James Scales

James Scales


Mid-day on November 23, 1944, a crowd of people gathered to participate in the murder of James Scales, a 16-year old trusty at a state reformatory, the Tennessee State Training and Agricultural School for Colored Boys. The crowd began to hang Scales under a large tree on the grounds of the reformatory, but the lynching came to an end when one member of the lynch mob shot him in the head four or six times. There was no doubt the cause of Scales’ death was homicide, but questions remained about the identities of mob participants, particularly the person who fired the fatal shots.

Earlier in the morning of November 23, reformatory guards had accused Scales of fatally wounding the wife of the school’s Superintendent, H. E. Scott, and murdering his 19-year old daughter, Gwyndolyn McKinnie. Scales had been at the reformatory only three weeks when the incident took place. He grew up in Nashville with his divorced mother, Daisy Scales. As a boy, Scales encountered difficulties with the law at least eight times beginning at age nine. He came to the reformatory in late October 1944 after a conviction for stealing purses. Soon after his arrival, he was appointed a trusty and assigned to work in the home of the warden, Scott, building fires and cooking food.

Double Murder and Lynching

School personnel discovered Mrs. Scott and her daughter sometime between 7:00 and 9:00 AM on November 23. The women were assaulted in their home on school grounds, just 100 yards from the tree where the mob assembled to lynch Scales. It was an incredibly brutal murder, a case of overkill using a double-edged axe, two butcher knives, a hammer, and the barrel of a shotgun removed from its stalk. Although few people in the white community doubted Scales’ guilt, there was never an investigation into the women’s murder and there are reasons to suspect he may have been innocent.

Scales absconded from school earlier in the morning and two local farmers brought him back at around 10:00 AM. The farmers did not perceive any foul play because boys ran away from the reformatory regularly—it had no fences or walls at the time—and people were offered a small reward for bringing them back. The reformatory was a state institution located in Bledsoe County, one of the whitest areas in Tennessee, so it was easy for local people to identify runaways.

School guards took Scales to a jail located in Pikeville, about 15 miles away, where a young cook and her infant child were the only attendants. A group of men came back within an hour to get Scales and bring him back to the reformatory. A mob had gathered there, comprised of reformatory employees, local farmers, and workers on a construction project at the school. After the lynching, members of the mob put Scales’ body on display for other inmates to see. Guards with guns, all of whom were state employees, either participated in the lynching or did little to stop it.

State and Federal Response

Superintendent Scott was attending a morning meeting in Nashville with the Commissioner of Institutions when he received a phone call about his family’s tragedy. Governor Prentice Cooper immediately dispatched Department of Safety Chief Lynn Bomar to investigate the crime. Governor Cooper promised a full report and pledged a $500 reward for finding Scales’ killer. Local black leaders and the International Labor Defense (ILD) matched the reward, which eventually totaled nearly $2000. Neither Governor Cooper nor his successor, Governor Jim Nance McCord, ever released the official report on the Scales lynching.

The FBI investigated the Scales lynching for just three weeks, interviewing about two dozen people—but not the prime suspect in the shooting—before turning full control over to local authorities. Z. Alexander Looby and the Tennessee NAACP also investigated the circumstances surrounding the incident and concluded that it was unlikely that Scales murdered the two women. Local law enforcement continued its inquiry into the Scales murder until late January 1945 when the case was presented to a grand jury, which failed to any indictments.