntsville, Alabama - inside the very mills they owned.