Willis Griffey (also identified as William Griffey and Willis Griffery) was an African American man who lived in Christian County, Kentucky. He was born around 1859 to his mother Priscilla Griffey and her husband, an unidentified man. According to the 1870 Kentucky Census, Priscilla is listed as “Press Griffey.” Priscilla Griffey is listed as a widow in the 1870 and 1880 census. Willis Griffey was the oldest of her three children, and his younger siblings were George and Bettie. As of the 1880 Census, Griffey’s occupation was described as a loafer, which is a title referring to someone who was unemployed for 12 months or more. He married Julia Ware on December 11th, 1884, in Christian Co., Kentucky.
In its September 3, 1884 edition the Evansville Courier and Press reported that Willis Griffey had been charged with the kidnapping and raping Lena Berry, a young white woman and daughter to Mr. and Mrs. James Davie. On the day in question, Berry said she was traveling home from church. She said that Griffey had approached her, overpowered her while she on her horse, and dragged her into the woods. She claimed to have passed out, and when she awoke, she told her family that Mr. Griffey had raped her.
William Braeme and W.H. Merrit found Griffey in Madisonville, Kentucky and took him to Hopkinsville County Jail. Fearing that a mob would assemble and break into the jail, the police moved him to the Caldwell County Jail in Princeton, Kentucky. On October 13th, 1894, based on the testimony of Lena Berry, the Caldwell County Grand Jury charged Mr. Griffey with rape and the judge set his court date for October 22nd, 1894.
During the night, between 11:30 pm on October 14 and 2:00 am on October 15, a mob of unmasked, South Christian County men who were thought to be neighbors and friends of the Berry family came into Caldwell County Jail and took Mr. Griffey, the leader of the mob who was said to be “barely in his teens.” The newspaper accounts differ on whether the jailer tried to intervene. The Nashville American said that the jailer was surprised and overwhelmed, while the Cincinnati Post and Evansville Courier said that jailer was pushed aside. The mob took Mr. Griffey from the Caldwell County Jail and took him two to three miles away from town, where his body was soon hung from a beech tree, riddled with bullet holes, and mutilated by the mob. He was not found until later in the day on Monday, October 15th, 1894.
According to the Wichita Beacon and Richmond Planet, the African American community in Princeton, Kentucky was extremely angry about the lynching of Willis Griffey. The leaders in the Black community began holding secret meetings in their homes discussing if they should start a race riot. However, the race riot never ensued.
The newspaper accounts of Griffey’s lynching presupposed Griffey’s and added to the atmosphere of racial terror. The Clarksville Leaf Chronicle called him a brute and justified its lack of publicity of the alleged rape, in order to “keep the matter as quiet as possible” and for the capture of Griffey. The Nashville American described Griffey in its pages as a “colored brute,” “ negro fiend,” and “black villain.” The Hopkinsville Kentuckian said that Griffey was a man of “notoriously bad character.” Moreover, when Griffey claimed that sex between he and Davie was consensual, the Kentuckian reported that Griffey’s account aroused even more white indignation, since “the young lady was always borne an excellent character.”
These accounts may have played a role in the gathering of the mob and the justification of the lynching. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on a “ripple of excitement” moving through the white community as rumors of a lynch mob circulated. The Nashville American stated that Griffey “met a richly deserved death at the hands of the mob.” No one was arrested or tried for Griffey’s lynching.