What happened at the Maycomb County jail the night before Tom Robinson's trial began in To Kill a Mockingbird?

At the Maycomb County jail the night before Tom Robinson's trial begins, the Old Sarum bunch, which consists of Cunninghams, tries to lynch Robinson. Atticus is standing guard. Scout, Jem, and Dill arrive. Scout defuses the situation by talking to Walter Cunningham, and the mob disperses. It is a very tense moment that could have led to bloodshed.

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This scene actually begins on Saturday evening, one day before the scene at the Maycomb jail. Scout and Jem are intrigued when a group of men gather on their lawn to speak with Atticus. They turn out the lights so as not to be seen and eavesdrop on the conversation outside. Several mean they know, including Heck Tate and Link Deas, are concerned that the Old Sarum bunch are going to try to interfere with the trial by going after Tom before the trial even begins. In chapter one, we learn that the Cunningham family is part of this group and that "they formed the nearest thing to a gang ever seen in Maycomb."

Atticus remains calm, saying that the next day is Sunday and that those men don't drink on Sundays. Scout is surprised to see many of these same men who were in her yard on Saturday show up at church on Sunday; it seems that they want to continue this conversation with Atticus and Scout believes that "something must have been up" to summon Mr. Underwood's church attendance in particular.

Thus, there is a mood of suspicion as Sunday afternoon passes. When Atticus leaves that evening carrying an extension cord and a light bulb, Scout and Jem pay attention. When he decides to drive his car instead of walk, as is typical, Jem gets a feeling that something is wrong.

Jem and Scout sneak out of the house, picking up Dill along the way, and set out to find their father. He isn't in his office, which is suspicious, and they spot a light shining at the Maycomb jail; this is odd because the jail doesn't have an outside light.

When the children get closer to the jail, they can hear the voices of men, talking in near-whispers. Through the darkness, the men demand that Atticus get out of their way. They have come to lynch Tom Robinson, which they allude to vaguely when they tell Atticus, "You know what we want." Atticus refuses to move, believing that Heck Tate will return to support his efforts. When the Old Sarum gang tells Atticus that they have sent Heck and his bunch on a "snipe hunt," or an impossible mission, it looks as if the group is about to turn violent toward Atticus.

Scout emerges from the darkness, with Jem and Dill close behind her. She is able to deescalate the situation by reminding Walter Cunningham, Sr. how her father has helped him out in the past and by mentioning his own son, whom Scout describes as "real nice" and a "good boy." Scout's innocent reminders that Atticus is not the enemy of the Cunninghams is enough to send everyone home that evening.

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Atticus has heard that people might try to lynch Tom Robinson the night before the trial is to begin. To prevent that, he sets up a chair and a light in front of the tiny town jail and sits there reading his paper.

The Old Sarum bunch, which includes Walter Cunningham and his relatives, drive up in four cars and get out. At about the same time, Jem, Scout, and Dill, having a premonition of trouble, show up too. Mr. Cunningham is telling Atticus to step aside and Atticus is refusing when Scout bursts into the middle of the crowd, along with Jem and Dill. Atticus, very fearful for the children, orders Jem to take them home. Jem, standing his ground, refuses.

When a man grabs Jem to send him towards home, Scout kicks the man in the groin. She then gets into a cheerful conversation with Mr. Cunningham, the only person in the mob she knows. This disarms Mr. Cunningham enough that he calls off the attack on Robinson, and the Old Sarum gang goes home.

The scene shows how Scout is able to use empathy to diffuse the situation by appealing to the common humanity she and Mr. Cunningham share. Nevertheless, it was a tense moment in which people could have gotten hurt and Tom Robinson killed. At the end, they find out that Mr. Underwood was watching the whole time from his apartment above the newspaper office, ready to shoot anyone who tried to storm the jail.

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The best summary for Chapter 15 of the novel is available in the e-notes summary and analysis section as detailed below.

We are made very aware in this chapter of how the innocence of Scout reveals the ignorance of the mob members, and of how focusing in on the conscience of the individual is the best means of attacking oppression.

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You are referring to the events of chapter 15.

In Chapter 15, Atticus leaves the house early in the evening, as you said, to keep watch over Tom Robinson while he is in the Maycomb Jail. The trial starts the next day, and Mr. Heck Tate and others have warned Atticus that there may be trouble.

Jem is curious about what his father is up to, and he sneaks out of the house--Scout, of course, follows along. They stop and get Dill as well.

They find their father outside the jail and see several cars pull up and several men get out and approach Atticus. Atticus tells them to leave. The men basically refuse.  Suddenly, Scout, Jem and Dill arrive on scene just as tension is flaring between Atticus and the men.

Scout recognizes Mr. Walter Cunningham, Senior...remember Walter Cunningham from earlier in the book? Scout beat him up and then Jem invited him to their home for lunch.  It's his dad that's one of the men trying to get Atticus to let the "mob" have Tom Robinson.

It's clear the men want to kill/seriously injure Tom. They would rather see him dead than to allow him to have a fair trial.

But Scout unintentionally derails the entire conversation by addressing Walter Cunningham, Sr. In this scene, her naivitiy is shown--she has no idea that she's in danger, and she has no idea that what she's talking about is embarrassing to all parties!

Finally, Mr. Cunningham realizes his behavior is wrong, and he and the men get in the car and leave. No one is injured.

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