As I write this review, the extraordinary collection of lynching photographs that transfixed crowds at the New-York Historical Society in the summer of 2001, Without Sanctuary, is now on exhibit in Atlanta, a metropolis much publicized during the civil rights struggle of the late twentieth century as “too busy to hate.”1 In image-conscious Atlanta, initial worries by some among the city’s business and civic establishment that such an exhibit might do more harm than good (as Southerners, white, black, and now brown, are wont to say about race) quickly dissipated once it became clear that the general public was capable of absorbing the stupefaction, vicarious guilt, remorse, or reflective anger evoked by what can only be described as one of the most spectacular displays of unrelieved gruesomeness ever assembled in the history of photography. As the Georgia congressman John Lewis said, “Many people today, despite the evidence, will not believe—don’t want to believe—that such atrocities happened in America not so very long ago.”2

The strong public response to this gallery of horrors, organized more than a year ago by James Allen, attests to its salutary effect both upon those in a state of denial and those in a state of ignorance, North, South, and beyond. Even so, it is only realistic to anticipate that the recent attention being paid to what was once a popular regional outdoor pastime will eventually fall victim to the characteristic American proclivity for amnesia. Yet it may not, perhaps, be overly optimistic to hope that exhibits such as Without Sanctuary, along with the recent appearance of such solid books as the two titles under review, will begin to make professions of ignorance about lynching increasingly rare.

There is much to learn about a tradition older than the Constitution, a tradition so deeply embedded in the national experience that, by the close of the eighteenth century, it was known by its uniquely American neologism. Charles Lynch of Chestnut Hill, Virginia, the justice of the peace whose summary, extralegal punishment of Tories during the Revolution gave the practice its name, believed, as have most lynchers before and since, that his actions were impelled not only by the ultimate need to safeguard the community’s welfare physically but by a desire to validate its highest moral and social values. Originally, lynching was neither confined to the South nor racially circumscribed. Until well after the Civil War, most alleged malefactors who were summarily dispatched were white and as likely to depart this life from the Midwest or California (although rarely from New England) as from Mississippi. Protected by masters whose community standing generally could not be challenged, slaves had been virtually immune to the sanctions of avenging mobs in the Old South. If Americans generally deplored the practice in principle, lynching was, nevertheless, also widely condoned as a healthy communal escape valve, a vital corollary, as it were, of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, whose supreme values were rugged individualism and impatience with government. It was only to be expected, then, that honest folk in outlying places seldom visited by the marshal would, when preyed upon by cattle rustlers, bank robbers, and horse thieves, often exact retribution at the end of an unlawful rope.

It remained for the white South after Reconstruction to transform lynching into a festival of racist violence. With the exception of polyglot, historically unique Louisiana, where a New Orleans mob distinguished itself in 1891 by murdering eleven Sicilians, the lynch mobs in states of the former Confederacy specialized almost exclusively in depriving black people of life after 1880. Much recent research by lynching scholars Edward Ayers, Fitzhugh Brundage, E.M. Beck, Stephen Tolnay, Roberta Seneschal de la Roche, and several others has yielded a degree of precision in a field where exact statistics are notoriously difficult to arrive at.3 Between 1880 and 1930, the number of black men, women, and children who died in ten Southern states “at the hands of persons unknown” (the phrase universally employed, Philip Dray tells us, by complicitous coroners) almost certainly exceeded 2,500, to which another three hundred whites must be added for a total regional lynching of slightly under three thousand.

During that half-century, a black person was murdered by a white mob nearly every week in every year. According to Dray and Madison, research at Tuskegee Institute estimated that the total number of all Americans deprived of life without due process after 1880 was approximately 3,400 blacks and 1,300 whites by the close of World War II. Thanks to the diligence white Southerners devoted to the task, the national toll of lynched blacks soared far beyond that of whites by 1890, and would stay there until 1964, the last year of a recorded lynching.4

It is the story told behind the statistics that makes Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown the most comprehensive social history of this shameful subject in almost seventy years. In the early 1930s, two books pioneered in assembling the political, racial, cultural, and sexual elements of lynching—Walter White’s Rope and Faggot and Arthur Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching (both were much indebted to Ida B. Wells’s 1892 Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases). Dray’s book goes beyond these earlier works and succeeds remarkably well in setting its account of Southern lynching within the sweep of American history.


Lynching was race relations by means of a rope, a sanguinary pageant reenacted by community leaders for whom the untruthfulness of accusations was not merely irrelevant but even an essential element in what was but the everlasting apotheosis of white supremacy. For all its violence, mindless solidarity, and unspeakable bestiality, standard Southern lynching was an objectively rational spectacle with a prescribed emotional rhythm and scripted ritual, whose purposes were ultimately political and economic. Allegations of rape, displays of impermissible cheek, or even legal formalities in trying a defendant could ignite the firestorm of lynching, setting avenging mobs and baying hounds raging through the countryside. If the victim were already in custody, church members from miles around streamed into the courthouse square howling for summary execution.

No doubt the psychology of Southern violence—the reality that some white men and women truly believed themselves menaced by black lust, crime, hatred, and deceit—counts for something. The growing fears white people felt were not groundless, Dray concedes, as a new generation of black men and women behaved in nontraditional ways at the turn of the century, many of them wandering, unattached, in search of work or often in flight from unfair labor contracts. “Strangers” (i.e., strange Negroes), as discussed in the work of historians of the South such as Joel Williamson, Ayers, and Brundage, could be deeply disconcerting.5

But the line separating reasonable suspicions from group-induced manias was always a thin one that was much too easily and frequently crossed. The Mississippi journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells exposed the darkest of Southern secrets in 1892, by writing that often white women’s cries of rape were meant to conceal interracial sex. To be sure, some who perished at the hands of persons unknown were guilty of heinous crimes. The facts are that black men did rape white women, although in numbers that pale against those of white men who raped black women. The cardinal fact, however, is that sex was in the marrow of racial politics in the South, there to be continually tapped for mobilizing one race and subjugating another. It was axiomatic that rape deserved pitiless sanction, for, as Dray quotes the exquisitely perverse rationale observed by Joel Williamson, “If black men were, in essence, having sex with angels while white men abstained, then the punishment of black men must be as awful as the white man’s guilt in contemplating himself in the same act.”6

Thirty percent of all those lynched were accused of sexual assault. The alleged rapist would be brought face to face with his victim, who would not jeopardize her family’s honor by denial or uncertainty. In the preliminary rituals of mutilation, the condemned would be struck, slashed, whipped, and spat upon by the mob as women and children, encouraged by the ringleaders, worked themselves into a frenzy. Before reaching the execution spot through a homicidal gauntlet, the lynchee’s ears, nose, fingers, and sometimes genitals would be slashed or cut away. Immolation, timed for maximizing community participation and sadistic satiety, was seldom hurried. His flesh whipped into welts or else blow-torched, the victim would often be kept alive so as not to disappoint spectators arriving late from nearby counties. Dray describes the typical denouement of a double lynching in the Mississippi Delta in 1937:

Both men continued to swear their innocence, but McDaniels ultimately broke down, his screams sending children scurrying to their mothers’ sides. Once he’d confessed to the crime he was shot to death. Townes had his eyes gouged out with an ice pick and then was slowly roasted with the torch until he, too, agreed to confess. When he finally uttered the words the mob wanted to hear, he was doused with gasoline and set afire.

Souvenir hunters would fight over severed testicles and strips of barbecued flesh.

Northern acquiescence in Southern racial excesses was indispensable, of course, but the familiar story of Northern attitudes assumes a singularly horrific aspect in Dray’s account. Reflecting the disenchantment with the Negro “problem” that was already spreading throughout the North in the early 1870s, Thomas Nast caricatured black officeholders as drunken simians in Harper’s Weekly, while E.L. Godkin haughtily editorialized about freeloading former slaves in the Nation. A single book by Lincoln’s former ambassador to the Netherlands, James Pike’s The Prostrate South: South Carolina under Negro Government (1874), did more for the former Confederacy than any propaganda served up in its cause until The Birth of a Nation.


The “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy came to be seen as a lovely cause, for, “as life in the North became more complex, the simple charms of Southern life, its dominant Anglo-Saxon nature, its ruralness, its traditions of genteel aristocracy, came to possess a new allure,” Dray writes in a passage that is reinforced by the historian David Blight’s recent, definitive book on the post-Reconstruction entente of North and South, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.7 By the end of the nineteenth century, as new European immigrants who seemed strange and dangerous filled the cities of the Northeast and served as fodder for corrupt political machines, old-stock Americans came to lament the vanishing Protestant republic and commiserated with the white South. The descendants of abolitionists deplored lynching as uncivilized, but they would come to deplore far more the people the white South assured them were the reason for its unseemly necessity.

The reestablishment of white supremacy in the South after 1877 (“redemption,” as it was called) proceeded somewhat cautiously in imposing naked racial repression until the South’s leaders could be confident about the North’s disengagement. The political situation remained fluid for a time after Reconstruction as the protections afforded under the amended federal Constitution and by the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had yet to be fully pared away and nullified. Mississippi’s constitutional convention would point the way in 1890; in the years that followed barely a trace of a once robust black Southern franchise remained.

By 1900, with the work of the Southern constitutional conventions substantially completed, Louisiana would have fewer than 6,000 registered black voters, where before there had been more than 130,000; Alabama would list 3,000 after 1900 of a previous registered total of some 181,000. Without the legalistic machinations of the Supreme Court of the United States, however, the Southern colonels and merchants would have been harder pressed to complete the new order. Compiling a record of stunning judicial opacity in its civil rights deliberations, the high court moved from the Slaughterhouse cases of 1873 to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, invalidating the 1875 Civil Rights Act along with the first Enforcement Act and systematically stripping away the citizenship guarantees under the new Fifteenth Amendment.

The Court’s verdicts along the road to Plessy v. Ferguson occasioned festivals of lynching whose purpose, as Dray suggests, was to disabuse people of color of all political hope under the Constitution. In a last gasp of congressional Republicans’ concern for voting rights and educational needs in the South, the so-called Lodge Force Bill, narrowly passed by the House in 1890, appeared to threaten the new regional entente by providing for federal supervision of local elections; so did the 1890 Blair Education Bill, twice approved by the Senate, which proposed subsidies for public school education in states where illiteracy rates were above the national norm. As much political charade as not, the Blair and Lodge bills were used as bargaining chips with Southerners over hard and soft money, tariff rates, and other sectional priorities, and, having failed to pass, were never taken up again. As if to celebrate the nation’s all-but-final leave-taking from involvement in racial affairs below the Mason-Dixon Line, one hundred sixty-one black people were killed in 1892, a peak figure in a decade of unrelievedly high lynching figures. Three years later, the penultimate act consigning black Americans to civil oblivion occurred when Booker T. Washington, speaking for his people at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition, renounced the ballot as a means and, in what became known as the Atlanta Compromise, postponed equality as an end on the misguided assumption that a compromise of ideals would yield humble, steady, material progress.

If lynching tapered off after the high point of the 1890s, it was not because conditions between the races had begun to improve, as some Southern apologists claimed; rather, the reverse was true. Indeed, in the opinion of the fiery African Methodist Episcopal bishop Henry McNeil Turner, things were so bad that both races would be better off taking leave of each other. One of the earliest exponents of reparations, Turner insisted that a mere $500 million of a calculated $40 billion owed by the United States for 250 years of unpaid labor would defray the African colonization costs of the black population. Dray writes that Robert Charles, the young black laborer who shot twenty-seven whites and killed seven, including four policemen, in a Wagnerian standoff from a burning New Orleans building in the summer of 1900, was a regular reader of Turner’s monthly magazine.8


By 1910, Jim Crow had triumphed.9 The 1906 Atlanta Riot, in which twenty-five blacks were killed by white mobs, swept away the last vestiges of blacks’ rights that any Southern white man or woman was obliged to respect. People of color were banished literally and figuratively to the back of the bus, although in places like Atlanta, Chattanooga, Mobile, and New Orleans there was resistance to segregated public transportation which prefigured the historic 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black people stepped off sidewalks in small towns when white people approached. They vanished from public libraries and public parks in cities. Like W.E.B. Du Bois’s typhoid-stricken infant son, they were more often than not denied the ministrations of the municipal hospital. Soda fountains were racially proscribed as were the fitting rooms of most department stores. Black people drank from separate water fountains and used separate toilets, when and where available. They climbed to “crows nests” in the municipal auditorium and the vaudeville theater. State and local tax revenues were allocated as unequally and separately as toilet facilities, with Mississippi’s $22.25 for each white child’s education and $2 for each black in 1915 not untypical expenditures. In rural areas, what schooling there was ceased when planting and harvesting time came. What a black sociologist famously described as the etiquette of Jim Crow marked millions of African-Americans with disabilities in education, self-confidence, and business acumen, and a chronic disjunction with the American mainstream.

After 1910, Booker Washington and his potent Tuskegee Machine began to lose influence with the rise of Du Bois and the progressive National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Well before the Great Black Migration of 1915, the steady Northern flow of people pulled by the promise of economic opportunity and pushed by institutionalized brutality had begun to erode confidence in the long-term value of the so-called Atlanta Compromise, in which Northern elites consigned black people to the care of Southern elites and to Dr. Washington’s program of a downsized Horatio Alger kind of success. Shocked guardians of Northern civic rectitude and industrial order belatedly realized the urgent need for a new approach. As late as 1908 Springfield, Illinois, the burial place of Abraham Lincoln, erupted in a race riot that matched those in the earlier deep South. Two years later, a small, well-connected group of white progressives (among them Mary White Ovington, William English Walling, Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and Oswald Garrison Villard), recognizing that what had been viewed as the problem of a benighted region had become an American dilemma, broke ranks with the Atlanta Compromisers to help found the NAACP.10

Dray tells this story through interconnected biographies situated in the history of the period. The chapters recounting the era in which the lonely long-distance runners of civil rights—Ida B. Wells, Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White—burst from the starting gate is an especially powerful section of the book. We still don’t have a full-scale biography of Ida B. Wells, who probably did more than any single person to turn the tables on lynching’s apologists.11 But until then, the abridged version in At the Hands of Persons Unknown does much to restore her importance in the civil rights movement. Too radical for any bureaucracy, Wells intimidated the men in her circle—even, perhaps, that formidable feminist W.E.B. Du Bois—to such a degree that the NAACP’s voluminous archives pass over most of her achievements in silence. Inevitably, the historically outsized Du Bois is the star. A particularly brutal 1899 lynching of a tenant farmer, Sam Hose, had shattered this highly educated professor’s faith in the transformative power of social science. The Hose case has long been regarded as the epitome of Southern white depravity. It will come as a surprise to some civil rights historians that Dray makes a credible case, based on unpublished evidence collected by the private detective hired by Ida B. Wells, that Hose may have indeed raped his employer’s wife after killing her husband in an argument over wages.

Hose’s lynching was a significant factor in Du Bois’s decision in 1910 to abandon scholarship for propaganda at the year-old NAACP where, as founding editor of The Crisis, he would shape much of the agenda of militant civil rights for the next quarter-century. Du Bois’s conception of citizenship recovered all the high-minded immediacy that had characterized Frederick Douglass’s advocacy. Where followers of Washington had deplored lynching as the white community’s self-inflicted wound, a wrong that did greater harm to the lynchers than to the victim, Du Bois denounced it as a great white American pastime. “Triumph” was the title of Du Bois’s 1912 editorial on the lynching of a deranged black man in Coatesville, Pennsylvania; but it was to be remembered, as Dray does in the heading of one excellent chapter, “Let the Eagle Scream,” that the piece was bitterly ironic. “Blackness is the crime of crimes,” Du Bois asserted in an editorial in The Crisis:

Once more a howling mob of the best citizens in a foremost State of the Union has vindicated the self-evident superiority of the white race…. Let the eagle scream!… But let every black American gird up his loins. The great day is coming. We have crawled and pleaded for justice, and we have been cheerfully spit upon and murdered and burned. We will not endure it forever. If we must die, in God’s name let us perish like men and not like bales of hay.12

After this editorial was published, apologies by African-Americans became a thing of the past. Nor would an excuse for lynching much favored by whites—that black people had reverted to savagery—seem quite so persuasive ever again. Four years later, Du Bois ran a sensational eight-page, photographic supplement on the immolation in Waco, Texas, of a retarded black man. Castrated and barbecued, Jesse Washington’s hoisted remains were displayed on the cover of The Crisis and appalled many people.13 These pictures of the “Waco Horror” compounded the national shame of the previous year when a Marietta, Georgia, mob, inflamed by the anti-Semitic ex-populist Tom Watson, hanged the businessman Leo Frank, who had been falsely accused by his black janitor of raping Mary Phagen, a young white employee. The Leo Frank case made Jewish and black leaders more aware than ever before of their complementary interests in civil liberties. In light of much sour writing over the subject in recent years, the nuanced recapitulation in At the Hands of Persons Unknown of the two people’s early-twentieth-century collaboration is especially welcome.14 In the same year that Frank was lynched, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn on Stone Mountain, Georgia, and The Birth of a Nation had its Los Angeles première.

By the time of the NAACP’s publication, at the end of World War I, of Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1919, a decided queasiness about vigilantism and blatant instances of racism followed in the wake of Mr. Wilson’s war for democracy. In Louisville, Kentucky, the NAACP had already had its first major legal vic-tory in Buchanan v. Warley, a 1917 US Supreme Court ruling barring municipalities from designating neighborhoods as racial enclaves. In 1920, Kentucky’s governor surprised the country by ordering the state militia to fire on a mob that stormed the Fayette County courthouse in Lexington. Six white Kentuckians were killed and fifty wounded to prevent the lynching of a confessed black rapist who had been duly convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution.

National reaction to the governor’s unprecedented action was “overwhelmingly favorable,” Dray writes. In Atlanta, headquarters of the newly reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, a group of prominent white men organized in 1919 what was to remain for more than thirty years the white South’s principal forum for racial conciliation, the equivocal Committee on Interracial Cooperation (CIC). Along with the formation of the CIC came the unexpected condemnation of lynch law and peonage in The Negro in Georgia, a report ordered by the reform-minded governor. In contrast to Woodrow Wilson, whose single, reluctant anti-lynching pronouncement had come near the end of his administration, Warren Harding forthrightly addressed the topic shortly after taking office: “Congress ought to wipe the stain of barbaric lynching from the banners of a free and orderly, representative democracy.” Finally, in the aftermath of the infamous Red Summer of 1919, a sense of shame and alarm pervaded the country.

Taking what encouragement the times allowed, the NAACP in 1921 supported a federal anti-lynching bill introduced by the Missouri congressman Leonidas C. Dyer, which was largely drafted in the organization’s New York headquarters. The fight for the Dyer bill, its stormy passage in the House, narrow approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and filibustered death on the Senate floor in December 1922 mark the beginning of the attempts by Northern politicians to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. The story of such legislation runs for more than two hundred additional, often distressing, pages as Dray amplifies the history of failed anti-lynching campaigns documented by Robert Zangrando’s now somewhat dated classic The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching.15

Southern optimists like the CIC, having distanced themselves from the Dyer bill, claimed that lynching was declining without federal intrusion; a mere sixteen blacks were lynched in 1927 and only ten in 1929. But the 1930 toll—twenty-one and climbing—re-energized the pessimists. Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women, challenged her white peers to reject the lynching alibis of politicians such as South Carolina’s Cole Blease, who boasted that “whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.” Led by a strong-minded Texas widow, Jessie Daniel Ames, a small group of Southern white women organized the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) in 1930. Alas, as Dray notes rather too forgivingly, Ames and her associates, like their male counterparts in the CIC, squandered much of their moral leverage by sidestepping the Scottsboro case, in which Northern radicals, among others, came to the defense of nine black youths indicted for the rape of a white woman in 1931. They believed that the South should be left by itself to mend its own ways.16

In 1934, the NAACP and its allies pressed hard for passage of the Wagner- Costigan Bill, which penalized negligent state officials but did not make lynching a federal crime. Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied her husband and arranged for the NAACP’s president, Walter White, to slip into the White House past its Southern guards to plead for a word to Congress. “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, [Southerners] will block every bill I ask Congress to pass,” was FDR’s response. Still, the national disgust evoked by the Alabama lynching of the accused rapist Claude Neal, and the attention paid by the press to an anti-lynching art exhibit organized by the NAACP at a gallery in New York City, encouraged the bill’s sponsors. The Wagner-Costigan Bill died of filibuster in May 1935, as would the Wagner–Van Nuys Bill in 1937, against the backdrop of yet another lynching, and notwithstanding a national poll revealing that 70 percent of all Americans and 65 percent of Southerners were in favor of federal legislation. Filibuster, the seniority system which put Southerners in charge of most congressional committees, states’ rights, bipartisan collusion, the fecklessness of organized labor, and World War II finally ended the federal anti-lynching drive. Abetted by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Dray writes, the US Justice Department rediscovered two Reconstruction-era statutes to apply in the 1959 Poplarville, Mississippi, killing of “Mack” Parker, who was accused of raping a local woman and was shot while trying to escape a lynch mob. Several leaders of the lynch mob were convicted. By then, lynching had gone out of style.

James H. Madison’s well-told A Lynching in the Heartland quotes the local police captain’s justification for the hanging of two black teenagers by his fellow Indiana townspeople in the summer of 1930: “Every nigger in that jail would have been taken out and hanged,” he said, “if it hadn’t been a fair mob.” Marion is near Muncie, the archetypal American city described by Robert and Helen Lynd in Middletown, the groundbreaking sociological study published a year before Tom Shipp and Abe Smith were lynched. An exploration of conflicting memories, Madison’s book is a blend of sociology, local history, detective work, and biographical portraits; he sees it as his contribution to “America’s struggles to understand racism, its greatest tragedy and mystery.”

As with so many other breakdowns in civilization, the facts in the Marion, Indiana, case would long be in dispute. Three black teenagers were accused of ambushing a young white couple parked along a lover’s lane and of murdering the young man and raping his girlfriend. This account was challenged by black citizens, who were convinced that an argument between white and black acquaintances had somehow turned violent. In marked contrast to most Southern states’ inaction, the 1931 session of the Indiana legislature enacted a strong anti-lynching statute; the members did so in shock and shame, and in response to the political activism of Marion’s NAACP branch president Flossie Bailey. Nevertheless, the sheriff and the ringleaders escaped indictment.

Because the Marion mob was “fair,” the sixteen-year-old James Cameron, the youngest of the three accused, was spared at the last minute. Pardoned in 1993, he emerged from prison at seventy, articulate and media-savvy. Memoirs in hand, he was a guest on Oprah, and became a walking reminder of a community’s guilt as well as the indispensable source for Madison’s book. By the time of Cameron’s release, Marion had survived its own civil rights struggle in the Sixties and now had a black county sheriff and a city government in which blacks were represented. Having begun as racial tragedy, A Lynching in the Heartland ends optimistically; yet Madison concludes his book with puzzling ingenuousness:

No one today can be sure exactly what happened August 6 and 7, 1930. No one can satisfactorily explain why the mob became so incensed, why the sheriff and other community leaders did not stop the beast. No one can fully explain why there was no legal justice, no punishment for the crimes committed. No one can explain why there was so much silence. Most certainly no one can understand the mysteries of the color line as they run through these Marion stories.

In fact, Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown goes a long way toward explaining Madison’s “mysteries of the color line.”

This Issue

November 21, 2002