At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America


Winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and ...

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At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

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Winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction

This extraordinary account of lynching in America, by acclaimed civil rights historian Philip Dray, shines a clear, bright light on American history’s darkest stain—illuminating its causes, perpetrators, apologists, and victims. Philip Dray also tells the story of the men and women who led the long and difficult fight to expose and eradicate lynching, including Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Du Bois. If lynching is emblematic of what is worst about America, their fight may stand for what is best: the commitment to justice and fairness and the conviction that one individual’s sense of right can suffice to defy the gravest of wrongs. This landmark book follows the trajectory of both forces over American history—and makes lynching’s legacy belong to us all.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Readers of Philip Dray's powerful book should prepare for disbelief at the barbarism of the lynchers, anguish over the lynched, and pride in the courage of those who fought "America's shame." Dray goes beyond recording crimes that were "justified" by distorted notions of "honor" and fear of "nigger risings"; he illustrates that lynching was a culture. As such, it was supported by manipulation of the law, collusion between local authorities and rabid segregationists, and by the failure of Congress and the federal courts to act positively to protect black citizens' basic rights.

Lynching (named after Charles Lynch, a justice in rural Virginia) began in the 1770s as a citizens' punish-them-yourself response to local criminals and political opponents. Institutionalized in the South in the late 1860s as a weapon against emancipation and Reconstruction, lynching became the means of killing any African American whose status, actions, or attitudes challenged white supremacy. Dray fully captures the depravity of lynching, which usually entailed torture and castration, followed by burning the victim alive before an applauding crowd.

In chronicling those who fought -- at great personal risk -- for effective laws against lynching (Ida Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and A. Philip Randolph, among others) and in detailing investigations, reporting, and provision of legal representation, Dray presents a compelling record. He gives valuable accounts of Theodore Roosevelt's, Woodrow Wilson's, and FDR's self-protective foot-dragging on proposed federal action. Only under Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson -- and the pressure of strong public support -- did the U.S. government take real action to end lynching and the criminal culture that fueled it.

This poignant book is necessary reading -- and a needed reminder that hatred and evil do not always come from beyond America's borders. (Peter Skinner)

Peter Skinner lives in New York City.

From the Publisher
“A landmark work of unflinching scholarship.” —The New York Times

“In this history of lynching in the post-Reconstruction South—the most comprehensive of its kind—the author has written what amounts to a Black Book of American race relations.” —The New Yorker

“A powerfully written, admirably perceptive synthesis of the vast literature on lynching. It is the most comprehensive social history of this shameful subject in almost seventy years and should be recognized as a major addition to the bibliography of American race relations.” —David Levering Lewis

“An important and courageous book, well written, meticulously researched, and carefully argued.” —The Boston Globe

“You don’t really know what lynching was until you read Dray’s ghastly accounts of public butchery and official complicity.” —Time

David Levering Lewis
Philip Dray's At the Hands of Persons Unknown is a powerfully written, admirably perceptive synthesis of the vast literature on lynching. It is the most comprehensive social history of this depressing subject in almost seventy years and should be recognized as a major addition to the bibliography of American race relations.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Between 1882 and 1944 at least 3,417 African-Americans were lynched in the United States, an average of slightly more than one a week. It was not until 1952, as Dray notes, that a full year went by without a reported racial lynching. Covering the South's resistance to racial equality from Reconstruction and the 1875 Civil Rights Act (which gave rise to the widespread acceptance of public murders) through the mid-20th century, this prodigiously researched, tightly written and compelling history of the lynching of African-Americans examines the social background behind the horrific acts. Yet Dray (We Are Not Afraid) also covers the myriad attempts of popular and judicial resistance to lynching, in particular the campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and by the NAACP. He has pulled together a wealth of cultural material, including D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation, Reginald Marsh's famous 1934 antilynching cartoon in the New Yorker, among much else, to supplement his impressive survey of the breadth of lynching in Southern society. While there is much shocking material here the 1918 lynching and disembowelment of eight-month-pregnant Mary Turner; California governor James Rolph Jr.'s 1933 statement that lynching was "a fine lesson for the whole nation" Dray never lets it dictate the complex social and political story he is telling. He faces the underlying sexual impulse of most lynchings head-on and shows how, in the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, the fear of blacks was transferred to a Jewish victim. Whether he is explicating why the feminist-run Women's Christian Temperance Union refused to speak out against lynching, or why FDR refused to endorse antilynching legislation in the 1930s, Dray balances moral indignation with a sound understanding of history and politics. The result is vital, hard-hitting cultural history. (Jan. 22) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Though everyone knew the culprits, victims of lynching were always said to die "at the hands of persons unknown." New School scholar Dray has worked on this history for more than ten years. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The ghastly story of lynching, by the coauthor of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (not reviewed).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375754456
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2003
  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 529,112
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Dray is the co-author of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 1988. Born in Chicago and raised in Minnesota, Dray now lives in New York City. He has been a contributor to many publications, including Mother Jones, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
"A Negro's Life Is a Very Cheap Thing in Georgia"

Smartly dressed, with his walking cane in hand, W.E.B. Du Bois left his home in Atlanta on April 24, 1899, and began walking downtown along Mitchell Street. He was carrying a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, the white author of the Negro dialect tales known as the Uncle Remus stories and an editor at The Atlanta Constitution. At thirty-one, Du Bois was himself an acclaimed author, with degrees from Harvard and two years' study at a prestigious German university to his credit. In addition to his teaching duties as a professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, he also supervised an ambitious program of social research there.

Although he had lived in Atlanta since 1897, he had never bothered to seek out Harris, even though they had mutual friends; Du Bois rarely left the university to go into downtown Atlanta because he refused to ride the city's segregated streetcars. But a sensational rape and murder in rural Georgia in mid-April had caused an uproar, and a black farmhand, Sam Hose, said to have brutally killed his employer, Alfred Cranford, and to have "outraged" Cranford's wife, Mattie, had been lynched.

Du Bois had studied the lynching phenomenon and he knew that in such instances things usually weren't as they seemed. "It occurred to me," he said later, "that I might go down to the Atlanta Constitution and talk with Joel Chandler Harris, and try to put before the South what happened in cases of this sort, and try to see if I couldn't start some sort of movement." In addition to his letter of introduction, Du Bois also carried a letter he'd written protesting the action of the lynch mob.

The crime that had "dethroned the reason of the people of western Georgia," as the Constitution put it, had occurred on Wednesday, April 12, 1899, in the small farming town of Palmetto, just southwest of Atlanta. The Cranfords, who were in their mid-twenties, were descendants of two of the area's most established families. Alfred's family owned extensive land, and Mattie (née McElroy) had been known before her marriage as "one of the belles of Newnan," the historic courthouse town that was the seat of Coweta County.

Alleged murderer Sam Hose, twenty-one, had grown up on a farm near Macon and had come to work for the Cranfords only six months earlier. The fact that he was unknown in Coweta may have enabled him to disappear more readily after the assault on the Cranfords, but it also made it more certain he would receive no quarter from the hundreds of lawmen and self-appointed guardians of the community's well-being tracking him along the back roads of west-central Georgia, in what was called the largest manhunt in the state's history. This "monster in human form," explained one much-reprinted account of the Cranford murder given by Georgia congressman James M. Griggs,

. . . crept into that happy little home . . . with an ax knocked out the brains of that father, snatched the child from its mother, threw it across the room out of his way, and then by force accomplished his foul purpose. [He] carried her helpless body to another room, and there stripped her person of every thread and vestige of clothing, there keeping her till time enough had elapsed to permit him to accomplish his fiendish offence twice more and again!

Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, widely known to endorse lynching as a method of controlling black criminality, termed the Palmetto murder "the most diabolical in the annals of crime" and declared the details of the Cranford murder "too horrible for publication." In truth, the newspapers found them quite suitable for publication. Turn-of-the-century news accounts of incidents such as the Hose-Cranford case constituted a kind of "folk pornography" that made for welcome, titillating reading. Stories of sexual assault, insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins, and manhunts led by "determined men" that culminated in lynchings were the bodice rippers of their day, vying in the South's daily newspapers with exposés about black dives and gambling dens, drunkenness and cocaine addiction, and warnings about domestics who stole family heirlooms. The cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes.

The Sam Hose affair offered no end of lurid details-Hose, the "fiend incarnate," had crushed Alfred Cranford's skull with an ax "until the brains oozed out," then "snatched Mrs. Cranford's baby and dashed it to the floor," before forcing the poor woman "to submit to the most shameful outrage which one of her sex can suffer." And as it gave the public information about the case, the Georgia press also whipped up expectations that a huge spectacle lynching would be held when Hose was captured. As early as April 13, the day after the crime, the Constitution's front page headline read "Determined Mob After Hose; He Will Be Lynched if Caught," while a subhead suggested "Assailant of Mrs. Cranford May Be Brought to Palmetto and Burned at the Stake." On April 19, with Hose still at large, the Constitution assured readers: "When Hose is caught he will either be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or he will be burned at the stake . . . the mob which is in pursuit of him is composed of determined men . . . wrought up to an unusual degree."

Georgia authorities were cautioned not to attempt to interfere with "the people's will," because as the Newnan Herald and Advertiser pointed out, no punishment existed under law adequate to match the crime against the Cranfords. "The black brute, whose carnival of blood and lust has brought death and desolation to the home of one of our best and most worthy citizens," must be "run down and made to suffer the torments of the damned in expiation of his hellish crime." A few days later the paper couched the need for Hose's lynching in tones of civic necessity, insisting that Hose's punishment "be made summary enough to serve notice upon those who sympathize with him, that there is protection in Georgia for women and children."

"No community in Georgia has been more ready, at all times and in all circumstances, to show respect for the law or yield obedience to the mandates of the constituted authorities," an editorial in the Newnan paper said, "but in the present instance the provocation is so unbearably aggravating that the people cannot be expected to wait with patience on the laggard processes of the courts." The Constitution added that no law officer in his right mind would attempt to protect Hose from a mob. Even though he had not yet been apprehended, Sam Hose's fate was firmly sealed.

Born in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the foothills of the Berkshires, where, because of New England's relative leniency on matters involving race, the established, if modest, reputation in the town of his mother's family, and his own precociousness, he managed to participate fully in the life of the community and attend school with white children. As a result, he later wrote,

I very early got the idea that what I was going to do was to prove that Negroes were just like other people. . . . [I]n the first place I was very much annoyed because nothing was ever said about Negroes in the textbooks, while, on the other hand, I, as a Negro in this school, seemed to be looked upon as unusual by everybody. Now, if I was unusual in this school, and a sort of curiosity, then the Negroes must be so in the world. And if I could easily keep up with and beat these students in the high school, why didn't the Negroes do it in the world?

Graduating from Fisk University in Nashville in 1888, he took a second bachelor's degree at Harvard in 1890 and an M.A. in history there in 1892, then went to Europe for two years' study at Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin, concentrating on economics, history, and sociology. Returning to the United States in 1894, he taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio and the next year became the first black to be awarded a Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1896, when his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade was published to critical acclaim, Du Bois was at the University of Pennsylvania leading a comprehensive sociological study of Philadelphia's Negro population, the first such analysis ever made of an American black community.

In fall 1897, he joined the Atlanta University faculty and took charge of the "Atlanta Conferences," annual meetings designed to guide scientific research into the conditions affecting black Americans. Little if any data existed on this subject, sociology itself being a new discipline. Du Bois published the results of these conferences with the long-term goal of ultimately assembling a compendium of data and information about all facets of black life in America-urbanization, the black church, crime, health and physique, mortality, and the family, as well as black morals and manners. The Atlanta Conference papers were widely quoted and commented on, and Du Bois was increasingly seen as a respected authority on what was coming to be called the "Negro Problem," the question of how 8 million black Americans were to coexist with a white society that consistently rejected them as partners and obstructed their efforts at assimilation and self-improvement.

Just as Du Bois knew that the "problem" with black people was white people, he knew that the odds were good that Sam Hose had not raped Mattie Cranford. His doubts arose, to a degree, from some intelligence he had received about the case from black acquaintances, but chiefly from his familiarity with the writings of Ida Wells-Barnett, the Chicago-based journalist who was the nation's preeminent antilynching crusader. In her many articles and lectures on the evil of lynching, Wells-Barnett had shown that in the majority of cases the charge of rape was untrue, and had either been added to a complaint about a black suspect in order to incense local whites or, in some instances, to obscure the fact that the black man's real sin had been to have consensual sex with a white woman. Du Bois, in his own informal study of the subject, had found that despite the generally held tenet that black men were lynched for assaults on white women, in only 25 percent of lynchings was that crime even alleged. He found that disputes related to wages and work conditions were more typically to blame in cases like Sam Hose's, where a black worker was accused of killing his white employer. Du Bois intuited that Hose was probably guilty at worst of committing an act of violence against a white in the course of defending his right to disagree, or in refusing to be physically intimidated. The rape charge, Du Bois believed, had been "trumped up to arouse the worst passions of the countryside." The scenario of the crime as presented by the newspapers-that Hose had first killed Cranford, then methodically raped his wife-sounded illogical. Du Bois later wrote:

"They started then to find Sam Hose and they couldn't find him. And then, suddenly, there was the accusation that Sam Hose had raped his wife. Now, everybody that read the facts of the case knew perfectly well what had happened. The man wouldn't pay him, so they got into a fight, and the man got killed-and then, in order to arouse the neighborhood to find this man, they brought in the charge of rape. Even from the newspapers you could see there was no foundation to it."

By definition, lynching denies a suspect due process under law, and so the kind of information that due process generates-lawyers' arguments, a judge's rulings, testimony, evidence-is not available to assist the historian in understanding the instigating deed. In the Hose case, there was no police investigation made of the crime scene, no evidence gathered, and Mattie Cranford was neither interviewed by any official or reporter nor examined by a physician. Most of the details were simply provided to the sheriff and to reporters by the Cranford family or their close friends.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What were some of the causes of the phenomenon of lynching in American history?

2. How would you describe a crowd’s role in and reaction to a lynching? Who is culpable in a lynching?

3. In what ways were government officials complicit in the many lynchings in American history? What were the root causes of that corruption? Have those causes been corrected today?

4. How would you place lynchings in the larger context of race relations in America?

5. Who were the heroes in this ghastly chapter of American history? Describe their choices and their courage.

6. Could a lynching happen today? What in America has changed? What has not?

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2003

    Please read this book!

    This book is easily the best book I have read so far this year. Dray explains how otherwise model citizens could murder, in the most brutal manners imaginable, Black (usually) Americans for imagined to minor transgressions (True, doubtless some of the lynched were guilty of the crimes they were accused of....Readers will be tempted to justify mob justice this way. Dray won't let you do this...the retribution is always excessive and driven by hate and fear, and completely devoid of anything resembling civilized justice). Coming from the South, I have taken classes on lynching before, so the pages Dray dedicated to explaining the origins of lynching were not nearly as compelling as his historical and legal analyses. Often one reads history books and still has trouble putting the events into context. Not so with this book. Dray captures the mood and hysteria of the times perfectly. Dray also does a wonderful job of showing that lynching was not merely an aberration of Southern justice inflicted on Black men. Instead, lynching is described as a national sickness, with Black men, women, and children, White civil rights sympathizers, and Jewish people being the victims of the mob violence, both in the North and the South. Dray shows how the international image of the United States was tarnished during a time when it was supposed to be the vangaurd of democracy, opposed to a German facism that was cruelly mimicked on its own soil. He also pays tribute to the men and women of the NAACP and other like-minded organizations who had the gall to oppose mob murder. The ultimate failure of any federal anti-lynching law is a startling example of how ingrained lynching was in the national (especially the Southern) psyche. This narration forced me to reexamine my own education about lynching. Before college (I'm from Georgia), I had never heard of Leo Frank, the 1906 Atlanta race riots, or Sam Hose. But I certainly had heard more than enough about the Salem witch trials. For these reasons it is required reading for Americans in general, and especially Southerners. (warning: obviously, some of this book is difficult to read, as recountings of the lynchings are appropriately graphic and monstrous)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2004

    Difficult to Put Down

    As an amatuer 'student' of African-American history and an avid reader of the subject I found Phillip Dray's book to be one of the best if not the very best that I have read. He sucessfully places the tragic history of the lynching of Blacks in America in its larger social, political, and legal contexts and exposes consequences for both Black and white Americans that are still evident today. It is a must read for any and everyone even remotely interested in the true history of the African-American in the United States. During the course of reading many times I found this book 'difficult to put down'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2009

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