The Perversion of the Past

Last night I stumbled upon a record of lynchings in Alabama from 1871 to 1920, compiled for the Alabama Department of Archives and History by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute on AlabamaMosaic.

As documents go, this one is incredibly moving. It merely lists the lynchings in Alabama from 1871 to 1920 by date and includes victims’ race, supposed crime, and location. The great bulk of the victims were black males and the most common crimes were murder and rape. Periodically whites and women appear and the less common “crimes” include mistaken identity, frightening women and children, incest, barn burning, and mule poisoning. That so many of the victims are listed as “name unknown” and that among the crimes listed is “mistaken identity” captures the irrational wrath and hatred that sparked spontaneous, ill-informed, and ill-judged retribution. That more than a couple of those lynched were listed as being released on bail hints at the complicity of law enforcement who released prisoners they likely knew to be in danger. Not that I ever thought lynching was innocuous or an innocent bygone of history, but something about the mundane details captured in this document—or the details that escaped the document because they failed to be recorded, details as seemingly significant as the name of the lynched, the nature of his or her supposed crime, or even the location of the lynching—makes it all the more real, all the more poignant.

Who was the unnamed man lynched for miscegenation on July 25, 1889? What were so many men accused of doing that is now only recorded as “charged with being a desperado”? What of “Roxie Elliot, colored (woman) charge not given” or “Eliza Lowe, Ella Williams, William Williams and Willis Lowe, colored, charged with incendiarism” or “The Four Savage Brothers, white, charged with being outlaws” and the three men named Sims—all lynched on the 26th and 27th of December, 1891 in Choctaw County, or “John Brownlee, colored, charged with political activity” or ” Manuel Dunegan, colored, to prevent giving evidence” or Zeb. Colley, Mary Deane, John Rattler, Martha Green, and Alice Green, all charged with murder in Greenville in April, 1895, or “Eden Williams, white, charged with incest” in Mantua or “Hollinshead, white, charged with turning state’s evidence” or “John Hayden, colored, mistaken for another” or Louis and John Bonner, both “colored, charge–for giving evidence against ‘White Caps'”? Behind each fragmented line’s date, location, victim, and crime is a story of human tragedy.

So many are unnamed. Few, if any, received trials—even unfair ones. Every year between 1882 and 1920, there were lynchings—plural—except for 1916, in which only one is recorded. Between 1892 and 1897, there were at least ten and as many as seventeen per year. 1901 and 1907 saw a dozen and eleven, respectively. In all, as many as 273 lynchings are accounted for in this document.

The document is dated February 21, 1921. It does not reckon lynchings after 1920, but they did not end.

The only indication of the pure brutality of the lynchings is the two-paragraph description of presumably typical lynchings “in slavery days.”

In May, 1835, two Negroes were burned to death near Mobile, for “most barbarously murdering” two children. The murderers had their trial, the result of which is given in the following paragraph taken from a Mobile paper: “As the court pronounced the only sentence known to the law — the smothered flame broke forth. The laws of the country had never conceived that crimes could be perpetrated with such peculiar circumstances of barbarity, and had therefore provided no adequate punishment. Their lives were justly forfeited to the laws of the country, but the peculiar circumstances demanded that the ordinary punishment should be departed from — they were seized, taken to the place where they had perpetrated the act, and burned to death.” Cutler, “Lynch Law.” p. 108.

In 1855, a Negro who had raped and murdered a young girl was brought before the Sumter County superior court in regular session. “When the case was called for trial a motion for change of venue to the county of Greene was granted. This so exasperated the citizens of Sumter (many of whom were favor of summary punishment at the outset) that a large number of them collected on the 23d. ult., took him out of prison, chained him to a stake on the very spot where the murder was committed, and in the presence of two or three thousand Negroes and a large number of white people, burned him alive.” –Phillips, “American Negro Slavery.” pp 462-463.

Perversion. There is something deeply perverse about this whole form of “punishment”–the instant gratification of “summary punishment,” the near total absence of legal institutions, the anonymous crowd of citizens as executioners, the festival atmosphere that often accompanied the lynchings. There is both the anarchy of the mob and the overzealous application of a strict moral code that must stamp out any perceived threat immediately, brutally, and without any deliberation.

Perversion. The spectacular and intimate displays of violence visited upon bodies and the communal participation and performance go beyond mere execution to something like ritual fetish. The deaths were tortuous and horrific, the audiences large, close, participatory.

I wonder what lessons the children, white and black, took from these gatherings—about their parents, about crime and punishment, about deliberation, about being in the herd or being trampled by it, about not being heard. I wonder about the white hypocrisy of performing with mastery the very brutality projected upon the black other. I wonder at the legacy of lynching, even as the memory fades from popular memory. I have no answers.

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