William Wardley, Dec. 7, 1896, Irondale

An article in The Atlanta Constitution, published on December 8, 1896, bears the headline “Posse Kills Strange Negro: Flimflam Workers Try To Do Irondale Merchants.” A second, sub-headline elaborates, “New One and Two Dollar Bills Taken For Counterfeit and Refused. An Inquest.” From minimal reporting on the day after his killing to his inclusion in the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial For Peace and Justice, so began William Wardley’s journey of erasure and re-emergence — a traveler who would never reach his destination, and who would be largely forgotten in history, the details of his life and identity undocumented. 

The article continues, elaborating on events that led to Mr. Wardley’s death, describing how “Wardley, colored” was pursued by a group of locals after he “entered the town and displayed a number of new crisp one and two-dollar bills, which were thought to be counterfeit.” 

Mr. Wardley was traveling with one white and one black companion. Both of his partners escaped, but Mr. Wardley was shot down by the mob. “Flimflam,” as it is used in the title of this article, characterizes these men as perceived criminals and con-men. 

When Mr. Wardley presented these crisp new bills, it was in an attempt to purchase a nickel’s worth of apples from a man named Edmund N. Guardian. After the merchant refused to accept Mr. Wardley’s payment, a mob formed and Mr. Wardley and his partners were chased through town. According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, released for Mr. Wardley’s inclusion in the organization’s Community Remembrance Project, Mr. Wardley was fatally wounded a mile and a half out of Irondale by a spot at the railroad tracks. 

After his death, an investigation by the the Secret Service Agents Forsyth and Barret ensued and declared that the money was not counterfeit. Even when agents declared the currency legitimate, locals first maintained that it was counterfeit. They then changed their story to claim that Mr. Wardley had either killed himself or that he had fallen on and discharged his own gun. Nobody in this accounting was ever prosecuted, including an area minister who had participated in the mob. 

As stated in a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, “Black people carried a heavy presumption of guilt during this era, and many hundreds of African Americans across the South were lynched based on false allegations, accusations of non-serious crimes or even for non-criminal violations of social customs and racial expectations.” Of 554 lynchings documented by the NAACP between 1889 and 1919, 89 were for “Crimes Against Property,” 39 cataloged under “Absence of Crime.” 

Margaret Wineburg 

Representative for Birmingham-Southern College


Selected Sources 

“Alabama Citizens Posse Pursued a FlimFlam Artist” The Wichita Beacon (Kansas), December 10, 1896, page 2. 

“Posse Kills Strange Negro: Flimflam workers try to do Irondale Merchants,” December 8, 1896. 

“Untitled,” Smith County Journal (Kansas), December 10, 1896, page 8. 

To learn more about the presumption of guilt as a legacy of the era of racial terrorism, please visit : presumption-guilt