On Sunday, January 28, 1912, at about 3 p.m., a white mob lynched John Chandler in Bessemer, Alabama. Reports from the time say Mr. Chandler was also known as John Prentiss, but no other information is known about his age, family, or occupation.
Mr. Chandler, along with Forney Smith and Charles Paige, had been arrested for the murder of prominent Italian business owner, Joseph Gagliano. According to reports, a black man walked into Mr. Gagliano’s store on Friday night, ordered a dime’s worth of fruit, and began to leave without paying. When Mr. Gagliano asked him for the money, the man turned and shot Mr. Gagliano, killing the 34-year-old store owner almost instantly.
The Sunday after the murder, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Paige were to be transferred to the county jail in Birmingham. The men were handcuffed and placed in the responsibility of Deputy Herron and Deputy Parker. The group was waiting at the prominent corner of 3rd Avenue and 19th Street, where the Bright Star restaurant now sits, for the arrival of the car that would take them to Birmingham, when the funeral procession for Joseph Gagliano passed by.
As they walked to the car, Louis Gagliano, the brother of the deceased, broke from the funeral procession and shot Mr. Chandler four times in the back, killing him instantly. Deputy Parker quickly grabbed Louis Gagliano, but six other men attempted to free him from police custody. Other officers were quick to help Deputy Parker. Mr. Gagliano was arrested and charged with murder. Other Italian men saw Mr. Chandler’s prostrate body in the street and fired as many as twenty more shots into his body before continuing with the funeral. Mr. Chandler’s body was removed from the street.
It is unclear whether Louis Gagliano was convicted or served any time. Two weeks after the lynching, Coroner Brasher declined to allow the people of Bessemer to know what was discovered at Mr. Chandler’s inquest. Mr. Gagliano’s attorney was allowed to be present, but no reporters were in attendance despite requests by Solicitor Ben Berry, Assistant Solicitor George Bumgardner, and Chief Deputy Sheriff Lacey Edmundson. It was not in doubt that Mr. Gagliano killed Mr. Chandler, yet the coroner’s jury failed to assign blame for the killing.
The absence of information on John Chandler as an individual illustrates the lack of value placed on African-American life during this time. Much of his story remains unknown, like many other lynching victims. Mr. Chandler was presumed guilty, despite the absence of a fair trial, which served to justify the actions of Mr. Gagliano and the other members of the funeral procession turned mob. Even the papers appeared more concerned with sensationalizing the story and justifying Mr. Gagliano’s actions than with being objective or informative.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
“Full Investigation of Bessemer Lynching,” The Journal (Huntsville, Alabama), February 1, 1912, page 1.
“Italians Lynch Negro While He Is In Handcuffs,” Tuscaloosa News, January 29, 1912, page 1.
“The Chandler Inquest,” Tuscaloosa News, February 6, 1912, page 2.