Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
As the night falls and the moon rises, we’ll take a journey this week far beneath the law library into the catacombs where the bones of lesser lawyers line the walls and guttering torches light the way. That’s right, it’s time to enter the legal crypts for another monthly edition of Freaky Friday here on Lawyers & Liquor, where we talk about the morbid, morose, paranormal, or unsettling parts of the law and legal history. So settle in and sit a spell as we pull down a dusty tome of dark legal, and illegal, knowledge to drop on you. Especially this time, as we talk about the ghosts of America’s past, both figurative and literal, of those denied justice, sentenced to death, and executed by the whims of the mob and the animus of illogical hatred.
But first, a warning:
Today’s post will contain graphic historical images and content. There is no nudity, but it will be disturbing. There will be dead people. There will be people killed for their skin color. Feel free to avoid the post this month. I’ll be back next month with another one that’s more light-hearted.
A Story: The Lynching of Laura Nelson
O, don’t kill my baby and my son,
O , don’t kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don’t kill my baby and my son.
I’ll start you off slow. What you’re seeing above you is a picture of the 1911 lynching of Laura Nelson and her son, L.D., in Oklahoma. L.D. and Lauara were accused of stealing a cow, and then of shooting and killing a sheriff’s deputy that came to investigate the crime. Her husband, who pled guilty to larceny, was safely sent to the state prison, but Laura, L.D., and Laura’s infant child were all sent to the local jail to await trial as they protested their innocence to the murder charge now levied against them.
That is until the night of May 24, 1911, a whole 22 days after they were initially arrested, when a mob of 12-40 men stormed the Okemeh, Oklahoma jail in the middle of the night, forcefully removed Laura, her son, and her baby from the cells, took them to a bridge over the North Canadian River, placed nooses around their necks…and dropped them. Without trial. Without conviction. With no evidence of their guilt or innocence, no jury, no attorney. Laura and L.D. Nelson, and likely the poor baby still suckling at his mother’s breast, were sentenced to death by the anger of a mob convinced of their guilt, and not a court of law.
You can see the results above.
By the way, that mob on the bridge? It’s likely (though not certain) it contains a man named Charley, a respected local businessman, politician, and District Court Clerk. The event would leave a scar on his family as well, as his son would never forget the incident and would refuse to speak of it. His son, a musician, would write two songs about the lynching of Laura and L.D. Nelson, which he would never personally record in anyway. It’s from one of those songs, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son,” that the lyrics from this section are taken.
The singer, whose father may have very well tightened the noose around the neck of Laura Nelson as she pled for the lives of her children?
That would be Woody Guthrie, seminal folk singer and rights activist.
Lynching: An American Tradition
Webster’s Dictionary defines “Lynch” as a verb meaning “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.”
Technically, a lynching occurs anytime a mob of people gather and administer justice on their own. “Mob justice,” by the way, is just another fucking way to say “murdering someone because we think they’re wrong.” Very few cases of mob justice end without a death, and they are never extensions of the state or the judicial process. They are murder, even when the person that is lynched has been convicted and sentenced to death, because they are not sentenced to “a terrible beating and then death without a chance to appeal at the hands of a howling mob bent on dragging out every ounce of pain they can before ending it.” The convicted is sentenced to death at the hands of the state, after the exhaustion of all appeals and all opportunities to avail themselves of complete due process.
So here’s the general layout for a lynching: A person is accused of a crime, many times one that is reprehensible to the people in the community. The wheels of justice aren’t moving fast enough, and the mob begins to form. The accused, who is in custody, can’t be easily snatched and a trial will take a long time or, in some cases, it’s apparent the accused will not be convicted. The mob then raids the jail, sometimes with the complicity of the lawmen, and takes the accused from their cell. The accused is marched to a place, often brutally beaten, and then torturously executed (often by hanging). The need for a trial is obviated, and in many cases no members of the mob are ever arrested or prosecuted, thus giving the murder the unofficial imprimatur of legitimacy.
Wash, rinse, repeat. There are variations, like when the accused was convicted first, but that’s the gist of it.
Except for the part that lynchings were almost always directed towards specific minorities accused of crimes, especially after military occupation of the South ended after Reconstruction and the federal government began to take a “hands-off” approach. A hands off approach that, from 1882 until roughly 1959 resulted in approximately 4,733 lynchings.
Here’s three of those. And these weren’t from the South. These were from Minnesota.
A Story: The Duluth Three
They’re selling postcards of the hanging, painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
In 1920, the circus came to Duluth, Minnesota.
The John Robinson Circus was a sight to behold as it marched in a free parade through the streets of Duluth, drawing the attention of all of the bystanders before making its way to a small, clear spot just outside of town to set up the tent for a one night only show. Having seen the parade, the acrobats, the clowns, and the animals, 19 year old Irene Tusken and her 18 year old boyfriend James Sullivan decided to go that night. Afterwards they stayed at the circus, watching the roustabouts break down the tent and load materials, getting the circus ready to move on to the next town, getting home late.
After getting home, James Sullivan, not Irene Tusken, stated that a group of six African-American roustabouts had “robbed them both” and then proceeded to rape Irene Tusken. Immediately the police sprung into action, rounding up the roustabouts despite the fact a medical examination of Tusken showed no evidence of sexual assault, and lining them up on the railroad tracks outside of town. At that point Tusken was told to identify the men that attacked her in the presence of a group of police officers and people from town, and chose nine men.
Rumors ran rampant as the men were taken to the city jail, including one that Tusken had died or was dying from her non-existent injuries, and the populace of Duluth became incensed. Slowly, wielding bricks, sticks, iron bars, and various other weapons, a mob of 1,000 to 10,000 people gathered outside of the jail. The air simmered with hatred and anger until final whatever dam had been holding them back broke and the crowd surged into the jail, ripping three of the men, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, from their jail cells.
You can see what happened next in the picture above.
In the fallout from Duluth, only three men were convicted of rioting, and none of murder.
Meanwhile, in Superior, Wisconsin, as the news of the Duluth Lynching broke across the nation, the police chief said “We are going to run all idle negroes out of Superior and they’re going to stay out.”
Mob Justice: Some Stains Don’t Wash Out
Frankly, the concept of mob justice isn’t new in America. In San Francisco in the mid-1800’s, Vigilance Committees were the unofficial law of the boom town, finding who they deemed to be criminals and punishing them in whatever manner the Committee found appropriate. They arose where the people thought there was a failure of the law to do its job, or where no law existed or was weak. They were common enough on the American frontier as the country expanded, where the authorities were too understaffed (or too uncaring) to stop the howling mobs that were determined to act as judge, jury, and executioner.
But people are driven by their baser instincts, and where you find mob justice you often find racism. In San Francisco, for example, Vigilance Committees were known to regularly accuse, attack, and horribly punish Chinese immigrants and workers. In the Southern California area, it was the Mexicans that had the ill fortune to still live in that area after it had been ceded by Mexico to the United States. And in the East and Midwest, in cities both Northern and Southern, it was the African American who lived with the risk of some social infraction or unfounded accusation bringing their life to a slow and torturous end at the hands of the mob.
Justice, it seemed, was whatever the majority determined it to be, and to hell with the process of the courts and the risk that a person who was so clearly guilty would go free. In some cases, the act may not even have been a crime, or have happened. It was well-known, and accepted, that making a false accusation was a viable way to deflect blame from the actual (normally white) perpetrator or to force a black businessman and competitor to pack up in the middle of the night, fleeing for his life.
Those ghosts still haunt us today. When I was a child, there were people still alive who had witnessed lynchings in my home state and elsewhere. They may have been children at the time, but they remembered the almost carnival-like atmosphere, the yelling, the shouting, and at the end the pride the mob had in seeing justice done.
And very, very rarely were these people ever brought to justice themselves. Even when they were, no howling mob dragged them unconvicted from their cells to be strung up. The perpetrators of these murders were given full due process of law, and generally were acquitted (whether it be due to racism or lack of evidence) or convicted of much lesser penalties.
The actions of the mobs that proliferated and caused the deaths of over 4,000 men, women, and children in extrajudicial murders, all in the name of the perverted justice of the mob, remain a stain on our legal, and national, history. One that, as Lady MacBeth found out, won’t come clean.
And sometimes one that can still be heard in the very courthouse that failed to see justice done.
The Ghosts of Clarendon, Arkansas
John and Mabel Orr weren’t a match made in heaven. They fought constantly, sometimes physically, with each other. John, a former actor, and Mabel, a volunteer and fixture in the society scene of Clarendon, were known to have violent spats that raged throughout their home. In 1898 Arkansas, however, this wasn’t something the neighborhood got involved in. It was just “how they were.”
Until the night a bullet crashed through the window and killed John Orr in his kitchen.
Quickly suspicion fell on Mabel Orr…and five hired, African American servants (as well as their maid, described as a “Jewess”) for planning and participating in the murder of John Orr. All were arrested, with the exception of the maid who had fled, and placed in the Monroe County jail to await trial. With Mabel Orr at the time was her three-year old daughter, reminiscent of Laura Nelson.
The mob in town repeatedly came to the jail, and in a rare show of conscience, the Southern court stepped in repeatedly to prevent the mob from taking the accused from their cells. At one point, as the Daily Sentinel stated, the judge assured the howling mob justice would be swift.
“[E]ach time the crowd dispersed on the promise of the officers to rush the trial without a change of venue, or any delay in the proceedings whatever.”
The problem is apparent, in that the court was stating it would not give any consideration to the accused in planning the trial, or even consider changing the venue out of the county where there was a howling mob calling for them to die already. An impartial jury trial, indeed.
Even with these abrogations of justice, however, it was not enough for the mob, which, while the accused were still awaiting trial, stormed the courthouse and seized the African American servants from their cells. Notably they bypassed Ms. Orr herself, who had been provided with poison by, allegedly, a sympathetic jailer and lay already dying in her bed with her daughter beside her. The servants were dragged to a sawmill near the river, and, after a beating, hanged until dead by the mob asking for vengeance. Their bodies were then buried there.
Ms. Orr died peacefully in her cell, unlike Laura Nelson. And unlike Laura Nelson’s baby, her own toddler was spared death. But Ms. Orr, of course, was merely a murderess. Not a “colored” murderess.
A coroner’s inquest would determine the servants died at the hands of “persons unknown” to the court, and nobody from the mob would ever be prosecuted. Despite the fact that Clarendon was not a booming metropolis, and certainly people knew the faces of those that had tightened the noose around the necks of the servants. Justice had been done, but only that of a vengeful mob out for blood, and not those of the court.
There is an epitaph to this tale, however. See, the Monroe County Courthouse in Clarendon is reputed to be haunted by orbs and unearthly screams, sometimes attributed to Ms. Orr and sometimes to the servants dragged from their jail cells. If it is, then perhaps it has attached to the site itself, given that the courthouse today was built in 1911 on the site of its four predecessors.
But for once, the story here isn’t one of the ghost itself, but how it was created. Because the ghosts of this era, an era in American history that has never fully passed, haunts us still today. In a daily docket you can watch the faces of the past come into the present, and hear the howling of the mob still in the back of your mind.
And that, my friends, is the true ghost of lynching, which haunts our courts still today: the baying of a vengeful mob, and the crying and pleading of a person for the protection of justice. Justice that has been denied.