What was Atticus doing at the jail in chapter 15 of "To Kill a Mockingbird"?

In chapter 15 of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus heads to the jail late in the evening after being warned by Heck Tate and Link Deas that the Old Sarum gang could be headed Tom's way to cause trouble. Atticus goes to the jail to protect Tom, giving him a chance to prove his innocence in court.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the beginning of chapter 15, Heck Tate comes by to warn Atticus that they are preparing to move Tom Robinson to the county jail the next day, and he is worried that there could be trouble that evening. Link Deas adds that he isn't worried about any townspeople, but the Old Sarum gang could give them some trouble. Link comments that he doesn't understand why Atticus touched the case in the first place, and Atticus responds that although Tom may be found guilty and sent to the electric chair, the truth will be told first.

And this is why Atticus goes to the jail that night. He is determined to protect Tom from the very real possibility of the Old Sarum gang showing up to lynch Tom before the trial has a chance to get off the ground, which would forever bury the truth of Bob and Mayella Ewell's lies against Tom. Atticus sees it as his absolute duty as Tom's lawyer to protect him so that he is allowed the opportunity of a fair trial—or at least as fair as is possible in Maycomb.

Atticus's instincts prove accurate. The lynch mob does show up, and there are a few tense moments before the children unexpectedly diffuse the anger of the crowd who stands against Atticus. Atticus proves to have incredible instincts in every facet of this situation. Not only did the Old Sarum gang show up to lynch Tom, but Tom is convicted at his trial as well. However, through the fearless efforts of Atticus, the truth of Tom's innocence was told for all of Maycomb to hear.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tom Robinson is about to be moved from the jailhouse in advance of his trial. Sheriff Heck Tate has caught wind that a mob is planning to descend upon the jailhouse to lynch Tom. Lynching was a common feature of Southern life at this time, and it was carried out primarily against African American men accused of transgressing the dominant moral code regarding sexual relations between the races.

As events prove, Heck is absolutely right to be concerned, as a mob led by Walter Cunningham Sr does turn up at the jailhouse ready to mete out summary justice to Tom Robinson. Atticus does not believe in summary justice; he wants to see justice done in a court of law. He knows full well that Tom has no chance of being acquitted, but it is a matter of principle that he should have his day in court. Atticus sits outside the jailhouse door in the hope that he will somehow persuade the mob not to take Tom away.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In chapter 15 of To Kill a Mockingbird, visitors arrive to warn Atticus of potential violence against his client. Mr. Link Deas says, "it’s that Old Sarum bunch I’m worried about." The next evening after dinner, Atticus tells the children goodnight and leaves with a light attached to an extension cord. Jem and Scout sneak away to find out what Atticus is doing. They pick up Dill along the way, with Scout explaining that "Jem’s got the look-arounds."

The children find Atticus sitting in a chair in front of the Maycomb County jailhouse. As he is reading a newspaper, a group of men arrives. The "Old Sarum bunch" approach Atticus and ask if Tom Robinson is inside. One of them says, "You know what we want" and then tells Atticus to move aside. The men are there to lynch Tom, and Atticus is there to protect him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In chapter 15, Atticus anticipates that some racist community members will attempt to harm Tom Robinson before the trial. As a precaution, Atticus takes a lamp and drives to the Maycomb jailhouse to sit outside of Tom Robinson's cell. Unknown to Atticus, his children follow him to the jailhouse and watch as he sits outside of Tom's cell, reading the newspaper.

Atticus's intuition proves correct as the Old Sarum bunch arrives from the Meridian highway in an attempt to lynch Tom Robinson. When they ask Atticus to step aside, he courageously refuses. Scout, who has been hiding across the street and watching the situation unfold, runs out into the group of men and surprises everyone. After attempting to have a conversation with Walter Cunningham, he finally acknowledges Scout's presence and instructs his mob to disband. Atticus's intuition and foresight prove correct, and the presence of both his daughter and himself likely save Tom's life before the trial begins.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chapter 15 of To Kill a Mockingbird finds Atticus having a meeting with Heck Tate and other members of the community. They have come to the house to discuss the fact that Tom Robinson is being moved to the county jail. The men tell Atticus of their fears of there being some sort of violence at the jail. Atticus doesn't voice his concerns to Jem and Scout, but after church and dinner, Atticus takes the car and leaves. Jem is worried about his father, so he and Scout decide to go and see their father.

A long extension cord ran between the bars of a second-floor window and down the side of the building. In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.

Atticus was there to prevent any fights from breaking out. He knew that Bob Ewell and his friends would come and start trouble, even try to kill Tom, so Atticus was there keeping watch. True to fashion, Bob does show up, but thanks to the innocence of Scout, nothing bad happens that night.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Atticus is approached at home that evening by a group of men who feel uneasy about having Tom Robinson, a black man, in the Maycomb jail.  Atticus assures them that Tom will remain in the jail until the trial.

Atticus, being the intelligent man he is, knows that Tom may be in danger. So, Atticus gets a chair, a light and reading material, and positions himself in front of the jail in order to protect Tom, in the event that townspeople would come to hurt him.

It turns out that Atticus' suspicions were correct.  A group of men does show up at the jail to take Tom Robinson.  Atticus, along with Jem and Scout, save Tom's life by being there that evening.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial