On the night of August 7, 1930, in the town of Marion, in Grant County, Indiana, a congregation of white Hoosiers–men, women, children–participated in a bizarre American ritual: the lynching of a black man. Or rather men, for in Marion there were two: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, both 19, charged with the robbery and murder by shooting of a white man, Claude Deeter, 24, the previous night in a local lovers’ lane. Shipp and Smith had been interrogated using methods common in that era, and based on the confessions thereby obtained they most likely would have been convicted. The prosecutor, the Marion Chronicle-Tribune reported, would demand the death penalty, and the “youths…cringed in the shadow of the electric chair.” But the Chronicle also reported another allegation: Deeter’s companion, 17-year-old Mary Ball, claimed she had been raped.
So a mob assembled. Ball’s father made the ritual demand that the prisoners be handed over. Following the pro forma refusal, the mob stormed the jail. First Shipp, then Smith, was dragged out, maimed, murdered, mutilated and hung in the courthouse square. The next day’s headline read Marion Relaxes After Lynching–like God, on the Seventh Day.
Walter White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, declared the Marion lynching “among the most horrible and brutal in the whole history of lynching.” In fact, it set no new precedents in magnitude, liturgy or cruelty. There had been many double and some triple lynchings; the most reliable estimate of the crowd (about 5,000) put it well within normal range. The antemortem maiming and postmortem mutilation were moderate; neither the victims nor their corpses were burned. Clothing, sections of rope and a sledgehammer were taken as souvenirs, but no toes, fingers or genitals were excised. A photograph was taken and distributed but was not made into a postcard. The corpses were left hanging as object lessons for the black community, but they were not dragged through the Negro section of town or set afire in front of a Negro church. Nor were the corpses allowed to hang for days; they were cut down just after dawn. As such things went, the Marion lynching was a middling affair.
The legal outcome was routine as well: The Grant County grand jury returned no indictments. The Attorney General issued warrants and brought two men to trial; Grant County petit juries found them not guilty with such dispatch that no further prosecutions were attempted. Still, the Marion lynching was unique in one respect: There was a survivor. James Cameron, 16, charged with the same offenses as Shipp and Smith, was also dragged out, beaten and befouled and made to stand beneath the other bodies. A noose was placed around his neck. Then, as Cameron recounted in his memoir, A Time of Terror:
A voice rose above the deafening roar of the mob. It was an echo-like voice that seemed to come from some far-away place. It was a feminine voice, sweet, clear, but unlike anything I had ever heard. It was sharp and crisp, like bells ringing out on a clear, cold, winter day: “Take this boy back.”
Difficult as it may be to believe anything could halt the momentum of a mob, something did. The noose was taken from Cameron’s neck. He returned to legal custody.
Given that dramatic denouement, one might expect the Marion lynching to occupy a special place in American history. It does–but for a different reason: the photograph, taken by Lawrence Beitler, a specialist in panoramic portraits. According to an interview with his daughter published half a century later, Beitler was reluctant even to go to the square, but “taking pictures was his business.” Certainly he was businesslike; he spent the next ten days cranking out copies, which he sold for 50 cents apiece.