Magazine article Nieman Reports

H.L. Mencken: Courage in a Time of Lynching: Subscriptions Were Cancelled, Threats Made on Him and Sunpapers' Staff, and Advertisers' Products Were Boycotted, but Mencken's Words Were Published

Magazine article Nieman Reports

H.L. Mencken: Courage in a Time of Lynching: Subscriptions Were Cancelled, Threats Made on Him and Sunpapers' Staff, and Advertisers' Products Were Boycotted, but Mencken's Words Were Published

Article excerpt

On December 4, 1931, on the I Eastern Shore of Maryland, an African American named Matthew Williams shot and killed his white employer, then turned a pistol on himself, inflicting a wound. Staggering away from the scene of the crime, he was shot by the employer's son, then arrested and taken to a Salisbury hospital. Hours later, a mob descended on the building, seized Williams, dropped him from a window, dragged him to the courthouse green, and hung him from a tree. A crowd of 2,000 men, women and children cheered. The body was then doused with gasoline and burned. One member of the mob cut off several of Williams's toes and carried them off as souvenirs.

It was the first lynching the state had witnessed in 20 years. The local townspeople celebrated the occasion by draping the tree with an American flag.

"Had the outrage occurred in some other Southern state, this might have been the end of it," noted the New York Outlook. As it happened, the lynching occurred in Maryland, a state that took pride in the Sunpapers--the (Baltimore) Sun and the Evening Sun. The family-owned institution had a reputation for accuracy, fairness and independence, free from private interests. Its publisher, Paul Patterson, always stood by his men. On the lynching story, the Sunpapers lived up to their reputation. The editorial pages issued denunciations of the lynchers, demanding that the perpetrators be arrested and tried.

But it was the Sunpapers' most famous columnist, H.L. Mencken, who helped lead his newspaper into a contentious fight that raged for years. Mencken's fame, as journalist Alistair Cooke noted, was "rightly grounded on the vigor he brought to unpopular causes." At the end of all the controversies, even his enemies came to realize that Mencken's great strength was his courage.

Criticism of Press Cowardice

The 1931 lynching on the Eastern Shore revolted Mencken; he was furious that no one had done anything to stop Williams's murder, only one of more than 5,000 lynchings that had occurred in the United States since 1922. Equally disturbing was what Mencken perceived as the cowardice of some of the press on the Eastern Shore. Editors played down details of the atrocity in order to cool off the explosive atmosphere.

In his column--carried in the Sunpapers--Mencken singled out the Salisbury Times and the Cambridge Daily Banner as prime examples of "a degenerating process" that had been undermining the region for years. The Banner, Mencken said, had criticized the lynching "formally, but only formally." The Salisbury Times, he wrote, "went to almost incredible length of dismissing the atrocity as a 'demonstration.' Well, the word somehow fits. It was indeed a demonstration of what civilization can come to in a region wherein there are no competent police, little save a simian self-seeking in public office, no apparent intelligence on the bench, and no courage and decency in the local press. Certainly it would be irrational to ask for enlightenment in communities whose ideas are supplied by such pathetic sheets as the Cambridge Daily Banner and the Salisbury Times." Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunpapers' cartoonist Edmund Duffy drew a sketch of the lynching to accompany Mencken's article on the editorial page, ironically captioning his cartoon with the title of the state anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland."

Editors from the Worcester Democrat of Pocomoke City, Maryland accused Mencken and Duffy of being "jealous" because they had not gotten to "enjoy" the lynching. Mencken reprinted extracts from the Worcester Democrat in his subsequent column. "They serve very well," he wrote, "to show what effect the lynching spirit, if it is allowed to go unchecked, has upon the minds of simple people--even upon the more literate minority thereof." The Eastern Shore, Mencken wrote, was being run by "its poor white trash" that still accepted "the brutish imbecilities" of the Ku Klux Klan. …

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