Henry Smith (lynching victim)

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

Henry Smith (1876 – February 1, 1893) was an African American teenager who was lynched in Paris, Texas. Smith confessed to raping and murdering the four-year-old daughter[1] 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 burned at the stake.

His lynching was covered by The New York Times and attracted national publicity.[2][3]

Background[edit]

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.[citation needed] Bystanders heard Smith repeatedly vowing revenge.[citation needed]

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." One of the witnesses Smith spoke to was the mayor of Paris. Smith claimed he was taking her to her mother or to the doctor.[4][citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Search and discovery of Myrtle Vance's body[edit]

About 2:00 p.m. on Friday, January 27, 1893, a search party formed at the courthouse and found the child's body covered by leaves in Gibson's pasture. Rumor spread that the victim had suffered severe injuries from rape and physical mutilation. But an investigation by journalist Ida B. Wells revealed this to be untrue:

"As a matter of fact, the child was not brutally assaulted as the world has been told in excuse for the awful barbarism of that day. Persons who saw the child after its death, have stated, under the most solemn pledge to truth, that there was no evidence of such an assault as was published at that time, only a slight abrasion and discoloration was noticeable and that mostly about the neck."[1]

Wells continued, "It was a brutal murder, but no more brutal than hundreds of murders which occur in this country, and which have been equalled every year in fiendishness and brutality, and for which the death penalty is prescribed by law and inflicted only after the person has been legally adjudged guilty of the crime."[1] Neither physical evidence nor eyewitness testimony against Henry Smith was ever presented, nor was Smith afforded the opportunity to defend himself in a trial. The accusation, arrest, condemnation, and execution of Smith happened entirely outside of the legal system.

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 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. Search party members from Paris immediately identified him.

Initially denying any involvement in the murder, Smith finally confessed on the train to Paris. He said he was drunk and was motivated by revenge against the child's father. Smith said he spent the night sleeping in the pasture next to the dying child, killing her by suffocation when he awoke the next morning.[citation needed]

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.[1]

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.[citation needed]

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."[citation needed]

The city's mayor 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.[citation needed]

Lynching[edit]

A large crowd of from 5,000 to 15,000 people packed into an area of as little as 400 sq yards (335 sq meters), took Smith from his captors and placed him on a mule cart. They paraded him through town[1] and to an open stretch of prairie between the cemetery and railroad tracks. There, organizers had built a 10-foot scaffold painted with the word "Justice."[5]

Smith was tied up and tortured for 50 minutes[1] by Henry Vance, his 15-year-old son, and his brothers-in-law. The men placed hot irons under Smith's feet, then burned his trunk[6] and limbs before eventually gouging his eyes. 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 the scaffold 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 sifted through the ashes to collect Smith's bones and shards of wood as souvenirs.[7]

Aftermath[edit]

Governor James S. Hogg[edit]

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

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."

Hogg then 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.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Wells, Ida. The Red Record. 
  2. ^ "ANOTHER NEGRO BURNED; HENRY SMITH DIES AT THE STAKE. DRAWN THROUGH THE STREETS ON A CAR -- TORTURED FOR NEARLY AN HOUR WITH HOT IRONS AND THEN BURNED -- AWFUL VENGEANCE OF A PARIS (TEXAS) MOB" The New York Times, February 1, 1893, [1]
  3. ^ "Burned at the Stake: A Black Man Pays for a Town's Outrage". historymatters.gmu.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-19. 
  4. ^ "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]
  5. ^ Gittings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions. p. 249. 
  6. ^ Williamson, Joel. The Crucible of Race. p. 186. .
  7. ^ "TORTURE IN TEXAS. Savage Cruelty Visited Upon a Negro Miscreant. PUT TO AN EXCRUCIATING DEATH," Aurora Daily Express, February 2, 1893, [3]

Further reading[edit]

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