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.
Although never published in Marion, the photograph appeared in other regional newspapers, was picked up by the Acme News Service and was disseminated with long-lasting effect. It is believed to have inspired Abel Meeropol’s 1937 poem “Bitter Fruit.” Two years later that poem became the lyrics of Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” the dirge Billie Holiday made famous. In the process, however, the photograph lost its identity. Meeropol’s lyrics say nothing of Indiana; the “black bodies” are “swinging in the southern breeze” from “southern trees.” When, decades later, the photograph appeared in a coffee-table history, part of the caption read: “lynch law ruled the South.” But one person who saw the photograph in Alistair Cooke’s America knew its provenance: Village Voice columnist Cynthia Carr (a k a C. Carr).
Carr’s knowledge was that of a native daughter. “Even as a girl,” she writes in Our Town, “I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion, Indiana. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story…someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather…. ‘Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work…. You might see something you don’t want to see.'” Carr pondered the meaning of that message until, after her grandfather’s death, his effects disgorged a shocking artifact: a Ku Klux Klan membership card. Carr, then 17, “didn’t want to know more…. The news wasn’t just shameful, it was frightening.” She feared “someone I loved wasn’t who I thought he was.” When she was in her 20s she first saw Beitler’s image of the black bodies hanging and the white crowd milling below “a tree I’d walked past as a child. I looked anxiously for my grandfather’s face in that photo. Didn’t find it. That was some relief.” Then in 1993 she saw a clipping about James Cameron, who was indicted by the same grand jury that declined to indict mob members and who was convicted of accessory to manslaughter. He’d served four years, during which he began writing a memoir. After fifty years, during which he had relocated to Milwaukee, he had found a publisher.
“This,” Carr writes, “was how I learned that there had been a third man…. He was living in Milwaukee. My birthplace. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.” Carr visited Cameron at the vacant gym he hoped to turn into a museum of the lynching era. In the course of that visit, she confessed to him her fears about her grandfather’s involvement. Cameron responded by placing in her hands “a piece of fraying rope, like a thick clothesline, maybe an inch and a half long”–a relic from Marion.
Carr left that encounter “knowing that I had to write about it.” Her 1994 story in the Village Voice drew attention nationally and internationally. But she felt compelled to do more: “I knew that I was being handed an opportunity…. I could go to Marion as a journalist and gather the facts.” These facts, she writes, “would be the antidote to the cover-up, and I would gather them, following journalistic rules. Get things corroborated.” Trying to do that took Carr back to the town she hadn’t seen in a quarter-century.
But her goal was a broader indictment: “Beyond the mob…were thousands of witnesses like those in the infamous photograph, and beyond them were the white people at home who condoned it…. All participated in the code of silence…. I had to break the code.” Trying to do that took Carr into immersion journalism, where objectivity and subjectivity sometimes merge dangerously. She spent a week in Marion in November 1994. Nine months later, she “returned…thinking I’d be there six months. I ended up staying a year.”
Some readers of Our Town will conclude that Carr should have left after six months–or that she should not have gone back the second time. For the most coherent narrative and evocative language arose from the initial week.
“Driving north from Indianapolis through the winter stubble,” Carr writes, “I crossed the Grant County line into a landscape suffused, for me, with drama and pathos. Here I had learned early on how the past weighs on people. Even so, I did not expect to find the large shadow still cast in Marion by [the lynching]….People volunteered the opinion that the lynching had poisoned the town…. I was startled myself at how the town had deteriorated. My Marion had been the ideal American small town, with rambling Victorian homes, brick streets, and church bells chiming out hymns…. The Marion I saw was…a grim godforsaken shell…a depressing strip.” Although she understood that “rationally, Marion’s problems had to be simply economic,” she found herself “in one of those bypass motels with the wind whipping through the cracks” feeling “doubtful and daunted.”
In fact, Carr did quite well that week, in terms of both traditional and immersion journalism. Though Beitler was long dead, his daughter “impossible to track down,” Carr finds that old interview and also its author, the editor of the Marion Chronicle-Tribune, who says, “We’re still a ways away from being able to publish that picture in this newspaper.” Following up a rumor, she goes to “a certain pizza parlor” to try to buy a copy of the photograph under the counter. She finds “an Asian couple behind the counter…. They’d taken over five years ago.”
She visits the old Grant County jail, a “massive brick edifice” with a “feudal air not completely explained by its corner turrets.” Vacated in 1981, the jail was sold for $500 to one Rex Fansler, whose father, in 1930, identified the getaway car. Now Fansler thinks James Cameron should get money from Bill Cosby and buy the place; he’s only asking $160,000. During an eerie tour, in the course of which Carr finds “indentations left by sledgehammers,” Fansler reveals, “The rope they used for the lynching came from my father’s barn.”
Carr’s principal informant is Tom Wise, a Marion police detective and a cousin of James Cameron’s. He has heard about the lynching all his life but only learned of Cameron’s ordeal in the 1960s. He has tried to corroborate Cameron’s story–interviewing old witnesses, reviewing old transcripts, as if it were a cold case. Convinced that even now “when whites get in their own circles…they brag about it,” he tells Carr: “A veil hangs over this town.”
Jack Edwards, mayor at the time of the lynching, tells her “what he had always told everyone: he left town…with no knowledge that a lynching had already been planned.” But “spontaneously he then began to tell me who some of the people in the lynching photo were, though I hadn’t asked about the picture and never even showed it to him. He seemed to know the photograph by heart.”
Harley Burden Jr., whose father was one of Marion’s two black policemen in 1930, remembers being at the home of Marion’s black physician, W.T. Bailey, whose wife, Flossie, was head of both the local and state NAACP. Before the lynching, Burden heard her making phone calls, trying to get the prisoners evacuated. Afterward, Bailey drove his son and Burden to the courthouse square. Burden didn’t seem to have any feelings about this, Carr reports. “The lynching hadn’t been ‘the worst part’ as he put it. No, the worst part was what he called ‘the belling’ a couple of nights later…. White people drove their cars down into South Marion, dragging cans from their bumpers and shooting guns in the air. ‘I bet you every car in town was in that belling,’ said Burden.”
Carr’s final interview that week was with 90-year-old Sarah Weaver Pate, who in 1930 was Bailey’s nurse. It is a turning point, because Carr recognizes Pate’s testimony as “the first emotional account of the lynching I’d heard from anyone in Marion.” “So mesmerized I forgot to take notes,” she crosses the hazy border between traditional and immersion journalism, compulsively confessing her grandfather’s Klan membership. Interviewee turns into interviewer, as Pate asks, “Did I think a lynching could happen today?” Carr “nearly burst into tears.” Told by Pate that Shipp and Smith lie buried in graves that to this day have not been marked, she visits her grandfather’s cemetery and sheds the necessary tears.
One sees why Carr could not resist returning, but it almost seems as if Marion lured her back only to chew her up. At first she works doggedly at her research. If she sees a paper trail, she follows it, finding lost interviews and obscure newspaper clips. If she hears rumors of an artifact, she tracks it down, finding, through an ambush interview, a sledgehammer used to breach the jail. She even tracks down the former owner of the pizza parlor, who sells her a print of the Beitler photograph for $6. “Do you sell a lot of these?” she asks. “On and off, yeah,” the owner replies.
But sixty years take a toll. Records have been lost or discarded. Secrets have been taken to the grave. What facts remain are often contradictory, and Carr is confounded by contradiction and trapped by politically correct a prioris. When Fansler says the rape charge was bogus–as was often the case in lynchings–she writes: “I had never questioned Mary Ball’s claim… I found what he was telling me incredible.” Her frustration is palpable. “I tried to piece this chaotic evening into a narrative,” but “the cover-up had been so total and immediate, I now had to face the reality that I would never get closure on the details.” One result is an odd lacuna: Carr never presents her own reconstruction of the lynching.
In terms of immersion, Carr acquits herself well at first, turning apparent absences of data into eloquent presences. In one noninterview with a former Klansman, “Fred…paid no particular attention to me.” His wife spews a line of liberal rhetoric and a sob story about how she has to take the truck keys from Fred because he has Alzheimer’s and shouldn’t drive, but she can’t because he’s hidden them. Meanwhile, writes Carr, “the last living member of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan put his glasses on, picked up that day’s Chronicle-Tribune, and sat there staring at it.”
Eventually, however, Carr seems to become paralyzed by the absence of traditional journalistic grist and confused by her own involvement in the story. “That winter in Marion,” she recalls, “I was sick a lot…. I often had the sensation that my throat was closing, that I couldn’t speak…. Sometimes I would drive away from an interview in tears, and I wouldn’t know why.” And one day, as she tries to describe Cameron’s deliverance to an informant, she “began to choke up. That moment when the noose was around his neck–I stopped, apologized.” Carr calls this an “unprofessional moment.” In fact, it’s just immersion.
Carr knows this is where she has to go. “I wanted to feel things,” she writes. “It seemed the only way to get at the problem.” But it seems she can’t. Eventually she forsakes both immersion and tradition for desperation journalism: She “covers” anything that holds still long enough: touchy-feely consciousness-raisers; staged reconciliations; the candidacy of a black man for sheriff; and the Ku Klux Klan.
The clearest proof of desperation is her obsession with the Klan. Admittedly, men in white hoods make good copy, but Carr writes pages on the nineteenth-century Klan, on the 1920s Indiana Klan and on the contemporary Klan, even though she knows none of them had anything to do with the Marion lynching. “Grant County was not a Klan hotbed any more,” she writes, only to chase Klansmen over half of Indiana, like a morbidly fascinated groupie, trying to “use ‘my grandfather in the Klan’ to open doors.” On the last night of her year she’s suckered by a nut named Andy, who offers old Klan documents he doesn’t have. Still, “in the years to come…I showed up at Andy’s door many many times, offering money for Grant County’s Klan membership list.” It almost sounds like she was buying drugs.
Meanwhile, she was not covering a story she calls “proof positive that forty-three years after the lynching, the town was still racially sick”: the period of racial unrest that culminated on May 14, 1973, with the shooting death of a 14-year-old black boy, Robert Johnson, allegedly by a quartet of cops. Johnson’s murder, Carr writes, “reverberated all the way back to 1930.” She even calls it “another lynching.” The detective who investigated the crime tells her he had hard evidence, but “somehow it all vanished. Poof.” Later, he confirms one of the names given to her by others. It sounds like she’s onto a story. But on the next page Carr’s back to chasing the Klan. So much for breaking the code of silence.
Nonfiction is not easy. Sometimes you get the story. Sometimes you have to let the story get you. Carr did neither, and worse, in the not-doing, she missed the likely truth about her grandfather. She writes: “He would get up at two A.M. to be at work by three.” And: “My grandparents’ house in Marion was the only one of my relatives’ homes where I ever saw black people.” So he probably slept through the lynching. He probably did not condone it. Probably, that phone call was exactly what it seemed: a warning to a man folks knew would not want to see black bodies swinging in the courthouse square on his way to work.