On this date in 1930, two black youths were lynched in Marion, Indiana for murdering a white man and raping his girlfriend.
(The rape allegation — although it, and not the homicide, seems to have been the thing that triggered the lynching — was subsequently withdrawn, and there were even rumors that the white girlfriend was a lover and confederate of one of the lynched men. It’s just one strand in the very human tapestry around the “last classic lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line” explored by Cynthia Carr in Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.)
Shipp, who is said to have confessed killing the white man, Claude Deeter, 23, of Fairmount, Ind., was hanged from an elm tree in the courthouse yard. Smith, whom the girl identified as her assailant, was thrown from a third floor window of the jail with a noose around his neck and strangled.
Reports of the crimes and confessions, published in Marion newspapers this afternoon, stirred this quiet community of 23,000 to intense excitement. There was no hint of the impending violence, however, until 8:30 p.m., when a motorcade of Deeter’s fellow townsmen arrived from Fairmount.
The Fairmount delegation, numbering about 100, gathered in the public square, openly displaying their guns and shouting for a lynching … The sheriff led his deputies to the front door, argued a moment with the leaders of the mob and then ordered the tear bombs thrown. Blinded, the lynchers fell back for a few minutes, but returned and began the sledge hammer siege which forced the jail doors within ten minutes. No shots were fired on either side.
Following the lynching the mob gathered in the square for an hour, some proposing to drive the 2,000 members of the Negro colony from the city and burn their dwellings. Peace officers from Indianapolis, Kokomo, Fort Wayne, and other towns were arriving however, and gradually the mob broke up.
The corpses hung in the square for hours, attracting throngs of gawkers — including a photographer able to snap this picture:
Teacher/poet Abel Meeropol ran across this photo of the Shipp-Smith lynching a few years later in a magazine, and it so “haunted” him — his word — that he penned the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit”. You know it from Billie Holiday‘s arresting vocal rendition.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Abel Meeropol was no passing sentimentalist himself, but a prolific left-wing activist. During the McCarthy years, he adopted the children of the Rosenbergs when the latter were electrocuted as Soviet spies. As faithfully as those two orphaned boys have carried the torch for their lost birth parents, they also still carry an adoptive surname: Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol.
A third person was almost lynched in the same Marion, Ind., incident, but 16-year-old James Cameron (sometimes called “Herbert” or “Robert” in the 1930 news reports) managed to convince the mob that he wasn’t involved. Just how he managed this feat and what he’d really been up to is another strand of Carr’s tapestry: many of the Marion blacks as well as whites she interviewed overtly mistrusted Cameron.
At any rate, the crowd let him off with a beating, and Cameron served time as an accessory to the crime.
After release, he became an anti-lynching activist in Indiana and, later, Wisconsin — where he founded a (since-shuttered) Black Holocaust Museum. He started several NAACP chapters.
Cameron was pardoned by Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh in 1993, and authored a memoir titled A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story.
In the more immediate aftermath, it was far from a given that this date’s effusion of summary justice wouldn’t cascade into a generalized racial pogrom.
As the Tribune article notes, the lynch mob mulled attacking the black community, ultimately dissuaded by the gradual arrival of lawmen. By the next day, the Indiana national guard had occupied Marion. The Tribune on Aug. 10 reported the town “peaceful to all outward appearances but acutely aware of an undercurrent of racial antagonism that it feared might flame into open warfare at any moment.”
Lest this seem a bit over-the-top, recall that all this went down just a few years since a lynch mob in Tulsa had metastasized into one of America’s most notorious race riots. The prospect of wholesale bloodletting was very real.
When the local attorney general and grand jury waved away the small matter of punishing mob leaders, several of whom were publicly known by name, Indianapolis attorney general (and Marion native) James M. Ogden drove up to town and personally filed indictments, to the fury of white residents.
“It was astonishing to see and feel the mob atmosphere that still prevailed nearly seven months after the murder,” wrote a correspondent for The Nation. Ogden’s deputies were “looked upon as enemies of the community, not only by the mob, but also by most of the court officials.” After all-white juries acquitted the first two people tried, the state dropped its remaining indictments.
The maelstrom of race and politics and history that emerged from that first fatal transaction — a brutal but banal Lover’s Lane heist — grew so far beyond the original cast of criminal and victim that they practically became secondary to the story.
On August 8, 1930, a wire story datelined Fairmount, Ind., ran in the Indianapolis Star (but not the Marion papers):
Deep regret that the negro slayers of their son Claude, were lynched in Marion last night by a mob, was expressed today by Mr. and Mrs. William Deeter, members of the Apostolic faith, a sect similar to the Quakers.
“God should have been the judge,” said the elderly Deeter. “They had no right to do it,” his wife assented.
Both are opposed to capital punishment and did not want to see the negroes put to death for their crime.