This is a sad topic but one I have been mulling over, particularly lately after running across an old newspaper article that I hadn’t read before — about the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, Maryland.
And if you know anything about the history of lynchings, you know them to have been gruesome macabre killings — a shameful part of our past. I have probably focused on the disturbing historical topic more than most people, but even I was affected by this article I read recently. The experience prompted me to think about that term “souvenir.”
Souvenir — an object that recalls a certain place, occasion, or person; a memento. And for those who know about lynchings, the collection of souvenirs, of momentos, was part of the ritual for some of the white people participating in and witnessing a lynching. It was a practice that defies interpretation, as elusive as understanding the practice of lynching itself. This image, one from a collection of newspapers courtesy Mike Dixon, of crowd members sifting through the remnants of the fire where they burned George White at the stake near Wilmington, Delaware in 1903 — sifting through the ashes, long after White’s body was removed. White people witnessing lynchings of African Americans would take all sorts of souvenirs — photographs taken of the event, cut lengths of rope, chipped pieces of a lynching tree, even body parts and ashes. The practice is widely written about in books and articles about this history.
Well, the other day, I ran across a different type of souvenir, a reminder to me that during such unimaginable violence, some people took souvenirs for a different reason — to be a reminder that what seemed like a nightmare was very real, that it hadn’t been just a horrible dream.
Matthew Williams was lynched on December 4, 1931, dragged from the hospital in Salisbury to the courthouse lawn, killed by hanging, then the body burned with gallons of gasoline. But he was not the only one to die.
The Baltimore Afro-American sent reporters to cover the story after the lynching. As a black-owned newspaper, it added a unique point of view different from the white-owned newspapers. At least two Baltimore Afro-American reporters were there the days after the lynching, and this was the only newspaper to have reported on another death which occurred the day after the lynching. The newspaper reported on an unidentified man who was attacked and brutally murdered.
One of the Baltimore Afro-American reporters was Ralph Matthews. His name did not appear in the bylines for the articles he wrote. But he had a regular column in the weekly newspaper. And that column was seldom a serious news story, more of a personal reflection and he was known to cover lifestyle and the arts. But days after the Matthew Williams lynching and after completing his stories covering the sensational events, he sat down to compete the last of his writing obligations for the issue, his column. He had to be distraught over what he had witnessed. He had gotten to see Williams’ brutalized and charred body. He had also seen the tortured body of the unidentified man beaten to death. He covered other aspects of the stories. It all had to affect him.
Well, he too collected souvenirs. His actions had to have been spontaneous and automatic, with his mind grappling with the thoughts, “Is all this real?” I will not include all of what he wrote in the column which was not to be about the lynching, only a reflection of life. But all of this happened weeks before Christmas. So after reflecting on the holidays, his mind seemed to meander throughout his article, until he ended it:
Even as I write, I am twiddling a leaf that I lifted from the charred remains of one Matthew Williams who was hanged and burned in Salisbury, Maryland. Before me lies a bit of garment that I snatched from the unidentified man whose mutilated body was found not far from the lynching scene.
My observations on these tragedies are elsewhere in the paper, but this column must be filled. I must think up jokes, with these gruesome spectacles floating before my eyes — the show must go on.
It was a forlorn column, different from his usual weekly columns. It was melancholy and oddly written. It rather mesmerized me thinking of the man, likely sitting at his desk, fiddling with that leaf and piece of cloth, trying to make sense of a nightmare.