America’s First Spectacle Lynching – The Torture and Murder of Henry Smith (Part 1)

On February 1st, 1893, the town of Paris, Texas collectively took part in the nation’s first spectacle lynching. It was on this day that Henry Smith, a black man accused of murdering the young daughter of a police officer was tracked down, mutilated, and burned alive before a crowd of 10,000.

This was not undertaken by a frenzied mob, out of control with bloodlust and revenge. Rather, like most such lynchings, it was planned in advance. It was advertised in the newspapers and via the telegraph. Extra trains even ran into Paris, Texas so that hundreds more could join the thousands in witnessing this new ritual.

In today’s post, we’ll examine the accusations as well as detail the events leading up to the very moments before Smith was dragged to a scaffold in Paris’ public square. Tomorrow, we’ll see to the lynching itself as well as the aftermath.

Setting the Scene

There was a common thread across the South, and even some of the North, when it came to mass spectacle lynchings. A black man or men would be accused of a heinous crime by white – usually murder or rape – a mob would be formed and then these accused would be hanged, burned or shot. This open and public ritual played across the country for nearly half a century. During the decades of its height, nearly all such lynchings were white on black. 1There were, of course, a few such white on white lynchings, especially in the West. There were no known black on white lynchings of this variety – and but a handful of any other.

By the 1893, Paris, Texas was, like much of the South, embroiled in what historians have called “the nadir of race relations.” This was the era of Jim Crow, when black Americans were expected to appreciate what passed for them as freedom, work hard, and keep to themselves.

But tensions in Paris were coming to a head. Over the few years preceding, several black men had been murdered and even lynched by whites. The authorities and courts did nothing to bring the known killers to justice. In turn, the black community, organized the “Color Association.”

This new party was not simply a peaceful protest. They threatened the most recent killers of black men, and even had the audacity to carry firearms with them when they went to town. In turn, whites began to better organize themselves.

The whites asserted their dominance over blacks by whipping any who stepped out of line. When this was not enough, they attempted to lynch Ella Ransom. What followed, written about in detail in “Three to a Tree in Paris,” culminated in the lynching of three black men in September of 1892 by a mob of thirty or so white men.

The Death of little Myrtle Vance – January 26, 1893

Just how four-year-old Myrtle Vance died is unknown. She was the daughter of a Paris, Texas police officer, known for being, as investigator Ida B. Wells put it, “a man of bad temper, overbearing manner and given to harshly treating the prisoners under his care.” 2Ida B. Wells-Barnett On Lynching (Dover Publications, 2014) 50. Originally published in 1900.

Immediately following her death, Vance accused Henry Smith of the murder. Smith was, “a well known character, a kind of roustabout, who was generally considered a harmless, weak-minded fellow, not capable of doing any important work, but sufficiently able to do chores and odd jobs around the houses of the white people who cared to employ him.” 3Ibid.

What is known is that Vance had arrested Smith once before, beating him with a club and arresting him. While in jail, according to Vance’s account, Smith threatened to get back at the arresting officer. 4Henry Vance The Facts in the Case of the Horrible Murder of Little Myrtle Vance (Paris, TX: P.J. James, 1893) 3. This account, written by the father, is obviously biased and untrustworthy, especially concerning the nature of Henry Smith. It can be read in full here.

It was likely because of this threat that following the death of his daughter, Vance accused Smith not only of murdering her, but of raping her as well. Rumors in the town of Paris took on still another life of their own as whites “made it a point to exaggerate every detail of the awful affair, and to inflame the public mind so that nothing less than immediate and violent death would satisfy the populace.”

A church Bishop even went on record stating the the child was “first outraged with demoniacal cruelty and then taken by her heels and torn asunder in the mad wantonness of gorilla ferocity.”
5Wells, 51.

These were more than exaggerations. Though Myrtle Vance had passed, and was likely murdered, there was little actual evidence that she was assaulted or raped. “Persons who saw the child after its death,” wrote Wells, “have stated, under the most solemn pledge to truth, that there was no evidence of such an assault as was published at the time….”

The Accusation of Henry Smith – January 29-30, 1893

For an entire day following the murder, Henry Smith went about his business as if nothing had happened. News of Myrtle Vance’s death certainly reached his ear, but he had no reaction to it. When he heard that Vance had accused him of the rape and murder of his daughter, however, he left town.

“There is a strong probability that he is trying to make his way to Oklahoma, where many negroes who formerly lived in this city now reside,” speculated the Galveston Daily News. Various other rumors, both near and far, filtered in. Descriptions of Smith, some wildly inaccurate, were sent out across the state by the mayor of Paris.

“If captured alive,” continued the Daily News, “it is almost universal sentiment that he will be publicly burned at the stake.”

In the meantime, a rumor spread that Smith’s stepson, Will Butler, had threatened another officer. Unable to find Smith, a mob of about 100 white men went in search of Butler, who had wisely left the city. 6The Galveston Daily News; Galveston, Texas; Wed, Feb 1, 1893 – Page 6. Link.

The Capture of Henry Smith and the Desire to See Him Burn – January 31, 1893

Rewards of $500 were offered by the town of Paris, as well as the Governor of Texas for Smith’s capture. When it was discovered that Smith once lived 125 miles to the east in Hope, Arkansas, the search was narrowed to that town. Within a day, he was in custody in Arkansas.

“Have got the negro,” came the telegram from Arkansas to the mayor of Paris. “Will reach Paris 12:05 [PM]. Be prepared to protect us.” 7The Galveston Daily News; Galveston, Texas; Wed, Feb 1, 1893 – Page 3. Link. They left Hope, Arkansas a little after 6am on February 1.

The town of Paris soon received the news by telegram. “By this time the town was wild,” reported the Daily News. “All business was deserted and men gathered in crowds discussing the good news of the negro’s capture, the details of which were all too meager to satisfy.” 8Ibid.

In Wolfe City, Texas, the clamor to see Smith was so great that the railroad decided to make additional runs into Paris – “a special train is in demand to carry the people to Paris. It is generally conceded that he will be burned when caught.” 9Ibid.

Hundreds also gathered in Bonham, Texas, again demanding additional trains to Paris. A move is on foot to secure a special train to Paris tonight, as hundreds with to witness the reception of the murderer.” 10Ibid.

Meanwhile in Paris – January 31 & February 1, 1893

Governor “Big Jim” Hogg sent word commending the capture of Smith, but requested relative peace. “See that he has a fair trial in the courts to the end that he may be legally punished. Take all steps necessary to protect him from violence.” 11Fort Worth Daily Gazette; Fort Worth, Texas; Thu, Feb 2, 1893 – Page 1. Link.

With the papers calling not merely for a lynching, but for Smith to be burned at the stake, it’s hardly surprising that Hogg’s mild request went unheeded.

In preparation of Smith’s return to Paris, residents passed the time by erecting a large platform with the word “JUSTICE” painted across it. There would be no fair trial in the courts, no legal punishment. Despite the call for “Justice,” there would be none.

Smith Transported to Paris – Morning of February 1, 1893

It was assumed that he would be taken by train back to Paris. When news of his captured filtered down the line, the city of Texarkana, a stop along the way, was filled with excitement.

“A thousand men were at the depot when the train came,” reported the local papers. “The excitement here is almost as great as when Coy was burned, but it is thought that officers will be permitted to take the prisoner to Paris tomorrow morning as per present programme.” 12Ibid.

At every large stop “several thousand people were swarming around the depot and absolutely refused to let the train pull out until Smith was shown.” At one stop, probably Texarkana, “someone in the crowd attempted to draw a pistol, it is presumed to shoot Smith, but he was covered in a moment and made to drop the weapon.” 13Ibid.

What passed for Smith’s Confession – Morning of February 1, 1893

At first, Smith remained mostly silent on the train ride to Paris, denying any knowledge of the crime. The officers accompanying him explained that “his crime was known and he was known to be the man.”

When the train reached DeKalb, they admitted that “his doom was fixed, and only his presence at Paris was waited for his execution.” They even told him how he would die. At this point, Smith “began to beg an officer on the train to save him. He was told that if every officer in Texas if present could not save him, that all the officers on the train could do was to bring him to Paris, and that they were powerless to take him anywhere else.” 14Fort Worth Daily Gazette; Fort Worth, Texas; Thu, Feb 2, 1893 – Page 1. Link.

After such threats, Smith finally admitted to the crime, but couldn’t come up with any details as to how he did it. The story, propagated by the Bishop, that Myrtle Vance was ripped limb from limb, was told to Smith, and he then explained that he did that, though he could not remember doing it.

According to Smith’s confession, he kidnapped the child and then slept with her on the ground in the woods until 5am. He claimed to have been drunk, explaining that that was why he could not recall anything.

When he returned to his home the next day, he claimed to have heard that Officer Vance had accused him of the murder. It was then that he fled. His recounting of his travels from Paris to Hope were the only vividly recalled portion of his confession. 15Ibid.

But his confession could not save him from the mob already gathered at Paris to receive him.

Smith plead “that he be punished by some other means than death, but if he had to die then he begged that he might be shot, but he did not want Vance to do the shooting.”

“When finally it was told him that he had to come to Paris and die a death of torture he begged and prayed to be shot, and then begged that they would let him kill himself.” 16Ibid.

The Governor’s Orders – 1pm, February 1, 1893

At 1pm, a telegram from the Governor, “Big Jim” Hogg, arrived in Paris:

“To the Sheriff of Lamar County – 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.”

Within minutes, Governor Hogg wired the Assistant Lamar County Attorney, imploring him to not allow the train to come to Paris. “Guard him safely and use every effort to prevent the mob from reaching him.”

As the citizens of Paris met to await the train, Honorable J.C. Hodges, a judge of the court, made a short address. In many lynching cases, a judge, beholden to the law and sworn to uphold the Constitution, plead with the mob to allow the law to run its course. This was not true with Judge Hodges.

Speaking to the people, he told them that they had all:

“assembled to discharge one of the most solemn duties ever executed by a people, whether in their own might or by the arm of the law. Here the people, horrified at a crime so atrocious that human brain could hardly conceive its enormity, and only the most depraved could have executed it, had resolved upon a punishment commensurate to the offense.

“They had gathered not by stealth, not by night, but in open day they had set aside the law of the statue, and in the execution of their decree should preserve that orderly, quiet and decorous attitude due themselves and the occasion.” 17Ibid.

The lynching of Henry Smith had already become a solemn ritual.

Continue to the conclusion of the story.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.