Crime: Chilling Photo And Story Of The 1930 Lynching Of Two Black Teenagers
On the 7th day of August 1930, in the early hours of the morning, four teenagers -all black- were arrested in their homes in Marlon, Indiana for allegedly raping a white teenage girl, 19 year old, Mary Ball and shooting an equally white man, 23 year old, Claude Deeter, the previous night.
The teenagers; 19 year old, Abram Smith, 16 year old James Cameron (who were shoeshine boys), Thomas Shipp and Robert Sullivan were said to have the night before held Mary and Claude at gunpoint by Lovers Lane, demanded for money, raped Mary who was supposedly a prostitute and Abram’s Girlfriend then shot Claude.
While Claude received treatment at the hospital, by that morning, the news of Mary’s rape had spread to every corner of the small town and even farther. Claude’s bloodied shirt hung like a souvenir of the night before outside the police station and a crowd began to gather.
First in small concerned numbers, with long faces, shoulders sagged, and moving about the yard with the humdrum demeanor of people who are genuinely worried. Then Claude died that afternoon and things took a new turn.
By evening, majority of the black people sensing an attack had left for neighboring towns, about fifteen thousand whites had however come into town from as far as Gary which was 150 miles away to witness the planned lynching. And by nightfall, the crowd outside the police station was frantic, they had more than tripled in size. Tens of thousands, chanting and demanding that the sheriff hand the boys to them.
The three teenagers flocked in a cell, James, Abram and Thomas -because Robert was later released- were increasingly terrified and when the sheriff would not heed to the request of the violent crowd, a group of men obtained a sledge hammer and broke the brick around the iron entrance door.
The angry procession headed straight for the cell and dragged out Thomas to the excitement of the crowd. He was pulled along the cobblestone while being beaten mercilessly. People tossed bricks at him, high heel shoes, metals, anything they could lay their hands on and when a rope arrived, they dragged him to the window bars and hung him.
They faced Abram next, breaking his arms in a failed attempt by him to pull the rope from his neck, and then eventually hanging him.
James had narrowly escaped the lynching. For as the crowd started to beat him (He lost a kidney from this), an unidentified voice which James in later years would assert to be the voice of an Angel had screamed from the crowd that he had nothing to do with it -which indeed was the truth, and he was taken back to the cell.
An eyewitness reported that as was the custom of spectacle lynchings, while the crowd busied their hands with trying to start a fire underneath the boys, someone had summoned photographer Lawrence Beitler to capture the moment, the frozen smiles, the excited faces, the lifeless boys.
A year later, Mary Ball whose rape story many knew had more than fueled the lynching (because raping a white woman was considered worse than homicide) confessed that she hadn’t been raped at all and James told the jury his story of how he fled the scene after recognizing Claude as his customer. He would when fleeing hear gunshots in the background.
For most people, what is most shocking is the photo. The excited faces against a backdrop of lifeless black teenagers dangling from a tree, the realization that Mary had lied about the rape, that none of the people in the photo were ever brought to book, that it was circulated as a thing of pride in the South and how it is a subtle prompt of the terrible things that could happen because of racial discrimination.
This photo that sold thousands of copies in days, that would a few years later in the hands of Abel Meeropol inspire a poem “Strange Fruit” whose lines will be made into a Billy Holiday song and which we remember today because they have never been truer;
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Featured Image: Lawrence Beitler