A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature

A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature

by Jacqueline Goldsby

This incisive study takes on one of the grimmest secrets in America's national life—the history of lynching and, more generally, the public punishment of African Americans. Jacqueline Goldsby shows that lynching cannot be explained away as a phenomenon peculiar to the South or as the perverse culmination of racist politics. Rather, lynching—a highly

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This incisive study takes on one of the grimmest secrets in America's national life—the history of lynching and, more generally, the public punishment of African Americans. Jacqueline Goldsby shows that lynching cannot be explained away as a phenomenon peculiar to the South or as the perverse culmination of racist politics. Rather, lynching—a highly visible form of social violence that has historically been shrouded in secrecy—was in fact a fundamental part of the national consciousness whose cultural logic played a pivotal role in the making of American modernity.

To pursue this argument, Goldsby traces lynching's history by taking up select mob murders and studying them together with key literary works. She focuses on three prominent authors—Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Stephen Crane, and James Weldon Johnson—and shows how their own encounters with lynching influenced their analyses of it. She also examines a recently assembled archive of evidence—lynching photographs—to show how photography structured the nation's perception of lynching violence before World War I. Finally, Goldsby considers the way lynching persisted into the twentieth century, discussing the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the ballad-elegies of Gwendolyn Brooks to which his murder gave rise.

An empathic and perceptive work, A Spectacular Secret will make an important contribution to the study of American history and literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of American History - Amy Wood

"An impressive cultural and literary study of lynching's oppressive power at the turn of the last century. . . . Historians working to unravel lynching's tangled relationship to modernity will now have to grapple with Goldsby's significant contribution to the conversation."
H-Law - Sarah L. Silkey

"An innovative contribution to the rapidly increasing body of scholarship on American lynching."
Journal of African American History - Karlos K. Hill

"Goldsby's book deserves a serious reading by scholars who are looking for innovative ways of rethinking and remapping conventional understandings of lynching and mob violence and their relationship to modenity."
African American Review - Michael Sanders

"Essential reading for those seeking to reconcile and understand the immense gap between the appearance of the modern US and its reality."
Journal of American History
An impressive cultural and literary study of lynching's oppressive power at the turn of the last century. . . . Historians working to unravel lynching's tangled relationship to modernity will now have to grapple with Goldsby's significant contribution to the conversation.

— Amy Wood

An innovative contribution to the rapidly increasing body of scholarship on American lynching.

— Sarah L. Silkey

Journal of African American History
Goldsby's book deserves a serious reading by scholars who are looking for innovative ways of rethinking and remapping conventional understandings of lynching and mob violence and their relationship to modenity.

— Karlos K. Hill

African American Review
Essential reading for those seeking to reconcile and understand the immense gap between the appearance of the modern US and its reality.

— Michael Sanders

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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A Spectacular Secret

Lynching in American Life and Literature

By JACQUELINE GOLDSBY The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30138-9

Chapter One

A Sign of the Times: Lynching and Its Cultural Logic

History, like trauma, is never simply one's own.... History is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas. CATHY CARUTH, UNCLAIMED EXPERIENCE: TRAUMA, NARRATIVE, AND HISTORY

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. WALTER BENJAMIN, "SOME THESES ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY"

On February 1, 1893, a black man named Henry Smith was arrested in Paris, Texas, for raping and murdering a three-year-old white girl, Myrtle Vance. Smith was taken into custody after being tracked down by a search posse some two thousand members strong; so large a group was thought to be needed because the suspect had bolted out of the state for Arkansas, where he was eventually captured. On his return to the small town located in the northeastern corner of Texas, a thunderous tribunal of ten thousand spectators, many of whom had been ferried to the scene of the crime by specially arranged railroad junkets, met up with Smith to kill him.

First paraded around thebusiness district for those "thousands in the city who wanted to see the fiend of fiends and monster of monsters," Smith was carted off to a clearing just beyond the city limits of Paris. There, atop a scaffold bearing a placard entitled "Justice," the dead child's father exacted the vengeance he had been waiting for. With fire-stoked iron rods Henry Vance burned the black man's arms, legs, chest, back, and mouth. Then, to complete his deed, Vance set all of Smith's body aflame as final punishment for his daughter's murder. "And so did death come to Henry Smith," one commentator wrote in 1893.

When death came to Henry Smith, it was no clandestine affair. As local resident J. M. Early bragged: "If we, locally speaking, [had] been an insignificant moiety of a great nation with no other notoriety than suspected sturdiness, we are so no longer. Wherever print is read, wherever speech is the vehicle of thought, the people of Paris [Texas], of the United States of America, are now geographically located, and for moral stamina and worth, are known." In newspapers around the country, front-page headlines spread word of the events in Paris, Texas. From Chicago to New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Kansas City-even to London-did the mob's grisly feat come to be known. The town photographer J. L. Mertins copyrighted and deposited as many as twelve images with the Library of Congress (ensuring the pictures' having an archival home in that national repository). Another technophile preserved the event in an equally astonishing way: a sound recording of Henry Smith's trial by fire was made, copies of which-like Mertins's photographs-were reprinted and sold throughout the nation (see fig. 1.1).

Later that year another black man, Samuel Burdett, encountered these records of Henry Smith's lynching in Seattle. "Whiling away an hour seeing the sights" in the city he called home, Burdett came upon a crowd "that was attending some sort of entertainment." "Curious," he approached the group, threading his way to the front "where a man was mounted on a stand or platform of some sort." At the center of the circle, Burdett clearly saw that the attraction was not an impromptu theatrical performance or a street-corner oration, but a carefully planned display of the newest technology America had to offer in 1893. An exhibit "for civilized citizens to enjoy according to their individual relish for the awful-for the horrible," Burdett recalled in anguish, the presentation "consisted of photographic views, coupled with phonographic records of the utterances of a negro who had been burned to death in Paris, Texas, a short time before." Mounted on easels and placed in chronological order, the photographs tracked the Paris lynching from the discovery of Myrtle Vance's corpse to the capture, torture, and cremation of Henry Smith. Adjacent to these images was a gramophone with several listening devices-what we would today recognize as headsets. As its disc plate spun, listeners could hear a recording of the confrontation between Myrtle Vance's father and the child's alleged assailant.

This remarkable combination of sight and sound intrigued Burdett, who "had never heard or seen such a thing." "Like the others who were there" on that street corner in Seattle, he "took up the tubes of the phonographic instrument and placed them to [his] ears." What Burdett then saw and heard profoundly unnerved him; gripped by guilt nearly a decade later, he described the moment: "Oh, horror of horrors! Just to hear that poor human being scream and groan and beg for his life, in the presence and hearing of thousands of people, who had gathered from all parts of the country about to see it." Printed on the page, Burdett's torment is clear. The clichéd exclamation ("Oh, horror of horrors!") sounds out his struggle to find language to express his encounter. Underscored by his compound phrasing ("scream and groan and beg"), Smith's cries press on the reader's ears, forcing us to imagine the agony of both black men. However, as his prose also demonstrates, it is unclear who horrifies Burdett more: the mob that watched the murder in Paris, Texas, or the entranced audience of onlookers in Seattle.

Certainly Burdett did not share the Texans' reasons for wanting to see Henry Smith killed; as a member of the International Council of the World, he was an avid anti-lynching activist. Nonetheless, his interest in witnessing something new, something novel, something modern-his own admission of being "curious" "like the others"-enticed him to look at the photographs and to listen to the sound recording of Henry Smith's murder. And for that reason, the function of the audio-visual display confused Burdett's perception of his relation to the murder scene. Was viewing the simulation a way to protest the lynching, or did watching amount to a vicarious act of complicity with the southern mob? How different could Seattle and Paris, Texas, be if the deaths of black people were openly sought out as public events worth seeing and without the risk of legal reprisal? These questions, raised by Henry Smith's murder and by Samuel Burdett's anguished memories of his place in the crowd, suggest we should reexamine the history of lynching in America, to explore more broadly why mob violence was indeed a "horror of horrors" for African Americans and how mechanisms of modernity served to mediate the public's experience of the violence at the turn of the nineteenth century.

* * *

Henry Smith's murder and Samuel Burdett's encounter with it were not unusual in their day. The United States during the 1890s saw the numbers of vigilante murders of African Americans soar to unprecedented heights. In the year that Smith was lynched, 103 blacks died at the hands of white mobs. During the period 1882-1930 (the years, scholars agree, when the most reliable lynching statistics were kept), 3,220 African American men, women, and children were murdered by lynch mobs. Though the majority of these murders occurred in the Deep South, anti-black mob violence spread to far western states like Colorado, midwestern states like Illinois and Minnesota, and northeastern states like Pennsylvania and New York. And as the lynching of Henry Smith demonstrates, mass-media representations of the violence extended the borders of southern lynchings as well. Indeed, the national press kept such a steady watch over the violence that, in 1903, William James worried about the effect it might have on the country's collective soul: "The hoodlums in our cities are being turned by the newspapers into as knowing critics of the lynching game as they long have been of the prize-fight and football." The Harvard philosopher's remarks appeared in Literary Digest, one of the genteel magazines that devoted editorial space to debates about the practice of lynching in late nineteenth-century American society. Book-length studies also stirred the air of public commentary. Lynching apologists such as Phillip Alexander Bruce, Frederick L. Hoffman, and Robert W. Shufeldt published their best-selling books and monographs with reputable establishments, while anti-lynching activists such as T. Thomas Fortune, Mary Church Terrell, and Kelly Miller relied on an earnest and growing black publishing industry to carry their words of protest to African American readers across the nation during these crucial decades.

The word "lynching," however, did not always refer to the summary, extralegal executions of African Americans by groups (larger than three) of self-appointed public authorities. As one commentator noted in 1900, the "modern application" of the term, "with its deeds of wild lawlessness or ruthless murder," misrepresented the word's earlier use. After the Revolutionary War but before the Civil War, lynching referred to the nonlethal, corporeal punishment of white men by semiregular public authorities in frontier societies. Public lashing, tar-and-feathering, and riding the rail were the usual penalties meted out to Tory loyalists, horse and livestock thieves, bank robbers, or adulterers who threatened to disturb the peace in just-established communities. What distinguished "lynch law" between the 1780s and 1850s were its statelike aspirations to govern, since "upright and ambitious frontiersmen wished to re-establish the values of a property-holder's society." For this reason, lynch mobs during these decades were also noted for their decorum and restraint-hence, the other oft-used term for pre-Civil War vigilantism, "regulators"-in dispensing punishment to outlaws and wrongdoers.

But all this is true only of lynch-law justice as applied to white men. For African Americans who transgressed the laws and customs of their plantation societies, the master's and mistress's lash often stopped short of regulators' apocryphal thirty-nine strokes, the better to inflict more damaging pain; slave narratives published during and about this period are replete with scenes of torture and whippings that demonstrate how economizing corporeal punishment maximized its brutal effects. Similarly, African Americans who disturbed the peace by plotting to overturn the slave regime were summarily executed under the auspices of the state but in conspicuously unrestrained demonstrations of the law's power, as the examples of the 1714 and 1741 New York City conspirators, Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831) attest. During the antebellum era, then, it is clear that the term "lynching" referred to something different than what we now understand that term to mean. Furthermore, the practices of punishment designated by the word evolved over time as well. If, however, what always distinguishes lynching is its extralegal status, the word "lynching" potentially misidentifies the range and aims of punishments targeting African Americans precisely because the state routinely allowed extreme, and often lethal, measures of discipline to be exacted on them.

By all accounts, though, the racialization of lynching-the near-exclusive targeting of African American people for punishment by white vigilante mobs-took clear shape during the era of Reconstruction. Marked by an "increased harshness" that generally involved the killing of black people, "the word 'lynch' has come to be a synonym for 'murder' or mistreatment of a Negro, South as well as North," essayist Walter Fleming observed in 1905. Lynching's lethal turn made it an especially heinous tactic of social control at the end of the nineteenth century. First, the "modern" practice was crucial to the restoration of the Confederacy's power. The terrorist campaigns waged by the Ku Klux Klan during its first incarnation between 1867 and 1871-the Klan's infamous "night rides" and race riots-accomplished southern Democrats' goals to oust northern Republicans from leadership positions across the region and to intimidate African Americans from casting ballots in local, state, and national elections. Though scholars agree that the reestablishment of "Redeemer" governments in the former Confederate states enabled the practice of anti-black lynching to thrive, African Americans were terrorized and murdered with impunity because they had been excluded from the legal and moral frameworks that defined national citizenship at the end of the nineteenth century. Paradoxically, the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings in the Slaughterhouse (1873), Cruikshank (1876), Civil Rights (1883), and Plessy (1896) cases made emancipated blacks more vulnerable to mob assault from any and all quarters, precisely because these new laws and public policies conceded the point that made lynching an actionable crime. By nullifying African Americans' rights of citizenship and, with them, the affirmative duty to protect black people from unjust harm, the federal government effectively granted mobs a license to kill. For instance, since the 1870 Force Bill and the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act allowed federal courts jurisdiction over cases involving racial violence against blacks, either one could have been cited as precedents to criminalize lynching as murder; they were not. Between 1901 and 1934, anti-lynching activists vigorously argued that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause ensured alleged black criminals the right to fair trials in competently administered courts. However, each time federal anti-lynching legislation was introduced (in 1901, 1921, 1922, and 1934) Congress rejected those bills on the grounds that such a law would violate the constitutional ideal of protecting states' rights. Though contemporary commentators insisted otherwise-"no definition has ever been attached to 'lynch law' that does not plainly indicate that its operation is wholly without, and, indeed, in opposition to, the established laws of government," Howell Featherston argued in 1900-by the end of the nineteenth century there was nothing extralegal about the mob murders of African Americans. Lynching functioned as a tool of domination meant to coerce (and not rough-handedly correct), to deny (and not merely restrict), and to subjugate (not only banish or dispatch) black people, depriving them of the political, economic, social, and cultural opportunities promised by emancipation.

Lynching's trajectory from its antebellum roots to its (then) modern-day practice disturbed contemporary observers who debated its place and function in late-nineteenth-century American society. "The barbarities and atrocities [of lynching] ... almost beggar description and hardly find parallel in the world today and have been seldom matched or surpassed in the world's history," Winthrop Sheldon lamented in 1906.26 But more than a decade earlier, in 1892, Frederick Douglass had observed the very same thing-white lynch mobs that struck out with "frantic rage and extravagance." For more than ten years the most violent excesses of mob rule had been tolerated as if they were a commonplace affair:

Not a breeze comes to us from the late rebellious states that is not tainted and freighted with Negro blood. In its thirst for blood and its rage for vengeance, the mob has blindly, boldly, and defiantly supplanted sheriffs, constables and police. It has assumed all the functions of civil authority. It laughs at processes, courts, and juries, and its red-handed murderers range abroad unchecked and unchallenged by law or by public opinion. If the mob is in pursuit of Negroes who happen to be accused of crime, innocent or guilty, prison walls and iron bars afford no protection. Jail doors are battered down in the presence of unresisting jailers, and the accused, awaiting trial in the courts of law, are dragged out and hanged, shot, stabbed or burned to death, as the blind and irresponsible mob may elect.

Even the unreconstructed southern novelist Thomas Nelson Page was awestruck by the sweep of lynching's violence: "Over 2,700 lynchings in eighteen years are enough to stagger the mind," he wrote. "Either we are relapsing into barbarism, or there is some terrific cause for our reversion to the methods of medievalism."


Excerpted from A Spectacular Secret by JACQUELINE GOLDSBY Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jacqueline Goldsby is assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago.

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