AMERICAN LYNCHING: A Documentary Feature

(Revised September 2005)


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On the morning after, Johnny Gawthrop, 13, and his brother, Billy, 11, posed in the group of Coatesville witnesses for Mr. Joe Belt, the photographer sent by the court. Both boys felt fidgety before the camera, even as part of the small crowd. John used his toes to scratch his other foot; he seldom wore shoes. Billy was barefoot too. “If this damn ceremony keeps up, we won’t get our souvenirs,” he whispered to his big brother.

“Shh, you’re not supposed to say damn,” Johnny warned. The brothers were eagerly anticipating more ‘souvenirs’ – each boy already carried one of the burned man’s digits in a handy pocket. Johnny had used his treasured penknife to carve off a toe from Zack Walker’s burnt husk – Billy had gained a finger. But they wanted to scour the immolation site for more remembrances, if not actual flesh than maybe a piece of fence post or bit of bone. A lot of the kids found souvenirs after the Negro had been lynched by the mob, burnt alive by a vengeful crowd of more than 5,000 of their fellow neighbors and friends on a hot and humid Sunday evening, August 13, 1911. After hunting for salvageable treasures, some of the men and boys had even gone to the Coatesville Candy Company to get a cold soda to slake their thirst.


“Don’t give me no crooked death!” Zachariah Walker screamed to his tormentors as he lay dying. His tragic demise –a Pennsylvania lynching transformed into spectacle – was part of a macabre American tradition that began in 1893 and continued to plague our nation’s social discourse for at least five decades. Never a majority of lynching events, such vicious spectacles rose to prominence as consumerism dawned, and eventually ceased when similar market-borne forces generated widespread anti-lynching sentiments within the mainstream American conversation.  American Lynching: A Documentary Feature will focus upon the “banality of evil” found at the core of all lynchings. It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar banality to most Americans.


At first, voices raised in protest were few. African-American publisher and newspaper pamphleteer Ida B. Wells became a magnet for hateful attention by stridently opposing in print the lynchings of two personal friends, black grocers, in Memphis. Forced to leave town, she immediately launched an anti-lynching crusade that eventually brought her Don Quixote-like cause before the crowned heads of Europe – but brought influential hearings only rarely in her native United States. Other prominent voices daring to oppose lynching as spectacle included Samuel Langhorne Clemens, popularly known as Mark Twain, who penned the strident and accusatory The United States of Lyncherdom in 1901. Most instrumental in the decades-long anti-lynching campaign were leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909. Founders of the NAACP included noted black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois and muckraking white author Charles Edward Russell. But leaders such as James Weldon Johnson and especially Walter F. White became the most influential. White, a light-skinned African-American, and his Euro-American protégé Howard “Buck” Kester, demonstrated incredible personal courage by infiltrating lynch mobs and mobbism-oriented racist organizations to uncover little publicized details that served to expose the popularized pro-lynching mythos as a lie while documenting particular lynchings as the heinous American atrocities they truly were.


While the heyday of anti-lynching activism began post-1915, the timeline of our narrative truly begins with the torturous mob murder of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Smith, an insane ex-slave, allegedly killed Myrtle Vance; the three-year-old daughter of a brutal Texas policeman after the policeman had assaulted him. On February 1, 1893, Smith’s demise became the first blatantly public, actively promoted lynching of a southern black by a large crowd of southern whites. Smith had fled to Arkansas, been captured there and returned to Paris by train. Newspapers announced details of his return, and in Paris, Smith’s train was met by a surging mass of humanity. The Negro was placed upon a carnival float in mockery of a king upon his throne, and, followed by an immense crowd, was escorted through the city so that all might see the most inhuman monster known in current history. His clothes were torn off piecemeal and scattered in the crowd, people catching the shreds and putting them away as mementos. The child’s father, her 12-year-old brother, and two uncles then gathered about the Negro as he lay fastened to the torture platform and thrust hot irons into his quivering flesh. Every groan, every contortion of his body, was cheered by the thickly packed crowd of 10,000 persons, the mass of beings 600 yards in diameter, the scaffold being the center. Eventually Smith was burned alive, his hideous death exhorted by a local clergyman named Bishop Haygood and partly orchestrated by Captain Jeremiah Pratt – a mysterious figure claiming to have served the Confederacy who became renowned for tutoring Americans in the art of ritualistic burnings. Like a socially sanctioned serial killer, Pratt would earn his livelihood by helping to choreograph spectacle lynchings in at least five states.


Our timeline filled with lynching as spectacle moves on. Writes author-historian and American Lynching advisor Grace Elizabeth Hale, “At a country picnic in 1896, a young white boy hurried up to the booth to trade his sweaty nickel for a rare chance to hear that marvelous modern wonder, the Edison Talking Machine. With the tubes in my ears, the Pitchman was now adjusting the needle on the machine ... My excitement increased, my heart was pounding so I could hardly hold the tubes in my ears with my shaking hands  ... “All right men, bring them out. Let’s hear what they have to say,” were the first words I understood coming from a talking machine. The sounds of shuffling feet, swearing men, rattle of chains, falling wood, brush, and fagots, then a voice – shrill, strident, angry, called out, “Who will apply the torch?” “I will,” came a chorus of high-pitched, angry voices ... I heard the crackle of flames as it ate its way into the dry tinder ... My eyes and mouth were dry. I tried to wet my lips, but my tongue too, was parched. Perspiration dripped from my hands. I stood immobile, unable to move. Now the voice of the Pitchman saying, “That’s all gentlemen. Who’s next? ... And sensing what my trouble was, said, “Too much cake. Too much lemonade. You know how boys are at a picnic.” The boy’s name was Mel Barrett. Perhaps he would have been as sick and excited if he had actually witnessed the lynching of these unidentified men, burned to death by a mob after being forced to confess to rape and after pleading desperately for mercy.      


Captain Pratt found his way to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory in 1898 when two young Seminoles – Palmer Sampson and Lincoln McGeisey -- were burned alive by a vicious mob at his urging – tortured into confessing to a crime they never committed. This rural “festival” depicted in American Lynching attracted hundreds of eager spectators – most of them white Southerners who considered the victimized Seminoles as yet another human variety of non-white scapegoat.


The next horrific event we’ll depict in American Lynching’s carefully paced narrative resonates on several levels. Although the crowd gathered to witness this atrocity was smaller than the mob gathered for Henry Smith’s lynch-murder in 1893, the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose featured newspaper frenzy driven by the Atlanta Constitution  -- establishing the kind of sensationalized narrative pattern that would come to dominate the reporting of spectacle lynchings up until the 1940s. Local and regional newspapers in Georgia and throughout the New South took over the publicity, promotion, and sale of the event as if it were a rock or rap concert being advertised today. “In the presence of nearly 2000 people, Sam Hose was burned at the stake in a public road. Before the torch was applied to the pyre, the Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers, and other portions of his body with surprising fortitude.” One day the following week, W.E.B. DuBois happened to notice something odd on display. A store window in downtown Atlanta featured several human knuckles extracted from “the Negro fiend, Hose.” This grisly apparition led to a cathartic moment for the intellectual DuBois who became involved in the NAACP primarily as editor-architect of The Crisis – its seminal literary organ.


“And so Missouri has fallen, that great state! Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of us.” So begins Mark Twain’s The United States of Lyncherdom. Penned by the great American author while he summered with his family in a rustic cottage by Lower Saranac Lake in northeastern New York’s Adirondacks, the spirited 1901 essay is comprised of fact laden with bitter sarcasm. Mourning for his adopted state, he describes a particular lynching. “The tragedy occurred in Pierce City, down in the southwestern corner of the state. On a Sunday afternoon, a young white woman who had started alone from church was found murdered.” He goes on to write that “although it was a region of churches and schools the people rose, lynched three negroes – two of them very aged ones – burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods.” Mostly, Twain is an outraged voice able to express his outrage eloquently. He brings us there, to the scene of the Missouri spectacle – to all such spectacles described numerically. “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 might 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 ...”


Mark Twain or not, our nation remained The United States of Lyncherdom. Eight years later, when the NAACP was born as a reaction to the Springfield (Illinois) race riots, dozens of annual lynching events often hardly dented newspaper headlines. But the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began its heroic campaign to end American lynchings that year – 1909, and didn’t end it until 41 years later – in 1950 – the year that its final attempt to have a Federal anti-lynching statute enacted into law – failed. Thrice – in 1922, 1937, and 1940 – the NAACP secured House passage of an anti-lynching measure – only to have it killed in the Senate by a filibuster or the threat of a filibuster. 


A protégé himself of James Weldon Johnson, Walter F. White joined the NAACP’s national staff in February 1918. He involved himself almost immediately with firsthand investigations of mob violence against the black community – beginning with the spectacle lynching of Jim McIlherron – chained to a tree and tortured to death with heated irons and a bonfire at Estill Springs, Tennessee. With blonde hair, blue eyes, and a complexion light enough to “pass” as Caucasian; White infiltrated hostile communities attempting to ferret out those responsible. Armed with a New York Evening Post press card, he journeyed to Georgia in May to Brooks and Lowndes counties, where roaming mobs had claimed the lives of ten black people, including Mary Turner – whose unborn baby was ripped from her body and trampled by a mob member. During his 37-year-career with the NAACP, White personally investigated 41 known lynchings while sending trained surrogates as sleuths to investigate dozens more.   


But publicity had been the NAACP’s mainstay weapon to combat lynchings years prior to White’s emergence on the scene. In 1911, for instance, the Association did its best to publicize a January triple lynching in Shelbyville Kentucky, mostly in the pages of the DuBois-inspired The Crisis – along with subsequent Florida and Oklahoma atrocities. A bizarre lynching in April gathered ink also; Livermore Kentucky’s local opera house hosted the demise of one Will Porter – a young black who’d allegedly killed a white man just minutes before was tied up on stage and his body riddled with over 100 bullets by mob members who’d purchased tickets to participate.


All this seemed a mere prelude to the NAACP’s outraged reaction about Zack Walker’s “Crooked Death” in Coatesville – deep in the North and only 90 miles from New York City! The Association kept the fires of publicity burning during the courtroom saga of several Pennsylvanians indicted in the atrocity – but when a collective silence among local witnesses reigned, unanimous acquittals ensued. American Lynching coverage of this 1911 event includes our taped interview with 100-year-old Irene Downs – who met the ill-fated Walker during the banality of that fateful summer when she was only nine.


The NAACP sent suffragist Elizabeth Freeman out to investigate the spectacle burning of 18-year-old Jesse Washington in 1916. Noted for its huge crowd of at least 15,000, this Texas event is recalled with telling poignancy during our interview with 93-year-old Nannette Hutchison, an articulate retired schoolteacher. As a child of six, she remembers Washington’s charred husk dragged behind a truck right past her Waco home; and being petrified of walking barefoot on that same street ever since.


Waco whites didn’t unanimously approve the lynching of Jesse Washington, however. The eloquent clergyman and author Joseph Matthew Dawson railed against the atrocity from his pulpit at the city’s largest Baptist church – even though he knew many of his congregation were members of the actual mob who perpetrated the lynching. Our interviews with novelist Carolyn (his granddaughter) and his son Matthew prove especially revealing about what it was like to be alone against a vicious tide – and about being such a hero’s progeny.  


Racism and Texas also intersected for mob-led killings of brown-skinned people. During January of 1918, a mass lynching of this type occurred near a lonely place called Porvenir. “It means ‘future’ in Spanish,” says survivor and witness Juan Bonilla Flores, “But they stole our future.” Then a boy of 12 holding his father Longino’s nearly bullet-severed head in his forever-traumatized hands, Mr. Flores is now a leather-skinned centenarian. He remembers Porvenir when some forty local white ranchers and Texas Rangers came to his thriving village and summarily shot to death fifteen men and teenagers between the ages of 16 and 73 – like his father -- all of them ‘tejanos’ – Texans of Mexican descent. “They killed us for our land,” he says before our cameras with a rueful smile, “and because we were Mexicans.” During a single decade, the gore-filled years between 1910 and 1920, up to 5,000 tejanos were similarly murdered. In 1910, for instance, 21-year-old cowboy Antonio Rodriguez was burned alive in Rock Springs, Texas after a mob accused him of murdering a white woman. As with African-Americans, the actual number of Latino victims will never be known. In fact, some of our affiliated scholars such as William Carrigan, Benjamin H. Johnson, Arturo Rosales, and Clive Webb believe that in terms of sheer numbers, the victims who were indigenous peoples including those considered to be “Mexican” approaches or even surpass the number of black victims.  


Next up content-wise in American Lynching: A Documentary Feature is the story of the benevolent politician Leonidas Dyer, a Republican Congressman representing Saint Louis and surrounding environs who championed a succession of antilynching bills during the 1920s in concert with the NAACP. His first such successful effort (known as the Dyer Bill) passed the House in 1922, but when successfully filibustered by segregationist-minded Southern Democrats was prevented from passing in the Senate.


1922 also brought a pair of notable lynching events in Texas; in Waco when Jesse Thomas met a similar fate to that of Jesse Washington’s six years earlier (we’ll splice in interview segments with Carol Dawson about her grandfather’s reaction to this second monstrous event as well as oral histories from African-American Wacoans that show how retributive folk tales originated and persisted around the eerily similar Washington-Thomas events); and in Kirven, Texas some sixty miles to the north and east where an especially horrific triple lynching occurred.


The Kirven event involving the castration and burning of three men perceived as Negroes  – McKinley “Snap” Curry, Johnny Cornish, and Moses Jones – although Cornish was half-white. All three were implicated in the murder and sexual mutilation of 18-year-old Eula Ausley, a niece of one Otis King, a powerful white property owner in the town. Having visited the tiny nearly “ghosted” community on several researching expeditions, and having since learned a great deal more about the lynching vividly described in Austin attorney and author Monte Akers’s gripping 1999 book Flames After Midnight – our coverage surrounding the Kirven event will include enlightening interviews and footage involving witnesses, friends and descendants of the victims, and at least one alleged perpetrator and descendants of a second. The Kirven event and several equally gruesome atrocities occurring in the town and proximity were the first to be investigated by the courageous sleuth Howard “Buck” Kester at the behest of the NAACP. 


Our timeline marches to 1929. As a boy aged nine, octogenarian Pat Ratliff describes what it was like to witness the lynching of his father, bank robber Marshall Ratliff – by another mob possibly incited by an association of Texas banks. Afterwards, he was further stigmatized and shunned by local residents because he was the notorious Ratliffe’s eldest son. 


Next we’ll be featuring the wrenching experience of survivor H. James Cameron, who was nearly lynched by a Marion Indiana mob on August 7, 1930 but saved from a noose at the spectacle by the voice of a Samaritan who remains unknown to this day. Cameron, now 91, never forgot what happened to him, and describes what motivated him to found America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee and to persevere despite its precarious existence during more than two decades. Dr. Cameron (he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 2002 for his civil rights-related community service) has a great deal to say about why our film is so crucial to our nation’s racial conversation and to our understanding of homegrown terrorism – still viable concerns for all Americans even as these words are written. 


Moving our timeline to 1934 brings us to the horrific prolonged torture and mob killing of Claude Neal in Mariana, Florida. It was a vicious spectacle witnessed by up to 2,000 and described initially in local newspapers as “the justifiable execution of a black fiend.” Having all the earmarks of past rituals including the sanctioned consumerism and represented to the public in a sanitized way as to its actual grisly details, this was all irrevocably changed when the intrepid Howard “Buck” Kester infiltrated the lynchers’ ranks at the instigation of the NAACP’s Walter F. White. His illustrated pamphlet, distributed widely by White’s organization – refused to spare the public concerning atrocities committed on Neal’s person and so as a single action did more to quell lynchings in America than anything else up to that historical moment. Reacting with the same biting sarcasm as he had subsequent to the recent Maryland events involving black victims Euel Lee, Matthew Williams, and George Armwood, Baltimore-based editor, publisher and satirist H.L. Mencken sent out Christmas cards to prominent Southerners showing grisly photographs of the Claude Neal mutilation and lynching – and wrote essays in the manner of his literary antecedent Mark Twain castigating Americans for their demonstrable indifference.


An apparent dénouement will be added here in our timeline; a selection of rare black & white footage of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett speaking about progress made during her lifetime to curtail the impunity of roaming lynchers – along with a stern admonition of what still needed to be done. She died in 1936.


But as if to herald Wells-Barnett’s words in a Dickensonian way (like in his time-focused work A Christmas Carol) other spectacles will invade the consciousness of our audience as if in a rapid-fire crescendo. While the ritual of lynching as spectacle is becoming quite rare, we’ll examine the January 1942 Missouri mob burning of Cleo Wright and how it was used as anti-American propaganda by the Japanese in the weeks following Pearl Harbor, and showcase the American conversation surrounding the July 1946 Moore’s Ford quadruple lynching of two youthful black couples – Roger and Dorothy Malcom, and George and Mae Murray Dorsey – all tragically shot to death by a Georgia lynch mob. Interviews with Laura Wexler, author of a thorough non-fictional treatment of this event and its aftermath called Fire In A Canebrake and with several persons associated with this post-World War II event including at least one victim relative will ensue at this point in our time, leaving only the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and a brief epilogue remaining on our film’s plate by this juncture of our narrative. An interview with Till’s cousin and boyhood pal Simeon Wright as well as a memorial gesture to Emmett’s now deceased mother should well follow – especially highlighting the significance of Mrs. Till’s courageous act in deciding upon an open casket for display of her son’s mangled features before shocked national television audiences.


Our brief epilogue takes us to our present timeline in the anti-lynching narrative exactly fifty years later. It’s 2005 and our we witness a non-binding U.S. Senate “apology,” – a “non-binding” resolution offered to undo the shameful tragedy of never passing a Federal statute against lynching. We still don’t have one, despite a concerted effort of the Walter F. White-led NAACP spanning decades – and a cacophony of civil rights advances experienced by Americans since.  We will end with brief evidences of a trend in American racial politics ostensibly toward the better – the manslaughter convictions of Mississippian Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen and the recent decision to re-open the Till case and a drive by Black leaders to similarly re-open an investigation into the 1946 Moore’s Ford case – subtitled on her book jacket by author Wexler as “the last mass lynching in America.” So we end our narrative American Lynching: A Documentary Feature with a ray of cautious optimism, or is it really our hopes and fears come home to roost?


Gode Davis


Director and Co-Producer