The Reenactment of Two Executions

This past week, a video has been making the rounds among Native American social media accounts. The footage, filmed in June of this past year, features a reenactment by the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s of the 1785 public hanging of a Mamachtaga, a Native man, at Hanna’s Town, Pennsylvania.

The Westmoreland County Historical Society has been reenacting various court cases for the past ten years. These reenactments are fine ways to show just how justice was dealt out in our nation’s past. This was, however, the first year that they depicted the public hanging of a Native American man. 1The video can be seen on YouTube. The information gathered for this article was taken from “Public Hanging Reenactment of Native Man Sparks Outrage” by Mary Annette Pember, January 7, 2017, Indian Country Media Network, and is available here.

In Georgia, over this same period of time – since 2005 – members of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee have reenacted the lynching of four Black Americans that took place in Georgia, July of 1946.

This idea came about at the suggestion of Tyrone Brooks, a civil rights leader and Georgia state legislator. There was, of course, some opposition to the reenactment. Many of the groups black members were in favor of it, while many of its white members opposed it. Nevertheless, the memorial committee decided to begin the tradition that continues with white involvement still to this day. 2Since the Moore’s Ford reenactment has taken place for a decade or so, several different videos can be found on the web. I viewed this one in particular, but found much longer (over 2hrs of footage) and more involved coverage here. Information for my article was taken from “A lynching in Georgia: the living memorial to America’s history of racist violence” by Peter Baker, November 2, 2016, The Guardian, and is available here.

Though both reenactments involve the death of minorities, there are some noticeable and important differences.

The Reenactments

The reenactment of the hanging of the Delaware Indian, Mamachtaga, was conceived by members of the all-white Westmoreland County Historical Society. It depicts, in strange detail, the trial and subsequent execution of a Native American. The demonstration includes an initially-failed hanging, as well as period white reenactors hurling racial insults at man playing the Delaware Indian. Images from the Pennsylvania reenactment seem to clearly depict a white man in red face portraying Mamachtaga.

The historical society stated that “a man from the Lenape tribe participated” and that he “had no problem with the performance.” However, doubt was cast upon the claim by the President of the Delaware tribe, Kerry Holton. “Although we speak Lenape,” said Holton, “we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware.”

Moore’s Ford reenactment, 2016.

In Georgia, the reenactment of the lynching is undertaken by the multi-racial Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee. The black victims, two men and two women, are portrayed by Black actors. Their white lynchers are portrayed by white participants. There is fostered among them an understanding of what they are doing. It is a memorial, not simply an historical reenactment.

This is probably the most important difference between the two events. Though the execution of Mamachtaga occurred after a trail at which he was found guilty, the reenactment is conducted without the participation of the tribe. The claims that a “Lenape” tribe member participated and approved could be true, but the tribe itself played no role in this.

The Crowds

The crowd gathered to watch the reenactment of Mamachtaga’s hanging, is fully white. This is, of course, fine. It is a public event in rural Pennsylvania, it’s not surprising that the audience consists of no minorities – Westmoreland County is 97% white. But this isn’t the issue.

The historical characters depicted in the reenactment of Mamachtaga’s hanging are white, except for Mamachtaga himself, who is portrayed by a white man in red face. Surrounded by a crowd of white spectators, the reenactors hurl insults at the man in red face. “Dirty no good Indian deserves to be hung,” says reenactor. “Murderers,” mutters another, “that’s all that they are.”

Historically, the initial hanging fails and they have to string Mamachtaga up a second time. This is also portrayed in the reenactment, with one of the hangmen joking, “It’s so hot out here, we could just bake him!”

This utterance was followed up by a child from the audience (clearly not a reenactor) who said, “Hey! I’d like to see that!” Another spectator joins in, joking, “I’ve got some salt and pepper!” It was all a great laugh.

In stark contrast was the solemn, mostly black crowd at the reenactment of the Moore’s Ford lynching. Apart from the reenactors themselves, nobody spoke a word. And while the white reenactors portraying the lynchers hurled expletives and n-words, it was unquestionably not for comedic effect. There were tears, there were gasps from the crowd, but there was no laughter, there were no children joining in, no spectators joking about cannibalism. Unlike the spectators in Pennsylvania, they understood the gravity of what they were witnessing.

Thoughtlessness vs. Thoughtfulness

While the intention of both reenactments was to portray a moment in our nation’s history, the results were markedly different.

Scene from the reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga, 2016.

“There was nothing malicious intended,” responded Scott Henry, a Westmoreland County Historical Society volunteer. “We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town.” After being accused of “perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing,” he said that “this has all been blown out of proportion.” He was truly baffled.

He seemed to wonder how the hanging of a white man in red face portraying a Delaware Indian could be perceived as anything but historically accurate. And yet, the laughter from the crowd, and the spontaneous taunts from children (as well as the obvious fun the other reenactors were having) seemed not to phase him at all.

Another Westmoreland volunteer claimed that the question of race didn’t enter into the reenactment – and this is where the true thoughtlessness arrives in full. As the majority-color in America, race doesn’t have to enter into every thought, every action and every reenactment undertaken by white people. When asked if the Historical Society would have reenacted the hanging of a black man, they couldn’t understand how that would matter. In their world, it didn’t have to.

The depiction of any death must be undertaken with thoughtfulness (if undertaken at all). Historical representations portray real events, real people. These historical events still effect us today. We have to ask ourselves if these depictions add to a greater understanding of our history, of our people. Or do they simply exist as just a bit of fun for the weekend?

The reenactment of the hanging of the Delaware Indian Mamachtaga completely left out the Delaware Indian tribe. Their participation seems to not have been even an afterthought.

“When my colleagues contacted the Historical Society,” said Holton of the Delaware Tribe, “they were told that there was nothing inappropriate about the reenactment. There has got to be a way that we in Indian country can work to remedy these situations.”

But why should Holton, the Delaware Tribe or any Native Americans have to work to remedy anything involving this? It is, at least in this case, the historical society that has utterly failed to reach out to the tribe – and not the other way around. Further, even after the tribe contacted them, they issued no apologies, no regrets, no vows to do better next time. They seemed to not care all.

Regardless, President Holton wants to meet with this historical society in hopes of bridging the chasm. “I don’t doubt that the reenactment was historically accurate or that the events they depicted actually took place,” he said, “but there doesn’t seem to be any educational value in depicting the hanging, the historical importance could have been shared in another way.”

A Lesson in the Present for Westmoreland County Historical Society

It is fully the historical society’s responsibility to reach out to the tribe. Instead, they plan on simply not reenacting the hanging from next year’s program. While this is a step forward, it’s not really a learning experience. All they seem to be taking away from this is that something they did offended some over-sensitive Indians.

Perhaps the Westmoreland County Historical Society should look to the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee to understand what a historically accurate and culturally sensitive reenactment might look like. Maybe it’s beyond Westmoreland’s ability to pull it off with sensitivity, even if the spectators kept themselves and their children in check.

Scene from the reenactment of the hanging of Mamachtaga, 2016.

But it might be possible for the historical society to discuss not only the initial crime, but the trial, and even the execution on a broader historical base. They could do it without the spectacle, without the white guy in red face, and without the jokes. They are clearly a group made up of talented and intelligent people, but all of them have a blind spot that they seem unwilling to understand or even address.

Unlike the historical society, the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee doesn’t have the privilege of distance from the killing they reenact. The lynching victims being portrayed every July aren’t just some random Indians with difficult to pronounce names. They are George and Mae Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom – the real victims of a real lynching that happened in the 1940s. The case, reopened by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in 2001 and then by the FBI in 2006, is still unsolved. There are likely people still living in Walton County who took part in the lynching. They still walk free.

These connections are raw and real for the black community in Walton County. Similarly, the depiction of the hanging of Mamachtaga, the Delaware Indian, clearly resonates profoundly with the tribe. The Westmoreland County Historical Society has an opportunity to make this connection, to heal the damage they ignorantly caused. But will they take it?

If whites and blacks in Walton County, Georgia could do this less than a lifetime after an unsolved mass lynching, certainly whites in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania can at least attempt a similar coalition with the Delaware Tribe.

Loy Harrison (right), Coroner WT Brown (center) and Sheriff JM Bond (left) at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Georgia on 26 July 1946.

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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.

2 thoughts on “The Reenactment of Two Executions

    1. True true. On a better note, according to the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s Facebook page, they will be meeting with the Delaware Tribe to discuss how to fix such things.

      While the reenactment itself was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but the jokes made it not only ahistorical, but genuinely repugnant.

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