Friday, 19 December 2014


   BLACK            SOCIAL          HISTORY                                                                                                  

Lynching of Laura and L.D. Nelson

Lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson
There are two known images of this scene, this one, numbered 2899, and another, numbered 2897. Seth Archer writes of number 2897 that there are 58 spectators in the photograph: 35 men, 6 women and 17 children.[1]
DateMay 25, 1911
LocationAround six miles west and one mile south of Okemah, Oklahoma, on a bridge across the North Canadian River – a different bridge in what is probably the same location now carries State Highway 56.
Coordinates35°25′46″N 96°24′28″W
PhotographerGeorge Henry Farnum
Laura and L.D. Nelson (born 1878 and 1897)[2] were an African-American mother and son who were lynched on May 25, 1911, near Okemah, the county seat of Okfuskee CountyOklahoma.[3]
Laura, her husband Austin, their teenage son L.D., and possibly their child had been taken into custody after George Loney, Okemah's deputy sheriff, and three others arrived at the Nelsons' home on May 2, 1911, to investigate the theft of a cow. The son shot Loney, who was hit in the leg and bled to death; Laura was reportedly the first to grab the gun and was charged with murder, along with her son. Her husband pleaded guilty to larceny, and was sent to the relative safety of the state prison inMcAlester. The son L.D. Nelson was held in the county jail in Okemah and the mother Laura in a cell in the nearby courthouse to await trial.[4]
At around midnight on May 24, Laura and L.D. Nelson were both kidnapped from their cells by a group of between a dozen and 40 men; the group included Charley Guthrie (1879–1956), the father of folk singer Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), according to a statement given in 1977 by the former's brother.[5] The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in July 1911 that Laura was raped, then she and L.D. were hanged from a bridge over the North Canadian River.[6] According to some sources, Laura had a baby with her at the time, who one witness said survived the attack.[7]
Sightseers gathered on the bridge the following morning and photographs of the hanging bodies were sold as postcards; the one of Laura is the only known surviving photograph of a female lynching victim.[8] No one was ever charged with the murders; the district judge convened a grand jury, but the killers were never identified.[9] Although Woody Guthrie was not born until 14 months after the lynching, the photographs and his father's reported involvement had a lasting effect on him, and he wrote several songs about the killings.[10]
The Nelsons were among at least 4,743 people lynched in the United States between 1888 and 1968, 3,446 (72.7 percent) of them black, 73 percent of them in the South, around 150 of them women.[11]


Nelson family

West Broadway Street, Okemah, in 2010. The Nelsons were taken to the county jail, then located at 510 West Broadway.[12]
The Nelsons lived on a farm six miles north of Paden, Oklahoma.[13] Austin was born in Waco, Texas, in 1873; historian Frances Jones-Sneed writes that his parents, Dave and Rhoda Nelson, had been born into slavery in Georgia, and had moved the family to Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, in 1900. Oklahoma Territory was reported in 1892 to be around 85 percent white, 10 percent black and 5 percent Indian. After Oklahoma was awarded statehood in 1907, the black population continued to increase. Jones-Sneed writes that blacks believed they had more chance of gaining freedom and land in the western territories than in the Deep South, but there were numerous settlers from the south in the new state who continued to discriminate against blacks and practice segregation. [14]
By the time the extended family moved to Oklahoma in 1900, Austin and Laura had been married for four years, and had a three-year-old son, referred to variously as L.D., L.W., and Lawrence. According to Jones-Sneed, Austin and Laura were listed in the 1910 census as having two children, L.D., aged 13, and Carrie, aged two. It is not known what became of Carrie. She may have been the baby one witness said survived.[15]

George Loney

Deputy Sheriff George H. Loney a European American was about 35 years old when he died, had lived in Paden for several years, and was held in the highest respect, according to The Okemah Ledger. Described by the newspaper as a fearless man, he was known for having helped to stop the practice of bootlegging in Paden, on behalf of supporters of the local temperance movement. He became a state enforcement officer after that, then deputy sheriff.[16] He was buried in Lincoln County near Paden on May 4, 1911. TheLedger wrote that every office in the courthouse was closed for an hour during his funeral.[16]


There were 147 recorded lynchings in Oklahoma between 1885 and 1930, the year of the last known lynching there; many are believed to have been unrecorded. Most were by hanging, some by burning. The Oklahoma Historical Society writes that until 1907, most of the victims were white cattle rustlers or highwaymen. But, after Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907 with a constitution that enshrined racial segregation (Jim Crow laws) and the state population increased, lynching became part of a racist ideology to maintain white supremacy. Most of the victims thereafter were black. This was also the period in which blacks were being adisfranchised by new laws and constitutions in the South that made voter registration and voting more difficult. In the total lynchings between 1885 and 1930, 77 victims were white, 50 black, 14 American Indian, 5 unknown and 1 Chinese.[17]
Of the 4,743 people lynched in the United States between 1888 and 1968, Crystal Feimster writes that at least 150 were women. Kerry Segrave gives the figure as 115 – 90 of them black, 19 white and six Hispanic, "half-breed" or uncertain.[11] Most of them were lynched along with men; of 97 incidents examined by Segrave, only 36 were of women lynched alone.[18] She writes that five women are known to have been lynched in Oklahoma between 1851 and 1946, two of them black, two white and one other.[19]

Death of Loney


Front page of The Okemah Ledger, May 4, 1911. Also see the report in The Independent (Okemah) on the same date.
According to the Ledger, reporting the shooting on May 4, 1911, Loney had formed a posse consisting of himself, Constable Cliff Martin, Claude Littrell and Oscar Lane, after a cow was stolen from Littrell's property on May 1.[20] Littrell swore out a search warrant before A.W. Jenkins, a Justice of the Peace, which allowed the men to search the Nelsons' farm. They arrived there on May 2 at around 9 p.m., and read out the warrant to Austin before entering the house to begin the search.[21] According to the Ledger they found part of the butchered remains hidden under some hay in the Nelsons' barn; according to The Independent (Okemah) they found the remains in the house.[22]
When the men entered the Nelsons' home, Loney asked Constable Martin to take the cap off a muzzle-loading shotgun that was hanging on the wall. The Independent reported that, as Martin reached for the gun, Laura said: "Look here, boss, that gun belongs to me!" Martin said he told her the men had no intention of hurting anyone, but wanted only to unload the gun. According to the men, Laura grabbed another gun, a Winchester rifle, that was hidden behind a trunk.[23] The Ledger wrote that the son also grabbed the rifle, pumped a shell into it and fired.[16] The Independent offered a different version, writing that during a struggle for control of the rifle, it went off. The bullet passed through Constable Martin's pant legs, then hit Loney in the hip and entered his abdomen.[23]
The men, including Loney, retreated outside. The Ledger said that Laura's husband grabbed the rifle and tried to shoot Littrell, and during the ensuing gunfight, Loney took shelter behind a wagon. No one realized that he had been hit until he asked for water; according to the newspaper, Laura responded: "Let the white ____ die."[24] Loney reportedly bled to death within a matter of minutes. The Ledgerdescribed the incident as "one of the most cold blooded murders that has occurred in Okfuskee county."[16]

Arrests and charges

Austin was arrested by Constable Martin on the evening of the shooting, and taken to Okemah, where they arrived at 4 am on Wednesday, May 3.[23] The Okfuskee county jail was in Okemah, a predominantly white town; Harry Menig writes that in 1911 the local school had 555 white students and one black.[25] Laura and her son – described by the Ledger as "about sixteen years old, rather yellow [meaning mixed race], ignorant and ragged" – were arrested later that day.[16] Sheriff Dunnegan found them several miles away at the home of the boy's uncle. The Independentreported that they made no effort to escape and were brought to the county jail on the night train.[23]
Austin admitted the theft of the cow, saying he had had nothing for his children to eat.[23] According to his undated charge sheet, witnesses for the state were Littrell, Martin, Lane and Lawrence Payne.[26] His account of what happened tallied with that of the posse, except that he said he was the one, not Laura, who had objected to the shotgun being removed from the wall, and that Laura was trying to take the rifle away from her son when it was fired.[23]
During a hearing on May 6 before Justice Lawrence, Austin was held on a bond of $1,500, which he was unable to pay. On May 10, before the same judge, Laura and her son, named by the Ledger as Mary and L.W. Nelson, were charged with murder and held without bail. The Nelsons hired a law firm, Blakley, Maxy & Miley of Shawnee, Oklahoma, to represent them.[27] Austin pleaded guilty to larceny and on May 12 was sentenced to three years' imprisonment.[28] He was sent to the state prison in McAlester 59 miles (95 km) away, which the Ledger wrote probably saved his life.[29]
The Ledger reported on May 18, under the headline "Negro Female Prisoner Gets Unruly," that on May 13 Laura had been "bad," when the jailer, Lawrence Payne, brought her dinner. She reportedly tried to grab his gun when he opened her cell door, and when that failed tried to throw herself out of a window. Payne "choked the woman loose," according to the newspaper, and after a struggle returned her to her cell.[30] The Ledger wrote on May 25 that during the incident she had "begged to be killed."[29]



Laura and her son were due to be arraigned on May 25.[31] Between 11:30 and midnight on May 24, a group of between a dozen and 40 men arrived at the jail. They entered it through the front door of the sheriff's office, which Payne, the jailer, said he had left unlocked to let in a detective from McAlester, who was looking for an escaped prisoner.[29]Payne said the men bound, gagged and blindfolded him at gunpoint, took his keys, and cut the telephone line. He was unable to identify any of them.[31]
The boy was "stifled and gagged," according to the Ledger, and went quietly; prisoners in adjoining cells reportedly heard nothing. The men went to the women's cells and removed Laura, described by the newspaper as "very small of stature, very black, about thirty-five years old, and vicious."[29] According to a July 1911 report in The Crisis, and a woman who said she saw the lynching or its aftermath, the men also took the baby.[7] The jailer said that, after struggling for two hours, he was able to escape and raise the alarm at Moon's restaurant across the road from the jail, after which Sheriff Dunnegan sent out a search party, to no avail.[32] The Ledger reported that a fence post suspended on two chairs across a window was found in the jury room just after the lynching, near the cell where Laura had been held. It was thought that the men had intended to hang Laura out of the window, but were deterred by an electric light that was burning nearby.[29]


L.D.'s partially clothed body
Laura and L.D. were taken to a bridge over the North Canadian River, six miles west and one mile south of Okemah; the bridge was variously described as on the old Schoolton road, and at Yarbrough's crossing.[33] According to a July 1911 report in The Crisis, members of the mob raped Laura.[34] The Ledger reported that they gagged her and L.D. with tow sacks and, using a rope made of half-inch hemp tied in a hangman's knot, hanged them from the bridge.[29]
The front page of The Okemah Ledger on May 25 said the lynching was "executed with silent precision that makes it appear as a masterpiece of planning ..." It reported: "The woman's arms were swinging by her side, untied, while about twenty feet away swung the boy with his clothes partly torn off and his hands tided with a saddle string. The only marks on either body were that made by the ropes upon the necks. Gently swaying in the wind, the ghastly spectacle was discovered this morning by a negro boy taking his cow to water. Hundreds of people from Okemah and the western part of the county went to view the scene."[29]
John Earnest, who lived nearby, telephoned the sheriff's office to report the discovery of the bodies.[31] They were cut down from the bridge at 11:00 by order of the county commissioner, then taken to Okemah.[29] According to Payne, the jailer, the Nelsons' relatives did not claim the bodies, and they were buried by the county in the Greenleaf cemetery near Okemah.[35]
A report in The Crisis in July 1911, quoting the Muskogee Scimitar, suggested that Laura had a baby with her at some point; it referred to "[a] woman taken from her suckling babe."[36] It is not clear whether the baby was Carrie or another baby of Laura's, or what became of the child. William Bittle and Gilbert Geis wrote in 1964 that Laura had been caring for a baby while in jail, and had the child with her when she was taken from her cell. They quoted a woman who said she was a witness – either to the lynching or its aftermath – who said that Laura had placed the baby on the ground when she was forced onto the bridge, and that the baby survived: "After they had hung them up, those men just walked off and left that baby lying there. One of my neighbors was there, and she picked the baby up and brought it to town, and we took care of it. It's all grown up now and lives here."[7]
James Allen bought this image of Laura for $75 in a flea market.

Photographs and postcards

The scene after the lynching was recorded in a series of photographs by George Henry Farnum (1884–1931),[37] the owner of Okemah's only photography studio.[38] He took several pictures from a boat, including two close-up shots; one of them shows 58 onlookers on the bridge – 35 men, 6 women and 17 children – with the two bodies hanging below.[1] There are four known extant images: photograph number 2894 is L.D., 2897 is the bridge, 2898 is Laura and 2899 is the bridge again.[39]
It was common practice at the time to turn lynching photographs into postcards and sell them in local stores as souvenirs. According to journalist J.R. Moehringer, they were as common as postcards of Niagara Falls, and when the U.S. Postal Service banned them in 1908 from being sent through the mail, the cards still sold well door to door.[40] Woodie Guthrie recalled seeing the cards of Laura and L.D. for sale in Okemah.[41] Those appearing in the photographs appeared to show no shame at being connected to the event, even when they were clearly identifiable. One card, of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916, says on the back: "This is the Barbecue we had last night My picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe."[42]
Atlanta antiques collector James Allen wrote in 2000 that a trader in a flea market offered, "in conspiratorial tones," to sell him a photo postcard of Laura for $75, "caught so pitiful and tattered and beyond retrieving – like a paper kite sagged on a utility wire."[43] "Grief and a haunting unreality permeate this photo," he wrote. "The corpse of Laura Nelson retains an indissoluble femininity despite the horror inflicted on it. Specter like, she seems to float – thistledown light and implausibly still."[44]


Legal and political

The Independent, May 25, 1911
The Independent wrote on May 25, 1911, that "[t]here is not a shadow of an excuse for the crime," and later called it a "terrible blot on Okfuskee County, a reproach that it will take years to remove."[45] The Ledger wrote that "while the general sentiment is adverse to the method, it is generally thought that the negroes got what would have been due them under due process of law."[29] According to The Crisis, one newspaper tried to lay the blame on the black community, writing that the Nelsons had been "mobbed by Negroes."[46] Blacks in Oklahoma and elsewhere expressed outrage at the killings. One black journal lamented:
"Oh! where is that christian spirit we hear so much about
– What will the good citizens do to apprehend these mobs
– Wait, we shall see – Comment is unnecessary. Such a crime is simply Hell on Earth. No excuse can be set forth to justify the act.[47]
There were rumors that the nearby black town of Boley was organizing an attack on Okemah; Okemah's women and children were sent to spend the night in a nearby field, with the men standing guard on Main Street.[48] Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote in protest to Lee Cruce (1863–1933), governor of Oklahoma. Cruce assured Villard he would do everything he could to bring the killers to justice. He defended the laws of Oklahoma as "adequate" and its "juries competent," and said that the administration of justice in the state proceeded with little cause for criticism, "except in cases of extreme passion, which no law and no civilization can control."[49] He added:
There is a race prejudice that exists between the white and Negro races wherever the Negroes are found in large numbers. ... Just this week the announcement comes as a shock to the people of Oklahoma that the Secretary of the Interior ... has appointed a Negro from Kansas to come to Oklahoma and take charge of the supervision of the Indian schools of this State. There is no race of people on earth that has more antipathy for the Negro race than the Indian race, and yet these people, numbering many of the best citizens of this State and nation, are to be humbled and their prejudices and passions are to be increased by having this outrage imposed upon them ... If your organization would interest itself to the extent of seeing that such outrages as this are not perpetrated against our people, there would be fewer lynchings in the South than at this time ...[49]
The NAACP argued that nothing would change while governors like Cruce sought to excuse lynching as the product of the "uncontrollable passion" of white people to exact what they perceived as justice.[50] District Judge John Caruthers convened a grand jury in June 1911 to investigate, telling them it was the duty of people "of a superior race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race from unjustifiable and lawless attacks," but no one would identify the lynchers.[51]

Charley and Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, whose father took part in the lynching
O, don't kill my baby and my son,
O, don't kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don't kill my baby and my son.
Among those reportedly associated with the lynching was Charley Guthrie, a real estate broker, district court clerk and local Democratic politician. He was also the father of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who was born 14 months after the lynching.[53] Woody Guthrie said that his father was briefly an under-sheriff in Okemah; whether this was before or after the lynching is unknown, and Will Kaufman makes clear that Woody's writings are not always historically accurate.[54] According to the journalist Joe Klein, Charley Guthrie was a member of the local Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's, though at that time it was less concerned with race and more with preventing crime; Klein called it the "martial arm of the Chamber of Commerce."[55] Kaufman writes that there is no documentary evidence that Charley was a Klansman.[54]
Klein interviewed Charley's brother, Claude, in 1977 for his Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980). In a taped interview, Claude said that Charley had been involved in both the arrest and the lynching of the Nelsons:
It was pretty bad back there in them days ... The niggers was pretty bad over there in Boley, you know ... Charley and them, they throwed this nigger and his mother in jail, both of them, the boy and the woman. And that night, why they stuck out and hung [laughter], they hung them niggers that killed that sheriff ... I just kind of laughed [laughter]. I knew darn well that rascal [Charley] was – I knew he was in on it.[5]
Klein included in his book that Charley had been part of the lynching mob, but without referring to the interview.[56] Seth Archer found the tape in 2005 in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York, and reported Claude's statement in the Southwest Review in 2006.[5]
Woody Guthrie wrote several times about the lynching, including in "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son," "Slipknot," and "High Balladree," writing in the third: "A nickel postcard I buy off your rack / To show you what happens if / You're black and fight back / A lady and two boys hanging / down by their necks / From the rusty iron rigs / of my Canadian Bridge."[57] Mark Allan Jackson writes that in 1946 Guthrie alluded to the killings in a sketch, now held by the Ralph Rinzler archives, depicting a stylized bridge from which a row of lynched bodies hang, the crumbling buildings of a decayed city in the background.[58]

Publication of the photographs

James Allen spent years looking for postcards of lynchings to publish in his Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000). The book accompanied an exhibition of 130 lynching postcards from 1880 to 1960 – including the photographs of Laura and L.D. – which opened at the Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York in January 2000.[59] Allen argued that lynching photographers were more than passive spectators; they positioned and lit the corpses as if they were game birds, and the postcards became an important part of the ritual, emphasizing the political nature of the act. He wrote that the cards engendered in him a "caution of whites, of the majority, of the young, of religion, of the accepted."[60]
Seth Archer in the Southwest Review compared them to the images from Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, where U.S. service personnel were photographed humiliating their Iraqi prisoners. He writes that lynching photographs were partly intended as a warning, in the Nelson's case to the neighboring all-black Boley – "look what we did here, Negroes beware" – but the practice of sending the cards to family and friends outside the area underlined the ritualistic nature of the lynchings, death as a community exhibit. That lynchings are now viewed with horror in the United States is in part, Archer writes, because white Americans came to see black Americans as human, though he adds that, if the lynchers saw their victims as less human than themselves, "what could members of a lynch mob possibly picture black people to be, if they were less human than the mob that lynched them?"[61]
There was both support and considerable criticism of Allen for having published the images. Julian Hotton, a black museum curator in New York, told J.R. Moehringer that, with older blacks especially: "If they hear a white man with a Southern accent is collecting these photos, they get a little skittish."[62] Regarding the photograph of Laura, the sexist or sexualized descriptions of her from Allen and other writers provoked discussion. Wendy Wolters argues that Laura went through what Marianne Hirsch, writing about Holocaust photography, called a "total death." She was killed by lynchers, was the object of the spectators' gaze on the bridge, and is violated again when we look at her as a "fetishized and feminized object."[63]