An Iconic Lynching in the North

Scholar-Griot: Fran Kaplan, EdD

 

MARION, INDIANA. August 7, 1930. In the dark before dawn, County Sheriff Jacob Campbell and his officers arrested four black teenagers in their homes. By evening, two would be dead.

The Accused

James Cameron, 16, and Abram Smith, 19, were shoeshine boys. Thomas Shipp, 18, worked at Malleable, a foundry. Robert Sullivan’s occupation is unknown.

They were taken to the fortress-like jail in downtown Marion, the county seat1, population 25,000. There the sheriff and his men beat and interrogated each boy separately until they extracted confessions. Afterwards Tommy, Abe, and Jimmy were locked into separate cells to await trial. For some reason, Robert was released.

The Crime and the Victims

The sheriff charged the boys with raping a white teenager, Mary Ball, 19, and shooting a white man, Claude Deeter, 23, the night before.
It was the beginning of the Great Depression.2 Claude, eldest son of farming family, had been laid off earlier that day from his foundry job at Superior Body.3 Townspeople described Mary in very different ways: loose, a prostitute, Claude’s fiancée,  Abram’s girlfriend.

Claude had taken Mary to Lovers’ Lane4, a clearing by the river just outside of Marion. The boys crept up on them, pulled them from the car and held them up at gunpoint for money. Supposedly they raped Mary, then beat and shot Claude several times before driving off. A nearby farmer answered Mary’s cries for help and took Claude to the hospital.

Word Spreads Far and Wide

On that hot August day, while Claude fought for his life, the news of Mary’s rape spread like wildfire. People talked about it all over Marion. They called their relatives and friends in nearby towns and farms. Word even reached cities and towns one hundred miles away.

Marion’s police chief hung Claude’s bloody shirt out the window of the police station like a flag. Crowds of angry white people began to gather around the jail where the black teens were being held.

By early afternoon, Claude died. Word that a hanging was planned had reached across Indiana. Whites were pouring into town by interurban trains5, automobiles and farm wagons to witness the spectacle. The crowd was estimated at ten to fifteen thousand men, women and children.

Many black families hurried out to Weaver, an all-black town nearby. Others stayed in Marion and prepared for an attack on their neighborhoods by white rioters.

The Lynching

By evening the crowd was demanding that Sheriff Campbell turn the accused boys over to them. When he refused, strong young men brought sledge hammers from the nearby foundries. They broke the brick around the iron entrance door. The lynching party surged into the jail and passed through unlocked doors to the cell blocks.6

They brought Tommy out first. The crowd dragged him along the cobblestone street, beating his body with bricks, crowbars, high-heeled shoes, and boards. Someone brought a rope. They tied it around the barely conscious boy and pulled him back to the jail. There they hanged him from the window bars.

Abe was next. The mob beat and dragged him down the street to one of the large trees around the courthouse. When the lynchers started to pull him up, Abe tried to pull the noose from his neck. They lowered him down, stabbed him, and broke his arms. Then they pull him up again.

Three eyewitnesses describe the lynching:

The lynching party brought Tommy’s lifeless body and hung it next to Abe’s. Photographer Laurence Beitler took a formal portrait of the dead boys and crowd.

Then they called for Jimmy. They beat him badly, dragging him from the jail to the square. They stood him between Abe's and Tommy's bodies and placed a noose around his neck.

The Miracle

Suddenly a voice rang out, “Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or killing.” Miraculously, the crowd calmed down, and Jimmy stumbled back to jail. Later the crowd became occupied with trying to start fires under the two hanged boys. Sheriff Campbell’s men sneaked Jimmy out of town to another jail for safekeeping.

Serving Time

Jimmy Cameron spent a year in jail awaiting trial. At his trial, Mary Ball testified that she had not been raped after all. The all-white jury believed Cameron’s story. He said that he had run away from Lover’s Lane when he recognized Claude Deeter as his regular shoeshine customer. He was not there when Deeter was shot.

The judge sentenced Cameron to two to twenty-one years as an accessory before the fact.8 He served four years in the Indiana State Reformatory before being paroled.

What Happened to the Lynchers

Despite the photograph and what eyewitnesses told investigator Walter White shortly after the event, townspeople claimed not to recognize any of the lynchers. None were ever brought to justice.

What Happened to Cameron

Fifty-eight years later, in 1993, Indiana Governor Evan Bayh officially pardoned Cameron in a ceremony in Marion. Cameron was also given a key to the city.

During his life, Cameron became an entrepreneur, father of five, civil rights activist, and founder of this museum. He taught people to “forgive but not forget” and to be “better, not bitter.”

Find out more about Dr. Cameron’s life here.

Endnotes:

1. A county seat is the “capital” of a county, where the county government is located. County seats have a county courthouse and jail, usually in the center of town.

2The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted for about ten years. People in the U.S. and around the world suffered from very high unemployment and wide-spread poverty.

3Marion was surrounded by farms. Many farmers earned extra money by working at the factories in town too, or by sending their older children to work there.

4A “Lovers’ Lane” is a private outdoor spot where young couples go to hang out together in cars to talk and make out.

5At that time, many trains ran between towns and cities. People from as far away as Gary (150 miles) and Indianapolis (80 miles) came by train to witness the planned lynching.

6No one knows why the iron-barred doors had been left unlocked.

7He lost a kidney in the beating and had terrible headaches for months afterwards from a concussion.

8An “accessory before the fact” is a person who helps set up a crime but is not there when it is committed.

Sources:

  • Cameron, James. A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1994.
  • Carr, Cynthia. Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, A Haunted Town, and the Hidden History. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
  • Madison, James H. A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

Dr. Kaplan, independent scholar, filmmaker, and social activist, is Coordinator of the America's Black Holocaust Virtual Museum. She co-authored an award-winning screenplay, Fruit of the Tree, based on the life of James Cameron. Dr. Kaplan served as Managing Editor and co-wrote the introduction to the expanded 3rd edition of Dr. Cameron's memoir, A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story.

28 Comments

  1. Michael Stone on March 5, 2012 at 5:41 PM

    Now we know why these
    Tornados are tearing these towns apart! The sins of the parents.

  2. America's Black Holocaust Museum | Dr. James Cameron, Museum Founder and Lynching Survivor on April 20, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    […] was just sixteen years old in 1930, when he and two other black teenagers were brutally lynched. Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith died, but, miraculously, with the rope already around his neck, James […]

  3. Steven Holmes on May 1, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    The United States of America needs to acknowledge the fact that they were/are no better than Hitler’s Nazi’s or Tojo’s Rising Sun Japanese or Bin Laden’s terrorists/killers. As Kanye said, America hates black people. This will never change. All countries/societies need to have a minority to hate and want to kill to make themselves feel superior to those weaker or completely outnumbered by the majority. Humans are very sick creatures.

  4. Damon on June 1, 2012 at 1:37 AM

    This doesn’t suprise.me at all. The entire black community suffers from 400 years of post traumatic stress. Where are our reparations? Were is our justice? Who built this country for free? Who is still discriminated against & oppressed? & they say “we aren’t responsible for what our forefathers did” But they enjoy the benefits of what their forefathers did. I’m 31 & old enough to hear my grandfather tell lynching stories when I was 18 but the say it was hundreds of years ago. I forgive but never forget! Vengeance belongs to the MOST HIGH GOD! Obadiah chapter 2 & Isaiah chapter 1 eases the pain.

  5. America's Black Holocaust Museum | Remembering Dr. James Cameron, 1914-2006 on June 12, 2012 at 1:53 PM

    […] the lynching he barely survived as a teenager, Cameron believed in the possibility of redemption and practiced […]

  6. Apryl on December 13, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    am i the only one freaked out about the elderly lady smiling when shes talking about this?

    • dr_fran on December 13, 2012 at 7:47 AM

      I find it very creepy too.

  7. talon fritch on November 4, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    this is very helpful to me for my research.

  8. tebeth crowe on November 13, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    If this story wasn’t bad enough, I suddenly found myself wanting to vomit after reading ” At his trial, Mary Ball testified that she had not been raped after all.”

  9. rushfandan on January 7, 2014 at 8:25 PM

    This makes me feel disgusted for being from Marion. Racism is still there on ALL sides ( White, Black, Mexican, Jew and Catholic)

  10. Aaron Solomon on April 25, 2014 at 7:12 PM

    I wonder why Rorbert Sullivan was released and what became of him after that whole mess?

  11. KOOLOUT / Check Out A Brief History Of The Government Oppressing Music on December 9, 2014 at 5:45 AM

    […] Holiday’s protest song “Strange Fruit,” written by the communist activist Abel Meeropol about the public lynchings of two black teenagers, faced an unofficial ban from radio stations due to its […]

  12. Tom on March 21, 2015 at 3:59 PM

    Steven Holmes wrote “The United States of America needs to acknowledge the fact that they were/are no better than Hitler’s Nazi’s or Tojo’s Rising Sun Japanese or Bin Laden’s terrorists/killers. As Kanye said, America hates black people. This will never change. All countries/societies need to have a minority to hate and want to kill to make themselves feel superior to those weaker or completely outnumbered by the majority.”

    Given the absolutely rampant murder and genocide that occurs on a daily basis in black Africa as well as the fact that according to the USDOJ the homicide rate for blacks in America is 6 times higher than that for whites with 93% of black homicide victims killed by OTHER BLACKS, meaning that blacks murder over 13 times more black people than are murdered by ALL OTHER RACES COMBINED, the above comments are pretty ridiculous. The homicide offender rate for blacks is also 7 times higher than for whites and between 1980 and 2008 blacks committed 52.5% of all homicides, more than all other races combined despite that they are less than 13% of the US population.

    It’s probably time to stop playing the racial victim card and start trying to figure out why blacks are so violent toward themselves.

    Source for the above numbers is the report: Homicide Trends in the United States 1980 – 2008 pages 11,12 and 13 which was released by the USDO BJS.

    • dr_fran on March 31, 2015 at 7:33 AM

      Tom, while the FBI Uniform Statistics report (latest 2011) indeed shows that almost 91% of black homicides were committed by black offenders, it also shows that 83% of white homicides were committed by white offenders. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-6. It is well documented that most homicides occur among people familiar with and closest each other (family members, friends, etc.), so in a highly residentially segregated society like ours, it should not surprise us that black mostly kill blacks and whites mostly kill whites. It’s probably time for you to acquire a more nuanced understanding of the roots of white America’s distorted view of black America’s criminality. I suggest you start by reading Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

    • LYNN on December 18, 2016 at 5:51 AM

      When black people kill other black they go to prison !!! When white people kill black people they don’t!!! White slave owners breed black peoples like animals moving a father or mother to another plantation being forced to breed again as time went on how in the hell do you know who you are kin to? A brother or sister from a different plantation may have had children together and didn’t know that they were related.

  13. Tom on March 21, 2015 at 4:07 PM

    Damon wrote: “This doesn’t suprise.me at all. The entire black community suffers from 400 years of post traumatic stress. Where are our reparations? ”

    Who would you like reparations from? The black African warrior tribes who enslaved your ancestors before selling them to the transatlantic slave trade?

    The ancestors of the thousands of black slave owners who owned slaves in the new world?

    Where are the white mans reparations for, beginning with the British Empire, ending slavery in our colonies and abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. How about for all the Union soldiers who fought and died to end it in the United States of America?

    How about our reparations for the fact that blacks are less than 13% of the population and between 1980 and 2008 managed to commit 52.5% of the murders?

    Source for the above numbers is the report: Homicide Trends in the United States 1980 – 2008 table 7 page 12. That report is courtesy of the Obama DOJ by the way.

    The hard cold fact is that slavery was the defacto norm throughout all of human history until it was abolished by white anglo saxon protestants. It certainly wasn’t abolished by any of the slave trading and owning tribes in black Africa. Of course in their defense they were simply doing what every other civilization had done since civilization began.

  14. TIFF retrospective focuses on early black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux | Eric Veillette on March 27, 2015 at 10:53 PM

    […] Cutting to the iconic photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men falsely accused of raping a white woman, Van Peebles adds: “Well, wouldn’t you […]

  15. Dena on March 29, 2015 at 6:13 PM

    Tom, you are in need of a history lesson on the origins of chattel slavery versus bonded or forced labor. I would give you one, but I’m not sure it would have any influence upon you. You have taken a story about the indisputable facts of a lynching and turned it into a hateful and misinformed treatise on the state of crime and race in the US. To quote Michael Eric Dyson, you have “statistical myopia.” You use statistics to justify an argument that does not exist. Is black-on-black crime a problem? Of course it is. The African-American community is more keenly aware of its existence than which you are prepared to give credit. To use black-on-black crime as an argument to defend the sins of the past though, is neither logical nor correct. You use these statistics to justify how African-Americans are treated. These assumptions are no different than of those who perpetrated lynchings.

  16. nanci on October 18, 2015 at 5:21 PM

    its sad how they didnt let the young boys get a fair trial, all because of some redneck liar, and its still going on today, by the way the white old woman was having fun talking about the lynching. She’s going straight to hell, I cant believe these rabbit dogs white people use to attend lynching parties. They were just a bunch of wild dogs, wanting to see death. The school system will never teach or bring these atrocities in the schools today. Did the families sue the town and state, for this brutal crime against their family members? I hope surviving families sue, because some lawsuits happen years after crimes against families happen in the 30’s and 40’s even 50’s

  17. nanci on October 18, 2015 at 5:32 PM

    The president at that time didnt do nothing about these crimes against blacks. Sometimes they would lynch an entire family, but now they want to justify blacks kill blacks, that happen by choice. Lynchings and burning black people alive did not come by choice. It wont be surprising if some of these killers and their family members are still alive today. They could be living among us. I agree with one blogger who said no wonder why there are so many tornadoes, and mud slides, rains washing away homes, its the sins they did in the 20’s and 30’s. The records on lynchings is incorrect, there were many more lynchings that were not recorded. Durings those times, there were lynching mobs, so they could lynch an innocent black person, and throw them down some river, and it wont be recorded. Blacks should be able to get benefits like the indians get today because of atrocities towards them, but blacks get absolutely nothing. Reading about the lynching of these young men, just because the white woman didnt want to blame her husband, its sickening. The same thing happen in the susan smith case, when she said a black man took her tow kids. I hope she suffer many years in prison. I saw her picture some time back, you wont believe it is susan, she is fat and bloated, good for her, she tried to pull the race card. Back in the 30 ‘s or 40’s hundreds of black men would have been lynched because of her lies. America will pay for its sins, they stood and let these bad things happen to innocent , poor black people, sometimes kids.

  18. nanci on October 18, 2015 at 5:43 PM

    dr fran, you fail to face the truth, thats why so many blacks were blamed and killed back in the 30’s and 40’s because its always a diversion from the truth. The truth is America and its leaders stood by and let the lynching laws survive for years, even decades. You want to swerve the issue on blacks killing blacks, and white killing white. The evidence is there, black people where killed by lynching mobs, they were chased out their homes, and the leaders pretending they could do nothing about it. No one wants to read a book that divert from the truth, people need to read the book ” Red Summer, Lyinchings in the 1900’ss, and Emmett Till, the killing and lynching of mary turner. Her family members have a website where they teach kids about what happen in the early 1900’s, not only about mary, but many unfortunate people in her circumstance. The president during those times said he could not do nothing about lynchings and killing of black people, so i am not surprise how you try to switch things around, but we know the truth. I dont need to hear it from you , or read a diversion of the truth.

    • dr_fran on October 27, 2015 at 6:13 PM

      Nanci, I’m afraid you misread my reply to Tom. I was actually trying to correct what I saw as misperceptions in his comments, above. I agree with you that blaming black people for lynching is blaming the victim and that it is appalling that this country has never passed a law against the vigilante murders called lynchings. I applaud anyone, like the family of Mary Turner, who are teaching Americans about this awful, tragic part of American history–as we are doing here at ABHM as well.

  19. Frank Doughton on November 12, 2015 at 4:12 AM

    My family settled in Marion, Indiana in the mid -to-late 1930’s. My mother, aunts, uncles – nor Grandmother never spoke about this incident. I found out about it through a news documentary detailing lynchings in America. I am making this comment today because I an writing a blog post describing my years growing up in Marion. during the 40’s and 50’s.

  20. juniesound on December 15, 2015 at 6:51 PM

    I live in Marion. So sad . . .

  21. Stuart V. Perry on April 9, 2016 at 3:14 AM

    The people in this photo are long dead. But their children and grand-children would recognize them- especially the smiling, sneering- wicked ones. They have to live with this knowledge.

  22. Jim Kelley on May 20, 2016 at 9:12 PM

    My dad may have been one of the last surviving witnesses. He lived across the street from the jail. His only memory of that day was that his mom wouldn’t let him off the porch. He was so mad at her. He was seven years old.

    My dad and mom never said anything racial to us. I grew up in Marion and had black friends and knew a lot of black people, went to school with them, and didn’t think that was unusual. My parents raised us with no racial biases. I thought that was normal. I didn’t know about what had happened in 1930 until I was much older. Nobody talked about it.

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