The Case of Lester Jones: An African American Male in Cleveland, 1912
by Greg Fuller
On March 16, 1912 a fight occurred in Mike Castriagano's Saloon at 1301 Webster Avenue, which today would be located two blocks South East of Jacob's Field in Cleveland, Ohio. The fight between two African American friends resulted in the death of Lester Jones from two gunshot wounds to the chest that were fired by Ed Harville. The following is a reconstruction of the people involved, the facts of the crime and research which was compiled from the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland State University archives and class literature. Following the account of these facts, I will discuss the social, economic and cultural trends underlying the murder and apply them to Cleveland life in 1912. I will also compare my findings about Cleveland and, once again, apply them to the larger regional and national trends from that time.
The evening of March 15, 1912 seemed to be routine for Lester Jones and Ed Harville. Both men were friends and worked as laborers and probably had a difficult experience finding steady work. Lester and Ed were in their early twenties and were recent migrants from the upper South (Lester, from Cincinnati and Ed, from Tennessee). Both men were temporarily living with their friend Ike Harland at 1016 Sumner, two blocks West and three streets North of the crime scene.
That night, the two routinely ventured to Mike Castriagano's Saloon, a primarily black bar. There they drank and played cards with their mutual friend George Wilson, an African American bartender at that establishment. What took place during the early part of the evening is sketchy. I do know that the men were on limited funds and Lester Jones was given a plate of food that George Wilson was unable to finish. Lester shared his food with Ed and the two ate off the same plate. Witness' reported that as the evening continued both men consumed alcohol and that Lester was drinking excessively.
The night turned into morning and at around 5:30 A.M. March 16, 1912 a card game ensued between Ed Harville and Ike Harland. Lester Jones, wanting to join the game, cleaned the bar for forty-five cents (the rough equivalent of $3.50 today). After about a half-hour, Lester made a bad play and Ed stood up and threw the cards in his face. On five different occasions, George Wilson and Ike Harland tried to stop the fight by placing Ed at the East end of the bar and Lester at the West end, near the bathroom.
During this separation, a gentleman emerged from the bathroom. Still enraged, Lester took his aggressions out on this stranger. George Wilson and Ike Harland put their effort into stopping this altercation and shooed the innocent target of Lester's rage out the side door. It was at this time that Ed went behind the bar, opened a drawer, and took the .38 caliber pistol that belonged to Mike Castriagano, the Italian bar owner. John Braime, an African American bystander, shouted that Ed had a gun. Ike Harland took Lester through the kitchen, out the back door, and told him to go home to bed and that he would soon follow. Ed stated that no one would take the gun away from him until Lester "got what was coming to him". At around 6:30 A.M. Lester left, but walked to Scovill instead of Ike Harland's house. The bar closed and all witnesses of the fight left the saloon.
Lester reappeared at the corner of Thirteenth and Webster at around 6:50 A.M. and the Cleveland streets were sunlit and beginning to buzz with local merchants starting their day. Frank Johanek, a caucasian man who lived on Cleveland's West side, owned a business across the street from Castriagano's Saloon. He arrived by horse and wagon along with Emmit Johnson, of 1009 Orange Street, and witnessed the shooting. They both stated that Lester was "hanging around" and that Ed appeared, walked up to Lester and simply shot him once, then twice.
Mike Castriagano was preparing lunches to lure in customers. As he heard the first shot he opened his door and witnessed the second shot. Lester, unarmed, took about three steps, fell and cracked his head on the street, dying on the scene. Castriagano heard Ed say, "You son of a bitch, you got enough?" and slowly walked West towards the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Window Company, located downtown. Mr. Lyons, of 1248 Webster, awakened by the shots, hoisted his window up and saw Ed walk West towards Champlain Street. He saw that Ed had a gun in his right hand and was yelling, "You done me wrong but by God I got you!" Ed told the police, "I walked to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Window Company on Champlain and gave the gun to a colored boy named Wilson" (the son of the bartender). Ed then left Cleveland for Middletown, Ohio where he was later apprehended and brought back to Cleveland by Officer George Moore via train on March 31st.
On March 16, 1912, Coroner MA Boesger M.D. presided over the inquest, number 15953, into the death of Lester Jones. The coroner's verdict and inquest seemed to only scratch the surface of what happened during Lester Jones' last day. There were eight witnesses to the crime committed. In my research, I found information regarding all but one witness, Emmit Johnson. He witnessed the shooting from across the street with Frank Johanek, who arrived at the scene by horse and wagon.
The majority of my information was located in the city directory and the 1910 census, which showed that a few of the African American witness' were born in the South and were recent immigrants to Cleveland. I found Isaac (Ike) Harland to be from Kentucky, Lester Jones from Cincinnati, Ed Harville from Tennessee, and George Wilson from Alabama. As mentioned, all witness' and players were located in the city directory excluding Emmit Johnson, which led me to believe he was a minor or a recent transplant. As for the census, I meticulously searched for each person but only found five of the eight witness', and had a very difficult time with common names such as Jones, Wilson, Johnson, and even Lyons and Moore.
My research became frustrating when I combed four of the seven existing newspapers of 1912. The Cleveland Citizen (1891-1977), Cleveland Gazette (1883-1945), Cleveland Leader (1892-1917) and the Cleveland Plain Dealer had not one account of the subsequent trial and, therefore, the verdict is unknown. Interestingly, the Cleveland Gazette, which catered to the African American community, had no accounts of this black on black crime or any negativity in regards to their race. It instead spoke about how the community needed to stand together. It concentrated it's literature on glorifying their race as the white newspapers did.
From the 1910 census, I was able to determine both the ethnicity of the witnesses and their place of residence, which showed me that the neighborhood of 13th and Webster was mostly residential with a few store fronts at each corner. It also showed that the majority of these corner businesses were white owned, but that blacks, Jews, and Italians lived in the neighborhood.. Interestingly, these were the most recent ethnic groups to arrive in Cleveland.
The census research also showed me that three of the witnesses were Caucasian and four were African American. George Moore was a police officer; Frank Johanek, was Caucasian and owned a\ business; WS Lyons, was Caucasian and owned a business; Ike Harland, an African American who had rheumatism and was unemployed for sixth months; George Wilson, an African American bartender; Emmit Johnson, an African American laborer; Ed Harville, an African American laborer and probably was later imprisoned. It seemed as though the influx of African Americans from the South were only able to find laboring jobs with low paying wages. The majority of the factory jobs were being snatched up by the Poles and Germans. These factories supported the growing steel industry that was used for farm tools, carriage and buggy and more recently, the booming automobile industry.
Cleveland's Black community was a quiet but growing presence, having increased from 1,300 in 1870, to 3,000 in 1890, to 8,500 in 1910. Migration from other states especially from the South- Part of a general drift of rural inhabitants to cities before W.W.I-accounted for most of the growth. In contrast to the large and well defined postwar ghetto that would arise, blacks prior to1915 were geographically quite dispersed.
Census data for 1910 shows all but 17 of 155 census tracts on the East Side contained some black residents, and no tract was more than 25 percent black. Even in the growing black neighborhood at Central and Scovill, blacks were still a minority and lived in close proximity to white ethnic immigrants especially Russian Jews and Italians. Also, as mentioned in Concise History, blacks were beginning to be excluded from hotels, restaurants and other public areas. For example, at the Luna Park resort, blacks were only allowed in on specified days. This general attitude towards African Americans and the negative trend of exclusion was evident in the lack of newspaper coverage.
The fact that there was no newspaper coverage regarding this case shows that blacks were indeed being excluded, not only from public establishments, but also in ink. It is my perception that the white media said nothing about the case because there were no white players involved, which is a sad trend in the Cleveland Newspapers and the media that followed. These anti-black sentiments, although subtle to some, reached the height of riots in such Northern cities as New York (1900), Springfield, Ohio (1904),and Springfield, Illinois (1908). Although Cleveland's treatment of African Americans were more subtle than the Midwest and less frequent or severe to the national trend, these incidents were increasing and, unfortunately, Cleveland was following suite.
Just as the American Court System changed by asking the question of "Why?" rather than "Who?" or "What?" I too began to ask why? Why did Ed Harville shoot his friend Lester Jones? My answer was threefold. First, and most obvious, was that alcohol was a factor. Both men were drinking all night. Although Ed Harville denied he was drinking in his testimony, several witness' stated that he was. Although the movement toward prohibition was decreasing the number of alcohol related deaths, Clevelanders were still able to find drinks in private saloons. The impaired judgment of Ed and Lester was the result of the German import fifty years previously-lager beer.
Secondly, the fact that both men worked as laborers and had difficulty finding steady work wreaked havoc on their conscience and it is in my opinion they related this to their manhood. Ed was so adamant about being done wrong, a feeling that he probably brought with him from Tennessee, and continued in his frustrating efforts in Cleveland to find work. A trend that started during the Industrial Revolution was that migrating African Americans had difficulty finding work in northern industrial cities that were well established by immigrants from previous decades. Although the black literacy rate soared from twenty percent in 1850 to nearly eighty percent in 1890, blacks were still having a difficult time finding work. "Few African Americans could afford to hire the professionals who had sacrificed so hard for their degrees and fewer whites wanted to. And as a result, after reaching a peak in 1910, the proportion of doctors and lawyers in the black population plummeted and did not recover for three generations." (Murder in America).
Thirdly, was the use of firearms. Handguns were appearing more frequently in northern cities at the turn of the century. From New York, Philadelphia, to Chicago, hand guns accounted for around twenty-five percent of all homicide incidents in the Nineteenth Century. "The proportion of gun deaths rose dramatically in the early Twentieth Century to forty percent [of all incidents]. The jump is the clear result of a population shift, the upsurge of immigration, and especially of murder indictments among African Americans and Italians; two groups more likely than others to carry lethal weapons." (Murder in America) I find it interesting that Ed Harville, an African American, took Mike Castriagano's gun to commit homicide. In relation to the frustrating work efforts, African Americans living in high crime areas, still fearful of whites, carried guns. This trend carried through Twentieth Century in Cleveland and in ghettos across the nation.
To better explain these facts it is prudent to state the general feeling of blacks in 1912 and how they were stereo-typically repressed. In the early 1900's four-fifths of the nations ten million African Americans still lived in the South and working in agriculture. In the cities, most blacks had menial jobs and only a small portion of middle class was able to sell their services to the black community. Since slavery, racism evolved into many forms. Most notable was the influence by Darwin's evolutionary theory that stated that blacks were a degenerate race, genetically susceptible to vice, crime, disease and were destined to lose the struggle for existence with whites.
My opinion is that this is a gross misinterpretation and that this Darwinism is unjustified and is neglectful towards blacks as well as whites. Such slurs that blacks were part animal, who knows no love were evident in the South. While in the North "Coon Songs" were popular in the theaters and in music. At a time of outright racism in the South and subtle racism in the North, African Americans were in need of leadership. This was found in Booker T. Washington and later in W.E.B. Dubois who feared that black's material wants had developed quicker than their social and moral standards. Dubois was quick to discount Washington's view that the blacks were inferior, and rather blacks should fight for their right for civic equality. Dubois spread his word through "Crisis", an NAACP newspaper that he founded. Although the pinnacle of migrating Southern blacks to Cleveland and Northern cities alike didn't come until 1920-1930, these racial undertones were becoming more evident in 1912.
The heightened frustrations of Ed Harville and Lester Jones reflect the general attitude of African Americans and of the pressure of white's attitudes towards them. Understanding what life was like in their neighborhood in Cleveland at the time that the murder took place is only a part of understanding the big picture of our nation. The case of Lester Jones mirrors the attitude in 1912 and many trends of the case are congruent with the attitude of the nation.
Lester and Ed were young and were part of a growing trend of black on black crime. They both were drinking and this was a spurred homicide of anger. A gun was used, which was part of another growing trend in homicide. The frustration of finding menial work was evident as Lester cleaned the bar before it closed and started to play cards with the money he just earned. The difference of how people lived and worked in Cleveland in 1912 was slightly different from other places around our nation, but the gap was closing. Cleveland's attitude towards African Americans was becoming more racist and the result of black frustration is evident in this case.
Reconstructing a piece of history proved to be a difficult task. The time and energy of piecing together the facts was interesting, but many pieces were missing. Particularly interesting was the fact that none of the Cleveland newspapers covered anything about the murder, the trial, or verdict, especially the Cleveland Gazette. In one sense I feel cheated, on a much broader scale, I can only think of the African American community that felt and still feels cheated. By examining this case, spending time on research and dissecting the information that was available, I was able to compile many observations regarding the people involved and of the neighborhood itself. My observations when applied to Cleveland, Midwest and the nation as a whole showed that Cleveland was a unique place, but the treatment of African Americans that were once "almost" equal to whites was changing in 1912. This change towards a racist city was subtle compared to the rest of the nation, and the following decades would prove that racism, subtle or not, is still racism.