A Lynching Encouraged by “The Clansman”?

According to newspapers in 1905, a play called The Clansman was responsible for a lynching. If the name of this play sounds familiar to you, it might be because it was adapted a decade later into the film The Birth of a Nation.

Written by Thomas Dixon, Jr, The Clansman (1905) is a fictional neo-Confederate retelling of Reconstruction. In it, the main villain, based upon the abolitionist politician Thaddeus Stevens, swears to make the South pay in blood for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After giving away all of the former slave owners’ land to the formerly enslaved, the Southern black population rises up, causing general destruction and raping white women. They can, of course, only be subdued by the Clan (aka, the Ku Klux Klan).

It was almost immediately adapted for the stage. In the autumn of 1905, the entire production, with Thomas Dixon in tow, toured the South. Dixon and his stage crew spent the summer putting the production together. While it was met with much curiosity, it seems to have also met with derision. 1The Reidsville Review; Reidsville, North Carolina; Tue, Oct 3, 1905 – Page 2. Here.

Scalawags Then and Now

In mid-October, after The Clansman played in Columbia, South Carolina. Between acts, Dixon himself addressed the crowd, many of whom hissed at his appearance. In response, Dixon exclaimed: “There were scalawags then and there are scalawags now!” 2The DeSoto County News; Arcadia, Florida; Fri, Oct 20, 1905 – Page 10. Here.

Following the play, “a number of young men prominent in the social and business life of the city gathered in front of the hotel with hostel intent.” They sent for Dixon, who wisely refused to come down.

A black church minister was also in the audience. Interviewed by the local paper, he called it “one of the most horrible things that was ever visited upon the south and will do more toward injuring the prosperity of the south than anyone could.” 3The Minneapolis Journal; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Mon, Oct 16, 1905 – Page 1. Here.

The Clansman and Lynching

A week after The Clansman played in Columbia, it traveled down to Georgia, playing in the town of Bainbridge during the final week of October. It was around this time that a black man known as Gus Goodman allegedly murdered a black woman. On October 29, when the county sheriff went to Goodman’s home to make the arrest, Goodman shot him, but was also shot twice by the sheriff. Another officer made the arrest, and Goodman was taken to jail while the sheriff was seriously wounded. 4Detroit Free Press; Detroit, Michigan; Sun, Oct 29, 1905 – Page 20. Here.

From the Minneapolis Journal:

Lynching Laid to “The Clansman”

Bainbridge, Ga., Oct 30 – Wrought up to a high pitch of anger against negroes by the presentation of Thomas A. Dixon’s play, “The Clansman,” last week, a mob of 300 men stormed the jail at midnight, took out Gus Goodman, a negro who had fatally shot Sheriff Stogall, and lynching him. The lynchers were not masked.

The aftermath of Augustus Goodman's lynching. Bainbridge, Georgia, 1905.
The aftermath of Augustus Goodman’s lynching. Bainbridge, Georgia, 1905.

Goodman, on Saturday afternoon, shot and killed a negro woman, and when Sheriff Stegall attempted to arrest him, wounded the official. Another officer arrested the negro. A number of men held a meeting and determined to lynch the negro if the physician found the sheriff’s wound proved fatal.

A mob formed, and when, at midnight, the doctors declared Stegall would die, it moved on the jail at once, and thirty minutes later the negro was lynched. The sheriff died as the negro was lynched.

The feeling against negroes, never kindly, has been embittered by the Dixon play, following which stories of negroes’ depredations during the reconstruction period have been revived, and whites have been wrought up to a high tension. 5The Minneapolis Journal; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Mon, Oct 30, 1905 – Page 1. Here.

The following week, the Minneapolis Appeal ran this short blurb:

From: The Appeal; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Sat, Nov 4, 1905 – Page 2.
From: The Appeal; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Sat, Nov 4, 1905 – Page 2.

Conclusion

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether The Clansman inspired the lynching at Bainbridge. Thousands of racial lynchings took place in the decades before the play opened. Additionally, according to the figures given by the Tuskegee Institute, the number of lynchings of black Americans was in a steady decline through the early 1900s. There was a bit of an uptick in the late ’00s, but there is no way to tell if this was inspired by either the novel or the play. 6Here.

Nevertheless, a man was lynched on the heels of a dramatic play which glorified violence against black citizens. This possible connection deserves further study.

1908 ad for the play.
1908 ad for the play.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote 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, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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