Lynching in America and Marion
by: Meredith Kuczora
The Marion lynchings were premeditated murders that emulated the nationwide and ritualistic practice which occurred due to social and racial issues.
The Marion lynchings were premeditated murders that emulated the nationwide and ritualistic practice which occurred due to social and racial issues. The reasoning for both national lynchings and Marion’s lynchings were similar in nature and based off of male white supremacy beliefs. The people of Marion were well-informed of the lynching process due to the influence of their local newspaper and their actions were a result of deeply-ingrained human sacrificial nature.
Background and Rationale
Marion was like most parts of the country in the 1930's, it was industrially prosperous, it had a growing population, and there was tremendous racial tension. This racial conflict resulted in Marion's most infamous event on August 7, 1930. Citizens of Marion and of its surrounding towns, organized the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. People today may be shocked to discover that the last lynching in the United States occured in the North. However, after researching Marion's local Newspaper, The Daily Leader (later known as The Marion Daily Chronicle) from the 1890's until the 1920's, I found that almost daily, there are reports of lynchings nationwide, both in the North and the South. In fact, some of the more blatantly racist articles were published in Indiana, like that of Evansville, IN in 1891. In this particular article about a lynched African American who was accused of assault is entitled, "Deserved His Fate". A large majority of these newpaper articles, that are found between mundane ads for cigars and wallpaper, are very similar in nature. The story is the same, an African American man is accused of sexual assualt or of a stray shooting and is condemned and prosecuted by the vigilante white community. In fact, "the main reasons for the lynching of Afro-Americans were murder and rape or attempted rape" (Patterson). The innumerable claims of sexual assualt on white, usually very young, females was a common theme in these articles. They were intended to provoke not only a feeling of pity, but action. In the cases of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, they were accused of both the shooting and murder of a white man, Claude Deeter, and the rape of a young white woman, Mary Ball. These claims of black on white violence set the stage for the inevitable lynchings that were similar to those of other, national lynchings.
The justification for the lynching of Smith and Shipp was the murder of a white man and the rape of a white woman, these would be legitimate claims if a court had actually found the men guilty. Most national justifications for lynching african americans come from charges of sexual assualt and shooting. These claims insinuate that the citizens' actions were a crime of passion and not premeditated. However, I believe that the cause of these lynchings were about deeply-engrained ideals about sexuality. The white male supremacist ideal of segragating white woman and black men. Historian Forrest Wood articulately suggested that white males still possess the fear of sexually suppressed white women expressing their sexuality fully, "For generations, southern white men had successfully dehumanized their women in order to perpetuate their own priviledged position and rationalize their own sexual accesses. If white women took it upon themselves to express their sexuality fully, the presence of high-powered animalistic Negroes would allow them to destroy completely the socio-sexual culture that had evolved over the decades. The Civil War abolished slavery, it did not abolish the southern way of life." After the end of the Civil War, Euro-American men had no means by controlling Afro-American men. In order to retain their socio-sexual culture, Euro-American men responded to the emancipation of slaves through racial violence and lynching. "So ingrained and completely institutionalized was the culture of honor and violence in the Old South that it persists right down to the present." (Patterson)
Influences and Similarities
I believe that lynchings both nationwide and in Marion followed a similar process. This process was a result of both human sacrificial nature and outside influences such as the Marion Daily Chronicle. This process usually consists of an African American man who is charged for either assault or rape, which results in his imprisonment. Members of the community ban together or riot and often obtain their victim from the local jail by force. There are few cases that I have read about that occurred in the 1920's-30's in which law enforcement disallowed rioters to enter the jail. Unfortunately, these cases are few and far between. Most often, rioters are able to enter and attack the accused man. The accused were then dragged to a tree/lightpost that is usually in front of a public building or street and hung. This script is a common theme throughout sources that I have discovered about lynchings from 1890's until 1940.
The Marion lynching does follow this pattern. White community members were able to obtain Shipp, Smith, and Cameron from the Marion jail with little resistance from law enforcement. Marion's sheriff at the time of the lynching, Sheriff Campbell, was a well-known member of the KKK. Citizens knew that they could penetrate the jail with ease. The lynching of Shipp, Smith and the attempted lynching of Cameron occured at a tree in front of the Grant County Courthouse, an open and public place. The Marion Lynching has a startling resemblence to those found in The Marion Chronicle between 1890 until 1940.
Although it is almost certain that the citizens of Grant County who participated in the lynching were influenced by the daily articles on national lynchings, there is also a human sacrificial nature aspect involved. W. Fitzhugh Brundage claims that there are four main types of lynchers, the last being mass mobs numbering between fifty and several thousands, which had the full support of the community for their extralegal and illegal activities. He argues that the mass mob demonstrated the "highly ritualized choreography" of the chase, the careful selection of the sacrificial site, the sadistic torture (and often burning) of the victim, and the collection of mementos from the victim's body and the site of the sacrifice.(Patterson)The crowd which Brundage described as customary for sacrificial lynchings was consistent with the Marion lynching. The crowd that had gathered in front of the Grant County courthouse was an estimated four thousand people. There were also rumors circulating of a supposed lynching that very day in both Marion and Fairmount, the home town of Mary ball. (Madison)The mob that penetrated the Marion jail "grabbed Shipp and began to club him as they dragged him outside." Even after Shipp had been lynched from the window bars on the east side of the jail, the mob continued to beat the dead body. (Madison) Abe Smith also fell victim to the torture of the mob and was "clubbed and beaten". Many of the eyewitnesses took souvenirs."Souvenir collectors cut pieces of clothing from the two bodies and bark from the lynching tree." The taking of relics from the dead victims is characteristic of human sacrifices. (Madison) According to Patterson, the most common way for consecrating a place for sacrifice was to build a fire. The fire is an important aspect in past sacrifices because it symbolized the deity. (Patterson)
James Cameron, who survived the lynching and was also accused of the crime, claimed to have heard the voice of God who said, "Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with this," Cameron claimed to have "heard this voice, but no one else did. Nevertheless, the crowd grew quiet and they released me." There are other eyewitness accounts of a hushed silence that occured while Cameron stood beneath the corpses of his two friends with a noose around his neck. I have come to believe that this hushed silence was due to the natural human response to a sacrifice. As Patterson so eloquently puts it, "This awed hush, in the face and smell of death...an essential part of the sacrificial rite is that some profound change occurs in the sacrificed object, and there is awe in actually witnessing the transition from a state of life to a state of death. There are many documented instances of lynchings that afterwards, resulted in a sudden silence from its witnesses.