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— although it, and not the homicide, seems to have been the thing that triggered the lynching — was subsequently withdrawn, and there were even rumors that the white girlfriend was a lover and confederate of one of the lynched men.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

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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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1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism”

June 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.

Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.

Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?

A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.

“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”

Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.

The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?

[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.

It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.

A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.

No longer operative.

The Communist Party USA enjoyed membership rolls pushing six figures; other socialist parties and movements had found niches in American life in the interwar years.

As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.

Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:

We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.

Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.

Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.

Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.

Abjure or expire: show trial logic.

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An Execution in the Family

Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)

Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:

Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.

Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡

Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.

* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.

** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.

Stateside, George Koval was another spy far more valuable to Moscow in the nuclear race than were the Rosenbergs. Koval got away clean and died in Moscow in 2006.

† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.

‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Spies,U.S. Federal,USA,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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