Albert Giles, ‘Hero or Villain’?

The 12 men falsely condemned to death after the Elaine (Ark.) Massacre. Albert Giles is the man sixth from left, without a hat. (Arkansas State Archives/Governor Brough Scrapbook; via Dr. Brian Mitchell)

Albert Giles, a Black sharecropper from Arkansas, was sentenced to death in connection with what is known as “the Elaine Massacre,” one of the bloodiest racial conflicts in U.S. history. Giles served four years on death row before the charges were dropped. He then moved to Springfield, where he spent a violent decade before being beaten to death in 1937.

The Elaine Massacre took place from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 1919, in Phillips County, Arkansas, after African-American sharecroppers tried to organize a union. White residents from the surrounding area indiscriminately slaughtered several hundred Blacks – the exact number is unknown – following a clash at a union organizing meeting. Five whites also died.

“After the massacre, state officials concocted an elaborate cover-up, claiming that blacks were planning an insurrection,” Wikipedia says. “…(M)ore than 100 African Americans were indicted, with 12 being sentenced to death by electrocution. After a years-long legal battle by the NAACP, the 12 men were acquitted.”

Giles (1898-1937) was one of the 12; he was released from prison in 1923.

Not much is known about Giles’ life before the Elaine Massacre, although he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I and apparently received an honorable discharge. (A fire at a St. Louis facility in 1973 destroyed many records from both world wars.) The 1930 U.S. Census reports that Giles had not attended school, but he could read and write anyway.

The 1925 Springfield city directory says Giles worked as a janitor. The 1930 U.S. Census identifies him as a hod carrier (a bricklayer’s assistant). Other city directories, however, give Giles’ occupation as “soft drinks;” which, during Prohibition, often meant the person sold illegal liquor.

Newspaper stories say Giles also operated rooming houses. He moved several times but seems to have stayed in the neighborhood around 11th and Mason streets. Giles married Mary Wheatley (1907-?) of Springfield in 1929, although the two divorced sometime before Giles’ death in 1937.

It’s impossible to tell how the Elaine Massacre and years under threat of execution affected Giles. It’s clear, however, that violence accompanied him to Springfield.

Giles had been in Springfield only a year or two when he shot and killed Pedro Mariss, a railroad section hand from Mexico, in May 1926. According to the Illinois State Register, an inquest found that Mariss was drunk “and in a quarrelsome mood” when he attempted to rent a room from Giles at 1105 E. Mason St.

“Testimony showed that the Mexican started at Giles with a large knife but that Estella Hewitt, negro, who lives at the address, stepped between them and was cut on the arm,” the Register said. “Mariss then started for Giles and was shot once. Giles immediately surrendered to police.”

A grand jury declined to indict Giles for manslaughter, but that was only the first of many arrests, fights and shootings he was involved in over the next few years. When a woman bit him in the lip in a 1936 dispute, newspaper reports said, Giles pulled a knife and stabbed her in the shoulder and slashed her face.

Four people, including Giles, were wounded when Giles and a neighbor fired shotguns at each other in July 1937. Giles and the neighbor both were charged with assault with intent to kill, but the charges apparently were dropped. Giles also was charged at various times with gambling and liquor violations.

He died after a fight with another neighbor at Giles’ home on Dec. 12, 1937.

Louis Sparks, 47, told a coroner’s jury he hit Giles first, saying he was afraid Giles would shoot him. “The only way I can get along with you is with a shotgun,” Sparks quoted Giles as saying. Sparks “admitted he struck Giles with his fist, ‘then kicked him a couple of times after he fell to the floor,’” the Illinois State Journal reported.

Giles died at St. John’s Hospital on Christmas Day. He is buried alongside other World War I veterans at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Hat tip: To Brian Mitchell, director of research and interpretation at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, whose program, Is He a Hero or a Villain? The Complicated Life of Albert Giles, inspired this entry and helped guide SangamonLink’s research. Mitchell, one of the nation’s leading scholars regarding the Elaine Massacre, presented his program at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in June 2024, part of the 2024 “History Comes Alive” series.

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