the terrors of a lynch mob -- 4/1/19

Today's selection -- from Atticus Finch: The Biography by Joseph Crespino. In 1934, A.C. Lee, the father of Nelle Harper Lee and the inspiration for her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, learned about lynch mobs: 

"The danger of the lynch mob and the threat it posed to civilized so­ciety was no abstraction for A. C. Lee. One of the most gruesome mob lynchings in the entire history of the practice hit close to home for Lee, lit­erally. It took place in 1934 outside Marianna, Florida, the county where A. C. Lee was raised, where his mother and father were buried, and where all of his brothers and sisters still lived. In a scene similar to the one that Harper Lee would imagine in Mockingbird, a group of men traveling in four or five cars abducted a black prisoner from the jail in Brewton, Al­abama, just forty miles south of Monroeville near the Florida state line. The black man, Claude Neal, was accused of having raped and murdered a white woman, Lola Cannidy, in a rural area in Jackson County, Flor­ida. Neal, along with his mother and aunt, was initially taken to the jail in the nearby town of Chipley, A. C. Lee's hometown. Neal confessed to the crime, although investigators would later suspect that he had been coerced. In a detail that was similar to how in Mockingbird Tom Robinson testified that he had encountered Mayella Ewell on the day of the alleged rape, Claude Neal told how he had been walking along the fenced border of the Cannidy farm when Lola Cannidy saw him and asked if he would come across the fence and clean out a hog trough that she had been strug­gling with (Mayella Ewell asks Tom Robinson if he would bust up a chif­farobe for her).

"The men who took Claude Neal from the jail in Brewton carried him back to the Cannidy family farm outside Marianna. A crowd estimated at several thousand people had gathered there, stoked by radio announce­ments and newspaper headlines earlier in the day. The horde became so large and unruly that Neal's abductors worried that they couldn't control it. So they took Neal to an alternative location and murdered him, but not before subjecting him to two hours of sadistic torture, including castration, forced autocannibalism, stabbing, burning with hot irons, and dismember­ment of toes and fingers. They tied Neal's body to the back of a car and dragged it to the Cannidy family home, where the remnants of the mob performed their own barbaric acts. Eventually Neal's mutilated corpse was hung from a tree on the northeast corner of the courthouse square in Marianna.

"The Monroe Journal ran a story about the grand jury investigation into Neal's abduction from the Brewton jail, though it included none of the sickening details of the lynching. That was the first news about the lynching to appear in the Journal, yet it was unlikely lo have been the first time that  A. C. Lee had heard of the incident. The Monroe Journal office received wire reports from the major news agencies. On October 21, the Associated Press sent a dispatch from Lee's hometown of Chipley that reported that hundreds of men swarmed the streets all night threat­ening to destroy the jail if the sheriff didn't hand over Neal and the other prisoners.

"Or perhaps Lee learned directly from his brothers or sisters about the mayhem in Marianna the day after the lynching. Neal's body was cut down from the tree on the courthouse lawn early on a Saturday morning. The rest of that clay, a busy Saturday when rural whites and blacks customarily came into town to shop and do business, was, according to one local white man, 'a day of terror and madness, never to be forgotten by anyone.' Mobs of whites began attacking blacks around the town square who were there buying or selling goods, or who worked for white store owners. Marianna's mayor searched for policemen but couldn't find any; apparently members of the mob had already found them and threatened them with reprisals if they came to the square. The mayor attempted to deputize special officers, but could find no volunteers. One black man who was assaulted on a side­walk raced across the street into the courthouse where a group of friendly white men, armed with a machine gun, offered protection for him and an­other black man. The mob attacked a black porter helping a customer. The porter had to slash his way through the crowd with a knife to make it back to his employer's store, where the owner locked the door and held the mob"


Joseph Crespino


Atticus Finch: The Biography


Basic Books


Copyright 1995 by Dava Sobel


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