“Strange Fruit” in the American Democracy

  • James H. Madison


The death of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith at the hands of a lynch mob was not a unique event. Such bloody tragedies had frequently played on the American stage. So well rehearsed was the nation’s drama of lynching that members of the Grant County mob surely knew they were actors standing in a long tradition. Without studying a script they knew their lines and stage movements: crowds of angry citizens shout their outrage and epithets at the beginning of the spectacle; a knotted rope appears; the mob forcefully removes the victim from the jail; some beat and mutilate him; fire ignites to burn a dead body; the body remains hanging as symbol; souvenir hunters grab pieces of rope and clothing and in some instances even body parts; a photographer captures the scene of victim, mob, and spectators. The play is ended. Civilization is redeemed.1


White Woman Saturday Evening Sunday Afternoon Newspaper Reporter Black Victim 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    For a good overview of lynching scholarship see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., “Introduction,” to Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), 1–20.Google Scholar
  2. In addition to the essays in the Brundage collection, see also W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana, Ill., 1993);Google Scholar
  3. Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 254–74;Google Scholar
  4. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching (rev. ed., New York, 1993), 129–57;Google Scholar
  5. Nancy Maclean, “White Women and Klan Violence in the 1920s: Agency, Complicity and the Politics of Women’s History,” Gender and History 3 (autumn 1991), 283–303;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Robyn Wiegman, “The Anatomy of Lynching,” in John C. Fout and Maura Shaw Tantillo, eds., American Sexual Politics: Sex, Gender, and Race since the Civil War (Chicago, 1992);Google Scholar
  7. Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington, Ind., 1984);Google Scholar
  8. Charlotte Wolf, “Constructions of a Lynching,” Sociological Inquiry 62 (February 1992), 83–97;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930 (Urbana, Ill., 1995);Google Scholar
  10. Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of fudge Lynch (New York, 1929);Google Scholar
  11. J. William Harris, “Etiquette, Lynching, and Racial Boundaries in Southern History: A Mississippi Example,” American Historical Review 100 (April 1995), 387–410;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. George C. Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865–1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings” (Baton Rouge, La., 1990);Google Scholar
  13. Paul Finkelman, ed., Lynching, Racial Violence, and Law (New York, 1992);Google Scholar
  14. Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, D.C., 1998), 169–232;Google Scholar
  15. Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr., Contempt of Court: The Turn of the Century Lynching that Launched 100 Years of Federalism (New York, 1999).Google Scholar
  16. Visual evidence is provided in James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, N.M., 2000).Google Scholar
  17. For a vivid fictional account see Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff,” in The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser (New York, 1956), 157–82.Google Scholar
  18. 2.
    For challenges of counting and the changing definition of lynching see Christopher Waldrep, “War of Words: The Controversy over the Definition of Lynching, 1899–1940,” Journal of Southern History 66 (February 2000), 75–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 3.
    Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York, 1892), 14.Google Scholar
  20. 5.
    Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (New York, 1977), 41–69;Google Scholar
  21. David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia, 2000), 20.Google Scholar
  22. Japanese cartoons during World War II, for example, found in lynching useful images to present to Asians. Lewis A. Erenbergand Susan E. Hirsch, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II (Chicago, 1996), 192.Google Scholar
  23. 7.
    Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser, No Crooked Death: Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker (Urbana, ill., 1991);Google Scholar
  24. Michael W. Fedo, “They Was Just Niggers” (Ontario, Calif, 1979);Google Scholar
  25. Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., The Lynching of Cleo Wright (Lexington, Ky., 1998).Google Scholar
  26. 8.
    Bernard W. Sheehan, “The Famous Hair Buyer General’: Henry Hamilton, George Rogers Clark, and the American Indian,” Lndiana Magazine of History 79 (March 1983), 20–21;Google Scholar
  27. Harrison quote in R. David Edmunds, “Justice on a Changing Frontier: Deer Lick Creek, 1824–1825,” Lndiana Magazine of History 93 (March 1997), 48.Google Scholar
  28. 9.
    Brian M. Doerr, “The Massacre at Deer Lick Creek, Madison County, Indiana, 1824,” Lndiana Magazine of History 93 (March 1997), 19–47, quote on 37.Google Scholar
  29. See also George Chalou, “Massacre on Fall Creek,” Prologue (summer 1972), 109–14.Google Scholar
  30. For a fictional account see Jessamyn West, The Fall Creek Massacre (New York, 1974).Google Scholar
  31. 10.
    The discussion of lynching in Indiana draws from the pioneering work of Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Lndiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis, 1957), 276–87.Google Scholar
  32. See also Clifton J. Phillips, Lndiana in Transition: The Emergence of an Industrial Commonwealth, 1880–1920 Indianapolis, 1968), 374–78;Google Scholar
  33. Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (New York, 1975), 21–25, 95–133.Google Scholar
  34. 11.
    Darrel E. Bigham, We Ask Only a Fair Trial: A History of the Black Community of Evansville, Indiana (Bloomington, 1987), 104–07.Google Scholar
  35. 12.
    Winfield T. Durbin, “The Mob and the Law,” Independent 55 (July 30, 1903), 1790–93.Google Scholar
  36. For Durbin’s counterpart in Illinois, see Stacy Pratt McDermott, “‘An Outrageous Proceeding’: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois, 1905–1910,” Journal of Negro History 84 (winter 1999), 61–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Gail Williams O’Brien, The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© James H. Madison 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • James H. Madison

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations