The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930

On a hot August night in 1930, a crowd gathered in front of an Indiana prison—men, women and children shouting and making fun of them, demanding that the sheriff release three of his prisoners.

Three African-American teens: Tom Ship, Abe Smith, and James Cameron - accused of murdering a white man and raping a white woman, were hiding inside their cells.

Some of the thousands of people formed a crowd in front of the prison. They thrashed the prison doors, dragged three youths out of their cell, thrashed them mercilessly and dragged them to a tree in Courthouse Square. At the last minute, the crowd spares Cameron, the youngest and most childish of the three.

Smith and Shipp died, with ropes tied around their necks, their bodies hanging as the city photographer captured one of the most famous lynching photographs in American history. They were not even hung properly.

A noose was put around his neck and then he was dragged into a tree. And one of them tried to break free, so they pulled him down, broke his arms, and pulled him up again.

The corpses hung in the square for hours, attracting a crowd of gawkers—including photographer Lawrence Beitler—who was able to capture the picture. The photo sold thousands of copies, which Beutler printed for 10 days and nights.

The third person narrowly escaped thanks to an unidentified participant, 16-year-old James Cameron, who declared he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. Cameron was taken out of town, convicted as an aide to murder, and served four years in prison.

Following the lynching, Cameron became a very pious figure and vividly described the day in his autobiographical article "A Time of Terror". He became an anti-lynching activist in Indiana—and later, Wisconsin—where he founded a Black Holocaust museum. They believed that the voice from the crowd that came to their rescue was the voice of an angel. Cameron died on June 11, 2006, at the age of 92.

Were they guilty?

James Cameron stated in interviews that Shipp and Smith actually shot and killed Claude Dieter, a white man. Cameron claimed that he fled when he found out what was happening. So people are guilty of murder.

The allegation of rape - although this, and not murder, seemed to have been the thing that triggered the lynching - was later withdrawn. Mary Ball later testified that she was not raped, contrary to the charges against the three men. At the time, white women being raped by black men was worse than murder in the eyes of many.

Why is there always at least one person pointing in the photo?

The gesture is basically a threat to other black people to remain in their place, or they will meet the same fate. Pointers are a phenomenon that is present in many photographs with the dead, not just limited to that time period.

The picture was the inspiration for the poem "Strange Fruit" which was later put to song and popularized by the incredible Billie Holiday and became an early anthem for the civil rights movement.

Teacher/poet Abel Meropol saw this picture of a ship-smith lynching in a magazine a few years later, and it "haunted" him - his word - that he wrote the anti-lynching poem "Strange Fruit".

The term lynch originated in the middle of the 19th century. It comes from lynching law which was the practice of killing an alleged criminal by lynching. In turn, Lynch Law got its name from Captain Willian Lynch. He was a plantation owner and had a self-constituted judicial tribunal in Virginia. Informal tribunals were set up by him to try the suspects.

This rough and ready-made method of adjudication came to be known as Lynch Law. Lynch's favorite punishment was whipping the suspect. After being flogged or 'lynched', if the suspect continued to commit the same crime or violated the rules, they were hanged.

Beating someone to death doesn't mean race was a factor. It was just "completion of sentence (often execution) outside the court system". In other words, "tested" by the crowd. Some statistics on lynchings by race and state show that 30% of lynchings were white.

Photos and postcards were taken as mementos at lynchings across America. A surprising recent discovery was that a collection of postcards of lynchings documented lynchings in an incredibly impressive and disturbing way.

It turns out that professional photographers took photographs of the lynchings and sold them to attendees as postcard souvenirs; Some of these postcards were then mailed backwards, and were eventually collected by archivists.

Book Without Sanctuary reprints both photos and some text from the back of postcards; The text is incredibly disturbing, with some authors describing the picnic or holiday atmosphere of the lynchings and some not even admitting that they are sending a picture of an inhuman torture to their loved ones.

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