One Man's Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dreamby Phyllis Vine
This tautly told story steps back to a time when Detroit's boosters described their city as one of the most cosmopolitan in the world. It was also a city in which tensions between blacks and whites seemed manageable. Yet all that changed in 1925, when a black family named Sweet bought and moved into a house in a white neighborhood. What began with mothers bringing their children to gawk and stare soon became an angry mob of men, some of them from the local KKK, with stones. The violence that ensued landed Ossian Sweet, a doctor from the "talented tenth," and others from his family in jail and compelled the NAACP -- which had taken up the Sweets' case -- to hire famed attorney Clarence Darrow, who had just finished defending the plaintiff in Tennessee v. John Scopes. Darrow's defense led to one of the most incendiary courtroom dramas in the history of the United States. The outcome was a triumph of cooperation that transcended race in the name of justice.
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One Man's Castle
Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream
"Incomparable and Indescribable"
When he was seven years old, Ossian Sweet witnessed a lynching. It was spring in the Peace River Valley, a time for recitals, fishing, and garden parties. Sweet was meandering home along the banks of the Peace River in Bartow, Florida, when he saw a mob escorting a black hostage named Fred Rochelle. The very sight of Rochelle sent him under cover near the river's shore, where he hid, quiet as a rock, under the freckled canopy of a cypress tree while the white men went about the business of claiming their vengeance.
Rochelle's crime was murder. Late in the month of May he had brutally killed a white woman, Rene Taggart, a hometown favorite and bride of the local baker. One morning she had been fishing in the Peace River, and by noon she had had as much of the Florida sun as she could take. As her boat came closer, Rochelle, a drifter, stood alert, watching her from the bridge spanning the river. Perhaps he accidentally passed by, but locals believed he followed her to settle a vendetta against her husband.
When Taggart stepped onto land, Rochelle lunged at her. He came from behind but she fought back. He pulled her down but she struggled to get up, to run away toward the swamp. She lost her footing. Stronger and faster, he overpowered her and slit her throat. Then he fled, running into the woods, leaving her on shore to bleed to death. It happened so fast that the only thing the single eyewitness could do was run for help.
It took little time to form a posse, while white and black men gathered a team of bloodhounds to follow his trail. For the next day and a half, rumor and anticipation sputtered through town. The Courier-Informant announced lynching almost certain long before the bloodhounds picked up his scent. The local paper proved prescient. Lynchings were ubiquitous in the land of Dixie, especially when a white woman was the victim and a black man was said to be at fault. Florida had its share. Because racial hostility was not as apparent in Bartow as in other Florida towns, locals fostered the conceit that somehow their town remained above the violence.
Townsmen focused on finding Rochelle. Two black men in the posse took him captive. They brought him back to town and turned him over to the sheriff. Ten minutes later, vigilantes whisked him away.
Everybody knew Rochelle would be lynched. As was the custom, white children were escorted to a local waterfall, Kissingen Springs. It was a bucolic setting, three miles out of town, popular with locals and tourists. The adults expected youngsters to fish, picnic, and leap from the diving platform, while at home they took care of business.
Sweet stood by as the sun was setting, watching the mob bring in Rochelle, who was tied and bound on horseback. Sweet saw them methodically and purposefully prepare a pyre. First they placed a barrel on the bridge over the Peace River, at the same spot where Rochelle stood before he attacked Rene Taggart. Then they arranged a combustible heap, piling scraps of wood and kindling around the barrel, which they doused with coal oil so it would ignite and burst into flames quickly when brushed by fire.
When the entire posse had assembled, Rochelle was dragged to the spot and tied securely. The mob poured drinks for spectators while he cried for mercy. They ignored him and instead behaved as if they were guests at one of the popular outdoor parties. Eventually Mr. Taggart was ready, and they took their places so he could strike a match. For the next eight minutes, Rochelle shrieked. Flames climbed up his legs, formed a curtain around his torso, draped his face. After the flames died back, souvenir hunters pocketed pieces of his charred remains -- a digit, a part of his femur, a piece of his foot.
The orderliness of this ritual would have terrified anybody. It is hard to imagine what went through the mind of a young Ossian Sweet. He could not have understood how the event was based on the bizarre etiquette of frontier justice, governed by a set of informally sanctioned rules of racial retribution as binding as any codified by legal doctrine. But it was routine. Accounts of lynchings usually portrayed mobs with a mannered courtesy that belied their brutal violence, and convention implied that justice was at work, that the mob was the equivalent of a jury in deliberation. The ritual brought them pride.
Rochelle's lynching and the children's trip out of town were part of a scripted protocol, as was the convention that dictated the charade of justice when the posse handed Rochelle over to the sheriff who, in turn, handed him to the mob. As always, the Courier-Informant described the mob as "quiet but determined."
Not much was ever learned about Rochelle except that a sister lived in nearby Tiger Bay. Rumors spewed forth from the white community about why he did it, but the best they could figure was Rochelle was settling some kind of grudge against Mr. Taggart. Prominent members of the black community tried to portray Rochelle's crime as the inexplicable act of a deranged man, lest the stigma brush them with shame.
Newspapers from Sacramento, California, to New York City carried the story on their front pages. Indictments may have been reflected in the national spotlight, but on Bartow's front porches blacks and whites hoped to put the event behind them. Elected officials tried to pacify the black community with an invitation for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, suggesting it hold its annual convention in Bartow. Local black church officials were not so sure this idea was good, referring to Bartow as "a hot-bed of South Florida 'crackerdom' accentuated by a human barbecue."
Whatever leaders of the black and white communities did to blunt the aftermath, it did little to diminish the impact of the horrifying scene for Ossian Sweet. Twenty-five years later, he would recall the details of the sickly smell of cooked flesh for a jury in a packed courtroom ...One Man's Castle
Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream. Copyright © by Phyllis Vine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Phyllis Vine is an American historian who has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Michigan, Union College, and Barnard College. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she has written for The Nation, the Progressive, and Parents magazine. Her first book, Families in Pain, was groundbreaking in addressing the problems facing families of the mentally ill. Phyllis Vine lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
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