Henry Smith (lynching victim)

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The lynching of Henry Smith, Paris, Texas, 1 February 1893

Henry Smith (1876-1 February 1893) was an American Negro who was lynched at the Paris Fairgrounds in Paris, Texas. Smith confessed to murdering the three-year-old daughter of a law enforcement officer in revenge for his having been beaten with a baton during an arrest. Smith escaped, but was recaptured after a nationwide manhunt. He was then returned to Paris, where he was turned over to a mob and lynched.


Henry Smith was a handyman in Paris, Texas. One day in early 1893, Smith was seen acting drunk and disorderly, Deputy Henry Vance was sent to arrest him. Smith resisted and Vance "was forced to use his club" to subdue him. Bystanders heard Smith repeatedly vowing revenge.

On Thursday, January 26, 1893, Henry Vance's three-year-old daughter disappeared from the front of the boarding house where her family lived. Witnesses said they saw Smith "picked up little Myrtle Vance ... and ... carry her through the central portion of the city. En route through the city he was asked by several persons what he was doing with the child."[1] One of the witnesses Smith spoke to was the mayor of Paris.[2] Smith claimed he was taking her to her mother or to the doctor.

Smith returned home Friday morning, and when his wife served him breakfast, she asked him about "that white child." He replied, "I ain't seen no white child, and don't have nothing to do with white folks." Smith left and was not seen again until he was captured in Arkansas.

Search and Discovery of Myrtle Vance's Body[edit]

About 2pm on Friday, a search party formed and and found the child's body in Gibson's pasture, covered by leaves. The three-year-old had been raped and her body was torn into pieces. The New York Times reported that the assailant had gripped her legs and "literally torn her asunder".

Manhunt and Capture[edit]

The search for the murderer captured public imagination, and railroad companies offered free transportation to anyone in the manhunt. Smith was tracked east through Reno, Texas and Detroit, Texas. On January 31 he was captured near his hometown in Hempstead County, Arkansas, at the unincorporated flag station, Clow, Arkansas, only 50 miles from the Texas border. Residents from Paris immediately identified him.

Initially denying any involvement in the murder, he finally confessed that night. He said he was drunk and was motivated by revenge against the child's father. After the brutal killing, he spent the night sleeping in the pasture next to Myrtle's mutilated body.

Return to Paris[edit]

The murder of Myrtle Vance was described by newspapers as the most atrocious killing in the history of Texas. Shortly after Smith's capture, local residents decided to take the law into their own hands, to make "the punishment fit the crime" and allow the victim's family to take part.

When the train transporting Smith arrived at Texarkana, Arkansas, it was met by a mob estimated at 5,000. A committee from Paris urged "that the prisoner not be molested by the Texarkana people, but that the guard be allowed to deliver him" to the citizens of Paris. The mob agreed.

When Smith realized what was awaiting him, he begged the policemen guarding him to protect him. They said that "it was not in the power of all the officers in Texas to save him ... they could not if they [wanted to] ... as they themselves were virtually prisoners in the hands of the committee from Paris." Smith asked his guards to shoot him and not turn him over to his victim's father.

Smith's train arrived in Paris at 1 PM on February 1. "A committee demanded Smith of [City Marshall] Shanklin. He told them that he could not. They pointed to the great multitude of armed, angry men, and told him those men were there to take Smith at all hazards. Seeing resistance was useless and there would be a bloody riot, Shanklin submitted and went away."

Although city officials and law enforcement officers claimed they were powerless to prevent the lynching, their actions suggest they had no desire to do so. The sheriff and mayor had ordered all the bars closed on the night before Smith's arrival and disorderly crowds were broken up. Schools were closed the day of his arrival.

The Execution[edit]

A large but orderly crowd of from 5,000 to 10,000 people packed into an area of as little as 400 sq yards (335 sq meters) took him from his captors and placed him on a prepared carnival float. They transported him through town and out to the Paris Fairgrounds on the prairie. There organizers had built a lynching scaffold, painted with the word "Justice".

Smith was tied up and tortured for 50 minutes by Henry Vance, his 15-year-old son, and Henry Vance's brother-in-law, who thrust hot iron brands into his flesh, from his feet and legs to his head. A February 2, 1893 article in the New York Sun reported, "Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd."

Finally, the crowd poured oil on Smith and set him on fire. According to some newspaper accounts, Smith remained alive during the burning. He was reported to have torn himself away from the post and fallen off the scaffolding, where he died. The crowd fought over the hot ashes to collect Smith's bones and teeth as souvenirs.[3]


Governor James S. Hogg[edit]

Shortly before Smith's arrival in Paris, Texas Governor James S. Hogg in Austin, Texas sent separate wires to the County Attorney in Paris and to local law enforcement urging them to prevent a lynching.

To the county attorney, Paris : Your conduct in having Smith arrested deserves special commendation. See that he has a fair trial in the courts to the end that he may he legally punished. Take all steps necessary to protect him from violence. This is due to your community and to the State.
To the sheriffs of Lamar and Bowie Counties : Use all lawful means to see that Henry Smith is protected from mob violence and is brought to trial for his crime before lawful authority. Mobs must not be permitted to try prisoners in Texas.

Sheriff D. S. Hammond of Lamar County wired the Governor back saying "I am helpless. Have no support." Lamar County Assistant Country Attorney E. A. McCuistion responded as well saying, "Officers are helpless. An enraged public stands waiting for the prisoner, who is expected at 1 o'clock."

The Governor responded to the Sheriff Hammond,

"If you need help call for it. By all means protect the majesty of the law and the honor of Texas and your people from committing murder."

And to ACA McCuistion he wrote,

"Wire those in charge of the prisoner not to bring him to Paris. Guard him safely and use every effort to prevent the mob from reaching him."

Sheriff Hammond, however, replied to the Governor, "Henry Smith has arrived and is in charge of from 5,000 to 10,000 enraged citizens. I am utterly helpless to protect him." Shortly afterward, ACA McCuistion wired the Governor, "All is over: death by hot iron torture-diabolical affair."

Governor Hogg was not done. He issued the following commands to the offices of the County Attorney and law enforcement offices:

"To the county attorney of Lamar County : Do your whole duty and prosecute every person engaged in the reported lynching of one Henry Smith, at Paris. By all means preserve the names of the offenders and witnesses to the end that the guilty parties may be prosecuted."
"To the sheriff of Lamar County, Paris, Texas : Discharge your sworn duty as an officer of the State faithfully and fearlessly. Promptly make complaint before the proper officers against every person known to have been engaged in the lynching of the negro, Henry Smith, at Paris, on yesterday, and report the names of all witnesses to the district and county attorney, to the end that all guilty persons may be effectively prosecuted."
"To N. P. Doak, district attorney, Clarksville, Texas : In the lynching of the negro, Henry Smith, in Paris, on yesterday, the laws of the State have been openly defied. Every good citizen is interested in maintaining and enforcing the laws of the la'ld. Either law and order or anarchy must prevail, and there can be no compromise or middle ground. Mob law in Texas must be stamped out. It is believed and expected that you will promptly, diligently and persistently inquire into and ascertain who are the guilty parties, and faithfully and fearlessly prosecute them. Any assistance needed will be promptly rendered."

The Paris Daily News argued that by the time Gov. Hogg started wiring officials (shortly before Smith's train was expected to arrive), it was not realistically possible to prevent what transpired even if the officials had wanted to. They opined that Gov. Hogg's commands were "looked upon as a joke. It is not believed that he means it. It is impossible to embody into a wired special to The News the various phases of public sentiment, all drifting in one direction."

But on February 6, Gov. Hogg sent an open letter to the Texas legislature urging them to stiffen the state laws against lynching including allowing the family of the victim to sue for damages, to make the local sheriff ineligible to run for re-election if a prisoner is taken from his custody and harmed, and to allow for changes of venue when there is a risk of mob violence. His letter concluded:

"When passion in its wild rush for blood overrides the law and tramples down the Constitution, a precedent for anarchy is set, marking the way for the destruction of this Government. Patriotic action on the line of wisdom and justice now becomes necessary to prevent its spread. Repeated overt criminal acts in this State have sounded the warning. The power rests with your honorable bodies to encourage anarchy by silence or to crush it by suitable action. Strengthen the laws, supply the means, and if the Executive fails to perform his duties fully, under all circumstances, then let him stand condemned as a criminal himself before the civilized world. "

The "Facts In The Case″ Tract[edit]

The Paris Daily News produced a tract entitled "The Facts in the Case of the Horrible Murder of Little Myrtle Vance and the Fearful Expiation at Paris, Texas February 1st, 1893". The copyright of the tract was signed over to Henry Vance and the proceeds of its sale were intended for the Vance family. It included photographs related to the murder and the lynching, official communications between Gov. Hogg and local Lamar County officials, and editorial comments (pro and con) from various newspapers.


  2. ^ "The Facts in the Case of the Horrible Murder of Little Myrtle Vance and the Fearful Expiation at Paris, Texas February 1st, 1893" Published by P.L. James, 1893, [2]
  3. ^ "TORTURE IN TEXAS. Savage Cruelty Visited Upon a Negro Miscreant. PUT TO AN EXCRUCIATING DEATH," Aurora Daily Express, February 2, 1893, [3]

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