What gave the baby name Floella a boost in 1927?

Murder victim Floella McDonald of Arkansas.
Floella McDonald

The old-fashioned name Floella saw peak usage in the U.S. in 1927, and a disproportionate amount of that usage happened in the southern state of Arkansas:

  • 1929: 6 baby girls named Floella
  • 1928: 13 baby girls named Floella
    • 5 (38%) born in Arkansas
  • 1927: 26 baby girls named Floella
    • 7 (30%) born in Arkansas, 5 (19%) born in Kentucky
  • 1926: 9 baby girls named Floella
  • 1925: 10 baby girls named Floella
Usage of the baby name Floella

Why 1927? And why Arkansas?

The answer has to do with a young girl whose murder was part of the chain of events that led to the last lynching in Little Rock.

On April 12, 1927 — amid the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 — a 12-year-old white girl named Floella McDonald visited the public library (to check out Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch). That’s the last time Floella was seen alive.

On April 30, Floella’s body was discovered in the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. The local papers described the crime scene in detail, even insinuating (without proof) that Floella had been raped.

The police rounded up several suspects — all of whom were black men — but the primary suspects were always the church’s janitor, Frank Dixon, and Frank’s teenage son Lonnie. Both men denied any involvement, and no evidence linked either one directly to the crime.

Lonnie Dixon (a “blue-eyed, brown-haired mulatto”) was interrogated for almost 24 hours straight. He wasn’t permitted to eat or sleep, and there was no defense lawyer present. The ordeal ended when he gave the police an oral confession.

The police relocated both Lonnie and his father to jails outside the city, which proved prescient. Several hours after word of the confession got out, “angry mobs of whites formed outside of the state penitentiary and city hall.” Notably, several thousand people gathered at each of the two locations.

On “May 2, an Arkansas Gazette headline summed up the previous day’s developments: “Negro Youth Confesses to Brutal Crime” and “Crowd Gathers To Lynch Young Negro.””

But the mob members, try as they might, were not able to figure out which jail was sheltering the Dixons.

So tension was still running high when, on the morning of May 4, a completely unrelated event happened: a black man named John Carter allegedly attacked a white woman and her teenage daughter “in a rural area just west of Little Rock.”

Posses of white men immediately began searching for Carter, who was captured at about 5 p.m. and promptly lynched. This was followed by rioting that continued until around 10 p.m., when the governor called the National Guard.

What happened to Lonnie Dixon? His trial was held on May 19th. “The all-white jury deliberated for seven minutes — approximately the time it took for all the members to sign the guilty verdict.” He was electrocuted on June 24 — his 18th birthday.

And what about Floella McDonald? We may never know who murdered her, or why. But her memory lives on via her influence on the U.S. baby name data.


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