A Lynching: The Story, the Press, and Maybe the Truth

This is from a PowerPoint I created to use in my classroom. I was going to present it this spring when classes suddenly went online and I changed my syllabus completely. The events of this past week made me return to it, particularly the horrific killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a killing that would not have happened had he not been black, but also the incident in New York’s Central Park where a white woman felt she could have the upper hand with the law over a black man.

Defending the Law?

Picture2The Logan County courthouse in Bellfontaine, Ohio. Built in 1870, it had symbolized the county’s pride in justice and the rule of law for 24 years before the lynching of Seymour Newlin, perhaps the greatest travesty of the county’s history. It was a place my great-grandfather Sheriff John C. Sullivan certainly knew well, one that he was in and out of probably on a daily basis during his term in the 1890s. It symbolized all that he had sworn to uphold as well as the commitment of the community to honorable upholding law and fair order.

How must he have felt, then, looking at it after failing to protect Seymour Newlin from a lynch mob? I can’t imagine, but it’s nothing compared to what Newlin’s last moments must have been, or what the victim’s family thought—or any of the few African Americans of the community—as they passed this magnificent edifice dedicated to a justice that had been denied him by a rabid, vindictive crowd.

The law did not defend Newlin. Is there any defense for its failure? Can we, at least, learn something from that?

Seymour Newlin: Who Was He?

The newspapers of the day made him out to be a bad, bad man, a criminal recidivist who Picture3had spent several spells in jail. Worse: He was a black man.

But did he commit the crime he was accused of? We will never know, but one thing we know is, trumped up charges of rape lay behind many, many lynchings.

Odds are, given this cultural fact about lynchings, that Newlin was innocent.

The Sullivan Descendants

As all children do, I changed the stories I heard about my ancestors, changed them to make them conform to my vision of the world—or to what I wanted it to be.

My great-grandfather, I knew, had failed to stop a lynching. Out of very little information and a bit of conflation with another tale, and without ever thinking about it, I came up with a story explaining it by the time I was in early elementary school.

It was a story that satisfied my unconscious desire to see my great-grandfather in the best possible light—and my family, too.

There’s even a little bit of truth in the story, but it is truth manipulated to the advantage of my family, truth that, unfortunately, wiped out Seymour Newlin a second time.

The “Fake News” I Told Myself

Picture5Sheriff John Sullivan had captured a killer up near Indian Lake in rural Logan County, Ohio after tracking him for days.

The miscreant was white.

The criminal was taken back to Bellefontaine.

The sheriff housed him in the jail below his family’s living quarters.

A crowd gathered, demanding the prisoner, whose crime had been particularly heinous.

When the sheriff refused, he was told he, his wife and their two children would be burned out, for the torches carried would be used to light the building on fire.

With no alternative, the sheriff turned over the man, who was promptly lynched.

So What Was Wrong with My Story?

Picture6It’s a fairy tale:

Sullivan did track a man to Indian Lake, but he was not lynched.

Seymour Newlin was not he, and he WAS a black man—and he had a name.

Newlin was never taken to Bellefontaine but was held in Rushsylvania, some miles away.

Newlin was held in a makeshift jail, a “calaboose.”

The crowd was not spontaneous.

The sheriff had no children at the time, and his wife was not involved.

No one threatened to burn the jail, though someone was caught trying to plant dynamite.

The sheriff, faced with an unruly mob with little backing, retreated to Bellefontaine.

The men the sheriff tasked with guarding Newlin were unable to. He was taken from the calaboose and hanged from a cottonwood tree.

So, Why Did I Make Up a Story?

To be fair, I didn’t even know I was making it up. I believed it.

This was about 1960. The Civil Rights Movement was at its height and my family supported it. I didn’t want to complicate that.

I knew my great-grandfather had failed to protect a life and I wanted to make excuses for him.

I had no way of determining the truth. The internet did not exist, I had not seen the newspaper clippings I later obtained, and nobody I could ask had been alive at  the time.

And, frankly, I was scared of the truth. On some level, I knew I had concocted the story I believed and I did not want it challenged.

Oh, and I was a child, with the childish tendency to want to brag.

What About the Newspapers?

Picture8Why did they lie?

Or, were they simply reporting what they had heard?

All of the stories, after all, are pretty much the same.

Black rapist stories were a common excuse for racist action at the time, anyway, up to and including lynching.

Few white people would complain about one horrific crime as a response to another—certainly not if the first one was committed by an African American.

After all, the writers’ friends and audience had been involved, even if they weren’t, themselves. So it was best to not be too critical.

Thousands of whites had descended on Rushsylvania, a village of three or four hundred. These people bought newspapers.

They weren’t to be denied; these couldn’t be condemned by their own papers.

Picture10The newspaper writers were cowards, at best, who wrapped themselves in the story they were told, not willing to investigate further.

There are hints in the articles of an organization behind the mob, probably the Ku Klux Klan or an affiliated group. This would have been frightening.

The sheriff had backed down when faced with the mob. Why should newspaper writers be expected to do better?

Racism, then as now, was so deeply rooted in American culture, even in a northern county with very few African Americans, that the reporters were probably not even aware of their bias.

The striving toward “objectivity” that would grow in response to stories like these had not yet begun within journalism.

Few newspapers are willing to be crusaders. They prefer to reflect their culture rather than try to change it.

What They Said

THEY STRUNG HIM UP.

A NEGRO RAPIST LYNCHED AT RUSHSYLVANIA, O.

He Had Assaulted an Aged Woman—
Hanged to a Cottonwood Tree.

BELLEFONTAINE, O., April 16.–Seymour Newlin, a negro with a bad reputation, committed a criminal assault Saturday night upon an aged woman named Mrs. Knowles, living at Rushsylvania, Logan county, O. He, was captured yesterday morning, but when the Sheriff arrived from Bellefontaine to take charge of the prisoner a mob which had collected refused to give him up. The Sheriff summoned a posse, but still the mob would not yield. A call was then made upon the militia and a company left Bellefontaine late in the afternoon for the scene of the trouble.

The crowd of infuriated citizens at Rushsylvania were apprised of the departure of the military and long before their arrival were armed and massed around the calaboose to receive them, and when the company arrived at the building a hundred voices warned them that the citizens were determined that blood would flow before the prisoner would be surrendered and that any effort at force would be useless, as dynamite bombs were under the building and that the prisoner would be blown to atoms if a gun was fired.

Sheriff Sullivan then held a long parley with the leaders of the mob and it was finally decided that if Sheriff Sullivan would order the militia to Bellefontaine the citizens would guard the prisoner till morning and give him a hearing in Rushsylvania and that Sheriff Sullivan would make no further attempt to get the man until after the trial.

At 8:50 the mob made a raid on the calaboose. The building was overturned and the struggling negro quickly taken from it. A rope had been provided. a noose was put about the neck of the trembling wretch and he was dragged to a cottonwood tree about 150 yards distant. Very little was said and no opportunity was given to the prisoner to make a confession or statement. A dozen willing hands grasped the rope and the negro was swung into the air. As his body arose above the mob, the air was rent with the shouts of the men and women who had assembled to witness the lynching.

As soon as the work was finished the mob dispersed and quiet was restored.

Marion Was Represented.
Special to THE DISPATCH:

MARION, O., April 16.–A large number from here helped swell the crowd at Rushsylvania Sunday to witness the lynching of Seymour Newlin, colored, for ciminally assaulting Mr.s Ann Knowles. Over 2,000 people from this section of the country gathered at the village. A surging mass filled the streets all day.

Hold On!

How, then, can we know the truth, if we can’t trust the newspapers?

We explore. We conduct real research, something that goes far beyond looking through databases but…

How Do We Find the Truth?

Picture12We look at the cultures of the time. What general assumptions are reflected in the story?

We examine reactions to other events and what we know about them. Are they similar? How? Is there a pattern?

We look at ourselves, especially in relation to the people, the cultures and the events of the time.

We look at our own motives.

We watch for both too much agreement in our source documents as well as contradictory accounts.

We gather data and identify actors.

We create a story that fits what we know instead of what we want to believe. (This is a painful process and one that requires self-examination at every step.)

We keep in mind that ours is still a story, not actual truth, and that it will require changing the more we learn.

What Can We Safely Say About Newlin’s Lynching?

Something happened to Ann Knowles.

A black man, Seymour Newlin, was quickly accused.

A crowd gathered.

The sheriff was sent for.

He, or his men, discovered someone trying to arrange to blow up the building where Newlin was held but was blocked by the crowd when he tried to remove Newlin.

At an impasse with the crowd, the sheriff worked out an agreement that local people would guard Newlin until a judge could arrive the next day.

The sheriff and his men retreated from Rushsylvania to Bellefontaine.

The crown overwhelmed the guards and lynched Newlin.

So What Can We Safely Conclude?

There were people in Rushsylvania who objected, including at least the one guard the crowd subdued, but they weren’t enough to stop the mob. And they were not willing, for the most part, to risk their lives for Newlin.

Newlin was a black man who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even his supposed criminal record is suspect. Black men were frequently incarcerated on the flimsiest of charges: having been in jail said nothing then about a black man’s character any more than it does today.

This incident was part of a pattern of crime that should shame all white Americans, no matter if their ancestors participated in it, or something like it, or not.

It is also something we can learn from—if we look carefully and honestly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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