Oh Say Can You See? III: 2 “The United States of Lyncherdom”

Series: Oh Say Can You See? III
Entry 2: “The United States of Lyncherdom”

Click here to go to the beginning of the Oh Say Can You See III series

America’s all-time favorite writer has long been, arguably, Mark Twain (his pen name, of course—he was born “Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” but by the end of his life even he referred to himself all the time as Mark Twain.) Is there hardly anyone in the country over the age of 12, 100+ years after his death, who doesn’t recognize the name “Tom Sawyer”?

tom sawyer

Many of his creations were turned into movies and TV shows and cartoons, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was first made into a silent movie in 1910, then reprised numerous times on the big and small screen over the years, including:

19211921 yankee

19311931 yankee


1949 yankee

1989 (with Emma Samms as Guinevere)

1989 yankee

He wrote many books and essays, and even though some, including Tom Sawyer, have been generally marketed to a young audience, even those dealt consistently with very “mature themes.”

Twain was born in 1835, died in 1910, and wrote Tom Sawyer in 1876 when he was 41. Here he is shortly before the period in which he wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and when his reputation was that of a “humorist.”

twain 1871

It was a long time before I realized that as he aged, both he and his writings became more morose and much “edgier.”

Many folks have compared the “arc” of his career to that of George Carlin, who started out on TV with cheerful skits about “Al Sleet, your Hippy Dippy Weatherman” …

al sleet

… and out the other end of his life became a seriously cantankerous old man performing scathing social commentary.


Actually, it is an apt comparison, as Twain traveled the country at times giving talks that were very obviously the granddaddy of “stand-up comedy routines.”

Throughout my youth I’d read Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, and Connecticut Yankee, and the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and a number of other essays and short stories by Twain. I really enjoyed his sardonic, sarcastic, witty style. So when I ran across in the library, in about 1962 at age 16, a book by him titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, I eagerly checked it out, thinking it would be a tongue-in-cheek satire.

1896 joan of arc

Mark Twain’s work on Joan of Arc is titled in full, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, who is identified further as Joan’s page and secretary. The fictional work is presented as a translation from a manuscript by Jean Francois Alden, or, in the words of the published book, “Freely Translated out of the Ancient French into Modern English from the Original Unpublished Manuscript in the National Archives of France”.

Originally, Mark Twain’s work was published as a serialization in Harper’s Magazine beginning in 1895 and it was published in book form during 1896. At Twain’s request, Harper’s Magazine published it anonymously to avoid expectations for it to be humorous. [Wiki]

harpers 1895

I wish his name had been left off the edition I read—for I really was expecting it to be “humorous.” It was not. It was the most emotionally draining and devastating thing I had ever read…up to the point of reading a book about the Holocaust in 1972. He didn’t even describe the actual “burning at the stake” of Joan at the end of the book… just her inner turmoil leading right up to it. That was more than enough to leave the reader shattered.

About a week ago, I ran across another literary creation by Mark Twain, written in 1901, five years after the publication of Joan of Arc. I should have been forewarned by my experience with that book. But I wasn’t, and thus I wasn’t braced for the emotional impact of his words in this essay. I will not burden you with the whole essay, just selected parts of it. You can read the whole thing at the link if you wish. If Twain and Carlin were both alive today and had a Battle of the Curmudgeons, I’m convinced Twain would win—and Carlin would be proud to crown him.

Just to set the stage…Twain had been born in Hannibal, Missouri. The setting for some of his stories, such as Tom Sawyer, was the Missouri he remembered from his youth. But he hadn’t lived there since he was 18.


“The United States of Lyncherdom”

Mark Twain, 1901

And so Missouri has fallen, that great state! Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of us….

Oh, Missouri!

The tragedy occurred near Pierce City, down in the southwestern corner of the state. On a Sunday afternoon a young white woman who had started alone from church was found murdered. For there are churches there; in my time religion was more general, more pervasive, in the South than it was in the North, and more virile and earnest, too, I think; I have some reason to believe that this is still the case. The young woman was found murdered. Although it was a region of churches and schools the people rose, lynched three negroes–two of them very aged ones–burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods.

…Lynching has reached Colorado, it has reached California, it has reached Indiana–and now Missouri! I may live to see a negro burned in Union Square, New York, with fifty thousand people present, and not a sheriff visible, not a governor, not a constable, not a colonel, not a clergyman, not a law-and-order representative of any sort.

“Increase in Lynching.–In 1900 there were eight more cases than in 1899, and probably this year there will be more than there were last year. The year is little more than half gone, and yet there are eighty-eight cases as compared with one hundred and fifteen for all of last year. The four Southern states, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi are the worst offenders. Last year there were eight cases in Alabama, sixteen in Georgia, twenty in Louisiana, and twenty in Mississippi–over one-half the total. This year to date there have been nine in Alabama, twelve in Georgia, eleven in Louisiana, and thirteen in Mississippi–again more than one-half the total number in the whole United States.–Chicago Tribune.”

Twain goes on to scathingly evaluate aspects of American society which he insists have contributed to this epidemic of lynchings. And toward the end, he suggests a “solution”:

…Let us import American missionaries from China, and send them into the lynching field. With 1,500 of them out there converting two Chinamen apiece per annum against an uphill birth rate of 33,000 pagans per day, it will take upward of a million years to make the conversions balance the output and bring the Christianizing of the country in sight to the naked eye; therefore, if we can offer our missionaries as rich a field at home at lighter expense and quite satisfactory in the matter of danger, why shouldn’t they find it fair and right to come back and give us a trial?

The Chinese are universally conceded to be excellent people, honest, honorable, industrious, trustworthy, kind-hearted, and all that–leave them alone, they are plenty good enough just as they are; and besides, almost every convert runs a risk of catching our civilization. We ought to be careful. We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again. We have not been thinking of that. Very well, we ought to think of it now. Our missionaries will find that we have a field for them–and not only for the 1,500, but for 15,011. Let them look at the following telegram and see if they have anything in China that is more appetizing. It is from Texas:

“The negro was taken to a tree and swung in the air. Wood and fodder were piled beneath his body and a hot fire was made. Then it was suggested that the man ought not to die too quickly, and he was let down to the ground while a party went to Dexter, about two miles distant, to procure coal oil. This was thrown on the flame and the work completed.”

We implore them to come back and help us in our need. Patriotism imposes this duty on them. Our country is worse off than China; they are our countrymen, their motherland supplicates their aid in this her hour of deep distress. They are competent; our people are not. They are used to scoffs, sneers, revilings, danger; our people are not. They have the martyr spirit; nothing but the martyr spirit can brave a lynching mob, and cow it and scatter it. They can save their country, we beseech them to come home and do it.

We ask them to read that telegram again, and yet again, and picture the scene in their minds, and soberly ponder it; then multiply it by 115, add 88; place the 203 in a row [the number of recorded lynchings in the US the year before], allowing 600 feet of space for each human torch, so that there be viewing room around it for 5,000 Christian American men, women, and children, youths and maidens; make it night for grim effect; have the show in a gradually rising plain, and let the course of the stakes be uphill; the eye can then take in the whole line of twenty-four miles of blood-and-flesh bonfires unbroken, whereas if it occupied level ground the ends of the line would bend down and be hidden from view by the curvature of the earth.

All being ready, now, and the darkness opaque, the stillness impressive–for there should be no sound but the soft moaning of the night wind and the muffled sobbing of the sacrifices–let all the far stretch of kerosened pyres be touched off simultaneously and the glare and the shrieks and the agonies burst heavenward to the Throne. There are more than a million persons present; the light from the fires flushes into vague outline against the night the spires of five thousand churches.

O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!

A July, 2008, issue of Time magazine, with Twain on the cover, discussed his career. And at one point it refers to the essay quoted from above:

time 2008

Then there’s the long essay Twain produced in 1901, “The United States of Lyncherdom.” This is not a single-minded polemic. It registers the horror of lynchings but also undertakes to empathize with people who attended them. Their motivation, Twain argued, is not inhuman viciousness but “man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side. Its other name is Moral Cowardice, and is the commanding feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000 …”

As a remedy, Twain proposed, tongue in cheek, that sheriffs might be dispatched to communities where a lynching was about to take place. If they could rally enough citizens to oppose the hideous deed, that would make the anti-lynching position the new conventional wisdom that everyone would flock to conform to. But a problem–where to find enough sheriffs? Why not draft them from among the Christian missionaries spreading the malady of Western civilization in China? (Missionaries were a favorite target for Twain.) In China, he told his readers, “almost every convert runs a risk of catching our civilization … We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again … O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!”

There is something upsetting, off-balancing, about “The United States of Lyncherdom” that has kept it alive all these years. It’s against lynching, all right, but it seems to take more of an interest in being against righteousness. It makes you wonder whether you yourself, possibly, or let’s say your grandmother, might have appeared, smiling, in a photograph of a lynch mob. And just as you’re about to block out that queasiness, Twain slams in a snippet of what a particularly despicable lynching (in Texas, as it happened) was like. Oh, God. (The man was slow-roasted to death over a coal-oil fire.) And then, when he starts taking off on the missionaries? I don’t know that I want to express this opinion. But there’s no getting around it: it’s funny.

Not only was “The United States of Lyncherdom” politically incorrect, it still is. It blames one of the most shameful aspects of American history on moral correctness, the herd mentality that prevailed among Americans who regarded themselves as right thinking. Twain decided that the country, or at least his readership, was not ready for that essay. It wasn’t published until 1923, when Twain’s literary executor slipped it, hedgily edited, into a posthumous collection. Not until 2000 did it appear in its original form, and then in an obscure, scholarly publication. It takes a genius to strike the funny bone in a way that can still smart nearly 100 years later.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1820166,00.html#ixzz2KbMl9Fnp

Yes, even the sarcastic, sardonic Mark Twain couldn’t bring himself to put this essay in print. As he told his publisher, if he published the essay—and continued plans for a multi-volume history of lynching in the US he had in mind!—he would not have “even half a friend left” in the South.

So he … backed down. A shame. Because things went downhill from that time. So that by five years later Missouri was the scene of the infamous …

Easter Offering

One hundred and five years ago [1906], on the night before Easter, a mob in Springfield, Missouri broke into the Greene County jail, carried three prisoners to the city square, and lynched them for the alleged assault of a white woman. The murder of the three men quickly became known as the “Easter Offering.” The lynchings made the front page of newspapers across the nation and faded only with news of a terrible earthquake which leveled the west coast city of San Francisco.  [Historicjoplin.org]

A 2006 article in the Springfield News Leader tells some of the details starting with:

…the day Mina Edwards took a buggy ride with Charles Cooper.

Edwards, a 20-year-old white woman, had recently left her husband. She had been in and out of Springfield for about a month, seeking work. On April 13, 1906 — Good Friday — Edwards met up with Cooper, 22, whom she described as an “old friend.” What happened after that is unknown.

A story in the next morning’s paper said Cooper told Springfield Police he and Edwards were attacked at Phelps Street and Main Avenue, by two black men in masks. The attackers, he said, had knocked him unconscious and robbed him, dragged Edwards to a nearby pasture and raped her.

Saturday morning, police arrested Horace Duncan, a black man Cooper said he recognized — despite the masks he had said his attackers wore — and Fred Coker, simply because the two had been together Friday night. Twenty years old, Duncan had never been in trouble with the law. He lived with his parents and worked with his lifelong friend, Fred Coker, at the Pickwick Livery and Transfer Co. Coker, 21, lived with his grandfather, King Coker, a respected leader in the black community.

horace duncan

Duncan and Coker were taken to the city jail as suspects in the attack. They were set free after their white employer came and said they’d been at work at the time of the attack, loading stage sets several blocks away at the Baldwin Theater. After Duncan and Coker were released, Cooper filed a robbery complaint, claiming Duncan had stolen his watch.

Duncan and Coker were re-arrested Saturday evening on robbery charges. They were taken to the county jail, which stood behind the sheriff’s residence on North Robberson, near the current site of the Greene County Commission building.

Rumors of a lynch mob persisted throughout the day. Sheriff Horner dispatched his deputies around town to check the peace. Despite assurances that all was quiet, a large group of men and boys gathered at the city jail by nightfall, looking for Duncan and Coker. Convinced the two were not inside, the rowdy crowd headed back to the square and up Boonville.

Sheriff Horner met the crowd at the door threatening to fire into it if the men did not disperse. The mob of hundred responded with jeers and fired their own guns into the air, storming the jail’s doors and window with tools. After some time, the mob broke through the jail door and into the cells, beating and binding Duncan and Coker, who were dragged down Boonville to the square by a mob of now 2,000.

Sheriff Horner later testified that no city police — save one who happened to be walking near the jail — responded to telephoned pleas for back-up.

In 1906, Gottfried Tower, a metal structure several stories high, stood at the center of the square, with a wooden bandstand 12 feet up.

springfield square

Duncan and Coker were taken to the foot of this tower, where the crowd had grown to an estimate 3,000. Ropes were placed around their necks. One by one, the men were hoisted into the air.

Boxes and kindling were then piled beneath the tower. The hanging bodies were doused in coal oil, and all was lit afire. Flames soon burned through the ropes, and the bodies fell into the fire below.

The mob, “Overcome with their orgy and filled with exultant frenzy over their success,” said the Springfield Republican, returned to the county jail, where they found most other prisoners had escaped, including one suspected of the Confederate veteran’s murder. Another suspect, Will Allen, remained locked in his cell. He was soon broken out and marched to the square.

On the bandstand, Allen was given a mock trial as Duncan and Coker’s remains smoldered below. He proclaimed his innocence. The crowd shouted “Hang him.” A rope was produced, and Allen, too, was doused in coal oil. Some accounts claim Allen jumped from the bandstand. Others claim he was pushed. All agree his neck broke before the rope snapped and he fell into the embers. Allen’s body was rehung on the tower, then burned with the others.

Mayor-elect James Blain mounted the tower and said, “Men, you have done enough. You have had your revenge. You would better go home.” The crowd dispersed, taking bits of rope, clothing and bone as souvenirs.

And thus was the “Easter Offering”…

Easter morning brought thousands of onlookers to the square. White men, women and children, dressed in Easter finery, flocked to the charred bandstand, where lively talk continued all day.

Black folks, however, were scarce on public streets, although some quietly went to church. Newspapers reported the train station was crowded with blacks, ready to leave town, while others left by wagon or on foot. Personal accounts tell of others seeking protection on the outskirts of town, or in the homes of compassionate white residents.

As rumors of further violence arose, the mayor sent out a call for volunteer policemen. He had 150 men deputized. Sheriff Horner telephoned the governor, who dispatched five companies of the Missouri National Guard to restore the peace in Springfield.

The first troops, including a 22-man company from Pierce City, arrived by train late Sunday night. The 66 soldiers were met by the police chief and a crowd of hecklers, who followed the troops as they marched to the square. At one point, the soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets on their Krag-Jorgensen rifles. Sheriff Horner met the troops on the square and declared, from Gottfried Tower, that the city was under martial law — the first time since the Civil War. The troops remained in Springfield for a week, camping on the square and in a field adjacent to the county jail.

The lynching was recounted in newspapers across the country, though it fell off the front pages later that week, when San Francisco was destroyed by earthquake and fire.

So were there repercussions for ANYONE involved in this insanity?


A judge called a grand jury and summoned dozens of witnesses and suspected leaders of the mob. Edwards and Cooper could not be found for questioning.

The grand jury reported that Duncan and Coker were not guilty of assault.

It declared Sheriff Horner had done all in his power to stop the violence. The police department, on the other hand, “seemed to have no appreciation of their duties and responsibilities as officers of the law,” the grand jury report read.

In all, 18 men identified as leaders of the mob were indicted for the lynching, with charges ranging from murder in the first degree to perjury. Included was former policeman Jesse Brake. Several others had connections to the police department and the Democratic party.

It took several weeks to seat a jury for the first trial, in which blacksmith “Doss” Galbraith, was tried for murder. The jury selected included some of Galbraith’s friends.

The trial was held in August, in a courthouse overlooking the square. Despite grand jury testimony, white witnesses could not place Galbraith at the lynching, while black witnesses claimed to have seen him carrying a human skull, with some flesh attached, Easter morning.

After 24 hours of deliberation, the jury was still was hung, voting 10 to 2 for acquittal.

Charges against the other suspects were eventually dropped.

So there you have it. Three thousand or so witnesses, but nothing to base any “justice” on.

But the Easter Offering lived on. Here’s the answer to a question in the 2006 article:

Q: Were the lynchings celebrated in souvenir coins?

A: Yes. At least two versions of a silver dollar-size coin were minted, stamped with the date and Springfield, Mo. One reads “Easter offering: 3 negroes burned on the square.” The other uses more disparaging language. The History Museum of Springfield-Greene County has a coin in its archive. It’s not available for public viewing.

“O kind missionary, O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!”

But none came. And the epidemic continued.  For 30+ more years. Oh, I have no doubt many people across the country read the newspaper reports with horror. Many HAD to have recognized this kind of spectacle for what it was…utter insanity. On a mass scale. We are not talking a few dozen “Ku Klux Klansmen” wrapped in white robes in some dark holler down in the Deep South doing clandestine acts. We are talking thousands of citizens strolling out of church in their Easter finery, children in tow…looking like these little girls on this 1907 Easter Card in their finery…

1907 easter dresses

…coming to check out the scene of human sacrifice! (In the town square of a place now known as the Queen City of the Ozarks and the Birthplace of Route 66.)

And hanging out to look over the charred debris and chat with the neighbors about the events of the day before…before they take the kiddies home from church to see what the Easter Bunny brought them.  And open their jolly Easter cards from friends and family. Like this one from that exact time period. (Its copyright is 1907.)

easter card

By the way…Did you catch the irony in the picture of the tower in the Springfield town square? It is capped with a small version of the Statue of Liberty. That irony was not lost on a cartoonist of the time from the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper, as seen in this reproduction distributed by the historical society of modern Joplin, Missouri.

springfield easter offering

But WAIT! Shouldn’t we just sweep all this information under the rug? Why remind anyone that these things happened? After all, we can’t go back and undo the events. And—this all makes America LOOK BAD! Wouldn’t True Patriotism insist we “accentuate the positive” and “ignore the negative” as we pass on our country’s history to future generations?

I hear that kind of thinking a lot from folks. What amazes me is that if you bring up just about anything else in most of history—how the Germans treated the Jews; how the Japanese tortured our troops in WW2; how the ancient Aztecs indulged in human sacrifices; how the ancient—pre-American—Hawaiians also indulged in human sacrifices; how the Romans treated Christians in the first century—all of that is valid history. To be preserved and passed down to our children. And we complain if countries like Germany or Japan would write “revisionist” history books for their children that would downplay the dark parts of their past. Bring it all out in the open, we say. They need to face it, and make sure their children know what happened … so it never happens again. That’s what “memorials” are often all about.

But something weird happens when we get to American History. Then Mass Amnesia is the preference of many.

I believe that mass amnesia is harmful to those who have it. There ARE lessons to be learned from all these events that are under discussion. Knowing about them CAN change our country and future generations for the better. If those lessons aren’t clear to you yet, I hope they will be by the time this series is over.

I have had a personal “saying” for many years, that covers a wide variety of topics. It is: “You cannot really understand what I understand—until you know what I know.” I don’t want to just toss out my “opinions” on current events and prophecy in a vacuum. Readers can totally misunderstand my perspective—if they don’t know the vantage point from which I see that perspective. I invite you to learn more about the “things I’ve seen” in history so that you can add them to your own vantage point. You may be surprised in the end to find that your perspective may change to become much closer to mine.

If you’re willing to continue this journey of discovery, then read the next entry in this series:

Heartland, USA

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8 Responses to Oh Say Can You See? III: 2 “The United States of Lyncherdom”

  1. Pingback: Oh Say Can You See? III: 2 “The United States of Lyncherdom” | Currently StaRRing …

  2. Chilling… and thoroughly gut-wrenching. Thanks for the balanced historical perspective, Pam!

  3. Todd Sauve says:

    “But WAIT! Shouldn’t we just sweep all this information under the rug? Why remind anyone that these things happened? After all, we can’t go back and undo the events. And—this all makes America LOOK BAD! Wouldn’t True Patriotism insist we “accentuate the positive” and “ignore the negative” as we pass on our country’s history to future generations?”

    Yes Pam, that is what passes for “patriotism” amongst the vast majority of people. But God just calls that what it really is: IDOLATRY!

  4. sharpeningman says:

    Twain did speak out against American atrocities in the Philippines, a country he argued we had no business being in.

    • Yes, he did, and his biting comments will be included in a future blog entry when I get to that topic. 🙂

      • Lee Davis says:

        Could it be that “American atrocities in the Philippines” inspired the War Prayer. Is short and very much worth reading though it may not fit into your present work. The War Prayer sure puts some light on the unintended consequences of praying for victory in war.

      • Yes, I am quite sure that the Philippine situation was indeed the inspiration for Twain’s The War Prayer! He was dead set against American Imperialism, and particularly disturbed about the Philippine horrors, including the Victorian version of water boarding. Thanks for bringing it up–I hadn’t thought of that piece by Twain in a long time, and will indeed find use for it soon. After this series, I will be going into material related directly to it.

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