"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Friday, July 16, 2004
lynch law Function: noun
Etymology: William Lynch died 1820 American vigilante
1 : the punishment of presumed crimes or offenses usually by death without due process of law
2 : a far too normal occurrence in the deep southern United States 80 years ago
(Aside from some artistic license I've taken, the below story is true. It happened to my great grandfather, who was a policeman in the small South Carolina town of Cowards, sometime during the early 1900's. )
I've always imagined it to be one of those cold October nights, lit by a crisp moon and whipped by stiff fall gusts that rattled the piles of dead leaves in the moonlight, making them sound like the whispers of dried bones among the barren trees. It was a bad night for almost anything, unless it involved staying inside next to a warm fire behind drawn curtains and locked shutters.
Harold was not lucky tonight. He creaked along in his wagon with his cargo, which was bound and gagged in the back. He was headed to the Florence County jailhouse, the only one in the area that could possibly offer protection. Not for the victim or the public, you understand, but for the criminal.
Harold wished he had one of those automobiles he had seen. Bigger places already had them. Every so often one would drive through town, but the police department didn't have the money for one and certainly Harold didn't. If he had an auto, this trip would only take, well, a couple of hours, tops. With this horse and wagon, he would not get home to his wife and kids until tomorrow.
He looked over his shoulder in the moonlight, letting his horse set his own pace. The prisoner lay there, curled up and trussed like a steer at one of those rodeos he had heard about. He could see fury in the man's eyes.
Then he remembered that the man had been caught in the act of committing the crime, so Harold had no real pity for him. The man was a peeping tom, and he had picked the wrong window to peep into that night. Especially since he was a black man, and had been caught peeping into the house of a white lady.
Those sorts of things were not taken lightly in small towns in South Carolina, no not at all. The man would certainly do a bit of jail time, if the other prisoners didn't beat him to death first.
Harold turned his attention back to the road, idly watching the horse plod ahead as he remembered what had happened only a few months before. It was in this same area, and that's what brought it to mind, that a person had tied someone to the train tracks. Harold had to walk for miles, all the way to Florence, picking up the pieces.
It was going to be late by the time he got the prisoner to Florence. He hoped he could still find a room, and maybe some dinner. He had called ahead to let them know he was coming so they could check in the prisoner, perhaps they had thought about setting some food aside for him at the jailhouse. He hoped so.
Harold was about halfway to Florence now. He was in one of those areas where you are a long way from anywhere, where you could not see a single lantern or candlelit window, and you might wait all night to even see another traveler pass, other than the trains that rumbled through every so often next to the road.
That was why he thought the galloping horses he heard were out of place. Something made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and his horse got nervous and skittish as the galloping came closer.
"Hang on there, hang on.....shhhhh," he said calmly to the horse, heading the wagon to the side of the road to make way for the many horses he could now just barely see in the distance.
And...they were wearing white robes. The riders had on white robes and cone shaped hoods. There were at least twenty of them, no maybe three dozen, maybe more. He looked back at his prisoner, who was now staring at him wide eyed in fear.
This was going to be a bad business. He pulled out his gun and rested it in his lap.
The riders thundered up, surrounding the wagon in seconds. They came to a halt in a circle around Harold, some holding rifles. All dressed in white robes and white hoods and cowls.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" Harold made sure the gun was in plain view.
One man in a white cowl rode up to face him, speaking in a voice that Harold found familiar. Chances were they he knew each of these men personally. "You sure can Harold, you can hand over that n***** in the back of your cart here so we can mete out swift justice to him."
"I can't let you do that. He's a peeping tom, that's not a death penalty crime in this country." They both knew what "swift justice" meant.
"It is when its a n*****'s peeping on a white woman! Hand him over." Lots of angry cries of agreement from the group.
"Can't. Now get out of my way." Harold's horse shied a bit, and he settled him down with a firm hand on the reins.
"Harold, you know we mean to take him. And we will. We have a lot more guns that you do. We'll kill you if we have to, but we'd rather not, you know that."
Rifles cocked in the darkness. Harold was silent for a minute. He could hear the labored breathing of the prisoner in the back. Harold knew that there was nothing he could humanly do to stop what was going to happen, and if he tried he would only make his wife a widow and his children fatherless.
He looked that white cowl in the face, right in the eyes, hidden in the dark, and nodded his head towards the back.
They grabbed the man then, hauled him out of the cart onto the ground, screaming behind his gag. For a while they beat him right in the middle of the road, kicking and hitting him with clubs, rifle butts, whatever was to hand and hollering like bloodthirsty animals, which is what this group had become. Then they took him to a big tree close by, tossed a rope over a sturdy limb, put the bloody and badly beaten prisoner on a horse with the noose around his neck, then walked the horse out from under him, leaving him swinging from the rope.
He jerked for a while, then became still.
The klansmen swatted at his dead body for a while, knocking it swinging, while they yelled hateful curses at it. Finally, as a group they rode quickly back the way they had come without even so much as a glance at Harold.
The night became quiet. Harold had sat on the seat of his wagon for the entire spectacle, staring powerless into his lap at his gun, his heart breaking.
The man had not deserved that.
He had not deserved that.
And there was not one thing that Harold could have done.
The breeze blew his hair, sending a chill down his back. The leaves rustled like dry bones in the trees, ghostly white in the moonlight. He could hear blood still dripping from the man's body hanging on the tree.
He walked over to the tree and cut the rope. The body fell. Harold manhandled it back into his wagon, and shut the rear gate on it.
He headed once more for Florence.
Tomorrow, he would have to wash his wagon.
If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill always came together, who would escape hanging?
Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)