I made some revisions to this story on 25 October 2016 which should make it much easier to read. It’s a story I’ve had around for a while and was surprised to see that Yoast SEO wanted me to tone down the passive voice. After I looked it over, I concurred with Yoast.
Chris Mills, 25 October 2016
“The Hanging Tree” is historical fiction. The events in this story happened on August 7, 1930 in my hometown of Marion, Indiana. I have taken a few liberties in writing this account. The link below will give the details as they actually happened. I have not steered far from the facts as they have been reported about this event which was the last recorded lynching in the north. While some may find certain language used in the story to be offensive, I have used it with the conviction that this was the reality of that night, and it should be recorded and reported as it actually happened.
An Iconic Lynching In the North – Videos of eye witnesses; News reports
Here is a link to a photo of the actual lynching. Caution, the photo is very graphic. It is the photo that was taken in the final line of my story, The Hanging Tree. The Hanging of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
The Hanging Tree
The courthouse towers above the trees where I walk in the evening shadows and attempt to make sense of the murder of my friend, Claude Deeter and the rape of his girlfriend, Mary Ball. These horrible things happened only last night, nevertheless, the sheriff has already arrested three black teenagers who are now sitting across the street in jail cells. Why can’t the black people just keep to themselves and leave good white folks alone?
Something is happening across the street at the jail. I hear shouting growing louder, and I walk in that direction. People are making their way to the jailhouse by the hundreds, maybe thousands.
Activity at the front of the crowd near the jailhouse doors catches my attention. I work my way through the mass of people to get a better view. Several men are on the steps holding sledgehammers. One of them swings. Steel strikes wood with a crack that echoes off concrete walls inside.
Shouts rise from the crowd around me.
“Bring out the murderers.”
“We want justice now.”
“We’re gonna make examples of them niggers.”
Splintered boards swing from twisted hinges as men pass through to find the prisoners. Within minutes, they shove three black teens through the doorway to face justice. There is no sign of the Sheriff or of his deputies.
I’m within an arms reach of one of the black men, and a vision of him raping Mary flashes into my mind. I grab the front of his shirt and pull the animal into a sea of humanity that rages with lust for revenge.
Fists reign down with dull thuds and make contact with every part of the man’s body. Boots swing and connect with his head. My own foot lands against his belly again and again. We are drunk with rage and I scream with the passion of a crusader,
“Kill the bastards, kill them all.”
Crow bars, bricks and boards hammer down on the form curled into a fetal position in the dust of this Indiana town. Elsewhere, the other two blacks fare no better.
“That’ll teach them niggers to keep their filthy hands off the white girls of this town,” someone shouts.
“Rope, we need rope if we’re gonna do this right,” yells someone else. An idea pops into my head, and I run across the street to the corner hardware store. I grab a bicycle leaning against a lamppost and smash it through the plate glass window. A few minutes later I come out with enough rope for three hangings.
The crowd drags the three bloodied men across the street to the courthouse square. I approach with the rope and the crowd parts. I see the hanging tree silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
The condemned men struggle against the hands that hold them and we force them to watch as nooses are fashioned and slipped over their heads. One man’s voice rises above the shouting, and silence falls over the people. “I saw the young one here in town while the other two were raping Mary and murdering Claude, so he can’t be guilty.” As a result, some in the crowd object, but the men in charge pull the sixteen year old boy aside and remove the noose.
We’ve beaten the bodies of the other two blacks without mercy, and their clothes hang in bloody shreds. Tears are streaming from their eyes as they look around for any sign of pity or care, but instead of showing mercy, we force them to stand beneath the hanging tree.
Someone thrusts the end of a rope into my hands and others grab hold ahead of me. We walk backward until the rope grows tense, then we pull. I recognize the man in front of me. He’s a local police officer.
I fall to the ground and others pile on top of me. The rope falls slack. The negro on the other end has managed to pull the noose off and drop to the ground. He has no chance of escaping. Someone charges in and stabs him with a knife. Others restrain him, the noose is replaced and we hoist him back up.
I join the crowd to watch the two men die. We laugh and point at the spectacle. The murderers and rapists swing and kick until the only movements are slight twitches of their arms and legs. Swollen tongues protrude beyond the lips, eyes turn red, and faces grow even darker than normal.
Someone shouts from behind the crowd. Everyone turns to look, and a newspaper man’s flashbulb blinds our eyes. I’m sure the photograph will portray a festive occasion. We celebrate, for justice has had her day.
Mary Ball later confessed that the men had not raped her.
Local law enforcement later arrested James Cameron, the black youth whom the mob released during the lynching. The court tried, convicted and sent him to prison for five years as an accessory to murder. In 1993, Governor Evan Bayh pardoned him. In 2005, the Indiana Senate passed a resolution, with James Cameron as a special guest and apologized for having never outlawed lynching.
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