Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carnival of Death: Lynching in America

Lynching in the Press

On July 28, 1917, Will Woods, a white contractor who lived in Texarkana, Arkansas was beaten and shot over a livestock dispute with a black man, one Andrew Avery. Woods, though badly wounded, lay in the brush for 36 hours before he was found. He told his rescuers that Avery attacked him without warning and shot him in an attempt to steal the livestock. Avery was captured by local deputies in Shepherd, Arkansas about 16 miles north of Texarkana. The police were taking Avery to the local jail when they were intercepted by a mob of 40 men in cars who seized him at gunpoint. Avery was beaten, tortured and later hung from a tree in the center of Garland City. No one was ever identified or arrested. The Arkansas Gazette reported the incident as follows:


Brutally attacked a White Man Saturday

"Special to the Gazette, Garland City, July 30. Andrew Avery the Negro who shot and fatally wounded Will Woods, a white man, near here Saturday morning, was hanged by a mob in the heart of town tonight at 9:45. About 40 men were in the party. The Lynching was conducted in a quiet fashion" (The Arkansas Gazette, July 31, 1917)

Such was the treatment that lynching received in some publications. The press was always quick to identify the race of offender and victim. Guilt of the offender was assumed and the word "alleged" rarely appeared in the story. This was a practice that was repeated in many newspapers and was not simply indigenous to the South at all. This pandering to the mob is significant because the manner in which lynching was reported tended to support or at least condone the practice of vigilante justice. Due process of law was rarely mentioned in lynching accounts. Of course, it could be said that the press coverage was simply a reflection of society's values and beliefs and therefore devoid of any conspiratorial nature. But the print media, then the major and almost the only source of news during the late 19th century, set the tone and molded public understanding of the issues.

Sensational journalism, then the standard of American news reporting [7], spared the public no detail no matter how horrible. "The Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on...before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones crushed into small bits...the Negro's heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver...small pieces of bones went for 25 cents..." (The Springfield Weekly Republican, April 28, 1899). This was an actual description of the lynching of one Sam Holt, accused murderer, who was burned at the stake in Newman, Georgia in April, 1899. Graphic accounts like this were in abundance throughout the South. They served both white and black purposes by adding to the psychological suffering of the African American and empowered the white man to do more.

Newspapers were at least consistent at assessing the guilt of the accused [8]. Of course it mattered less that a legal trial never took place. Reporters wrote inflammatory comments such as "well known as a criminal character to the officers of Clarke County" (The Atlanta Constitution, Feb. 16, 1921), "A Negro Desperado Lynched" (Boston Evening Transcript, July 21, 1886), "The Negro was killed irregularly, but justifiably" (The Chicago Chronicle, June 19, 1897), "unspeakable more thought need be given to his death than to that of a dog" (The Indianapolis News, June 19, 1897), "help lynch the brute" (The Intelligencer, October 12, 1911). In this last example, a lynching that took place on October 11, 1911 in Anderson County, South Carolina, the mob was led by State Legislator Joshua Ashley and the editor of the local newspaper. The target of that mob was one Willis Jackson who was accused of attacking a white child. He was hung from a tree upside down and shot numerous times (Tolnay and Beck, p. 26).

Cleveland Gazette, July 6 1915
Cleveland Gazette, July 6 1915

Descriptions such as these were routine in many newspapers of the time. The Library of Congress has hundreds of examples of this type of sensationalized and biased reporting. But not all of America's press endorsed mob rule and the breakdown of law and order it represented. In spite of many editorials in Southern newspapers of that era which seemed to defend mob justice, it would be inaccurate to say that lynching was supported by the nation's press. Many other papers, such as the New York Times, The New York Herald and The Chicago Tribune, bravely led the voice of criticism against lynching. "It's time that somebody in authority fought one of thee mobs to the death" (The Springfield Republic, June 19, 1897, "The Grand Old State Again Disgraced- this time an educated Afro-American and a good citizen is the victim" (The Cleveland Advocate, September, 20, 1916) are some of the examples of articles that sought to tell the truth about these vicious murders. But it wasn't enough. Passions were deep, the Civil War had decimated an entire culture in the South, destroyed families, made paupers out of the rich and freed the slaves. As a result, there were those who felt an intense hatred for the North and all of its ideals. Those who would never let the traditions, values and beliefs of Southern society perish. And so, from the ruins of a bitter war, an organization grew, slowly at first, in rural Tennessee. But soon it spread all across the South and became the most powerful machine of racism, violence and murder our nation has ever seen before or since.

Cleveland Advocate, January 19, 1918
Cleveland Advocate, January 19,


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