Blood At The Root

  • Share
  • Read Later
You probably think murder is something to be ashamed of. But you weren't part of the crowd that gathered after the lynching in 1915 of Thomas Brooks in Fayette County, Tenn. "Hundreds of Kodaks clicked all morning at the scene," an observer wrote later in the Crisis, the publication of the N.A.A.C.P. "People in automobiles and carriages came from miles around to view the corpse dangling from the end of a rope. Picture-card photographers installed a portable printing press at the bridge."

Lynching was a form of terror, which is murder with a message to send. In the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, when lynching became both a mass frenzy and a coolly purposeful instrument of white supremacy, you could send the message by postcard. Scores of mob murders were caught on film by newspapers, by studio photographers who set up at the scene and by onlookers who brought along a camera. Fifteen years ago, James Allen, an Atlanta antiques dealer, was inspecting an old desk. In one of the drawers, he came across a postcard of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor accused on wobbly evidence of murdering a teenage girl in Atlanta. Some years later, Allen was offered a 1911 picture of Laura Nelson, a black woman strung up from a bridge in Oklahoma. Her 14-year-old son had allegedly shot a deputy who was searching the Nelson cabin for stolen meat.

"It took a number of years to decide to collect pictures like this," says Allen. "They're too painful to look at. But once you've seen these, you can't talk about race without factoring in the reality of what African Americans really went through." With his companion John Littlefield, Allen eventually assembled a collection of more than 130 lynching photographs, which are now on loan to Emory University in Atlanta. Earlier this year, during the first full public showing of the collection, lines formed every day outside the Roth Horowitz gallery in New York City. (The pictures are not for sale.) Nearly 100 have been assembled in a devastating new book, Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms Publishers; 209 pages; $60). An exhibit drawn from the book opened recently at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan and runs through July 9.

These are pictures that have drifted back to us like bodies dumped in a river. They make sickening but essential viewing. (Another new book, Strange Fruit, by David Margolick, shows how even Billie Holiday's great antilynching song once made audiences squirm.) There were lynchings in the Midwestern and Western states, mostly of Asians, Mexicans, Native Americans and even whites. But it was in the South that lynching evolved into a semiofficial institution of racial terror against blacks. All across the former Confederacy, blacks who were suspected of crimes against whites--or even "offenses" no greater than failing to step aside for a white man's car or protesting a lynching--were tortured, hanged and burned to death by the thousands. In a prefatory essay in Without Sanctuary, historian Leon F. Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,742 African Americans were murdered that way.

There were two kinds of lynchings. At the "orderly" ones, local bankers and lawyers attended to keep the bloodlust in check. What that meant is merely that the victim was hanged without torture. At the wilder scenes, the crowd egged itself on into a frenzy beyond imagining. Before Sam Hose was doused with oil and set afire, he had his ears and fingers cut off and the skin stripped from his face. Jesse Washington, a retarded farm worker convicted of killing a white woman, was hung by a chain over a bonfire and repeatedly dipped into the flames.

At their worst, lynchings were episodes of sunlit municipal sadism. Newspapers announced the time and place in advance. Excursion trains were organized to move crowds to the scene. It was the Vicksburg Evening News that reported how Luther Holbert and his wife were burned to death by a crowd in Doddsville, Miss., in 1904. The couple were tortured with corkscrews that pulled out hunks of flesh. Their fingers were cut off, one by one, and distributed among the crowd as souvenirs. Mutilated flesh was racism's ultimate trophy.

By the time lynching exploded, photography had become a well-organized profession and a mass-market plaything. Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails. As bad as the pictures of the victims are, those of the faces of the crowd are worse. They stare back at you with the expressions of carnal complicity that you see in faces at the foot of the Cross in Renaissance Crucifixion scenes. You hear their voices in the inscriptions that appear on the backs of some of the postcards--words more unnerving, in their sleepy innocence, than curses: "This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe." Without Sanctuary is a great and terrible book. It's an album of peacetime atrocities, during which hundreds of Kodaks clicked.