Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith

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Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930

Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were African-American men who were lynched on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana.


They had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the two men, and hanged them. When Abram Smith tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up by the rope, he was lowered and then his arms broken to prevent him from trying to free himself again. Police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16-year-old James Cameron, narrowly escaped lynching thanks to an unidentified participant who announced that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder.[1] A studio photographer, Lawrence Beitler, took a photograph of the dead bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a large crowd; thousands of copies of the photograph were sold.[2]

Later interviews[edit]

James Cameron stated in interviews that Shipp and Smith had, in fact, shot and killed Claude Deeter, a white man. Cameron claimed that he fled when he realized what was going on.

Mary Ball later testified that she had not been raped, contrary to the accusations against the three men.[3] The police accused all three men of murder and rape.[4]


In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York and the adoptive father of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, saw a copy of this photograph. Meeropol later said that the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired the poem "Strange Fruit". It was published in the New York Teacher and later in the magazine New Masses, in both cases under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. This poem became the text for the song of the same name, performed and popularized by Billie Holiday.[5][6] The song reached 16th place on the charts in July 1939.

In 1988, James Cameron founded and became director of America's Black Holocaust Museum, a museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dedicated to the history of lynching in the United States.[7]


  1. ^ The primary source for these events is A Time of Terror, which is an eyewitness account. Relevant passages are quoted in several of the external links, including photo notes from Without Sanctuary and Legends of America. Other accounts are in Lynching in the Heartland, listed in the Further reading section, above.
  2. ^ "Lawrence Beitler, a studio photographer, took this photo. For ten days and nights he printed thousands of copies, which sold for fifty cents apiece." from A Time of Terror, quoted in Legends of America, see previous note. See also Lynching in the Heartland, chapter 6 which discusses the photograph in detail.
  3. ^ in the 2001 Indiana University Oral History statement, reported by IDS news at this link
  4. ^ in the 2001 Indiana University Oral History statement by Cameron. This is also mentioned in pretty much all other accounts of the incident.
  5. ^ Holiday's autobiography credits her with co-authoring the song, but this PBS site credits the music as well as the words to Meeropol.
  6. ^ According to this PBS site.
  7. ^ The museum's founding date is given in the AP interview/article by Sharon Cohen, which appeared in the Standard-Times on February 17, 2003, and is quoted in the IDS interview, see above. Cameron's position as Founder and Director is also mentioned in the Little review cited earlier and in other sources.

Further reading[edit]

  • An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal (Harper and Brothers, 1944).
  • A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story by James Cameron (Black Holocaust Museum) (Black Classics Press, 1982). This book has an account of this lynching, by the man who escaped.
  • Lynching in the Heartland by James Madison (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). ISBN 0-312-23902-5.
  • Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen, Hilton Als, et al. (Twin Palms Publishers, 2000). Book corresponding to web site cited below.
  • The God Moment Principle by Alan D. Wright (Multnomah Books, 1999). ISBN 1-576-73579-4.

External links[edit]