23 December 2017

Not a Semblance of Humanity Left at the Foot of the Tree

Rage is reckless, and rage is contagious.  A writer for the Bay City Daily Tribune (Michigan) in 1903 put a finer point on it this way:

[Rage runs] through a maddened mob like some rapid infectious disease.  Under such conditions men do not stop to weigh evidence, and rarely listen understandingly to any remonstrance made.

NAACP Headquarters, New York City. Via Library of Congress (loc.gov).This sentiment (and seemingly lack of control) has been on display in countless acts of mob violence – often dubbed to be lynchings – over the course of history of the United States.  Here I will spotlight the case of "Ed Claus."

Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina)
Thursday, 16 July 1903 – pg. 5 [via GenealogyBank]


Literally Shot Him to Pieces in the Presence of His Victim.
Eastman, Ga., July 13. – Ed Claus, a negro, was lynched near here last night, victim, Miss Susie Johnson, looking on.

Last Thursday Claus criminally assaulted Miss Johnson as she was returning from a small school which she teaches.  The negro dragged the young woman into the woods and kept her prisoner for several hours.  After being released, she could not go home, because of her injuries, and was found in the woods next morning by a searching party.

A posse was organized and the negro was trailed from here almost to Savanna [sic] before he was overtaken.  The negro was brought here by his captors last night and taken to the home of Miss Johnson.  The young woman identified the negro, and when asked what she wanted done with him, said:

"He ought to be killed."

The negro was tied to a tree, and the members of the mob fired at him until he was literally cut to pieces.  There was not a semblance of humanity in the bloody mass left at the foot of the tree.

But, wait.  Oops.  The mob made a bloody mass of the wrong man.


Lexington Leader (Kentucky)
Monday, 27 July 1903 – pg. 2 [via GenealogyBank]



SAVANNAH, GA., July 27. – Some days ago a Negro was shot to pieces by a mob in Dodge county for criminally assaulting Miss Susie Johnson, a young teacher.  It now transpires that the Negro who was so cruelly lynched had never seen Miss Johnson and was, therefore, innocent of the crime.  The members of the mob thought they were lynching Ed Claus, who really committed the assault on Miss Johnson, and it is said that the young woman identified the lynched Negro as her assailant.  The Negro told the mob that he was innocent and begged for time to get witnesses, to prove an alibi, but the mob was merciless and shot him to death.

…After the lynching an investigation was begun by officers, with the result that they have located Ed Claus, the real assailant, and a posse passed through here this afternoon to arrest him.

Governor Terrell has taken cognizance of the fact that the wrong Negro was lynched by offering a reward of $300 for the apprehension of Ed Claus.

In addition to the obvious atrocity committed by the mob, not knowing the identity of the "wrong man" gnaws at me.  What was his name? Where was he from? Who were his parents? What did he do for a living? Was he married? Did he have children? What made him smile?

From NY Public LibraryA simple search on Google will give you the statistics. The Tuskegee Institute kept track of lynchings in America from 1882 - 1968. There were 581 in Mississippi, 531 in Georgia, 493 in Texas, 391 in Louisiana, 347 in Alabama, and so on. Total from all states: 4,743. That's more than one lynching and victim a week.

I feel a little like I should try to explain why I would give the horrible acts – those committed by the criminal, as well as those committed on the criminal – voice on this blog. There are no (at least to my knowledge) statistics showing the accuracy of the lynchers. How many times was an innocent person hung, riddled with bullets, and mutilated in the name of "justice?" I mean, we probably agree there are innocent people sitting in jail right now – with supposed checks and balances in place. Imagine when there were none. Shouldn't those innocent people be remembered?

Now, make no mistake, sometimes the lynching party "punished" the right person. As in, sometimes the true perpetrator was indeed apprehended – and then disposed of, often in a barbaric fashion. Even if you take the literal "eye for an eye" death penalty approach, I would not be surprised if that would have been an applicable punishment in only an infinitesimal number of cases. People were lynched for stealing, people were lynched for "insubordination," people were lynched for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And let us not be cowards and leave out the racism debacle that lingers to this day. So another reason for giving voice to these past atrocities is in the same vein of "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As a family historian, I am saddened to think (1) these revolting deeds took place, and (2) while statistics are easy to find, the names and stories of the individual victims are much harder to locate. A list of lynching victims will unfortunately never be complete. I hope that in a small way, posts such as these will serve as a memorial to those who were victims of Judge Lynch and his frightful law.

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