Lynchings & Hangings of America

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Riot, 1921.

On June 1, 1921, one of the worst race riots in history occurred in TulsaOklahoma. “Black Wallstreet,” the name fittingly given to one of the most affluent black communities in America, was bombed from the air and burned to the ground by mobs of envious whites. In a period spanning fewer than 12 hours, the thriving black business district in north Tulsa lay smoldering, 3,000 black Americans were dead, and over 600 successful businesses were lost.

Behind the destruction was the Ku Klux Klan, working in consort with ranking city officials and many other sympathizers. It cost the black community everything, and not a single dime of restitution nor insurance claims were ever awarded to the victims. Many of the dead were buried in mass graves around the city; some were thrown into the river, and others were thrown into a coal mine.

In 1922, another anti-lynching bill was drafted, which passed in the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate, and again, the tragedies continued to occur. In the 1930s, the depression fueled the hunt for racial as well as political scapegoats.

Souvenir photos and postcards of lynching become a lost genre of American photography when the Postmaster General finally banned such postcards from going through the mail in the mid-1920s. Small town photographers, who had made large profits from the thousands of penny postcards, were disappointed to lose a large part of their business. Though lynching photography continued, they at least stopped going through the mail.

In 1925, Price, Utah, saw the last lynching of a black man in the American West. Robert Marshall, an itinerant miner, was hanged after two white boys said they had seen him near the scene where a white man was murdered. A thousand people watched the hanging, but not one person would testify before a grand jury as to who carried out the lynching.

The drama of these horrible spectacles seemed to increase over time with the lynch leader often dressed in a garish costume and bandying about numerous objects, such as lynch ropes, the American flag, guns, and gasoline, in or to create an atmosphere of even higher excitement. Further, the sadistic nature of the crowds also increased. Such was the case when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930. Accused of the murder of a white girl in Ocilla, Georgia, Irwin was taken by a rampaging mob, and as people cheered and children played during the festivities, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers, and then he was castrated. He was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers. Afterward, onlookers fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse, and pieces of the body were taken as souvenirs of the event. No one was ever punished for this barbaric killing.

On the night of August 7, 1930, three young African Americans — Thomas Shipp, age nineteen; Abram Smith, age eighteen; and sixteen-year-old James Cameron, faced the hideous wrath of a lynch mob in the Ku Klux Klan-dominated town of Marion, Indiana. Only Cameron survived. The black youths had been involved in the robbery-inspired murder of Claude Deeter, 23, a white factory worker from nearby Fairmount, Indiana, and were accused of sexually assaulting Deeter’s white girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Marion resident Mary Ball. While the latter charge was never proven, such charges, however groundless, were easily assumed by racist whites and frequently served to incite lynch mobs to commit even greater atrocities.

Both Shipp and Smith were snatched from a jail cell only a block and a half from the giant oak tree where their bodies were soon to hang lifeless, beaten, and hanged to death by the furious mob. Cameron was badly beaten and nearly suffered an identical demise but was saved at the last moment by the intervention of a “voice” from the crowd. “That boy didn’t have anything to do with any killing or raping!” shouted the voice. Cameron’s mysterious benefactor was never identified. Later, James Cameron would go on to write a book entitled, A Time of Terror, from which the following account was taken.

“Thousands of Indianans carrying picks, bats, ax handles, crowbars, torches, and firearms attacked the Grant County Courthouse, determined to “get those goddamn N***ers.” A barrage of rocks shattered the jailhouse windows, sending dozens of frantic inmates in search of cover. A sixteen-year-old boy, James Cameron, one of the three intended victims, paralyzed by fear and incomprehension, recognized familiar faces in the crowd — schoolmates and customers whose lawns he had mowed and whose shoes he had polished — as they tried to break down the jailhouse door with sledgehammers. Many police officers milled outside with the crowd, joking. Inside, fifty guards with guns waited downstairs.

The door was ripped from the wall, and a mob of fifty men beat Thomas Shipp senseless and dragged him into the street. The waiting crowd ‘came to life.’ It seemed to Cameron that ‘all of those ten to fifteen thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.’ The dead Shipp was dragged with a rope up to the window bars of the second victim, Abram Smith. For twenty minutes, citizens pushed and shoved for a closer look at the ‘dead n***er.’ By the time Abe Smith was hauled out, he was equally mutilated. ‘Those who were not close enough to hit him threw rocks and bricks. Somebody rammed a crowbar through his chest several times in great satisfaction.’ Smith was dead by the time the mob dragged him ‘like a horse‘ to the courthouse square and hung him from a tree. The lynchers posed for photos under the limb that held the bodies of the two dead men.

Then the mob headed back for James Cameron and ‘mauled him all the way to the courthouse square,’ shoving and kicking him to the tree, where the lynchers put a hanging rope around his neck. Cameron credited an unidentified woman’s voice with silencing the mob and opening a path for his retreat to the county jail and, ultimately, for saving his life. Mr. Cameron has committed his life to retelling the horrors of his experience and ‘the Black Holocaust‘ in his capacity as director and founder of the museum with the same name in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Under magnification, one can see the girls in this photo clutching ragged swatches of dark cloth.

“After souvenir hunters divvied up the bloodied pants of Abram Smith, his naked lower body was clothed in a Klansman’s robe — not unlike the loincloth in traditional depictions of Christ on the cross. Lawrence Beitler, a studio photographer, took this photo. For ten days and nights, he printed thousands of copies, which sold for fifty cents apiece.”

In its sporadic occurrences over the next decades, lynching continued to be a vehicle of terror and as 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 lynching-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.

Lynching Protest

Lynching Protest.

On December 6, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt used one of his first national radio addresses to call lynch law “collective murder” and 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 and mutilation before he was murdered.

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 awaiting his arrival. It 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 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 32-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 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 be the country’s first hanging conducted by a woman.

Rainey Bethea Coverage.

The county sheriff was a woman named Florence Thompson, a widow, and mother of four, who deliberately had the scaffold erected so that thousands could witness the execution. The execution was widely publicized, as much for the execution itself, like 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 who fled the town, especially after receiving lynching threats from many 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.

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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.

One wire service dispatch read: “Cheering, booing, eating and joking, 20,000 persons witnessed the public execution of Rainey Bethea, 22, frightened Negro boy, at Owensboro, Ky., yesterday. In callous, carnival spirit, the mob charged the gallows after the trap was sprung, tore the executioner’s hood from the corpse, chipping the gallows for souvenirs. Mothers attended with babes in arms, hot dog vendors hawked their wares and a woman across the street held a necktie breakfast for relatives. The woman sheriff, at the last minute, decided not to spring the trap.”

An embarrassed Kentucky General Assembly quickly abolished public executions and before long those states still sanctioning public executions followed suit. Rainey Bethea was the last man publicly executed in the United States.

Falling eight feet, the rope tightened and broke Bethea’s neck. The still-warm body was then attacked by souvenir hunters, tearing off pieces of clothing and some even attempting to cut pieces of flesh from the poor man’s body. The spectators were backed away so that two physicians could examine the body and when a pulse was found, a large groan went up from the crowd. From the time that the trapdoor fell to when Bethea was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m., 14 minutes had passed. When the final determination was made that the man was officially a corpse, several people began fighting over the hood that covered his head. Only 37 days had elapsed between his arrest and his execution.

After Bethea’s body was hauled away in a pauper’s basket, Sheriff Florence Thompson told reporters that she had decided against flipping the lever herself because, “I did not want people pointing to my children and saying, their mother was the one who hanged a Negro at Owensboro.”

Afterward, the reporters, who had paid dearly to get to the “boonies,” rushed off to write their stories. Many people contend that in their disappointment to see the first woman in U.S. history perform an execution, they took their anger out against the spectators and the town of Owensboro. Exaggerating an event that needed no further embellishment, the headlines cried: “The Center of Barbarism,” “Children Picnic as Killer Pays,” and “They Ate Hot Dogs While a Man Died on the Gallows.”

Anti-lynching Protest

Anti-lynching Protest.

In 1937 and again in 1940, yet two more anti-lynching bills passed through the House of Representatives, but were defeated in the Senate. Although the NAACP had failed to get a federal law passed, lynchings had almost disappeared by 1950. The NAACP’s 30-year struggle to publicize the barbarity of lynch mobs had penetrated even the most backward and racist regions of the country.

It was not one single event alone that spurred the people to action when finally the Civil Rights Movement was born. Instead, the Movement developed out of the post-World War II society in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Instead, each struggle and its subsequent achievement altered the tone of society and the expectations of present and future generations.

As a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, southerners revived the ever-effective lynching, which had been in decline, to combat the movement’s achievements. The violent deaths inflicted both on locals who attempted to work within their own community and on “outside agitators” from such Civil Rights organizations as the Congress of Racial Equality attempted to maintain the status quo of Southern society through the implicit threat of the lynch mob. Lynching, however, had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of silencing the black population and dissuading them from organizing, several well-publicized lynchings galvanized the Civil Rights movement, introduced a national audience to the violence inflicted by an archaic social order, and even forced the federal government to become involved in what had been a state government concern.

Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, lynchings persisted in the Deep South, the most significant of which was the illegal execution of 19-year-old Michael Donald.

In 1981, a black man who was charged with the murder of a white policeman stood trial in Mobile, Alabama. When his trial took place, the jury was unable to reach a verdict.  Upset Ku Klux Klan members believed that some black members of the jury had affected this outcome, and at a meeting after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest-ranking official in the Alabama Klan, said: “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”

On Saturday, March 21, 1981, Bennie Hays’ son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the African American for killing a policeman.

Traveling around Mobile in their car, they soon found Michael Donald walking home. Donald had nothing to do with the murder of the police officer and was in no way involved in the trial. He was just an innocent man that the Ku Klux Klan chose randomly to exact revenge for the acquittal of the other man during the trial. When the pair spotted Michael Donald, they forced him into their car, drove to the next county, and lynched him.

An investigation resulted in the local police finding that Donald had been murdered over a drug deal gone bad. However, Beulah Mae Donald knew her son was not involved in drugs and resolved to obtain justice. Soon, Jessie Jackson and the FBI were involved, and it did not take long before FBI agent James Bodman was able to obtain a confession from James Knowles.

In June 1983, Knowles was found guilty of violating Donald’s civil rights and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Six months later, when Henry Hays was tried for murder, Knowles appeared as the chief prosecution witness. Hays was found guilty and sentenced to death.

But Beaulah Mae Donald was not yet done with her determination to obtain justice. She soon filed a civil suit against the United Klans of America. In February 1987, an all-white jury found the Klan responsible for the lynching of Michael Donald and ordered it to pay 7 million dollars. This resulted in the Klan having to hand over all its assets, including its national headquarters in Tuscaloosa.

After a long-drawn-out legal struggle, Henry Hayes was executed on June 6, 1997. It was the first time a white man had been executed for a crime against an African American since 1913.

Through the years, other forms of capital punishment, such as the electric chair and, more recently, lethal injection, have largely replaced hanging in the U.S. today. The most recent hanging in the United States occurred on January 25, 1996, when Delaware hanged Billy Bailey; Delaware has since abolished the method. Hanging remains legal only in Washington State, which last used it to execute Charles Campbell on May 27, 1994. In 1996 the State legislature amended the law to make lethal injection the default death penalty unless the convicted person chooses to hang. Today, the gallows and firing squads are anything but public and are rarely used in the United. States.

However, hanging remains the second most widely used method of execution in the world today (the first is shooting), and in some places, they remain public. In 2002, at least 115 men and 5 women were hanged in 10 countries; in 2002, at least 99 men and 1 woman; and in 2004, at least 150 men and 7 women suffered this fate.

Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968 (Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute)

State White Black Total
Alabama 48 299 347
Arizona 31 0 31
Arkansas 58 226 284
California 41 2 43
 Colorado 65 3 68
 Delaware 0 1 1
 Florida 25 257 282
Georgia 39 492 531
Idaho 20 0 20
Illinois 15 19 34
Indiana 33 14 47
Iowa 17 2 19
Kansas 35 19 54
Kentucky 63 142 205
Louisiana 56 335 391
Maine 1 0 1
Maryland 2 27 29
Michigan 7 1 8
Minnesota 5 4 9
Mississippi 42 539 581
Missouri 53 69 122
Montana 82 2 84
Nebraska 52 5 57
Nevada 6 0 6
New Jersy 1 1 2
New Mexico 33 3 36
New York 1 1 2
North Carolina 15 86 101
North Dakota 13 3 16
Ohio 10 16 26
Oklahoma 82 40 122
Oregon 20 1 21
Pennsylvania 2 6 8
South Carolina 4 156 160
South Dakota 27 0 27
Tennessee 47 204 251
Texas 141 352 493
Utah 6 2 8
Vermont 1 0 1
Virginia 17 83 100
Washington 25 1 26
West Virginia 20 28 48
Wisconsin 6 0 6
Wyoming 30 5 35
TOTAL 1,297 3,446 4,743

Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated April 2022.

Also See:

Civil Rights Movement

Old West Vigilantes

The Era of Reconstruction

Slavery in the United States