Despite being acquitted by the court, an angry white mob took matters into their own hands in 1925 Seminole County.
Historical mob violence against blacks is more commonly associated with states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. However, between 1882 and 1930, there were 212 blacks lynched in Florida. While that number is seventh highest among states by quantity, Florida (dreadfully) has the most blood on its hands of any state per capita.
During that era, fewer blacks lived in Florida than in other Southern states. Studies show the state shamefully had one lynching for every 1,250 black citizens between those years. That rate is even higher than Mississippi, almost twice that of Georgia, and seven times higher than North Carolina.
John West was one of two known victims in Seminole County. The twenty-year-old was a small-statured and unimposing figure. He had dark skin with a light frame and reportedly had been trying to grow a Charlie Chaplain-esque mustache.
The Sanford resident was accused of a truly terrible crime. According to accusations, while in the small town of Clarcona in late April, he broke into the house of a prominent area family, whereupon he allegedly raped their three-year-old daughter.
The local justice of the peace in the Apopka issued a warrant for his arrest on the breaking and entering charge. However, despite the more sinister rumors, no charges were ever filed for assault on the child.
About a week later, authorities found West in Sanford, and he was arrested by the Seminole County sheriff. Rumors swirled that mob violence may prevent the accused man from ever taking the stand. Sheriff Frank Karel of Orange County sent word to his colleagues in Sanford to keep him well-protected; they shipped him to Deland for safekeeping until trial.
On May 13, West was brought to Orlando to face a jury. The breaking and entering charge remained the only one against him. The alleged victim’s father, whose house West was charged with breaking into, declined to appear against him.
The jury returned a “not guilty” verdict and the judge declared West free to return home. Sheriff Karel had concerns that the acquitted man was not out of the woods yet. He bought him a train ticket back to Sanford and encouraged him to leave the county as soon as possible.
West boarded the “Sanford Short” railroad line around 9:00 PM on a Wednesday night. However, when the locomotive arrived an hour later at the Sanford depot, he was greeted by a large mob of angry whites.
Having received word of the verdict by telephone, the crowd decided to overrule the courts and sentence him to death themselves. Apparently, local law enforcement there was unable or unwilling to stop them.
Grabbing West from the train car, they hauled him deep into the woods near Longwood. There they stripped him naked and restrained him. Then taking a knife, they brutally castrated him. Onlookers must have cheered in delight as the freed man was painfully terrorized.
Following the operation, they tied him up to a tree and unleashed a barrage of gunfire into his already bloodied body. Seminole County deputies reportedly found him dead and riddled with bullets the following morning.
Later that afternoon, a coroner’s jury convened to examine the evidence. They concluded that West died at the hands of “a group of unknown persons” — a familiar refrain for these kinds of cases. Despite it being a small town, nobody knew anything and no charges were ever brought against his murderers.