Richard May was an African American male, who worked as a field hand. Beyond his sex, race, and occupation, which were mentioned in the newspaper articles, there is no extant biographical information is available.

According to contemporaneous accounts, Sod Kelly, a white farmer, employed Richard May as a tobacco picker in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1884.  On July 29, 1884 white newspapers printed allegations that Richard May supposedly tried to rape on of Kelly’s daughters. The woman’s name was not mentioned in the accounts. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Officer G.F. Reynolds arrested May and brought him to jail. However, the same newspaper stated that the Kelly daughter had not told anyone about the attempted rape until two days later. 

Word of the attack spread among the residents of Owensboro. On the evening of July 29, a mob formed outside the jail where May was held. According to the Kentucky Advocate, the mob attacked the Owensboro jail the following morning seeking to abduct May. One newspaper, the African American Washington Bee, reported that the mob was comprised of 60 to 70 men, many of whom were wearing masks. W.F. Lucas, the jailer supposedly tried to fend off the mob, and he was joined by his son Tom.  The mob opened fire on the Lucases, mortally wounding the elder Lucas, who died the following day.  Other accounts wrote that Lucas’s wife helped him defend the jail and that she was overcome by the mob. Either way, the mob broke down May’s cell door, forcefully removing him from the cell, and hanging him from a tree located in the courthouse yard.

The newspaper accounts of racial bias was on full display in their comparison of the Sod family to Richard May.  Sod Kelly was portrayed as a “respectable farmer,” and his daughter was “feeble” and “innocent.”  Similarly, the Owensboro Messenger, described as the “poor girl” who “trembled and weeped” as she was “weak from fear.” No one was ever arrested or apprehended for the lynching of Richard May.  


Location of the Lynching


Roper, Myra. “Richard May.” Documented Biographies. Documenting Racial Violence in Kentucky. May, 29, 2023.