Mob lynches Will Hamilton in Asotin on August 5, 1903.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 2/12/2006
  • Essay 7620
On August 5, 1903, a 600-member mob lynches 26-year-old rancher Will Hamilton in Asotin for the murder of 12-year-old Mabel Richards, daughter of the Asotin County sheriff.

One Sunday Morning

On Sunday morning, August 2, 1903, Sheriff Robert Richards's family was camping in the vicinity of Farrish's Sawmill just west of Anatone in Asotin County. People of the time often camped outdoors in the summer to escape the heat. About 9:30 a.m., Mrs. Richards and her three children prepared to go to Sunday school at the Kelly schoolhouse, about a mile and a half distant.

Twelve-year-old Mabel was ready early, and with her mother's consent left for Sunday school. She set out along Farrish Mill Road, expecting to be overtaken shortly by the rest of her family riding in their horse and buggy. Instead, purely by chance, she was met in a long curve in the road by 26-year-old Will Hamilton, a rancher who lived six miles southeast of Anatone. Hamilton greeted her and upon receiving a polite reply jumped off of his horse, kissed her, and forced her into a nearby thicket.

Hamilton attempted to rape the young girl and he made her promise not to tell. She promised, but he did not believe her. He choked her for several minutes, then, seeing that she was still breathing, struck her in the head several times with a large pine club, killing her.

Mabel was quickly reported missing. A search ensued and her body was found Monday afternoon, August 3. Although not initially a suspect, Hamilton was arrested because witnesses had seen him on Farrish Mill Road at about the same time Mabel disappeared.

The Investigation

At an inquest in Anatone during the night of August 3, Hamilton denied involvement. Because of the lack of evidence or real suspicion against him, he was simply questioned as a witness. However, later in the night several jurors learned that Hamilton had attempted to rape an eight-year-old girl just a few weeks before.

At that point, Hamilton was more closely questioned and soon he confessed to the crime. Sheriff's deputies quickly moved Hamilton to the county jail in Asotin on the morning of August 4 and placed guards around the jail.

Also on the morning of August 4, Mabel Richard's body was brought to Asotin to the undertaker's office in the coroner's parlors, along with the 11-foot pine club used to kill her. Hundreds were allowed to view the body as well as the pine club. This had the effect of inflaming passions further. Word quickly spread of the crime, who had done it, and where he was being held. By noon, men from Clarkston, Anatone, and Lewiston, Idaho, were headed for Asotin.

Hamilton reportedly gave his initial confession to the deputies with no emotion. On the afternoon of August 4, a reporter from the Lewiston Tribune interviewed him and also noted Hamilton's lack of remorse when he discussed the crime. The reporter wrote, "This story was recited with a coolness of demeanor that was startling." "Didn't you feel some horror in striking the child?" asked the reporter. "No, I didn't," answered Hamilton. "The feeling just came to me to kill her and I thought no more about it than killing a cat" (Lewiston Tribune).

Some claimed that Hamilton "was not right in the head." The Tribune reporter made the same observation, writing that Hamilton joked with his visitors and "seemed to have no idea of the danger even then surrounding him" (Tribune). Hamilton's father claimed Will Hamilton had been "run over by a piece of heavy machinery" at the age of eight and that as a result, his "head had been altered" (Tribune).

The Mob Gathers

By dark, at least 500 men, mostly strangers to the area, had gathered in Asotin. Yet all was quiet; all accounts report there was no noise or rowdiness of any kind. "Everything moved along slowly and quietly" wrote F. A. Shaver in his 1906 account of the crime in his book, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington. As midnight approached, word got out that another hundred men were approaching Asotin from Anatone. "It was then presumed, upon their arrival, whatever was to be done would soon happen. And so it did" (Shaver).

By midnight, August 5, 1903, a nearly full moon shone high in the sky and provided bright illumination for the horsemen arriving from Anatone as they skirted the ridge above the south side of Asotin. "A white cloud of dust from the hoofs of a hundred horses signaled their coming down the hillside," according to the Tribune account.

At 12:15 a.m. a squad of 16 masked men marched to the county jail in Asotin. The guards at the jail tried to resist the intruders, but were quickly overpowered and tied. The masked men got the keys to Hamilton's cell and secured the entrance to the jail yard.

At this point someone fired a shot, evidently a signal for additional force. Almost immediately, a hundred additional masked men quickly marched to the jail and took Hamilton out.

Held "in a such a manner to prevent outcry" (Shaver), Hamilton was marched about two blocks from the jail down Fillmore Street to the corner of First, followed by a mob of 600, according to 27-year-old Asotin County Deputy Ed Grounds, who was on duty at the jail that night.

The Lynching

Hamilton again recited his confession. Then "a rope was hastily adjusted around his neck and his body drawn about four feet in the air, by passing the rope over an electric light guy wire," reported the Asotin Sentinel. "When life was known to be extinct, the loose end of the rope was tied to a large pole nearby and the lifeless form of the child murderer left suspended in the air. The whole proceeding lasted about 20 minutes."

At this point the crowd, which had been largely silent during the entire lynching, broke into a series of loud cheers, "happy in knowing that the slayer of an innocent child could no more run at large, and that the murder of little Mabel Richards had, so far as public sentiment was concerned, been speedily avenged without the aid of court or jury" (Asotin Sentinel).

The coroner was notified of the lynching, arrived at the scene about an hour later, and cut Hamilton's body down. Hamilton's body was taken back to the county jail and claimed by his father the next morning. An inquest was held later on the evening of August 5 by a jury of six men who found that Hamilton "had come to his death through strangulation by a rope having been placed around his neck ... by a party of masked men unknown to them" (Shaver).

No one was ever charged with Hamilton's lynching. Lynchings were not uncommon in Washington Territory (later Washington State) in the last four decades of the nineteenth century. History records 20 lynchings in Washington between 1860 and 1900.

Sources: F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), p. 673-674; Kerri Sandaine, "Lynching Marks Dark Day in County History," Lewiston Tribune, March 17, 2002, p. 1-A; Michael J. Pfeifer, Washington Territory and State Lynchings, 1860-1919, Website accessed January 20, 2006 (

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