May 1884: Dark Days of Sorrow
By Jennifer Bean Bower
“oh Lord forgive this poor sinner”
– Henry Swaim, May 1884
Harrison Reid’s farm was a place of laughter, lively conversation and natural beauty. Located near the Moravian community of Friedland in Winston-Salem, the farm was a popular destination for Moravian Sunday school outings and picnics. The Right Reverend Edward Rondthaler documented this fact in his remembrance for the year 1883, when he remarked “On June 28th the Home Sunday School greatly enjoyed their picnic at Mr. Reed’s [sic] farm,—the extensive yard and spring of which have frequently been granted for this purpose by the generous owner.”
Nearly one year later, joy turned to sorrow when the farm became the site of “one of the most brutal and fiendish murders ever witnessed.”
On Monday, May 5, 1884, the family of Harrison Reid awoke and began their day as usual.
Ernestina cooked the morning meal for her family, and likely a few of the field hands, while the children prepared for a busy day on the farm. Harrison readied his rifle, as he planned to hunt down a hawk that had been killing his chickens.
At the completion of breakfast, everyone except Ernestina left the house. The children and field hands headed to the cornfield to plant seed and Harrison began his search for the hawk. He felt certain the pesky bird could be found in a tall patch of pines opposite the cornfield, so he headed in that direction. Once there, Harrison heard a faint sound in the distance. He thought nothing of it until the noise became louder and more intense. He soon realized the shrieks were those of his wife and ran as fast as he could to help her. Upon nearing the house, Harrison caught sight of Ernestina. She was drenched in blood and stumbling toward the cornfield.
Harrison cried out to his wife and reached her just as she collapsed. In tears, he implored her to speak the name of the person who had harmed her. Ernestina gazed into her husband’s eyes and in a faint whisper replied, “Henry Swaim, Henry Swaim, Henry Swaim.”
A few seconds later, Ernestina fell unconscious. Harrison carried her limp body into the house, where she died minutes later. Although distraught, he maintained his composure and summoned everyone from the field. Ernestina’s children, as well as the farmhands, were overcome by grief and sorrow.
Harrison sent two of his workers to retrieve the sheriff and it wasn’t long before the whole town knew of Ernestina’s murder. Within hours, the farm was overrun with people who had come to offer both sympathy and service. Sheriff Augustus Fogle was quick on the scene and organized parties of men to seek out and apprehend the assailant.
Coroner William Barrow was also on-site, as were six men he had duly sworn and impaneled to assist with the postmortem examination. After an extensive study of the corpse and testimony from Harrison Reid and others, Coroner Barrow and his jury of men reported:
The deceased [Ernestina] Reed [sic], came to her death by a stab in the throat one and
½ inches long and 3 inches deep, severing the carotid artery [a second examination
revealed that the carotid artery had not been severed] and sundry blows on the head,
inflicting various wounds, to wit: 5 on the left side of the head near the top, 3 on the
right side of her head, one of the back of her head, and one on her forehead, said wounds
varying in length from 3 to less than 1 inch, all going to the bone, and two crushing the
skull bone. From the evidence before us, we are satisfied said wounds were inflicted by
a butcher knife, stone hammer, and an old axe, in the hands of Henry Swaim.
Sheriff Fogle’s men picked up their guns and began patrolling the county for Swaim who was described as a twenty-one or twenty-two-year-old white man. A few began their search at the Reid home where bloody fingerprints had been discovered on the back gate. They then followed tracks from the gate to a nearby creek where more blood was found. Their next stop was Swaim’s house, but no one was there. Swaim and his wife—a woman of “bad character”—lived on Harrison Reid’s farm. Both were employed by Harrison and in fact, Swaim’s wife was in the field planting corn at the time of the attack. Her role in the crime, if any, is unknown.
The remaining men searched various areas in Winston and Salem, but they too came up empty. Later, and purely by chance, a few of Fogle’s men saw Swaim working in a cornfield on the outskirts of town. When Swaim saw the men approaching, he began to run; but when they leveled their weapons in his direction, he froze.
Swaim was handed over to Sheriff Fogle and escorted to the Forsyth County Jail. Men and women followed the procession and shouted words of disgust at the young man. They had heard the gruesome details of Ernestina’s death and were eager to see Swaim punished. The hostility of the crowd was so strong that Sheriff Fogle was sure he would soon face a raging lynch mob. When they arrived at the jail, the sheriff placed Swaim in a cell and appointed a guard to stand duty. He then organized a special police force to keep watch outside. Afterwards, he addressed the crowd with words of justice and due course and encouraged everyone to return home. Much to the sheriff’s relief, his words were heeded and the crowd began to disperse.
Sometime later, however, a large group of men—who were armed and in disguise—arrived at the jail and demanded entrance. Once again, Sheriff Fogle tried to talk them down, but it was to no avail. Mayor John C. Buxton and Chief of Police W. G. Bahnson had been summoned to the jail and they too beseeched the men to disperse. Mayor Buxton assured them that law and order would prevail, but the mob booed his words. “Henry Swaim is wanted,” they shouted, “and we intend to have him.”
Then, all at once, the mob—who was described as an “orderly and in the main respectful” group of men—rushed the door of the jail. Once inside, the men beat the lock off the cell, slammed the door open, and commanded Swaim to come out. With no possible way to escape, Swaim slowly stepped forth and was grabbed, tied, and marched outside. As the mayor and lawmakers were well outnumbered—estimates ranged from 50 to 250 men—there was nothing they could do to stop the atrocity.
“THE MURDERER LYNCHED”
The men marched Swaim through the streets of Winston and Salem and to the top of a hill that was located on “the Waughtown road.” At the top of the hill stood a large tree and it was there the mob stopped. Swaim was then permitted to speak, as several questions were put forth for him to answer. An eyewitness account of the inquiry, which was printed in the May 8, 1884, edition of the Union Republican, read:
Did you kill Mrs. Reed [sic]?
He answered yes.
Why did you do it?
I don’t know; I wanted money.
Had you any help?
Where was you from 5 o’clock that morning until you committed the murder?
Behind Mrs. Reed’s [sic] barn.
What was you there for?
I wanted to see when they all left the house.
Where did you first strike Mrs. Reed [sic]?
In the house with the stone-hammer.
How many times did you strike Mrs. Reed [sic]?
I don’t know.
Did you hit her with the axe?
No, the axe flew off and I struck with the handle. I cut her after she fell and ran down in the direction of the branch where I washed my hands.
After Swaim confessed his deplorable deed, he pleaded “won’t somebody pray for me?” One man stepped forward and then Swaim also prayed. According to the May 15 edition of the Western Sentinel, his prayer “ran something like this: ‘Oh Lord take me from this world once more! Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more! I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins.’”
Swaim then spoke a few words that he wanted delivered to his wife and mother. “Tell them I wish them well,” he said, “and that I want them to be good.” He requested that his banjo and shotgun be left to his brother Charles, and said to give his boots to a neighbor he had stolen from.
Afterward, a rope was positioned tightly around Swaim’s neck. His hands and feet were tied and a handkerchief placed over his eyes. Two men lifted his body upward, as another fashioned the rope around a tree limb. Swaim and the rope were let go and it was then that the act became abhorrent to all who were involved. Henry Swaim did not drop, break his neck, and die. Instead, he dangled as his feet played touch and go with the earth. A couple of men tried to bring the hanging to an end by lifting up Swaim’s legs, but still he choked. At one point, the young man’s body dropped to the ground “in a heap” at which point someone in the crowd exclaimed “My God men, we must not allow this!”
Once more Swaim was hoisted, as the mob hastily departed. It is said that one of the men, likely in an effort to end Swaim’s suffering, “withdrew several yards away and fired the contents of their arms in the direction of the hanging body.”
The body of Henry Swaim remained hanging for many hours after the grisly deed and crowds of people were reported to have viewed it. One such person was William Clinard, whose crayon portrait of the lynching was “one of the attractions to be seen upon the walls of a wayside grocery at Union Cross, on the road to High Point.” Eventually, the body was removed, examined, and buried, at the county’s expense.
Although public sentiment toward lynching was mixed, most everyone in Winston and Salem agreed that the city and county officials had done all in their power to prevent the terrible occurrence. “The only comfort attending this unlawful transaction,” said the Right Reverend Edward Rondthaler in The Memorabilia of Fifty Years 1877-1927, “was that the particulars of the crime were correctly ascertained.” His words likely reflected the opinion of many.
“a most estimable, kind and neighborly lady”
The “brutal murder” of Ernestina Reid shocked “the people of Forsyth County.” As reported by the Union Republican, she “was a most estimable, kind and neighborly lady of some 54 years of age. Her house was a favored resort for pic-nic [sic] parties…and there is scarcely a child in the twin-cities who does not have a pleasant recollection of this kind lady.”
Ernestina’s obituary, which appeared in the May 8 edition of the People’s Press, reiterated those thoughts. It read:
Mrs. Ernestina E. Reed [sic], who was murdered on Monday, May 5th, 1884,
was the daughter of David and Sarah Blum. She was born May 27th, 1830 and
was 54 years old less 22 days. On December 25th, 1853, she was married to
Harrison Reed [sic]. Their union was blessed with six children, three of whom
preceded her to eternity. As a daughter, sister, wife, and mother, she was kind
affectionate and faithful.
The crowds of neighbors and friends, who assembled at the home of the
deceased, and at Friedland Moravian church, where she was buried attest
the highest esteem in which she was held. By special request, the funeral
services were conducted by Dr. Rondthaler and Elder Wm. Turner. “God
moves in a mysterious way,” etc., was sung, and Psalm 17:15, was the text
The bereaved family desire to return thanks to their neighbors and friends,
for help and sympathy rendered in these dark days of their sorrow.
Three years after the murder, Harrison Reid followed his wife in death. The cause of his passing is unknown, but one has to wonder if the affliction of grief carried him to an early grave. It is also not known if the Reid children continued to live on the farm after their parents’ death. However, a photograph taken around 1895 documents an outing so lively that the viewer can hear the boisterous voices of the children and sense the pleasure of the day. The photograph, which is inscribed “Reid’s Farm,” gives evidence that the children, or other relatives, maintained the property and continued Ernestina and Harrison’s tradition of providing a place of beauty and merriment to all who entered their gates.
In memory of Ernestina Eva Reid (1830-1884)