Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Emotional Psychology of Lynching

Today, for my big lower-division class on Evil (enrollment 300), I'm teaching about Southern U.S. racial lynching in the early 20th century. My treatment centers on lynching photography, especially photos that include perpetrators and bystanders, which were often proudly circulated as postcards.

Here's one photo, from James Allen et al. (2000) Without Sanctuary:

Here are a couple spectator details from the above photo:
Looking at the first spectator detail, I'm struck by the thought that this guy probably thought that the lynching festivities made for an entertaining date with the girls.

Here's the accompanying text from Allen et al.:

The following account is drawn from James Cameron's book, A Time of Terror: Thousands of Indianans carrying picks, bats, ax handles, crowbars, torches, and firearms attacked the Grant County Courthouse, determined to "get those goddamn Niggers." 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 nigger." 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 from 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 (Cameron, a devout Roman Catholic, believes that it was the voice of the Virgin Mary) and opening a path for his retreat to the county jail....

The girls are holding cloth souvenirs from the corpses. The studio photographer who made this postcard printed thousands of copies over the next ten days, selling for fifty cents apiece.

According to Cameron's later account, Shipp and Smith were probably guilty of murdering a white man and raping a white woman. He insists that he himself had fled the scene before either of those crimes occurred. According to historical records, in only about one-third of racial lynching cases were the victims even accused of a grievous crime such as rape or murder. In about one-third of cases, they were accused of non-grievous crime, such as theft. In about one-third of cases, the victims were accused of no real crime at all, only of being "uppity", or of having consensual sexual relations with a white woman, or the victim was a friend or family member of another lynching victim.


David Smith said...


Check out my 2011 book "Less Than Human"


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David, it is on my list, but I confess I hadn't got around to it yet. Thanks for the prod!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Only $10 at Amazon, I see!

Philomeme said...

Powerful stuff. I'll be forwarding this one on.

Scott Bakker said...

Quite the yo-yo, going from dorks to this Eric! Provoking stuff. I've had your book on my list as well, David. As an experiment, I triggered 'blogwars' in 2011 and 2012 with this very high profile crypto-white supremacist who argues for the deportation of nonwhites from America primarily BECAUSE of the natural roots of human parochialism. Have you encountered any of this kind of troubling 'weaponization' of the facts you research?

Jorge A. said...

Reminds me of the way Spartans treated the Helots.

Callan S. said... we hover around the picture of them, moral noose in hand?

What's the approach vector, otherwise?

There's a woman in the photo, just out of frame to the right of the close up of the girls, who's expression doesn't seem the 'county fair' type.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I haven't, Scott, at least not to my face! By the way, you're right about this being jarring right after my post about pursing what's fun. I find this topic very interesting, but "fun" is very much the wrong way to put it.

Jorge: Or the Athenians at Melos:

Or the Hebrews over the peoples in the promised land.

Or over and over and over again throughout human history.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Yes, all these photos show a diversity of expressions -- though few expressions that I would be inclined to read as appropriate to the situation.

I'm not sure about your comment about the "moral noose". I think strong moral condemnation is appropriate, but only if massively tempered by the suspicion that many or most of us who would condemn them would likely do analogous things in analogous situations.

Callan S. said...

But it's strong moral condemnation of a strong moral condemnation?

Surely there's another approach? Not necessarily the exclusive approach, but something else apart from just condemnation?

Anonymous said...

I am seriously not racist, but I have a question. After I told a friend about what you would be teaching, he wondered why you didn't focus on photographs of concentration camps from the Holocaust. Honestly, we hear a lot about black suffering in the past and present e.g., Trayvon Martin. It seems the evil of the Holocaust would have been more intriguing for your students. Most students know lynching was a thing of the past.

giulia said...

I imagine you already know about the (now quite famous) artist Kara Walker. Her work deals with stereotypes - most notably,racist and sexist stereotypes - broadly understood as involving some of the most controversial issues of past and present human relationships. She exploites the formal beauty and elegance of black-and-white silhouettes to engage the observer in an upsetting game. At first, you admire the fascinating drawings, but there's a moment when you discover what the narrative is about. And that's shocking. Walker is known for having elicited negative reactions from African American people - just like her - beacuse she explored the ambiguous hate-love relationships between White and Black, especially drawing inspiration from the history of American slavery. Look for instance at: "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love".
I attended a workshop with her on bias, their creation and persistence also in the biased victims' categories. We reflected a lot on the pictures of lynching you cited. She adressed us to a large collection of them:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tip, Guilia! I haven't really explored Walker's work, I confess.

Eddie said...

Mr. Schwitzgebel, I have a question not really related to this post, it popped up once when I was reading some of your older posts about consciousness and reality and stuff like that but; have you ever read Robert Pirsig's books? You express ideas very similar to his so if you haven't read them ("Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" and "Lila") I suggest you do! They're very interesting and fun!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggesting, Eddie. I did start reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in grad school, but I wasn't drawn in by it and I haven't tried again.

Anonymous said...

@ Callan, I'm sure a moral noose (whatever that is!) would not feel quite as tight around the neck, nor cause such a permanent mark. So sure, I think it is deserved. How about you?

Oksana Pisarenko said...

Because of the Holocaust occurred not on the USA territory due to the WWII (WWI, actually, too) never occurred in the USA, it would be helpful to make sure for your readers that fascism organizations, which are legal in the USA currently, are simply converted from K.K.K.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great deconstruction!!