Shortly after midnight on the morning of Sunday, February 16, 1902, black minstrel performer Louis Wright was lynched by hanging in New Madrid, Missouri. Prior to the performance, he was involved in an altercation with several white men from the town. The performance itself was marred with insults and jeers hurled from the audience. After the minstrels left the stage, a few white men rushed it in an apparent attempt to harm or even lynch some of the performers.
It was claimed that Louis Wright drew his pistol and was the first to fire, though others, both white and black, shortly joined the shooting. Nobody was killed and no whites were injured, though a black performer was wounded by a bullet in the leg. The armed black performers were arrested, while the armed whites were not. Later that night, several white men broke into the jail, kidnapped Wright and lynched him.
In this piece, we’ll look at several different news articles from the time. We’ll also look a few modern references to give ourselves a fuller picture of what happened that February night.
Setting the Scene – Black Minstrelsy
Minstrel shows dominated the entire nation for the better part of a century. Rising in popularity in the antebellum South, white performers would blacken their faces with burned cork to appear “negrofied.” Their stage acts generally lampooned black Americans, but also provided a bit of political and social commentary.
Even before the Civil War, black Americans started their own minstrel troupes. The acts, however, were much the same – at least to the casual observer. While whites in blackface parodied black culture and focused upon racial stereotypes, the black minstrel troupes played up their Southern roots. They would generally spotlight plantation and slave life. They’d often parody white culture, and even perform scenes from Shakespeare – usually while in exaggerated blackface and with thick “negrofied” accents.
Though black minstrelsy seemed in many ways to promote and even advance racialist stereotypes, there was, as the authors of Darkest America put it, “elements of liberation in it from its very beginning.” These, they claim, “were instrumental to its popularity,” especially within the black community. 1Yuval Taylor, Jake Austen Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) 26-27.
One of these all black minstrel troupes was Richard & Pringle’s Georgia Minstrels. Founded in the 1880s, this troupe toured the country, often following the planting and harvesting seasons. In the early days, they heralded such stage greats as Billy Kersands, and always began the day of their performances with a grand parade through town. 2According to various newspaper sources, Kersands joined the troup in 1888 and toured with them through 1902, when our story takes place. His obituary can be found here.
New Madrid and Snow
The 1902 season marked a pretty typical run for Richard & Pringle’s show. They had at least two different troupes touring at once, with one playing Florida and Georgia in January, while the other hit Kansas. The following month took the second group into Missouri, with a parade and show on Saturday the 15th in New Madrid. 3The other company, with Kersands, was playing the Carolinas at the time.
With this company toured a man by the name of Louis Wright. He had once played trombone for Mahara’s Minstrels, but was lured away by Richard & Pringle at the age of nineteen. When his new act toured through New Madrid, snow was covering the ground.
During the grand parade, according to his friend, William Handy, he was “on the way to the theatre with his female companion, [and] was snowballed by some white hoodlums. He retaliated swiftly, laying down a blast of curses.”
Handy recalled in his memoirs that Wright was “an unusually talented musician,” but that “this slim sensitive boy resented insult with every fiber of his being. He would fight anyone any time and with any weapon within reach. In our company we understood his fierce pride; we know how to treat him.” 4William Christopher Handy Father of the Blues: An Autobiography (Da Capo Press, 1942) 43.
A Lynching in Missouri
How the white crowd turned on the black minstrels was not explained in the early reports from New Madrid.
The story that went out first over the wire was picked up by several papers, including the Minneapolis Journal:
New Madrid, Mo., Feb. 17 – A crowd 5Other papers used the word “mob”. of masked men last night overpowered the jailer and took a negro, Louis Wright, a short distance from the town and hanged him.
Richard & Pringle’s negro minstrels gave an entertainment here Saturday night and an altercation arose between one of the musicians and some of the white town boys. 6Other papers say “some persons in the audience” rather than “white town boys”. Some of the boys tried to take the musicians out, when the negroes began to shoot. 7Other papers print “The whites made an onslaught on the musicians and one of the negroes on the stage began to shoot.” Several whites in the audience were hit, but no one was seriously hurt.
The negroes ran out the back way to their private [rail] car, which was soon surrounded by armed men, but no violence was done, owing to the arrival of the town marshal. All the negroes were put in jail and as the result of an examination the name of the one who did the shooting was discovered. He was lynched and the others will be released. Several of the prisoners were badly beaten Saturday night. 8The Minneapolis Journal; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Mon, Feb 17, 1902 – Page 1. Link. The “other paper” used was The Fort Wayne Sentinel; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Mon, Feb 17, 1902 – Page 1. Link.
As was often the case, blame was cast upon the lynching victim. No background was given, and the press allowed their readers to assume that a black performer shot up a crowd of white hecklers. Of course, anyone working on stage, especially someone in a minstrel company, would be used to heckling. This assurance alone raises many questions.
‘More About That Lynching’
As was typical, the first reports of the lynching lacked detail. These would be filled in the following day. A report in the Independence Daily Reporter out of Kansas printed under the headline of ‘More About That Lynching” admitted that the performers “were not alone at fault in the Missouri tragedy.”
While the newspaper simply reprinted a wire story, they added a touch of commentary. The minstrels “were not fully to blame by any means.” However, the Kansas paper took the opportunity to take a dig at Missouri rather than the black performers. The troupe “showed bad judgement in attempting to give an entertainment in a thoroughly wild and wooly Missouri town.”
With their own attempt at humor passing, the continued with the wire story:
More details of the lynching have been allowed to get out. The troupe was Richards & Pringles’ Georgia Minstrels. The minstrels paraded the streets of the town and became the target for the gibes and snowballs of young men and boys on the street. A fight began on the street but was stopped by the town marshal.
When the hour for the evening performance arrived, the opera house was packed and jammed. Jeers, cat calls and hisses punctuated the entertainment. Sentimental ballads were received with laughter; the funny gags and joke brought forth groans. Some of the minstrels made no effort to please and frequently addressed personal remarks to members of the audience.
When the show closed a member of the audience went on the stage with the avowed intention of ‘doing up the showmen.’ One of the members of the minstrel company opened fire with a revolver. Half a dozen pistols were fired at random by the negroes and white men. Panic ensued in the hall and men, women and children rushed from the building. Twenty shots were fired and one negro received a bullet in the leg.
Clay Hunter, son of A.B. Hunter of this town, received a scalp wound. Four bullets passed through the clothing worn by Winton Lewis. A ball passed through the collar of Thomas Waters’ coat. The minstrels who did the shooting were arrested. The other members of the troupe left through the stage door and went directly to their car on the side track.
The crowd at the theatre gradually dispersed. When it was learned that the negroes who did the shooting were under arrest, it was supposed that the trouble was ended.
Wright, who had begun the shooting, was placed in jail with three other members of the troupe. At midnight Sunday, five men went to the jail, took Sheriff Stone unawares and overpowered him, secured the keys and went upstairs to the cell where Wright was locked.
They took Wright out and were soon joined by hundreds of citizens. The negro was hanged to a tree. 9Independence Daily Reporter; Independence, Kansas; Wed, Feb 19, 1902 – Page 1. Link.
Apart from the minstrel angle, this turned into a fairly typical lynching, complete with whites breaking into the jail and “forcing” the sheriff to hand over the accused.
‘The Law Gave Him To The Mob’
After a lynching story is run, there is rarely any follow up. Perhaps in the next week or so some additional information will slip out, but for the most part, anything further is left for historians to uncover decades later.
Such is the case with the Louis Wright lynching.
In William Handy’s autobiography, he continued his telling. Handy wasn’t there at the time, so what he related was likely how the story was told among the black performers in the decades ensuing.
“That night a mob came back-stage at the theatre. They had come to lynch Louis. In his alarm the sharp-tempered boy drew a gun and fired into the crowd. The mob scattered promptly, but they did not turn from their purpose.
“They reassembled in the railroad yards, near the special car of the minstrel company. This time their number was augmented by officers. When the minstrels arrived, their whole company was arrested and thrown into jail. Many of them were brutally flogged during the questioning that followed, but no squeal was forthcoming.
“In time, however, Louis Wright was recognized. The law gave him to the mob, and in almost less time than it takes to tell it they had done their work. He was lynched, his tongue cut out and his body shipped to his mother in Chicago in a pine box.” 10Hardy, 43.
Many of the details Hardy gives are matched or alluded to in the previous contemporary articles. In both, the arrested were beaten and Wright was lynched. The details of the evening are identical even the purpose of the mob rushing the stage.
In the article from the Independence Daily Reporter, a white audience member entered the backstage with the intent of “doing up the showmen.” Or, as Handy put it, “they had come to lynch Louis.”
‘A Nigger Had Dared Curse A White Man’
It’s not clear whether Louis Wright was the intended target, as Handy asserted, or if he was singled out as being the first to fire.
In fact, according to a version written about in H. Loring White’s history of Ragtime, nobody was certain who fired the first shot. In fact, the minstrels themselves claimed to be unarmed. As he tells it, no weapons were found:
“Right after the curtain went down that evening, the males in the audience exited the front and collected at the stage entrance. At this point, confusion took over; someone fired a shot, and someone else took a graze across the scalp.
“The mob accused the minstrels who claimed to be unarmed, and they were arrested and held in a dank jail. The next day, Sunday, each was taken across to the courthouse and questioned singly before an ad hoc body of law-abiding citizens,’ and threatened with lynching if no one confessed. All professed ignorance of the shooting, and no guns were found.
“At midnight Wright was taken out again with the excuse of further testimony, but instead of a courtroom, Wright was immediately hanged ‘in front of a colored family’s door.’
“At 10:00AM Monday, the mob cut him down, removed his finger rings, and placed his body in a box addressed to his mother at 3221 State Street, Chicago. Louis Wright, 22, played the trombone in the band. His accusers claimed to have seen the handle of a revolver in his pocket during the snowball incident. ‘Several’ other members of the company were shot and seriously wounded.” 11H. Loring White Ragging it: Getting Ragtime Into History (and Some History Into Ragtime) (iUniverse, 2004) 41. White’s source, apart from Handy’s, is from Henry T. Sampson’s The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business (Scarecrow Press, 1988) 246-247. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this title.
Though White does not mention that the lynch mob cut out Louis Wright’s tongue, he does quote one of the mob as saying that the reason the whites rushed the stage was that during the initial snowball attack “a nigger had dared curse a white man.” This corroborates Handy’s telling of Wright cursing at the white men during the parade. It might also be seen to be a “fitting” punishment for such a black man to have his tongue cut out during his lynching – this was, after all, a common practice.
The lynching of the trombone player, Louis Wright, was in all respects unnecessary. Like most lynchings in the South, the accused black man was in jail. If left alone, he would have his day in court. It’s even possible that the white jury would have found him guilty, with the death sentence being handed down.
Like all lynchings, this was not about justice, it was about revenge. It’s clear that the white mob rushed the stage to harm or even kill Wright and the other black performers. If Wright indeed had a gun, it’s even understandable that he would use it in self-defense. Fortunately, nobody in the crowd was killed – though in the end, that did not matter in New Madrid. A black man had cursed white men and dared to defend himself against their attack. There was little chance that he would leave Missouri alive.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Yuval Taylor, Jake Austen Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) 26-27.|
|2.||⇡||According to various newspaper sources, Kersands joined the troup in 1888 and toured with them through 1902, when our story takes place. His obituary can be found here.|
|3.||⇡||The other company, with Kersands, was playing the Carolinas at the time.|
|4.||⇡||William Christopher Handy Father of the Blues: An Autobiography (Da Capo Press, 1942) 43.|
|5.||⇡||Other papers used the word “mob”.|
|6.||⇡||Other papers say “some persons in the audience” rather than “white town boys”.|
|7.||⇡||Other papers print “The whites made an onslaught on the musicians and one of the negroes on the stage began to shoot.”|
|8.||⇡||The Minneapolis Journal; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Mon, Feb 17, 1902 – Page 1. Link. The “other paper” used was The Fort Wayne Sentinel; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Mon, Feb 17, 1902 – Page 1. Link.|
|9.||⇡||Independence Daily Reporter; Independence, Kansas; Wed, Feb 19, 1902 – Page 1. Link.|
|11.||⇡||H. Loring White Ragging it: Getting Ragtime Into History (and Some History Into Ragtime) (iUniverse, 2004) 41. White’s source, apart from Handy’s, is from Henry T. Sampson’s The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business (Scarecrow Press, 1988) 246-247. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this title.|