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Dancing in the street


The Maryland Ritual Murders

After the hanging

There was drumming and dancing in the streets after the public execution of the convicted ritual killers. The crowd was singing and shouting slogans. They thus expressed their sense of happiness and relief: in future they would have no more fears when walking at night in the city and its outskirts. Finally, justice had been done!

But was this popular feeling correct and justified?

There also exists another interpretation of what happened on February 16, 1979 and prior to that date.However, let it first be clearly stated that the guilt of the convicted murderers seems to be beyond any doubt. The evidence against them was clear and convincing, not in the least supported by the confessions of the state witnesses. Moreover, reportedly Allen Yancy personally admitted that he was guilty (Ellis, 1999: 254/255).

A few days after his son had been executed, the National Chairman of the True Whig Party James N. Anderson resigned, on February 20, 1979, embittered (“due to the machinations of wicked and cruel men my eldest son James Daniel was hanged for a crime he did not commit” was what he wrote in the letter tendering his resignation). Reportedly, he also was revengeful. His appeals for clemency for his son had found a deaf ear with President Tolbert and within the True Whig Party. In the weeks prior to the hanging he had been very outspoken about his feeling of revenge in case Tolbert would not review his position (private communication between James N. Anderson and an unnamed source). But President Tolbert persisted and under the cloak of judicial independence he refused to intervene, which sharply contradicts his interference when he wrote to the National Legislature and asked for ‘appropriate action’ against Representative Allen Yancy.

In reality, however, it is very likely that the trial of the Maryland murderers and their conviction and subsequent execution was influenced by a power struggle within the Americo-Liberian ruling class. Not more than 30 families had always decided the country’s fortunes and misfortunes, although they never ruled simultaneously.

During the Tubman era (1944-1971) members of the Tubman, Padmore, Barnes, Brewer, Grimes, Sherman, Weeks, Anderson and Yancy families climbed high on the political ladder. After Vice-President William Tolbert succeeded President Tubman in 1971, members of the Tolbert clan replaced them: the Tolbert, Hoff, David, McClain, Holder and Pierre families. Both Tubman and Tolbert used Liberians of tribal descent, to broaden their political base and to compensate for the loss of support from some Americo-Liberian families by giving them high positions in their Government or even cabinet posts.

Within the TWP, the fight for power and public positions in combination with different, opposing views on societal issues and development politics separated the two camps – although no clear line of demarcation existed due to the numerous intermarriages and other individual personal relations. E.g. President Tolbert’s daughter Wokie is married to ‘Shad’ Tubman, the eldest son of President William Tubman, whereas a deceased daughter of Tolbert had been married to a Yancy. Liberian politics prior to the 1980 coup had very much been characterized by this mixture of relations (see Fraenkel, Liebenow, Lowenkopf in References).

Against this background it is inevitable to pose the question: was President Tolbert sincere in his fight against ritual killings and other serious crimes? How sincere was he?

It is difficult to answer this question without hesitation – be it with a straightforward ‘no’ or with a convinced ‘yes’. President Tolbert, who certainly had been ‘close’ to a number of the ritualistic murders, which occurred during the Administration of his predecessor, started his presidency in a flashy way quickly introducing a number of reforms and changes. This earned him the nickname ‘Speedy’ but also brought him in conflict with the more conservative wing of the ruling powerful political party, the True Whig Party. It was not accidentally that he took a firm stand once he was firmly seated in the political arena.

When he took over the reigns of government, Tolbert first finished Tubman’s truncated term of office but then continued, the following four years, on the basis of Tubman’s victory in the 1971 presidential elections. In 1975 Tolbert had been elected in his own right and his 8-year presidential term had started in January 1976. He may have been determined to introduce some changes which were long overdue in the areas of foreign relations, foreign investments, relations between the Americo-Liberian political class and the tribal masses, his ‘fight against poverty, disease and ignorance, etc. As the nation’s president he held the Constitution in one hand but as a religious leader he held the Bible in the other hand.

His apparent sincerity in desiring political reforms and fighting lawlessness, however, is surrounded by a number of intriguing questions. Both before and after the arrest of Anderson, Yancy et al, there have been numerous cases of ritual killings. The Liberian press always very openly reported on dead bodies found ‘with several parts missing’, the most common expression to refer to ritual and cannibalistic practices. Arrests made in connection with these murders were pretty rare whereas public trials, convictions and public execution of the suspects found guilty were never reported - at least based on the same local newspapers. Were there cover-ups, like the case in Grand Cape Mount County? Or were too mighty people involved whose loss of support Tolbert could not afford? Or had relatives been involved? It should not be forgotten that the Tolbert-clan was one of the biggest in the country.

Furthermore, President Tolbert had signed several death warrants since November 19, 1971 when he signed the first one, sending a Nigerian science professor, Justin Obi, to the gallows. Subsequently, eight other convicted murderers had been hanged, among whom his cousin William Tolbert who had killed his wife. The latest two executed murderers were Borbor Brown and Kekulah Vogbor, in 1978, who died from the capital punishment after much public attention.

The Harper hanging was the fifth in the series since November 19, 1971. Altogether, and including the ‘Harper Seven’, sixteen convicted murderers had been hanged since 1971 (The Liberian Age, Feb. 16 1979, ‘Seven hanged At Dawn’). Whatever one may think of the capital punishment, sixteen executions compares - relatively speaking - favourably with the several hundreds of convicted murderers in Liberian prisons. In fact, the capital punishment in Liberia was rarely executed. So the question emerges: why then in the case of the Harper Seven? Was it because of his feelings of ‘justice’ or did President Tolbert pursue this case because he wanted to reduce the power of some influential Maryland families, in particular those who had been close to former President Tubman?

We may never know the answer for sure. The following year President Tolbert was brutally murdered in the Executive Mansion. In general, he shunned the mansion, reportedly because of his fear of the ‘bad spirits’, which - according to popular rumours - haunted the presidential palace and which were linked to ritual ceremonies which allegedly had taken place in it during the Tubman years. President Tolbert’s death started the decline of Americo-Liberian supremacy, but it did not stop ritualistic killings in the country.

Already a few months after the Harper hanging the “Sunday Express” headed: “HARPER AGAIN? Several Arrested For Alleged Kidnapping”. What had happened? A student of the William V.S. Tubman College of Technology in Harper, who was returning home at night, was offered a lift by a pick-up truck driven by some unidentified men. While en route the student was attacked but he was saved after a woman who was nearby observing what happened yelled and the alleged perpetrators of the act disappeared. When the student was found, he was naked and tied with ropes. Later, the suspects were arrested on suspicion of kidnapping. (Sunday Express, April 8, 1979, p.1 and 7).

In July of the same year a ritual murder case in Sinoe County again shocked the nation. The hanging of the ritual murderers in Maryland County did not deter a group of people in Greenville, capital of Sinoe County, to commit the same crime only a few months after the public executions in Harper. Again some big names were involved and eventually several high-ranking public officials were arrested and put on trial. Read more on the Sinoe Ritualistic Killing case.

The following year, in August 1980, I turned on the radio and heard a BBC report on a recurrence of ritual killings ... in Maryland County, Liberia. Among those arrested was the mayor of the County’s capital, Harper. There may have been more, may be many more, in the years which followed. We will never know how many.

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