One sultry evening in June, 1896, a posse of around 200 unmasked vigilantes rode into the town of Bryan, Texas, burst into the county jail, and broke open the cells that held three black men accused of rape. They marched the three men out of town slowly, proceeded three miles down the Boonville Road to a lonely place where it crossed Carters Creek on an iron bridge, and then they hanged those three men from the limbs of a large oak tree.
We Americans have conceived a special horror of lynching. We shudder to think of the ring of steel as the sledgehammer strikes the blacksmith’s cleaver, of the cry of triumph when the lock falls to the jailhouse floor and the door of the cell swings free. The dolorous march to a lonely place: the snickers and snorts of horses; the gleam of leather and gunmetal in lantern light. The bonfire springing to life; the weird and ghastly shadows dancing on the trees. A rope tossed over a limb; the wild eyes of a captive man; the moment (yes, there were such moments) when the doomed man was permitted to say his final prayer.
And then three silent corpses hanging in the moonlight, over the Boonville Road.
The Southern lynching has become an American myth. What I mean is that the Southern lynching is a type of event that has escaped history and become an archetype. Events take place in time, and thus may be said to have occurred, or be occurring, or to have yet to occur. But an archetype is timeless and does not live in time.
As Charles Lamb wrote, “archetypes are in us, and eternal” (1). Or at least this is how archetypes seem.
An archetype seems to have existed always and to be, like God, “unbegotten and imperishable” (2). We understand an archetype, as the name implies, as a great and changeless stamp (what Plato called a “form”) that repeatedly impresses its shape on the soft wax of our lower world of change and decay. Thus, we are condemned to eternal recurrence of a timeless archetype because an archetype stamps out its type just like a sheet metal press stamps out body panels in an automobile factory. It reproduces its type in our lives and in our dreams (nightmares included).
And so long as the archetype remains in us, and not in time, we can never, ever leave it behind.
* * * * *
I believe it is time to exorcise this archetype and put the Southern lynching back in time where it belongs. My method of exorcism is to return one particular lynching to the time and place that it actually happened. My exorcism therefore begins in the lonely place where the Boonville Road once crossed Carters Creek on that iron bridge, for here we can learn something about the difference between an historical event and an archetype of myth.
Ruined abutments are all that remain to mark the site of the old iron bridge. Boonville Road was long ago realigned, and now crosses Carters Creek some distance downstream. It is, today, a busy road—five lanes wide—but the site of the old bridge remains a lonely place, lost in a thicket of unfrequented woods. When I stand on a sandbar beside one of the ruined abutments, I might think myself in the heart of a wilderness, if it were not for the roar of cars and trucks on Boonville Road.
I daresay that everyone riding in those cars and trucks has the archetype of a Southern lynching securely implanted in them, but that next to no one knows that a triple lynching occurred in this place, or even that there is this place, behind the wall of trees that lines new Boonville Road.
And that is the way it is with an archetype. Its ties to time and space have been cut, and it has become a disembodied ghost that pops in and out of nowhere to make us jump and scream.
* * * * *
To place the Bryan lynching in time, we will have to see, as best we can, how those three black men came to be in the Brazos County jail, and why that posse of unmasked vigilantes came to believe that they could not wait for these three men to die. The story begins a year and a half before the men were lynched, on a cold Sunday morning in December, when Fannie Polazo was raped (3).
Fannie Polazo owned a farm about two and a half miles northeast of Bryan, near the head of Carters Creek. She was an Italian immigrant who spoke no English, and she lived alone with her children because her husband had been for several years an inmate in the State lunatic asylum. Charlie was her oldest son, and at three o’clock on that Sunday morning, he answered urgent knocking at the front door of what was probably a one-room cabin. Charlie opened the door a crack and was immediately pushed aside by a large black man who entered the house, drew a pistol, and demanded money.
Fanny Polazo was awake and sitting up in bed. She somehow told the intruder that they had no money. At these words, “he threw her back on the bed, got on top of her and tried to pull up her clothes” (4). She and Charlie “fought him all they could,” while the younger Polazo children screamed with terror; but the intruder was large and Charlie may have been as young as ten or twelve. Casting the boy aside, the black man dragged Mrs. Polazo “into the yard, where he again threw her down, got on top of her and succeeded in ravishing her.”
As soon as the sun was up that Sunday morning, Fanny Polazo walked with her children to the house of her brother-in-law, Joe Polazo, a mile distant, and “told him and his wife of the outrage which had been committed upon her.” Her “children were all crying and seemed to be in great distress.” Her sister-in-law, Mary Polazo, examined Fanny’s body and found it bruised and marked by “a bite on her breast.”
Joe Polazo then went in to Bryan and reported the outrage to Sheriff Nunn, and Sheriff Nunn returned with Joe and took down Fanny’s description of her assailant. Joe translated. Because Fanny Polazo had lighted a small tin oil lamp before Charlie opened the front door, both she and her son had seen the black man’s face, and both had recognized it as the face of a man who had worked on a neighboring farm about a year before. Fanny Polazo had never seen the man at close range, and did not know his name, but insisted that the man who raped her was her neighbor’s old farmhand.
Based on this description, Sheriff Nunn arrested three black men and placed them in a lineup with five others. When confronted with the lineup in the county courthouse, Fannie Polazo “at once pointed out the defendant as the man who committed the rape upon her. As soon as she saw him, she bit her thumb and seemed to faint, and would have fallen had not someone of the parties present caught her” (5). Sheriff Nunn rearranged the lineup and brought in Charlie Polazo, who “seemed to hesitate a little, but pointed out the defendant as the man who outraged his mother.”
The man they identified was Jim Reddick, a black sharecropper in his late twenties. Reddick’s defense was an alibi. Many witnesses testified that Reddick had gone to a dance that Saturday night. He had rented a buggy and gone with a woman and a large party of other couples to a farm about seven miles north of town. The party returned to Bryan around 2:00 a.m., and the attendant at the livery stable, a man named Ben Jackson, testified that Reddick had returned the rented buggy around 3:15 a.m. Reddick then saddled his horse and rode away, returning to the stable twenty minutes later. Jackson said Reddick and he were together in the stable until 5:00 a.m., when Reddick went in search of a saloon to buy a bottle of whiskey. As the sun came up that Sunday morning, Reddick was seen lounging on the sidewalk of “Rat Row,” a block of Bryan’s Main Street given over to rough saloons, pool halls and cheap eateries, and also infamous for shootings and savage knife fights.
Reddick was tried and found guilty in March, 1895, and he was sentenced to die by hanging. His alibi obviously depended on the credibility of Ben Jackson, the night attendant at the livery stable, and it appears that the jury found Fanny Polazo more credible than Ben Jackson.
About one year later, Reddick’s conviction was overturned on appeal, and remanded to the district court. I cannot claim to understand everything in the legal argument from the appellate court, but it seems to have held that testimony from Joe and Mary Polazo had been received as evidence that Reddick was the rapist, when this should have been excluded as hearsay, and that the fact that Fanny Polazo had fainted when she identified Reddick was not material to the case, and should not have been mentioned in the trial.
No doubt this ruling was correct as a matter of law, but it clearly struck many people in Brazos County as hairsplitting pettifoggery. It seems to have especially incensed country people who had a rude sense of justice, good reason to fear similar attacks, and little faith in the veracity of Ben Jackson. Jim Reddick’s second trial was scheduled for March 25, 1896, but I have found no record of what, if anything, happened on that date. Reddick was, in any event, still a prisoner in the Brazos County Jail when the posse of vigilantes came to kill him six weeks later
* * * * *
Louis Whitehead and Travis Johnson were also prisoners in the Brazos County Jail. Whitehead was an ex-convict in his forties, described as very black and cursed with “an evil looking face.” Johnson was a boy of nineteen. They had been arrested only two days earlier for having attempted to anesthetize a twelve-year-old girl with chloroform, with the intention of raping her.
Whitehead and Johnson had worked for the girl’s father, a country doctor named Wilson, in the hamlet of Kurten, and there seems to have been no doubt that Whitehead stole “a drug that he thought was chloroform” from the doctor’s office, and that he later leaned in through the open window of the sleeping girl’s bedroom and doused her bedclothes with what he believed was the narcotic drug (6).
Chloroform was, in fact, the rape drug of that day, and tossing or pouring a bottle of chloroform through a woman’s open bedroom window was a known tactic of rapists. Here, for instance, is the report of an attempt “to chloroform and outrage a young lady” in Dallas, a few years before the chloroform attack in Brazos County.
“Another horrible crime by a brutal negro on a white girl was attempted about 4 o’clock this morning, and has so inflamed the people until it is almost a unanimous feeling on the part of the whites that the extermination of the worst element of that race in Dallas is all that will end the terrible deeds that they are committing. This is the fourth assault of this kind on white women, in their homes at night, within the past six weeks . . .” (7).
Chloroform had been synthesized earlier in the nineteenth century, and knowledge of its narcotic power became widely known through its use in the field hospitals of Civil War armies. Reports of “chloroform outrages” against women thus became fairly common after 1865, so any man who poured what he believed to be chloroform on the bedclothes of a sleeping girl was presumed to have done so with fiendish intent.
Because the drug Whitehead stole was not chloroform, the doctor’s daughter was not anesthetized and raped, but rather was awakened and set to screaming for help. Confessing guilt with their feet, Whitehead and Johnson skedaddled to Bryan, ten miles distant, and were arrested in Billy Cunningham’s saloon on Rat Row. (This was, in fact, the same place Jim Reddick had been lounging on that crisp December morning, a year and a half earlier.) Johnson immediately confessed that the pair had intended to drug and rape the doctor’s twelve-year-old daughter, and the newspaper report of their “black and terrible crime . . . occasioned deep and bitter indignation throughout the county.”
Citizens who felt this “deep and bitter indignation” were obviously confronted with the awkward fact that Whitehead had actually doused the little girl with something other than chloroform, and that proof of his “black and terrible crime” had therefore been clouded by his own bungling ignorance. It seemed clear enough that his intentions were as evil as could be. What, after all, could be worse than to drug and rape a twelve-year-old girl in her own bed? But it was obvious that the net of law was not made to catch this particular type of fish, and that Whitehead and Johnson might very well slip through it.
* * * * *
And thus it came about that, around 9:30 on the evening of June 10, “a mob of unmasked men, variously estimated at from 100 to 250 men, armed to the teeth, dashed up to the jail here, smashed the locks on the doors and iron cells and took out three negroes, Louis Whitehead . . . George Johnson . . . and Jim Reddick” (9). It had been rumored that the vigilantes were lurking outside town, on the road to Kurten, near the farm of Mary Polazo, but Sheriff Nunn was out of town and only a single deputy was on duty at the jail. The vigilantes told him that they had dynamite and would blow up the jail and all of its prisoners (including a lunatic lady) if he opposed them (9).
The deputy did not oppose them.
The vigilantes took the prisoners and “proceeded without haste,” or masks, to that place where the Boonville Road crossed Carters Creek on the old iron bridge. Their pace and bare faces are significant because they wished to be taken as executioners, and not as assassins. After building a bonfire for light and giving the three black men an opportunity to pray, they hanged the three men by their necks.
The corpses were left “suspended over the road” until the sun rose the next morning, and,
“The local photographer went out and secured two splendid views of the ghastly corpses dangling from the limbs of a large oak tree” (10).
The newspaper editor went on to explain that, while he might have preferred a more regular course of justice, there was much to be said for,
“a scene which gave a fearful lesson of the swift and terrible retribution which overtakes the fiend in human form . . . when the indignant and outraged people cry out for vengeance.”
And this particular vengeance seems to have satisfied the indignant and outraged people of Brazos County, for when they turned out to view the three corpses laid out on the courthouse lawn,
“nearly all those whom the reporter heard talking seemed to think that the rapists got nothing more than their just deserts, though expressions of regret that a lynching should fall to the lot of our county were heard.”
* * * * *
I began this essay by saying that we Americans have conceived a special horror of lynching. I then unrolled some ghastly images from the last act of what I have now shown was a three-act play. Act One was the rape of Fanny Polazo, and this had three scenes: early morning at the Polazo farm, early morning at the livery stable and Rat Row, and the confrontation in the courthouse where Fanny Polazo fingered Jim Reddick, bit her thumb and swooned.
Act Two was the attempted drugging and rape of Dr. Wilson’s twelve-year-old daughter. This also had three scenes: Whitehead and Johnson hatching their evil plot; Whitehead emptying the bottle through the window and onto the little girl’s bedclothes; and Whitehead and Johnson scampering like rats to the shelter of Billy Cunningham’s saloon on Rat Row.
The lynching was Act Three, and here again there were three scenes: breaking into the jail; hanging the men by Carters Creek (the climax); and displaying their bodies on the courthouse lawn (the anticlimax or denoument). It was here on the courthouse lawn that the milling people of Brazos County sought to fix the meaning and moral of this horror in three acts.
They at least saw the drama as having three acts, and they understood the ghastly final act in the light of Act One and Act Two. We Americans today have taken Act Three out of this context and made it our special horror. We have made it a myth, an archetype, a disembodied ghost that pops in and out of nowhere to make us jump and scream.
If we put the Bryan lynching back in the context of its time and place, which is where it belongs, we see that Act Three was one of many horrors, and that this particular three-act-play was itself just part of what Schopenhauer called “the horror of life” (11).
There was plenty of horror on Fanny Palozi’s farm that cold Sunday morning in December. We cannot know for certain that Jim Reddick was the agent or instrument of that horror, but it was a brutal and savage horror. It happened in the dirt while her screaming children stood in the doorway and watched a vicious brute bite her breast like a dog!
It may take a little more discernment to see the full horror of what took place in the bedroom of Dr. Wilson’s daughter. Rape is horrible, but rape of a young girl is more horrible. Rape of a young girl in her own home and bedroom is more horrible still. But to remove the last defense of an all but defenseless girl with chloroform takes us, I believe, very near to the bottom of the black pit. As Schopenhauer explained,
“Wrong through violence is not so shamefulto the doer of it as wrong through craft . . . . The deep horror which is always excited by cunning, faithlessness, and treachery rests on the fact that good faith and honesty are the bond which externally binds into a unity the will which has been broken up into the multiplicity of individuals . . . . Faithlessness and treachery break this outward bond asunder, and thus give boundless scope to the consequences of egoism.”
To betray the trust of a child through cunning is to violate the social bond in its weakest point, and is thus rightly seen as the most shameful act there can be (see Matthew 18:6).
There are other horrors of faithlessness and treachery in this drama of the Bryan lynching. If Fanny Palazo was not lying, then Ben Jackson, the night attendant at the livery stable, certainly was. If all three black men were innocent, which is not entirely beyond belief, three very crafty black men slinked away and let innocent brothers die for their crimes. It is a fact too seldom noted that letting another man be lynched for your crimes is more horrible than lynching the wrong man. It is the absolute bottom of faithlessness and treachery.
And what exactly is horror? Schopenhauer says it is a “presentiment of the nothingness” behind an illusion; it is the sudden and appalling fear that “an order of things is only phenomenal [i.e. apparent], and that their real constitution is quite different.” Sheriff Nunn may not have read Schopenhauer, but if he did I guess he would modify the pessimist’s words as follows. Horror is a “presentiment of the nothingness that will be if the object of horror is not removed from this world.” Horror is a sudden and appalling fear that “the order of things will become something quite different if there is no surety of justice for the likes of Fanny Palazo and Dr. Wilson’s daughter.
1) Charles Lamb, “Witches and Other Night Thoughts,” pp. 147-158, in Elia: First Series (1835), p. 154.
2) Paul Elmer Moore, The Religion of Plato (1921), p, 204.
3)The date was December 2, 1894.
4) John P. White, The Texas Criminal Reports: Cases Reported and Adjudged in the Court of Criminal Appeals of the State of Texas, vol. 35 (Austin, Tex: State of Texas, 1897), 463-470.
5) Biting one’s thumb is, of course, a gesture of contempt and imprecation.
6) “Attempted Outrage,” Bryan Daily Eagle (June 10, 1896), p. 4
7) Fort Worth Daily Gazette (July 12, 1884), p. 8
8) “Lynched Last Night,” Bryan Daily Eagle (June 11, 1896), p. 4.
9) “Statement from T. C. Nunn in Regard to the Lynching,” Bryan Daily Eagle (June 18, 1896), p. 4.
10)“The Lynching,”Bryan Daily Eagle (June 12, 1896), p. 4.
11) Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (1818-1819), book iv.
12) Those who have read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” know that this was what Kurtz meant when his uttered his last words: “the horror, the horror,” and that nothingness is the darkness that Kurtz ultimately found at the heart of everything.