Lynching of Young Blacks

It was past midnight on August 7, 1930.

Lawrence Beitler was sitting on the front porch of his home in Marion, Indiana when someone asked him to bring his 8×10 view camera to the town square. Beitler was a professional photographer who mostly shot wedding photos and portraits of schoolchildren and townfolk.

Beitler arrived on the square to find a jubilant mob of nearly 15,000 white men, women, and children. Hanging from the tree were Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19, two young black men from the John Robinson show circus accused by a teenager of raping his white girlfriend (This accusation was subsequently found to be a lie).  A mob of 10,000 whites took sledgehammers to the county jailhouse doors to get these men; the girl’s uncle saved the life of a third by proclaiming the man’s innocence.

Beitler took one photo and left.

The photos were made into postcards to show off civic pride and white supremacy, but the bodies and grotesquely happy crowds ended up angering and revolting as many as they scared. The photo sold thousands of copies, which Beitler stayed up for 10 days and nights printing them.

Ironically, the photo which had become iconic image of lynchings was taken in the north, whereas most of the nearly 5,000 lynchings documented between Reconstruction and the late 1960s were perpetrated in the South. (Hangings, beatings and mutilations were called the sentence of “Judge Lynch.”) The photo was so iconic that it has been the inspiration for many poems, books and songs down the years.

The photograph would inspire a Jewish poet Abel Meeropol to write his anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit” in 1936, which Billie Holiday would later record and make famous. Every time you hear Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, the first line you heard alluded to the events above: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging”.

As for the third boy saved from the lynching, his name was James Cameron and he was the only known person to have ever survived a lynching in America. The primary source for most of the night’s events came from his eyewitness account A Time of Terror.

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