March 24, 2016

THE E’ER INSCRUTABLE | 1916 Annus Fructus Extranei: Lynching and America’s Blood Theatre

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Photo Courtesy of Boston Museum of Fine Arts

“The chief failing of the day with some of our well-meaning philanthropists is their absolute refusal to face inevitable facts, if such facts appear cruel.” -Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race

As a prelude to his article, the second of my series on tumult and upheaval in 1916, I must warn any potential reader that the content may be distressing to those sensitive to racism and violence. I would advise discretion.

The controlled use of violence as spectacle has been a social glue since time immemorial: the Romans handpicked slaves to fight to the death over the graves of their patrician masters, and the despots of feudal Europe relished the drawing, quartering and parading of ghettoized pariahs and their ilk, be they Jewish, Huguenot, or Cathar. These previous blood-shows of Antiquity and the Middle Ages were the concerted efforts of knightly orders to, as they saw it, cut off gangrenous social limbs from the corpus politicum.

D.H. Lawrence, in his compendium of critical analysis on the growth and stagnation of American literature, once wrote that a white man would never be at ease on American soil: the dust and mud and bronzed ochre itself would forever reject him, the usurper of one native population and the enslaver of a another he had imported. It would be catastrophic to think that the postbellum American South, locked in the hate, decline and violence of the seminal year 1916, did not function according to these same strains, the same hot inklings of the blood in the mob crying out for a hanging. I now shift my glance from the Ireland of Yeats and the poets of the Easter Rising to Texas.

In the early years of the 20th century, the inhabitants of the Texan city of Waco had reason to be content with themselves. Waco was home to the oldest institution of higher education in Texas and, from 1894 to the Great Depression, played host to the Cotton Palace fair, a sumptuous exhibition meant to show off the city’s prominence in the cotton trade. Prostitution across the city had been largely suppressed at the turn of the century. Waco’s leading citizens, Southern Christians whose ancestors were pioneers and intrepid ranchers, could at last enjoy the fruits of their labor, the “cotton wealth.” They had built a community as outwardly stable as their 3 million-brick suspension bridge that spanned the Brazos River.

What, however, does a community do when it perceives itself to be under siege? On May 8, Lucy Fryer, a well-regarded English immigrant farmer, was raped and murdered at her home in Robinson, six miles away from Waco. Law enforcement officers found a black local farmhand, Jesse Washington, wearing bloodstained overalls. After interrogation, his account of his actions remained contradictory. In any reasonable investigation, he would be a suspect. Under pressure, the very likely mentally handicapped Washington signed a confession, describing the manner and motive of Lucy Fryer’s murder. Washington barely eluded an attempt by a mob to drag him from police custody to the noose.

The trial took place only a week later, on May 15. No other suspect was seriously cross-examined; a black journalist who later implicated Fryer’s husband in the murder would be imprisoned for libel. The process lasted one hour; Washington’s lawyers had prepared no defense. Jury deliberations lasted four minutes. A guilty verdict was read out to a vulture-like crowd so large it had clogged all entrances and exits to the McLennan County Courthouse. As if in a collective trance, a throng of white onlookers rushed law enforcement and seized Washington, leading him kicking and wrestling to the city hall grounds with a chain about his neck. These men tied him around a tree, doused him in coal oil, and dangled him over a pile of ignited combustibles. To the raucous applause of the crowd of nearly 2,000 men, women, and schoolchildren, he was slowly, deliberately jerked up and down above the licking flames. Washington died after nearly two hours. He was castrated, dismembered and then tied behind an automobile and paraded along the six-mile route to Robinson. His head was knocked off during the ride and placed on the doorstep of a local prostitute. The mob hung the charred, remaining half of Washington’s body outside a Robinson blacksmith’s venue. His fingers, nails and teeth were plucked out by souvenir-gatherers or sold by children on street corners.

This was the Waco Horror. Almost no other name is suitable. Despite this, there is a persistent risk that what was a nationwide trauma should appear to be, as Jennie Lightweis-Goff expresses in her work Blood at the Root, a safely Southern issue, the work of ill-bred hicks and corrupt drawling sheriffs. This is not the case.

Lynching was not meant to be disruptive; quite the opposite. It was not merely exclusionary to the black population, but affirmative to the white; one familial postcard of the aftermath of the Waco Horror reads “This is the barbecue we had last night.” It was the consummate act before the curtains were drawn on another staged production of American blood theatre. Although lynching was condemned from New York to London and was illegal in Texas at the time, none of the actors or onlookers in the lynching were ever punished in accordance with the seriousness of their crime.

The foundations of the lynch mentality, moreover, were not merely extant in the South. By 1916, the psychological Wiedervereinigung between the ex-Confederacy and its erstwhile Union enemy had reached a tacit, ersatz resolution. Public veterans’ reunions had, for past decades, provided photo-ops for former greys and blues to reconcile with handshakes. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s paean for the Ku Klux Klan Birth of a Nation had been released to thunderous acclaim in theatres nationwide. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson, a self-proclaimed admirer of the film, won a second term in the highest political office of the country. Madison Grant, a native of New York, wrote an amateur academic treatise on miscegenation, The Passing of the Great Race, to a warm reception in 1916, lamenting the “numbing presence” of the Southern black population: “one race drives the other out,” he explained “… or else they amalgamate and form a population of race bastards in which the lower type ultimately preponderates.” These are the ideological foundations of lynching, and they are everywhere. Drawn battle lines. Desirable and undesirable. Us and them.

Lynching is not a haphazard process, nor is it coincidental, or even involuntary. It fulfilled a set of very specific needs in the former Confederacy, allowing an embittered population, from socioeconomic top to bottom, to express its private anxiety in a horrifyingly public sphere. Rallied about its symbolic banners, the purity of the white woman, the sanctity of the Confederacy’s bleached bones, lynching lies quietly in taut expectancy to be brought into the light. A germ of this völkisch nausea, so to speak, lies at the base of Jefferson’s parched tree of liberty: if the engorged blood-root is to be satiated, it can only be done so through deliberate, specific violence.

“OUR country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.” -Ida B. Wells


Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Interested in studying Classics, he enjoys cultural criticism, cheap literature, the company of long-moribund civilizations and self-reference in the third person. The E’er Inscrutable appears on alternate Thursdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].