Chapter One: "A Sign of the Times: Lynching and Its Cultural Logic"
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 ws 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.
Fir paraded around the business 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 no longer. Wherever print is read, wherever speech is the vehicle of thought, the people of Paris, of the United States of America, are now geographically located, and for moral stamina and worth, we 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. Metrins copyrighted and deposited as many as twelve images with the Library of Congress (ensuring the pictures and archival home in the 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 Mertin’s photographs – were reprinted and sold throughout the nation.
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 photoghraphic 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 re-examine 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.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
White Supremacy And Spectacle
from Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature