Violation at Leak’s Store: The Bryan Lynchings of 1874

“The stern underlying principle of the people who commit these barbarities is one that has its root deep in the basic passions of humanity; the determination to put an end to the ravishing of their women by an inferior race, or by any race, no matter what the consequences.” 

Thomas Nelson Page, The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem (1904)

If we use the word ravish nowadays, it will be in the literary sense of seized and transported by delight.  We use the words rapt and rapture in much the same way.  To be rapt is, for us, to be in the grip of a strong interest: to be fascinated or mesmerized.  Apart from premillennial dispensationalists, we use the word rapture as a synonym for bliss.  We are accustomed to hear of a ravishing beauty, of rapt attention, or of rapturous applause, and these pleasant associations make it hard for us to connect these words with the violent act we call rape.

Yet all of these words have the Latin rapere as their common root, and rapere meant to seize and carry away by force, or violence.  Thus when a city was sacked by a conquering army, that city was said to be raped.  When a city was seized and raped by a conquering army, many unfortunate women in the city were also seized and raped, but the “rape of Nanking” did not take its name from the concurrent rape of Nanking women.  Nanking and its women were both seized and violated, but they were seized and violated in very different ways.

In the narrow and exclusively sexual sense, the words rape and ravish mean to violate another person by forcibly use their body for sexual pleasure.  To violate is to force, and violation is very much of the essence in many instances of sexual rape.  The essential rapist is not a man who simply proceeds with the act of intercourse despite failing to obtain consent.  This oaf is an accidental rapist, a rapist of necessity, not choice.  For the essential rapist, violation is an essential part of his sexual pleasure.

The reason violation is pleasurable is not far to seek.  Our will to power is our drive to possess power, and we experience our possession of power in the pleasure of violation: in the pleasure of overpowering resistance, the pleasure of forcing other people to act against their will.  Thus I have an agreeable sense of strength when I am the one violating, and a disagreeable sense of weakness when I am the one violated. 

Nietzsche explained the natural grounds of this pleasure of violation when he said of any individual life,

“Its object is to obtrude its own forms and insure its own unobstructed functioning.”*

Or,  in another place

“In itself an act of injury, violation, exploitation or annihilation cannot be wrong, for life operates, essentially and fundamentally, by injuring, violating, exploiting and annihilating, and cannot even be conceived of as existing otherwise.”**

Thus Nietzsche tells us that violation of others is man’s greatest good, and would seem to be saying that man truly lives only when he is overpowering other men in acts of murder, rape and degradation.  In this Nietzsche agrees with another student of human nature, the master marauder Genghis Kahn.  In the words of that virtuoso of violation,

“Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding and use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and a support.”***

* * * * *

Weak men do not lack a will to power.  They have a will to power that is frustrated because they were cast into this world without the tools of power, or with tools of a bent and inferior sort.  Not to put too fine a point on it, these men are too stupid, too ugly and too charmless to easily “obtrude their form” on anyone or anything, but this does not dampen their natural hunger for “unobstructed functioning.”  These misfits wish to feel the joy of overpowering resistance just like everyone else, but they are forced by their grave defects of body and mind to suck the pleasure of violation from crude and cowardly acts of “injury, exploitation or annihilation.” 

They often combine with other misfits in a gang, and then venture out to rob, murder and rape.  If we take Nietzsche as our guide, this is how these misfits savor the greatest good in life, and life “cannot even be conceived as existing otherwise.”

* * * * *

E. A. Leak and his wife operated a country store about six miles west of Bryan, at the edge of the great alluvial flat of the Brazos River bottom. This was in 1874, when the cotton fields in the bottom were still worked by recently emancipated slaves, and most of Leak’s customers must have been black tenants, field-hands and sharecroppers. Among these people, the tools of power were scarce, but the will to power was strong, and life on the river bottom was consequently a violent jungle of murder, robbery and rape.

It was therefore with some misgiving that Mr. Leak must have unbolted the door of his store late in the evening of March 31, and with even greater misgiving that he admitted a crew of ten lowering black men.  He stood, no doubt nervously, eyeing these men as they clumped around on the wooden floor, asking the price of various articles.  Finally, one of the men asked to examine a gun that was displayed behind the counter, and when the storeowner handed it to him, “he pointed it at Mr. Leak’s head, saying, ‘now give up,’ and firing at the same time.”†

Fortunately for Leak, he was not napping, and therefore had the presence of mind to strike the shooter’s arm before the shooter pulled the trigger.  Thus “the load took effect on the wall above his head.”  Unfortunately for Leak, the shooter’s accomplices had their own shooting irons, and “they commenced firing from all sides, one shot taking effect in his breast and one in his thigh.” 

Supposing the storekeeper dead, the black men “took what goods they needed and threw the other goods out of the house, and then went into his wife’s room and took her out and brutally outraged her several times before Mr. Leak.”  Outraged was in those days a euphemism for ravished, just as ravished was a euphemism for raped.

The men in this crew were, apparently, known to Leak, since he lived long enough to give the Sheriff their names.  If they were known to Leak, they must have planned to murder as well as rob him.  The shooter may have been nervous when he pulled the trigger before he could complete his demand that Leak “give up the money,” but the ten black men probably planned to cover their tracks by burning the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Leak in their bed.  This would of course require that the goods they threw out of the house were gathered up before anyone noticed the fire, but we should not expect perfect planning from a crew of misfits.

The pleasure of violation was almost certainly essential to the gang rape of Mrs. Leak, as it was to so many similar rapes of that time and place.  The black men wished to feel the pleasure of overpowering the will of this white man by taking his goods and his life, and then forcing his wife to do what was most directly opposite to his and her will. 

Genghis Kahn would have understood the pleasure these but men took in violation, but he would have scorned puny scale of their outrage.

* * * * *

Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) was a lawyer and writer who is today remembered, insofar as he is remembered, for his nostalgic novels set on plantations in the Virginia tidewater before the Civil War.  It was a world Page remembered with affection, and the comfortable courtesies that he said then joined the races were among his fondest memories.  By the time he published The Negro in 1904, however, Page was profoundly alarmed by the growing violence of race relations across the South.  He was especially troubled by the increased frequency with which white women were violated in the manner that poor Mrs. Leak had been violated, and with which black men were then lynched in a violent reprisal.

It was, Page said, an exchange of barbarity for barbarity.  The barbarity of which he speaks in my epigram is the barbarity of lynching, but Page understood that the barbarity of lynching was a reprisal for what was commonly described in those days as “negro barbarism.”  Indeed, this is the phrase that appeared in the headline of the newspaper article that the Galveston News published about the violation at Leak’s Store. 

And barbarians who committed this violation suffered the violent reprisal that Page said they would.

* * * * *

On the day after the violation of Leak and his wife at Leak’s Store, four black men were lodged in the county jail, and a pose of white men were scouring the river bottom for the robbers and rapists who still roamed free.  When a mob of angry white men appeared at the jail and demanded the four prisoners, the Sheriff attempted to deter them with the story that the jailer had wandered away with the keys.  But the mob was not deterred, the cell was forced open, and the four black men were led a quarter mile to the edge of town, where two were hung from a tree.  These two, named Higgins and Brown, confessed to participating in the violation at Leak’s store, but before they were hung pleaded the innocence, and saved the lives, of the other two black men.  Before nightfall, the white posse in the river bottom had captured and lynched four more black men, and were said to be on the trail of the four who remained at large.††

I do not know whether they caught those four men.  Mr. Leak was alive on April 1st, the day of the lynching, and was sufficiently lucid to identify Higgins and Brown as two of his assailants.  But his wounds were said to be mortal, and we may suppose he died soon after.  Mrs. Leak also identified Higgins and Brown, but thereafter disappears from the historical record, a lonely woman, both widowed and violated.

*) Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
**) The Genealogy of Morals (1887)
***) quoted in John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1993).
†) Galveston Daily News (April 1, 1874)
††) Galveston Daily News (April 2, 1874)

11 thoughts on “Violation at Leak’s Store: The Bryan Lynchings of 1874

  1. Pingback: Violation at Leak’s Store: The Bryan Lynchings of 1874 | Reaction Times

  2. I was a freshman in high school when I first encountered “negro barbarism” — in the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Like everyone else, I was horrified by mob justice and saddened by the legacy of lynching. By the time I graduated high school, I was well aware of the “color of crime,” as Pat Buchanan once memorably wrote. However, I never connected the lynching phenomenon to actual “negro barbarism.” It never occurred to me that there had really been violations — until well into adulthood. It struck me one day — in the last decade, I imagine — that if there are thousands of black perp./white victim rapes each year in our contemporary period, then that sort of behavior probably happened generations ago, as well. Given that there were around 4,000 lynchings of blacks in American history (not per year, but altogether), I reckoned that the lynchings did follow interracial rapes. Whether the swingers were the perps. or whether they were innocents accused while the perps. got away, we don’t know. I imagine a mixture, and I don’t know enough about it to guess how careful the typical angry mob was in determining guilt. Mobs tend not to think clearly. That’s one of the problems with mob justice — and why civilized societies have procedures for adjudication. Yet and still, when I see what is going in America, in Brazil, and in South Africa, among other places, I become more sympathetic to the historical lynchers. When the state fails to mete out justice, vigilantism arises . . . and that is not entirely the fault of the vigilantes.

    • I thought about mentioning To Kill a Mockingbird in this essay. Like just about every student in America, it was presented to me as the whole story of Southern lynching, and, like you, I took it at face value for many years. Many years ago, I saw Mockingbird performed by a community theater in downtown Bryan. Since all I know of this 1874 lynching is that it occurred a quarter mile from the jail, the play might have been performed on the very same spot. In any case, the community players did a good job. Atticus was nobel, Tom was saintly, Bob Ewell was a cracker, and his daughter was a slut. In other words, it was the South as seen through the eyes of Harper Lee’s editors in New York City.

  3. To Kill a Mockingbird unravels beginning with the implausibility of the Boo Radley character. Harper Lee’s novel was assigned reading in the ninth grade. I labored through it in order to pass the test. The in-class discussion — in treacly-liberal Mrs. Farmer’s English class — was an early (1968) instance of extreme virtue signaling. There were no black students at Malibu Park Junior High School.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is the bibliographical Mirror of Narcissus for virtue-signalers.

  4. It seems that Harper Lee was a writer of vignettes and character sketches, and not really a novelist. The novel we know as To Kill a Mockingbird is substantially the work of her editor. The Boo Radley character strikes me as pretty clear rip off from Falkner. I personally like the Southern gothic motif of decayed gentry, but dislike it when it is used to heap blame on the Crackers.

    This discussion has set me to thinking about high school novels that had clear propaganda intent. At the moment my big three are To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and Diary of Anne Frank.

    My daughter just read “The Lottery” as an assignment, and her disgust at the conclusion gave me an opportunity to explain the theory of scapegoating. It also gave me an opportunity to explain that scapegoating is not limited to majority populations blaming their troubles on the wickedness of minorities, but also occurs when minority populations blame their troubles on the wickedness of majorities.

    It would be fun to offer a college seminar that examined the novels high school English teachers assign as a literary genre.

    • Another ninth-grade story… I succumbed to peer pressure, acquired a copy of Catcher in the Rye, and began reading it. I had a twenty-minute bus ride from home to the junior high school and tackled Salinger mornings and late-afternoons while in transit. Plenty of other kids adhered to the same reading schedule. You could see them with their noses in the book. It soon dawned on me that all the kids who were obsessed with Catcher and couldn’t stop talking about it were — pardoning the phrase — phonies. Unequivocally and absolutely. I left off the story of Holden Caulfield and switched back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose protagonists are non-neurotic.

      Intellectually unformed adolescents are enraptured by neurotic plots and characters, which is why they should not read Lee, Salinger, and Jackson.

    • You would have a much shorter list if you compiled those works assigned in high school without a clear propaganda intent.

      Off the top of my head, only Frankenstein makes that list. But then, I went to high school significantly more recently than you did, at least as a student.

      • It’s funny that Frankenstein has lost its propaganda punch and become a simple horror story. Mary Shelly was the daughter of William Godwin, the radical philosopher, and wife of the atheist poet Shelly. That Frankenstein could make his monster out of dead parts was propaganda against the doctrine of a human soul, that the monster was naturally good was propaganda against the doctrine of original sin, and that he turned bad under human prejudice was propaganda for the social origins of evil.

        Since we live in a society governed by leftist shibboleths, it is only right that we teach our children how to say them. To get ahead in life, they need only understand the truth of things of immediate concern to them. In all other matters, they are better of understanding the popular untruths.

      • It is indeed very funny. I concede all your points on the nature of Shelley’s writing, though not on education, as you might expect. Those would be true if the purpose of education were to form mass men whose role as mostly unthinking reactive cogs in the great machine which is modern society, but as you well know that is not the purpose of education. That is the purpose of the thing that has killed education and is going about wearing it as a skinsuit.

        Much like the thing that calls itself a society is no longer for the common good.

      • I don’t think education should produce cogs, but I often reflect on the endless trouble thinking this way has caused me. Some people might say that I derive psychological satisfaction from the fact that I hold unpopular opinions–that it makes me feel as if I am smarter, braver, special, etc. If this psychological satisfaction exists, it seems to me very meager when compared with the psychological satisfaction of being respected and admired for “sound judgement.” Possessing a perfectly platitudinous mind is, obviously, a huge social advantage (this includes being platitudinously edgy and daring), whereas the tendency to subscribe to unpopular opinions is the social equivalent of leprosy.

    • If prolific writing is the measure, Harper Lee did not demonstrate mastery of the novel qua literary form. Imagine my delight, however, when Lee’s first novel, Go Set a Watchman, appeared much later; and we learned of Atticus Finch’s unreconstructed views on the blessings of racial diversity. So much of the pernicious influence of the earlier-published To Kill a Mockingbird was drained like pus from a lanced boil. Perhaps my greatest moment of shadenfreude was the extreme discomfiture of a particularly SJW public defender who had an Atticus Finch quote from Mockingbird prominently tattooed on his forearm. He was the very personification of the word “regret.” Salty tears are the most refreshing.

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