America’s First Spectacle Lynching – The Torture and Murder of Henry Smith (Part 2)

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 yesterday’s post, we detailed the original crime as well as the efforts made to track down Henry Smith. Now, as we rejoin the narrative, Smith was about to be returned to Paris by rail. Within the town, upwards of 10,000 had amassed to witness and take part in the ritual of lynching. Judges had condoned it, the police had already resolved that they could do nothing. The option to safely remove the prisoner from the train at an undisclosed location was not even considered.

The papers had promised that Henry Smith would be burned at the stake, and that is exactly what the white citizens of Paris, Texas planned to fulfill.

Smith Arrives Back in Paris – 2pm, February 1, 1893.

“When at last the long train pulled into the depot, where house tops and cars and every vacant place as far as the eye could reach was a seething mass of people, he was so collapsed and helpless he had to be carried from the car to the wagon which had been prepared for him.

“There was some delay when the train came in about bringing him out and the crowd became restless over it. To allay them, Honorable H.B. Birmingham, who was with the party on the train, made them a brief speech. He said:

‘Fellow citizens – There is not an officer on the train who has any control over the prisoners, Henry Smith. Twenty-five of your citizens went in reply to a telegram from your county attorney to meet him and see that the prisoner was protected and delivered here without injury. We have done that thing. We have no deceived or misled you; we are not officers, but citizens only, we have no authority to hold this prisoner against you or any one, and shall make no effort to do so.

‘As citizens we merely with to surrender the prisoner. We leave to you to do what is right. Whatever is done, let it be done, as the people of Lamar County have done everything, orderly, quietly and peaceably.

‘We cannot, if we would, resist the thousands here. The prisoner has admitted his guilt in the presence of twelve good and true men. This is all we can say.'” 1Fort Worth Daily Gazette; Fort Worth, Texas; Thu, Feb 2, 1893 – Page 1. Link.

Now, with not one, but two judges giving sanction to the lynching, it could continue.

Smith to the Public Square – Early Afternoon, February 1, 1893

The mob was not a mob in any sense of the word. It was a “peaceable” gathering, but for the lynching about to take place. The crowd, the citizens of Paris and the surrounding towns, was not unruly or boisterous. They were not taken by impassioned frenzy. They accomplished this will full knowledge of what they were doing.

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette continued their narrative as Henry Smith was carried to the public square:

“On a large cotton float, a box had been placed and on top of that a chair. Here Smith was placed and securely bound. Then surrounded by armed men to prevent any outburst from individuals he was driven slowly to the public square, around it and out to the place of death.

“Thousands followed the doomed man in the ride of despair, and the streets were lined with other thousands watching it pass. It was solemn, as befitted a cortege of the dead.

“Limp and quivering in his terror, his face drawn own and distorted and ashen with the agony of thought and the horror of his impending doom, the figure of Henry Smith was an awful sight. But at any thought of pity uprose a vision of that innocent child, that torn and outraged form that he had wrought.”

Rumors that Myrtle Vance had been raped and then dismembered were, as stated before, testified to be false. But it was these rumors that the “solemn” people of Paris needed to allow them to take part in this ritual. These rumors were, then, also part of the ritual. In turn, the newspaper had to print them as true.

At 2:55pm, Governor Hogg received the following telegram from Paris:

“Henry Smith has arrived and is in charge of from 5,000 to 10,000 enraged citizens. I am utterly helpless to protect him.”

Officer Vance Tortures Henry Smith – Afternoon, February 1, 1893

The Daily Gazette continued:

“Out on the bare prairie, where stood scattering bols d’arc shrubs, the scaffold had been built. Four uprights supported ten feet above the ground, a ten-foot square, railed-in except on the south side, where a stair ascended. In its center a strong post was set and braced on either side.

“As the wagon approached, Henry Vance, the father of Smith’s victim, appeared on the platform and asked the crowd, now densely packed for hundreds of yards away, and numbering 10,000 people, to be quiet, that he wanted for a while to get his vengeance, and then he would turn him over to any one that wanted him.

“Here came the wagon and Smith was carried upon the platform and stripped to the waist and placed against the stake. His legs and body were securely corded to it and he was delivered over to Vance’s Vengeance, and to expiate his crime.

“A tinner’s furnace was brought on filled with irons heated white. Taking one, Vance thrust it under first one and then the other side of his victim’s feet, who, helpless writhed as the flesh scarred and peeled from the bones.

“Slowly, inch by inch, up his legs the iron was drawn and redrawn, only the nervous jerky twist of the muscles showing the agony being induced. When his body was reached and the iron was pressed to the most tender part of his body [gentiles] he broke silence for the first time, and a prolonged scream of agony rent the air .

“Slowly across and around the body, slowly upward traced the irons. The withered, scarred flesh marking the progress of the awful punishment. By turns Smith screamed, prayed, begged and cursed his tormentors.

“When his face was reached, his tongue was silenced by fire and thenceforth he only moaned or gave a cry that echoed over the prairie like the wail of a wild animal.

“Then his eyes were put out, not a finger-breadth of his body being unscathed. His executioners gave way. They were Vance, his brother-in-law, and Vance’s son, a boy of 15 years of age. When they gave over punishing Smith, they left the platform. ” 2Ibid.

Henry Smith Set On Fire – Afternoon, February 1, 1893

As the Daily Gazette, watch as the author ceases to refer to Henry Smith as a person. Once set aflame, Henry Smith is identified with only the pronoun “it”:

“Smith and the clothing about his lower limbs were saturated with oil, as was the platform. The space beneath was filled with combustibles and the whole was saturated with oil, and fire simultaneously set to his feet and the stacks below.

“The cold sleeting rain had been falling since noon. Silhouetted against the dark leaden sky the platform loomed bare and gaunt and above it, with head dropped on his breast, blackened and scorched, was the body, and so still was it that all believed him dead.

“Slowly the flames crawled up his limbs and wrapped him in the bluish veil. A moment they burned so, then a shudder shook him, the head slowly raised, and a broken, quavering cry broke the breathless silence, and was echoed back by shouts and cries from the more thoughtless below.

“Then the cords binding the arms burned and he raised the crisped and blackened stumps to wipe the sightless sockets of his eyes.

“Then burned the cords about his waist and he toppled forward upon the platform and lay there writhing and quivering in the greedy flames that thrust through the crevices. One foot was still fast and held him on the bed of flame.

“With one supreme effort, the body still animated by the supreme desire of escape, rolled over on its face, rose upon its arms, reached up and caught the railing and with convulsive effort, tore the bound-leg loose, and stood reeling on the stumps of its feet, raised itself nearly upright against the railing, and then dropped sitting upon the burning platform, its head and arms lying upon the railing and the legs dangling over the edge, and there hung a moment as though this had nearly exhausted its little strength.

“Then as the flames swirled around him, by another effort he slipped over the edge and fell to the ground. It lay still, but was thrust into the mass of fire beneath the scaffold from which it came in a few minutes crawling out, only to be thrust back again, and the debris of the fire piled on top. So did death come to Henry Smith.”

“Every scrap of his clothing was eagerly sought for by relic hunters, and when the flames had at length died away, the charred fragments of his bones were raked out and carried away.

“There has been not the slightest disorder or disturbance in the last twenty-four hours. The officers knew they were utterly powerless to save Smith, and wisely devoted all their energies to preserving order and checking any disposition on the part of others to take advantage of the excitement.” 3Ibid.

“Big Jim” Hogg’s Response – Later Afternoon, February 1, 1893

At 4pm, Governor Hogg received the final message from Paris.

“All is over; death by hot iron torture – diabolical affair.”

In reply, there was little the governor would do. Still, he replied to the Assistant County Attorney:

“Do your whole duty and prosecute every person engaged in the reported lynching of one Henry Smith at Paris. By all means preserve the names of the offenders and witnesses to the end that the guilty parties may be prosecuted.”

The Daily Gazette‘s story concludes by predicting:

“There is much condemnation in store for the public officers who knowingly brought the prisoner to the mob when he could have been taken from the train at any obscure point.” 4Ibid.

Governor Hogg’s orders had been ignored. They were, according to the Paris Daily News, “looked upon as a joke. It is not believed that he means it.”

The Public Response

A few days later, Governor Hogg issued an open letter to the Texas Legislature. Within, he urged the law makers to take steps to “prevent mob violence in Texas.” He detailed the United States and Texas Constitutions, explaining that “our civilization stands aghast a helpless witness to the most revolting execution of the age, in which large numbers of citizens openly, in broad day, publicly became murderers by methods revolting to humanity.” 5James Stephen Hogg, “Message… on the Subject of Lynch Law” as printed in Speeches and State Papers 6Austin, Texas: The State Printing Company, 1905) 244.

Regardless of Governor Hogg’s urgings, and despite knowing exactly who was responsible for the lynching of Henry Smith, nobody was charged. Though the name of Officer Vance, his brother-in-law and son were printed in a multitude of newspapers across the country, not a single mention of arrest can be found. Officer Vance and the people of Paris, Texas, faced no repercussions for the torture and murder of Henry Smith.

Drawing made at the time. Appeared in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, February 2, 1893.

A Society and the Spectacle

Over the next few months, a flood of editorials, pamphlets and books were produced both condemning and praising the nation’s first spectacle lynching.

The lynching of Henry Smith was a spectacle in more ways than one. Up to 10,000 people came together to watch the torture and burning of a fellow human being. Among their number was photographer J.L. Mertins.

In 1893, photography was still a cumbersome affair. The cameras were bulky, the “film” was usually coated glass, and the shutter speeds were slow. Each photo had to be quickly planned and made, rather than simply snapped on the spur of the moment.

That day, Mertins captured at least twelve images. These, he published as “Little Myrtle Vance Avenged,” and even sent copies to the Library of Congress. 7Jacqueline Goldsby A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2006) 15-16. For an incredibly interesting and troublesome post-script to this modernity, see Gustavus Stadler’s “Never Heard Such a Thing; Lynching and Phonographic Modernity.”

Entering the Age of Spectacle Lynchings

According to historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, that February afternoon in Paris, Texas was “the founding event in the history of spectacle lynchings.” ((Grace Elizabeth Hale Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South (Vintage Books, 2010).

For the next forty years, this would be the outline of lynchings. The photographs and descriptions distributed throughout the nation explained in no uncertain detailed precisely the steps to lynching.

No longer was there need for bitter, angry crowds of Klan-like vigilantes. Now was the era of entire towns coming together, unmasked and unashamedly torturing and murdering black men accused of any number of crimes.

In many lynchings, photography was welcomed, postcards were made and sold at service stations across the South. Few, if any, whites were ever tried and convicted in such spectacle lynchings.

The torture and lynching of Henry Smith by the entire city of Paris, Texas was the mold struck by white Southern society, and there – with only a few exceptions, it would remain. And it was not until the mid 1930s when this era finally came to a close and the lynchings again went underground.

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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.