James Weldon Johnson | William Faulkner | Thomas Dixon Jr. | Jean Toomer | Thomas Nelson Page | Mark Twain

Richard Wright | Maya Angelou | Lewis Allan | Lorraine Hansberry | Ralph Ellison | Dan Parkinson | James Agee

Lewis D. Patten | John Howard Griffen | Walter White | Langston Hughes | North Carolina Lynching Ballads

Allen Tate | John Steinbeck | O Henry

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The fictitious The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (initially published anonymously in 1912), by James Weldon Johnson, narrates the travels and experiences of a negro "passing" for a white man. In the following passage, a Negro is burned alive by a frenzied crowd.

A space was quickly cleared in the crowd, and a rope placed about his neck, when from somewhere came the suggestion, "Burn him!" It ran like an electric current. Have you ever witnessed the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be more terrible. A railroad tie was sunk into the ground, the rope was removed, and a chain brought and securely coiled round the victim and the stake. There he stood, a man only in form and stature, every sign of degeneracy stamped upon his countenance. His eyes were dull and vacant, indicating not a single ray of thought. Evidently the realization of his fearful fate had robbed him of whatever reasoning power he had ever possessed. He was too stunned and stupefied even to tremble. Fuel was brought from everywhere, oil, the torch; the flames crouched for an instant as though to gather strength, then leaped up as high as their victim's head. He squirmed, he writhed, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear. The cries and groans were choked off by the fire and smoke; but his eyes, bulging from the sockets, rolled from side to side, appealing in vain for help. Some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood, powerless to take my eyes from what I did not want to see... A great wave of humiliation and shameswept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with.


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William Faulkner, Light in August

The following excerpt is from William Faulkner's 1932 novel Light in August. A mob watches as Percy Grimm brutally completes the lynching of Joe Christmas for the murder of his white lover with a ritual that was not uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

They saw that the man was not dead yet, and when they saw what Grimm was doing one of the men gave a choked cry and stumbled back into the wall and began to vomit. Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife. "Now you'll let white women alone, even in hell," he said. But the man on the floor had not moved. He just lay there, with his eyes open and empty of everything save consciousness, and with something, a shadow, about his mouth. For a long moment he looked up at them with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes. Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath. It seemed to rush out of his pale body like the rush of sparks from a rising rocket; upon that black blast the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid and reassuring streams of old age, in the mirroring faces of whatever children they will contemplate old disasters and newer hopes. It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading and not particularly threatful but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant.

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Thomas Dixon Jr., Two Excerpts

Thomas Dixon Jr.'s The Clansmen: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan(1905) was, along with another Dixon novel, The Leopard's Spots, the basis for D. W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation. Dixon was a Baptist minister, lawyer and writer from North Carolina. In this passage from The Clansmen, the chaplain of the Clan recites a prayer before a black murder suspect is quickly tried in the Clan's own court and then murdered.

As we wrestle with the powers of darkness now strangling our lives, give to our souls to endure as seeing the invisible, and to our right arms the strength of the martyred dead of our people. Have mercy on the poor, the weak, the innocent and defenseless, and deliver us from the body of the Black Death. In a land of light and beauty and love our women are prisoners of danger and fear. While the heathen walks his native heath unharmed and unafraid, in this fair Christian Southland, our sisters, wives, and daughters dare not stroll at twilight through the streets, or step beyond the highway at noon. The terror of the twilight deepens with the darkness, and the stoutest heart grows sick with fear for the red message the morning bringeth.

Despite his beliefs in white superiority and his high esteem for the Ku Klux Klan, even Dixon could step back and examine the maniacal savagery of the lynch mob. In The Leopard's Spots (1902), a white man tries to intervene in a lynching only to be forced into watching.

He stood in helpless rage and pity, and as he saw the match applied, bowed his head and burst into tears. He looked up at the silent crowd standing there like voiceless ghosts with renewed wonder. Under the glare of the light and the tears the crowd seemed to melt into a great crawling swaying creature, half reptile half beast, half dragon half man, with a thousand legs, and a thousand eyes, and ten thousand gleaming teeth, and with no ear to hear and no heart to pity!

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Jean Toomer, Two Excerpts

Portrait in Georgia

In his 1923 poem "Portrait in Georgia," Jean Toomer subverts categories of race and gender as a white woman is transformed into a black lynching victim.

Hair-braided chestnut, 
    coiled like a lyncher's rope, 
Lips--old scars, or the first red blisters, 
Breath--the last sweet scent of cane, 
And her slim body, white as the ash 
   of black flesh after flame.

When Jean Toomer visited Sparta, Georgia in 1921, echoes of the gruesome lynching of Mary Turner and the rash of eleven other lynchings that followed were still resonating, surrounding the black population of the nearby areas in a haze of fear and paranoia. It was in this setting that Toomer composed a collection of stories that comprised the novel Cane. In one of these stories, "Kabnis," an NAACP report's account of Mary Turner is recreated with few alterations, depicting the brutal execution of Mame Lamkins at the hands of a lynch mob.

They killed her in the street, an some white man seein the risin in her stomach as she lay there soppy in her blood like any cow, took an ripped her belly open, an the kid fell out. It was living, but a nigger baby aint supposed t live. So he jabbed his knife in it an stuck it t a tree. An then they all went away.

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Thomas Nelson Page, "The Negro: The Southerner's Problem"

A contemporary and friend of Thomas Dixon, Thomas Nelson Page dealt with the morality of lynching by acquitting the mob from any guilt, holding, instead, the supposedly debased Negroes responsible for their own violent executions. The following excerpts are taken from Page's essay, "The Negro: The Southerner's Problem," published in 1904.

Lynching does not end ravishing, and that is the prime necessity. . .

The charge that is often made, that the innocent are sometimes lynched, has little foundation. The rage of a mob is not directed against the innocent, but against the guilty; and its fury would not be satisfied with any other sacrifices than the death of the real criminal. Nor does the criminal merit any consideration, however terrible the punishment. The real injury is to the perpetrators of the crime of destroying the law, and to the community in which the law is slain. . .

The crime of lynching is not likely to cease until the crime of ravishing and murdering women and children is less frequent than it has been of late. And this crime, which is well-nigh wholly confined to the Negro race, will not greatly diminish until the Negroes themselves take it in hand and stamp it out. . .

As the crime of rape of late years had its baleful renascence in the teaching of equality and the placing of power in the ignorant Negroes' hands, so its perpetuation and increase have undoubtedly been due in large part to the same teaching. The intelligent Negro may understand what social equality truly means, but to the ignorant and brutal young Negro, it signifies but one thing: the opportunity to enjoy, equally with white men, the privilege of cohabiting with white women.


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Mark Twain, Two Excerpts

Perhaps the most famous literary foe of lynching as a practice, Mark Twain invoked powerful words numerous times throughout his career to fight what he called "the epidemic of bloody insanities." Twain's most forceful and direct attack against lynching came in his essay "The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901) in which he called upon American missionaries in China to return home and fight native savagery.

[We ask them to] picture the scene in their minds, and soberly ponder it; then multiply it by 115, add 88; place the 203 in a row, allowing 600 feet of space for each human torch, so that there may be viewing room around it for 5,000 Christian American men, women, and children, youths and maidens; make it night, for grim effect; have the show in a gradually rising plain,and let the course of the stakes be uphill; the eye can then take in the whole line of twenty-four miles of blood and flesh bonfires unbroken. . . .

All being ready now, and the darkness opaque, the stillness impressive for there should be no sound but the soft moaning of the night wind and the muffled sobbing of the sacrifices; let all the far stretch of kerosened pyres be touched off simultaneously and the glare and the shrieks and the agonies burst heavenward to the Throne.

Twain's brief essay Only a Nigger appeared anonymously in the Buffalo Express on August 26, 1869, as one of his earliest and most ironic protests against lynching.

Mistakes will happen, even in the conduct of the best regulated and most high-toned mobs, and surely there is no good reason why Southern gentlemen should worry themselves with useless regrets, so long as only an innocent "nigger" is hanged, or roasted or knouted to death, now and then. . .

Keep the lash knotted; keep the brand and the faggots in waiting, for prompt work with the next "nigger" who may be suspected of any damnable crime! Wreak a swift vengeance upon him, for the satisfaction of the noble impulses that animate knightly hearts, and then leave time and accident to discover, if they will, whether he was guilty or no.

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Richard Wright, "Between the World and Me"

Lynching profoundly affected the work of Richard Wright. He used the ritualized burnings, as Trudier Harris put it, "to shape the basis of his aesthetic visions of the world," and his 1935 poem "Between the World and Me" is a testament to the power of these visions.

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled 
    suddenly upon the thing, 
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly 
    oaks and elms 
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting 
    themselves between the world and me.... 

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly 
    upon a cushion of ashes. 
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt 
    finger accusingly at the sky. 
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and 
    a scorched coil of greasy hemp; 
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, 
    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. 
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, 
    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a 
    drained gin-flask, and a whore's lipstick; 
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the 
    lingering smell of gasoline. 
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow 
    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull.... 

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity 
    for the life that was gone. 
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by 
    icy walls of fear-- 
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the 
    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods 
    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the 
    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: 
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves 
    into my bones. 
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into 
    my flesh. 

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and 
    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red 
    upon her lips, 
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that 
    my life be burned.... 

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth 
    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. 
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my 
    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as 
    they bound me to the sapling. 
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from 
    me in limp patches. 
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into 
    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. 
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a 
    baptism of gasoline. 
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs 
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot 
    sides of death. 
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in 
    yellow surprise at the sun....


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Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Poet, playwright, and actor Maya Angelou recounts growing up in St. Louis, Missouri and Stamps, Arkansas in the 1930s and 40s in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970). As a youth, she attends a boxing match between a white boxer and a black boxer, Joe Louis. When the contender knocks Louis out, she says,

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.

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Lewis Allan, Strange Fruit

These 12 lines form one of literature's most powerful and moving attacks on lynching. The poem was written and set to a haunting, blues melody by a white, Jewish school teacher from New York City named Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. Billie Holiday began performing the song in early 1939 and ever since, Strange Fruit has been synonymous with lynched victims.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black boy swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


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Lorraine Hansberry, Lynchsong

At age 21, eight years before she won national recognition for her now-classic play A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote "Lynchsong." The 1951 poem reads as a faint sketch from memory-images and thoughts form a rough document of some painful, past recollection.

I can hear Rosalee
See the eyes of Willie McGee
My mother told me about
My mother told me about
The dark nights
And dirt roads
And torch lights
And lynch robes

faces of men
Laughing white
Faces of men
Dead in the night
sorrow night
and a
sorrow night


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Ralph Ellison, The Birthmark

The Birthmark first appeared in the left-wing magazine New Masses in 1940, a time when Ralph Ellison was under the tutelage of RichardWright. Early in the story, Matt must identify the body of his brother,Willie, who was ostensibly hit by a car. Matt finds the body mutilated-lynched.

When Matt lowered his eyes he noticed the ribs had been caved in.
The flesh was bruised and torn.The birthmark was just below Willie's navel, he thought. Then he gave a start: where it should have been was only a bloody mound of torn flesh and hair. Matt went weak. He felt as though he had been castrated himself. . .

"Just remember that a car hit 'im, and you'll be all right," the patrolman said. "We don't allow no lynching round here no more."

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Dan Parkinson, The Prodigal

Texan journalist and fiction writer Dan Parkinson's short story The Prodigal appears in the anthology New Frontiers Vol. 1 (1990). In this dark, mystical account, two strangers intervene in a poorly executed lynching in bleak Jenk's Hole.

In the first place, that loop on his neck. Can't anybody here tie a proper knot? And no slack. You won't break his neck. He'll just strangle.

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James Agee, The Letters of James Agee to Father Flye

The letters of James Agee to his childhood friend Father Flye are reprinted in the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. In his Monday, March 5, 1945 letter from New York City, his analysis of current events offers a glimpse into the ideology surrounding lynching at the time.

Whatever dignified thing may ever have been meant by "liberalism", such a thing as a true "liberal" hardly exists anymore, one no longer knows one's friends from one's enemies. I lately heard several highly intelligent people talk about the courtyard mobbing of Caretta in a way which was an exact parallel of the condoning of a lynching.

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Lewis D. Patten, No God in Saguaro

Lewis D. Patten explored the issue of guilt associated with lynching through Western novels in the 1960s and 70s. In No God in Saguaro (1966), what appeared to be "just another lynching" resulted in the town destroying itself because of its guilty conscience. The town judge, one of the perpetrators, explains what compelled him to irrationally join the lynch mob.

I joined that mob six months ago in spite of my training in the law, in spite of the fact that 
everything I had been taught abhorred mob violence. I joined it in a moment of passion, 
in a moment of blind fury because I had lost something." His mouth twisted ruefully. 
"... Something I'd never even had."

In Patten's 1974 Lynching at Broken Butte, a judge incites a mob to avenge the murder of his daughter. The legacy of the lynching results in the demise of the town. He falsely accuses two drifting cowboys and encourages the lynch mob to kill them.

Carberry yelled, "Have one more drink! Then one of you get a couple of ropes and we'll go across the street and get those sonsabitches out of jail. There's that big cottonwood down by the livery barn. We'll string 'em up to it.". The liquor they had consumed and the excitement now had its grip on them. They shoved him angrily aside when he got in their way. They threw the ropes over the horizontal cottonwood branch, and put hangman's nooses in their ends. They boosted the prisoners bodily onto the horses after they tied their hands behind their backs. A man mounted a third horse and put the nooses over the prisoners' heads. The ends were tied.


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John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me

In Black Like Me (1960), John Howard Griffin darkened his skin to discover the black experience in the Deep South. He came across Louisiana's Negro newspaper, which condemned the Mack Charles Parker lynching of the previous year, offering a contemporary black perspective on lynching.

If there was any doubt as to how "Southern Justice" operates in the State of Mississippi, it was completely dispelled. when the Pearl River County Grand Jury failed to return any indictments or even consider the massive information compiled by the FBI in the sensational Mack Parker kidnap-lynch murder case. The axiom that a man is innocent until guilty by a court of law has been flagrantly ignored once again in the State of Mississippi. The fact that an accused man was deprived of a fair trial, kidnapped and murdered by a lynch mob from a Mississippi jail apparently had no effect on the thinking of the Grand Jury. The silent treatment merely gave approval of the mob taking the law into its hands. Mississippi has long had a reputation of failing to punish white men accused of criminal acts against Negroes. This is Mississippi's peculiar way of making Negroes "happy and contented" with the democratic processes and of showing the world how well they care for the Negro in respecting his rights as an American citizen.

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Walter White, Why I Remain a Negro

In Why I Remain a Negro, Walter White, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) explains his anger and pride concerning the black condition. He remembers an attempted lynching.

I heard a voice cry out, a voice which I knew belonged to the son of our neighborhood grocer. "Let's burn the house of the nigger mail carrier! It's too nice a house for a nigger to live in!" I knew then who I was. I was colored, a human being with an invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance, in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof to their superiority, a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius.


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Langston Hughes, Cowards from the Colleges

Langston Hughes in Cowards from the Colleges describes lynch mob deaths while attacking the Hampton University administration for trying to suppress the students' protest.

That same weekend, a young Hampton graduate, the coach of Alabama's A & M Institute at Normal was beaten to death by a mob in Birmingham on his way to see his own team play.


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Lynching Ballads

The ballad of J.V. Johnson takes a definitive stance against lynching.  The 
mob is accused of disobeying the laws of God and Johnson receives the final 
word in which he pitifully contemplates the fate of his soul.  The ballad 
acknowledges Johnson's guilt and the severity of his crime while still 
refusing to romanticize his punishment.
J.V. Johnson

'Twas on a gloomy Sunday night
When Johnson thought he was alright
A hundred hearts of an angry mob
Did disobey the laws of God

'Twas on land [?] at half past two.
The great fair [?] doors the men broke through.
They scarcely [? ] for this poor man.
The cell was opened at their command.

Into the cell they boldly went,
And only there a moment spent.
"Come out, come out, your time has come
When you'll repay the deed you've done."

"Don't hurt me boys," he sadly said.
"Hush, hush your mouth you'll soon be dead."
"Oh just give me one moment to pray,
And do not kill a man who prays."

"You did not give Guinn time to pray.
You took his dear sweet life away."
We will not give you time to pray,
But for his life your life shall pay."

That was a sad and awful time.
Just as they reached the fatal time.
A rope around his neck they tied,
And hung the man until he died.

"I know this crime is awful black.
I wish that I could call it back.
It is so dark I cannot see.
My soul, what will become of thee?"

"Farewell, this world, my friends, my wife.
This mob will surely take my life.
It is so dark I cannot see.
My soul, what will become of thee?"

The Lynching Ballads of Alec Whitley

Written to commemorate the 1892 lynching of Alec Whitley, the first ballad 
was composed before he was actually killed and consequently deals most 
specifically with a crime, the murder of Burt Tucker, that would eventually 
lead to Whitley's lynching. The victim's case involves a white man lynched 
by a white mob. Written by a Baptist Minister, Rev. Edmond P. Harrington, 
it has been suggested that Harrington sold copies of the ballad to be sung 
at Whitley's spectacle lynching.  This practice was somewhat widespread as 
the composer could earn a tidy sum by exploiting the festive atmosphere 
common to many lynchings of that era. The seventh stanza, excerpted below, 
shows Alec's half-sister warning him of his impending fate.

The ballad "Alec Whitley" was most probably written to preserve the history 
of the same lynching. It is a fairly straightforward account and an 
interesting portrait of the town's emotional climate expressing 
satisfaction with the execution.
Alec Whitley

They hung Alec Whitley to a red oak limb,
They hung Alec Whitley to a red oak limb,
They hung Alec Whitley to a red oak limb,
Just to show the world what they'd do for him.  Stanza 4
Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker

Judy says, "Oh, Alec, you'll die in public sure,
For murdering Cousin Burton, and mangling his body so.
You'll be arrested for this, and in the jail you'll go
And on the fatal hangman's tree, you'll pay the debt you owe."  Stanza 7
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Alan Tate, "The Swimmers"
The Allen Tate poem, "The Swimmers" evokes images of water amid
shady slopes in rural Montgomery County, Kentucky-- in the aftermath
of a lynching.  Set in July 1911 when Tate himself was twelve years old 
(born 1899, he died in 1979), it describes a boy and his friends watching
the corpse of a lynched man drifting down a river as three dark and brutal
figures disappear into a nearby clearing.  These events, as depicted in the
poem, affect the boys drastically, probably traumatizing them for the rest
of their lives.  Published singly in 1953 (and seventeen years later as part 
of a collection), "The Swimmers" remains one of Tate's most evocative works.

Kentucky water, clear springs: a boy fleeing
   To water under the dry Kentucky sun,
   His four little friends in tandem with him, seeing

Long shadows of grapevine wriggle and run
   Over the green swirl; mullein under the ear
   Soft as Nausicaa's palm; sullen fun

Savage as childhood's thin harmonious tear:
   O fountain, bosom source undying-dead
   Replenish me the spring of love and fear

And give me back the eye that looked and fled
   When a thrush idling in the tulip tree
   Unwound the cold dream of the copperhead.

Along the creek the road was winding; we
  Felt the quicksilver sky. I see again
  The shrill companions of that odyssey:

Bill Eaton, Charlie Watson, "Nigger" Layne
  The doctor's son, Harry Duesler who played
  The flute; and Tate, with water on the brain.

Dog-days; the dusty leaves where rain delayed
   Hung low on poison-oak and scuppernong,
   And we were following the active shade

Of water, that bells and bickers all night long.
   "No more'n a mile," Layne said. All five stood still.
   Listening, I heard what seemed at first a song;

Peering, I heard the hooves come down the hill.
   The posse passed, twelve horse; the leader's face
   Was worn as limestone on an ancient sill.

Then, as sleepwalkers shift from a hard place
   In bed, and rising to keep a formal pledge
   Descend a ladder into empty space,

We scuttled down the bank below a ledge
   And marched stiff-legged in our common fright
   Along a hog-track by the riffle's edge;

Into a world where sound shaded the sight
   Dropped the dull hooves again; the horsemen came
   Again, all but the leader. It was night

Momently and I feared: eleven same
   Jesus-Christers unmembered and unmade,
   Whose corpse had died again in dirty shame.

The bank then levelling in a specked glade,
   We stopped to breathe above the swimming hole;
   I gazed at its reticulated shade

Recoiling in blue fear, and felt it roll
   Over my ears and eyes and lift my hair
   Like seaweed tossing on a sunk atoll.

I rose again. Borne on the copper air,
   A distant voice green as a funeral wreath
   Against a grave: "That dead nigger there."

The melancholy sheriff slouched beneath
   A giant sycamore; shaking his head
   He plucked a sassagras twig and picked his teeth:

"We come too late." He spoke to the tired dead
   Whose ragged shirt soaked up the viscous flow
   Of blood in which It lay discomfited.

A butting horse-fly gave one ear a blow
   And glanced off, as the sheriff kicked the rope
   Loose from the neck and hooked it with his toe

Away from the blood. -- I looked back down the slope:
   The friends were gone that I had hoped to greet.--
   A single horseman came at a slow lope

And pulled up at the hanged man's horny feet;
   The sheriff noosed the feet, the other end
   The stranger tied to his pommel in a near

Slip-knot. I saw the Negro's body bend
   And straighten, as a fish-line cast transverse
   Yields to the current that it must subtend.

The Sheriff's Goddamn was a murmured curse
   Not for the dead but for the blinding dust
   That boxed the cortege in a cloudy hearse

And dragged it towards our town. I knew I must
   Not stay till twilight in that silent road;
   Sliding my bare feet into the warm crust,

I hopped the stonecrop like a panting toad
   Mouth open, following the heaving cloud
   That floated to the court-house square its load

Of limber corpse that took the sun for shroud.
   There were three fingers in the dying sun
   Whose light were company where three was crowd.

My breath crackled the dead air like a shotgun
   As, sheriff and the stranger disappearing,
   The faceless head lay still. I could not run

Or walk, but stood. Alone in the public clearing
   This private thing was owned by all the town,
   Though never claimed by us within my hearing.
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John Steinbeck, "The Vigilante"

First published as "The Lonesome Vigilante" in Esquire magazine in October of 1936, this piece was reissued under a shortened title in Steinbeck's 1938 short story collection The Long Valley. This remarkable story examines the emotional highs and lows of a perpetrator in the aftermath of a lynching. 

Click here to read "The Vigilante"


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O Henry, "A Little Talk About Mobs"

A master of the short story genre, William Sidney Porter (1862-1910) is best known by his pen name, "O Henry."  This piece appeared in a collection titled Waifs & Strays published posthumously in 1917.  In it, two northerners discuss their positions on the lynching question. 

Click here to read "A Little Talk About Mobs"


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