The fatal demise of Zephyr Davis, a 17-year-old African American foreman, began at work. The beginning of his end occurred at Greene’s Boot Heel Factory in Chicago sometime around 3 p.m. on February 27, 1888. It unfolded innocently enough: Eddie Dwyer, one of Davis’ coworkers, was instructed to clean out a storage closet. The more that Dwyer removed, however, the closer he got to the gory truth. Deep in the closet, buried beneath a pile of gunnysacks, rested the bloody, savaged remains of another employee.
Much to her supervisor’s dismay, Maggie Gaughan hadn’t shown up for work that day…or had she? The 14-year-old factory worker’s body, or at least what was left of it, was hacked and mangled almost beyond recognition. Her killer left the murder weapon, a hatchet, on the floor next to her.
The finger of blame was almost immediately pointed at Davis, who had left the factory on an errand. Exactly why he was the immediate prime suspect is unclear. Regardless, he did not return to work. His absence was interpreted as a sign of guilt at the time. That his coworkers had convicted of murder for all practical purposes and that he may have feared for his life does not appear to have been considered. In any case, a lynch mob set off to his house, ready to take justice into their own hands. Experts reviewing the case today are unanimous: if they’d found him, they would have killed him. Consequently, Davis tried to get the hell outta’ Dodge.
He didn’t make it terribly far. Davis was apprehended the very next day, 90-miles outside of the Windy City in Forest, Illinois. He was nabbed just prior to boarding an express train to Kansas City. An angry mob encircled the local police department, nearly preventing Davis from returning to Chicago to face trial.
The media had a field day with Davis’ story, which only served to stoke an already incensed horde. As encouraged by the Chicago Times, the masses followed him everywhere. They were so rowdy that the police had to use their fastest wagons to rush Davis court.
Armed only with a few details, newspapers started creating their own salacious versions of the events that led to Maggie Gaughan’s death. Per the Chicago Times, “She was met at the door by the negro and dragged into the closet. He had forced her to the floor, and she had screamed and fought with the best of her childish ability. Then he had picked up a hatchet, and holding her by the throat with his strong fingers he had rained down his murderous blows on her poor face.”
The public was already convinced of his guilt, so thoroughly proving it or offering him a fair shake was erroneous. The truth no longer mattered Davis’ trial was a three-ring circus. As case in point, he was tried, sentenced, and executed within a span of but two months.
The world will never know if Zephyr Davis was innocent or guilty of murder.