Posts filed under 'Indiana'

1930: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, strange fruit

1 comment August 7th, 2011 Headsman

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— although it, and not the homicide, seems to have been the thing that triggered the lynching — was subsequently withdrawn, and there were even rumors that the white girlfriend was a lover and confederate of one of the lynched men.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.)

Thomas Shipp and Abram (or Abraham) Smith had been taken just the day before. The Chicago Daily Tribune (Aug. 8, 1930), for whom this event was banner news, reported that

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Indiana,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Lynching,Mature Content,Murder,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1903: Ora Copenhaver and William Jackson, a double hanging

1 comment June 12th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1903, there was a double hanging at the state prison in Michigan City, Indiana: William Jackson, a black man, and Ora E. Copenhaver, who was white.

According to the Indianapolis Star‘s history of capital punishment in Indiana, they were the seventh and eighth persons to be executed since Indiana adopted the death penalty in 1897. Ora (sometimes called “Orie” in press reports) was twenty-six years old at the time of his death; Jackson was forty-five. Copenhaver had murdered his wife (unnamed in the press reports) in Indianapolis on September 7 the previous year:

Shortly before their dinner hour on the day of the tragedy Copenhaver called his wife to the door and without a warning or giving her any inkling of his intent, drew a revolver from his pocket and fired four shots at her, three of which took effect […] Copenhaver, after shooting his wife, calmly walked to a neighboring store and telephoned to the police station, informing the desk sergeant that a murder had been committed. He then awaited the coming of the police and surrendered himself. Jealousy was ascribed as the motive for the deed.

Justice was swift and without mercy: Copenhaver was convicted by a jury of his peers on October 15, a mere 38 days after the shooting. He was formally sentenced on October 28, and the sentence was carried out seven and a half months after that. The Fort Wayne News called the murder “dastardly” and praised the death sentence. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, citing an unnamed “authentic source,” claimed that in the weeks before his death Copenhaver feigned insanity in an effort to evade his punishment. Yet he was calm and ready when the moment came.

Little information can be found about Jackson, described as “an Evansville Negro.”

On some unspecified date in 1902, he killed his coworker, a night watchman named Allan Blankenship, at a mill in Melrose, Indiana. He also robbed his victim of the princely sum of $3.90. Contemporary reports state Jackson seemed “wholly indifferent” about his sentence and spent most of the last day of his life reading the Bible. He had no last words.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Indiana,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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2001: Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City bomber

14 comments June 11th, 2008 Headsman

At 7:14 a.m. on this date in 2001, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

More ink has been spilled about the 33-year-old Gulf War veteran and his infamous crime than this space can possibly hope to summarize. Books can be — and have been — written debating whence McVeigh sprang and whether he was rightly convicted.

McVeigh tended to keep coy about his version of his activities on April 19, 1995,* but he was never less than frank about his philosophy.

Though his avowed motive, the Waco slaughter that occurred two years to the day before Oklahoma City, has never exactly been secret, the way he’s connected those events has also never been particularly welcome. And McVeigh would say that the fact that he suffered execution while the only parties punished in the Waco siege were the survivors makes his point.

For all its moral monstrosity, the Gulf War veteran’s critique of his violent actions vis-a-vis those the state claims legitimacy for makes discomfiting reading, and is not always so easy to answer. From our distance of time, knowing that three months after McVeigh’s execution another terrorist act to beggar Oklahoma City would propel the United States back into Iraq, it strikes eerily prescient notes.

In a 1998 essay, McVeigh savaged the government for its hypocritical posture towards the country he had once fought, Iraq:

The administration has said that Iraq has no right to stockpile chemical or biological weapons (“weapons of mass destruction”) — mainly because they have used them in the past.

Well, if that’s the standard by which these matters are decided, then the U.S. is the nation that set the precedent. The U.S. has stockpiled these same weapons (and more) for over 40 years. The U.S. claims that this was done for deterrent purposes during the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. Why, then is it invalid for Iraq to claim the same reason (deterrence) — with respect to Iraq’s (real) war with, and the continued threat of, its neighbor Iran?

If Saddam is such a demon, and people are calling for war crimes charges and trials against him and his nation, why do we not hear the same cry for blood directed at those responsible for even greater amounts of “mass destruction” — like those responsible and involved in dropping bombs on [Dresden, Hanoi, Tripoli, Baghdad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki]?

The truth is, the use of a truck, a plane, or a missile for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction does not alter the nature of the act itself.

These are weapons of mass destruction — and the method of delivery matters little to those on the receiving end of such weapons.

Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City. The only difference is that this nation is not going to see any foreign casualties appear on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

It seems ironic and hypocritical that an act viciously condemned in Oklahoma City is now a “justified” response to a problem in a foreign land.

Another note sent shortly before his execution to author Gore Vidal travestied government warmaking talking points:

[T]his bombing was also meant as a pre-emptive (or pro-active) strike against those forces and their command and control centers within the federal building. When an aggressor force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operations, it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy. Additionally, borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment.

He broadcast clinical detachment in the execution itself — the first conducted by the federal government since 1963, technically imposed for the eight federal employees among his 168 victims — from his waiver of appeals to his unnervingly unblinking death mask to the stoic 19th century poem “Invictus” that formed his written (and only) final statement.

* Also — coincidentally or not — the execution date of Richard Snell in Arkansas, a militia man (and white supremacist, which McVeigh was not) who had once tried to blow up the Murrah building himself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Indiana,Infamous,Lethal Injection,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Oklahoma,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Soldiers,U.S. Federal,USA,Volunteers

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