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Lynchings & Hangings - Page 7

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In its sporadic occurrences over the next decades, lynching continued to be a vehicle of terror and a last resort in opposition to the drive for political and civil rights through the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond.

The NAACP hoped that the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 would finally bring an end to lynching A new bill was drafted in 1935 that would punish sheriffs who failed to protect their prisoners from lynch mobs. However, Roosevelt would not speak out in favor of the bill, arguing that white voters in the south would never forgive him and he would lose the next election.

 

When the corpse of Brooke Hart, a San Jose youth, was discovered in San Francisco Bay on November 26, 1933, a mob materialized to punish the alleged kidnappers and murderers, Thomas H. Thurmond and John “Jack” Holmes. The lynchers rammed open the jail door, assaulted the guards, and dragged Holmes and Thurmond to St. James Park, beating them into near unconsciousness. Holmes's clothes were sheared from his body, and Thurmond's pants were drawn down to his ankles. A gathering of some six thousand spectators witnessed the hanging.

 

Governor James Rolph's doublespeak was typical of many llynching-era politicians: "While the law should have been permitted to take its course, the people by their action have given notice to the entire world that in California kidnapping will not be tolerated."

 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

From Billie Holiday's 1938 song Strange Fruit.

 

 

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Anti-lynching ProtestOn December 6, 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt used one of his first national radio addresses to call lynch law “collective murder” and to condemn those “in high places or in low who condone lynch law.” Alluding to the growing number of federal anti-lynching legislation supporters, he stated that a new generation of Americans “seeks action . . . and is not content with preaching against that vile form of collective murder — lynch law — which has broken out in our midst anew." Though Roosevelt spoke out against lynching, he still would not support the anti-lynching proposed laws.

 

On October 26, 1934 Claude Neal was lynched in Marianna, Florida. This lynching had a traumatic effect on the nation’s approval of lynching. The young black man was lynched after confessing to the murder of Lola Cannidy. The methods used to extract the confession cast doubt on its validity. Ms. Cannidy, a young white neighbor, was supposedly having an affair with Neal. To ensure Claude’s safety he was kept in an Alabama jail. The lynch mob took him from the authorities and subjected him to ten hours of excruciating torture before he was put to death.

 

A member of the lynching party described the lynching in great detail:

 

“After taking the n***er to the woods about four miles from Greenwood, they cut off his penis. He was made to eat it. Then they cut off his testicles and made him eat them and say he liked it. Then they sliced his sides and stomach with knives and every now and then somebody would cut off a finger or toe. Red hot irons were used on the n***er to burn him from top to bottom.” From time to time during the torture a rope would be tied around Neal’s neck and he was pulled up over a limb and held there until he almost choked to death when he would be let down and the torture begin all over again. After several hours of this unspeakable torture, “they decided just to kill him.”

 

Neal’s body was then tied to a rope at the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Cannidy home. Here a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3000 and 7000 from eleven southern states were excitedly waiting his arrival. when the corpse was rolled into the dust, it was horribly mutilated by the onlookers. It5 was then taken back to Marianna, where it was hung to a tree on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. Pictures were taken of the mutilated form and hundreds of photographs were sold for fifty cents each. Neal’s fingers were sold as souvenirs to the bloodthirsty crowd who arrived too late to witness the gory festivities.

 

What made this situation even more deplorable is the fact that the Florida press had advance notice of the lynching and reported it in their newspapers. However, not one official at the local, state, or federal level tried to prevent the lynching. Neal’s lynching was followed by a race riot in the town of Marianna in which white rioters attempted to drive all blacks out of the city.

While the Neal lynching may have been the last "spectacle" lynching in the nation, many other lynchings of a less publicized nature would follow. In fact, Marianna would be the site of another lynching less than 10 years later.

 

On July 19, 1935, a woman named Marion Jones in Fort Lauderdale, Florida made a complaint against a black man who had appeared at her door.

 

In no time, Rubin Stacy was picked up by authorities and while he was being escorted to the Dade County jail in Miami, Florida, he was forcibly taken by a white mob. The mob returned the thirty-two year old man to Fort Lauderdale and hanged him outside Jones’ home. However, the investigation revealed that Stacy was nothing more than a homeless tenant farmer who had gone to the Jones home, asking for food. When Marion Jones saw him, she became frightened and screamed. The white mob had never even given Stacy the chance of discovering the facts before he died at the end of a rope.

 

Even the appearance in the newspapers of these lynchings failed to change Roosevelt's mind on speaking out for another anti-lynching bill proposed after Stacey's murder. Though the proposed bill received more support than it had in the past, it was defeated. However, the national debate taking place over the issue helped to bring attention to the crime of lynching to the American public.

 

Be it lynchings or legal hangings, the spectacle of death was most often a public event until 1936. The last legal execution made public occurred in the early morning of August 14, 1936 when a crowd of 20,000 gathered to watch the public hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky. Bethea, a 22-year-old black man, had been convicted of the rape and murder of a seventy-year-old white woman. Hundreds of reporters and photographers, some from as far away as New York and Chicago, were sent to Owensboro to cover what was supposed to the country's first hanging conducted by a woman.

 

Coverage of Rainey Bethea's hanging from the New York Daily News, August 1936. The county sheriff was a woman named Florence Thompson, a widow and mother of four, deliberately had the scaffold erected so that thousands could witness the execution. The execution was widely publicized, as much for the execution itself, as the fact that the executioner was to be the first female to ever act as such. So many people invaded Owensboro for the spectacle that terrified local blacks fled the town, especially after receiving lynching threats from many of the drunken white revelers. As the crowd waited all night to witness the execution at dawn, parties developed among the anxious crowd, as snacks were hawked by the many children in the festive atmosphere.

 

The large crowd included over 200 sheriffs and deputies from various parts of the U.S., and other than just six black people, the throbbing mass was made up of completely whites. Except for those elbowing for a better position, the crowd remained fairly well behaved.

 

Before Bethea’s arrival, the hangman tested the knot and when it snapped open, a loud cheer went up from the onlookers. But, of Sheriff Florence Thompson, there was no sign.

 

Shortly after sunrise Bethea walked out of the jail, accompanied by a Catholic priest, Father Lemmons, and two deputies.  When he arrived at the top of the gallows he was given the chance to give his last words, but instead, he stood silent as Father Lemmons raised his hand to hush the crowd.  Phil Hanna, who'd supervised 70 Southern hangings, pulled a long black hood over Bethea's head and the noose placed around his neck.

 

 

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