Relating Family Narratives and Textual Sources of Racial Terror: The 1878 Lynching of the Harris Family in Mount Vernon, Indiana

The poet and storyteller Andre Wilson and I have been contemplating how oral historical narratives passed through his father’s African American family about racial terror might be meaningfully compared with textual sources, nearly all of which were created by white authors. Wilson is the great great grandson of Jennie Harris (or Harrison) Lindsey, whose brothers Daniel Harris Jr. and John Harris, were both murdered by lynch mobs on or about October 10, 1878. (Some accounts give the family surname as Harrison or Harison.) Daniel Harris, Sr., who appears to have been Jennie’s stepfather, was, in turn, lynched by a white mob on October 11, 1878, at the Posey County Courthouse Square, in downtown Mount Vernon, Indiana, minutes before four other African American men were hanged by the white mob. The Harris brothers and the four hanged men were accused of having robbed and sexually assaulted three white sex workers; the evidence for these allegations, as has been widely noted, is highly dubious.

Over the years, Andre has collected multiple accounts of a racial terror killing in his family’s history, as told by his father the artist Fred Robert Wilson and his father’s mother Jennie Moore, They relayed stories that had been transmitted by Jennie Moore’s grandmother, Jennie Harris Lindsey, in some cases from eytwitness accounts by her own mother, Elizabeth.

African American oral historical accounts

The core story passed through the black family concerns their ancestor, “Daniel Harris” or “Daniel Harrison,” He is remembered as having come out of slavery with his wife and children, with tobacco seed obtained from his former owner, settling in Indiana. His seven daughters were harassed by a white man in the tobacco fields. Later, this white man sexually assaulted one of them. In response, Daniel confronted the white man, who dared Daniel to kill him. Daniel ultimately did kill the white man. One family account recalls him as “the first black man to kill a white man in the United States.” Following this, a white mob tied Daniel to a railroad car and set it on fire. This brutal murder took place, in one version of the story, in front of Daniel’s wife and daughters.

The various account continue that a group of “Masons” rescued Daniel from the burning rail car, either while he was still alive or after he had died. The Masons then interred Daniel’s body in a secret location, since the white murderers wanted to desecrate his body. In one account, Daniel’s wife was tortured by the white lynchers, but refused to divulge her late husband’s burial location, keeping the secret until the day she died. (In one version of the story, Daniel’s body was rescued and buried by sympathetic Native Americans). Daniel’s surviving family then fled to Illinois, where they continued farming.

So far as I can tell, these oral historical accounts conflate the three murders of the Harris men, a father and his two sons, on October 10 and 11, 1878. [I have earlier suggested that the Story of the Black Cat, passed down in Andre Wilson’s family, might itself be a poetic condensation of the murder of Daniel through fire.]

The precise circumstances of these October 1878 killings of the three Harris men remain somewhat murky. White-authored newspaper accounts assert that on October 10, the day before the spectacle lynching by hanging of four African American on the Posey County courthouse square, the brothers Daniel Harris Jr and John Harris were killed by white men in separate, less public incidents.

James Redwine, a white author who has researched the 1878 lynchings, gives several accounts of the killing of Daniel Harris, Jr. He claims that on October 10 that white killers forced Daniel Jr, whom they had been pursuing on trumped up charges of rape, into the firebox of a steam locomotive, where he was intentionally burned alive. Redwine reports that “Posey County native …Basil Stratton, told me that his grandfather, Walker Bennet, was an eyewitness . Walker told Basil that as a young boy he was present and saw several white men, including Walker’s father, force Harrison into the steam engine. Basil’s grandfather told Basil he never forgot the Black man’s screams and the smell of his burning flesh.” See this account. (Walker Bennett’s father was James Madison Bennett, c, 1826-28 December 1887, a blacksmith who had served in the Confederate Army in the 23rd Battalion, Tennessee Infantry (Newman’s), Company C. )

On the same day, Daniel Jr’s brother John was evidently murdered by white men, and his body stuffed into the hollow of a tree.

The night of October 10, according to Redwine, Daniel Harris Sr, the father of Daniel Jr and John Harris, met an attack on his home by a group of white men with armed resistance. In the exchange of fire, Cyrus Oscar Thomas, 1829-1878, was shot and killed, evidently by Daniel Harris Sr with a shotgun. Daniel Sr was wounded in the firefight and transported to jail. The next day, a white lynch mob attacked the jail and took him into the courthouse square, along with four other black men accused of the rape. The white killers hacked Daniel Sr to death and disposed of his bodily remains in the courthouse outhouse. Minutes later, the white lynch mob hanged the four other men from locusts tree in front of the courthouse.

Cyrus Oscar Thomas was, at the time, evidently running for the office of County Sheriff, and it seems possible that his targeting of black men in these attacks was part of a political strategy for building white support in the upcoming election.

Let us consider in terms the various key elements of the African American Harris/Harrison/Wilson family account, and see how they might match up with or differ from the white-authored texts.

  1. White sexual violation of a Harris daughter

In his book, Judge Lynch, a quasi-novelistic (some might say prurient) reconstruction of the events around the 1878 mass lynching, James Redwine presents Daniel Jr as having a surreptitious sexual affair with a white woman, leading to her secret mixed race daughter being covertly raised by Daniel’s Jr’s sister Jane. This accounts strikes me as highly unlikely. More likely, the possibility of some sort of sexual encounter or encounters between one of the Harris daughters and a white man certainly does seem credible, and is entirely consistent with the racialized sexual politics of the era. It may be that one or both the Harris brothers, Daniel Jr and John, were defending their sister against a white man, and this is what lead to the accusations against them of raping three white prostitutes.

Perhaps Daniel Harris Sr’s shooting of Cyrus Oscar Thomas has been translated or condensed in family memory to the story of his killing his daughter’s rapist. It is certainly possible that the white man that Daniel, Sr shot had in fact assaulted one of the Harris daughters.

In any event, it does appear that the deaths of the two Daniels have been conflated into a single murder in the family accounts.

  1. The Fire Train incident.

Redwine’s version, relying on the white grandson of a child eye witness, describes Daniel Jr as having been forced alive into a locomotive steam engine firebox. The African American family account, based on eye-witness recollections by Daniel’s widow and daughters, recalls a railway car being set on fire, with Daniel tied to the burning vehicle.

In both the white and African American accounts, the witnesses presumably were viewing the horrors from a distance, so the precise circumstances of the killing may have been difficult to ascertain. The firebox of steam locomotives had to be large enough for the fireman to rake coals evenly through its floor to create a standardized level of heat to create adequate steam, and needed to be regularly cleaned out, so was presumably large enough to accommodate an adult human body. On the face of it, it seems hard to imagine how the murderers could have forced a strong adult male into the burning fire car without being scorched themselves. In that respect, the African American versions’ reference to a the victim being tied to a burning railcar seem somewhat more credible.

  1. The “Masons”

Several iterations of the African American account speak of “The Masons” or a “Masconic Society” coming to Daniel’s aid, either rescuing while he was dying or securing his scorched body once he had died.

There were clearly African American Masons in Posey County, Indiana in the late 19th century. The Western Star newspaper reports African American Civil War veteran Pvt John Tyler Jefferson “died in Mt. Vernon at noon on November 10, 1894. “[H]is remains were interred by the Colored Masons.” (see: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/179094684/john-tyler-jefferson In turn, Purn Dickson Bishop, buried in Emancipation cemetery in Mount Vernon, was a member of Walden Lodge No. 17 of the Free and Accepted Masons and was one of the founders of the Gay Flower Lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/174074187/purn-dickson-bishop The Mt. Vernon Weekly Republican newspaper reported the Private Jasper Towns helped lead an 1886 initiative to revitalize Mt. Vernon’s Gay Flower Lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/207419977/jasper-towns

Further north in Indiana, the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, the nation’s oldest African American masonic order, had been present in Indianapolis as early as 1856, and it is possible they also were active in southwestern Indiana in the 1870s.

It seems reasonable that Daniel Harris Sr, who may have been a Civil War military veteran, was a member of a local Masonic Lodge, perhaps the International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF).

I have not seen any white-authored accounts of a secret burial of any member of the Harris family, although the story is certainly credible. Nor do any of the white accounts reference Elizabeth, Daniel Sr’s widow, being tortured by white vigilantes. I have not encountered grave records of any of the seven victims of the October 1878 lynching, although these may exist.

4. Flight to Indiana.

One of the African American accounts has it that immediately following the lynching of Daniel, the family fled across the Mississippi River to Illinois. Census and city directory records suggest that the surviving members of the Harris family moved to Evansville, in the adjacent county of Vanderburgh, Indiana, and then by 1900 some members, including Daniel Sr’s son Robert Harrision, had returned to Mount Vernon. By 1920, Robert, his wife and children were residing in Danville, Vermillon County, Illinois. Daniel Sr’s widow Elizabeth Harrison died in Danville on 5 April 1920

In this respect, the family story is basically accurate, although it seems have compressed the time between the lynching and the actual relocation to Illinois.

  1. Photographic Evidence

There does not appear to be any photograph record of the remains of Daniel Harris Sr or his son Daniel Jr and John. There is an infamous photograph at the four bodies of the hanging lynched victims. Jeff Hopkins, James Good, William Chambers, and Ed Warner (whose name was perhaps William Edwards), taken on October 11, 1878, in the Robert Langmuir Collection, Rose Library, Emory University. See: https://digital.library.emory.edu/catalog/3246q573t7-cor

The Mt Vernon Dollar Democrat, in October 1878 notes, “Mr. Jones, our artist, took photographs of the four Negroes lynched by the vigilants [sic] last Friday night.It is an excellent representation of the tragic scene.. Mr. Jones has copies for sale.” see https://jamesmredwine.com/1878-lynchings-pogrom/published-in-2005/

The white photographer must have been Leroy William Jones, (29 JAN 1843 -11 JUN 1921) He had a photographic studio in Mount Vernon, IN, from at least 1880 onward. He was a Civil War veteran (Company C, 25th Indiana Infantry Volunteers(. I am sure how many copies of the photograph were made and sold.

  1. Railroads and Lynching

Whether or not the murder of Daniel Jr took place in the steam engine firebox or on a burning railroad car, it it is worth nothing how ubiquitous trains, rail lines, rail yards, and rail bridges were in the history of American lynching from the end of Reconstruction onward. Perhaps the most infamous instance is the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899 in Newnan GA in which the local train company arranged for excursion fare for thousands of whites to witness his violent spectacle lynching, an event which arguably led W.E.B. DuBois to quit the South. Rail structures afforded high degree of visibility, and given that one of the core functions of racial terror lynching was to intimidate African American communities, it is perhaps not surprising that rail bridges and rail signal towers were used opportunistically as sites of display of lynched bodies by white perpetrators.

At the same time, the rails were also places of liberation, for those traveling north to the Promised Land in the Great Migration. Railroad employment provided economic upward mobility to Pullman Porters and many others. Yet. there is the dark side of railroad technology,that still casts a shadow to this day, Claude McCay, as a railroad porter who witnessed lynch mobs along rail lines, embodies this ambivalence in writing his poem “If we must die,” calling for armed resistance to white mobs.

Zygmunt Bauman’s book Modernity and the Holocaust, (2013) notes how intimately intertwined the mechanics of mass death during the Shoah were with industrial modernity, including rolling stock and train time tables. A comparable argument could certainly be developed about lynching. Technological triumph and white racial nationalism seem to have been integrally intertwined in many sectors of American society from the end of Reconstruction onward, and this may have overdetermined the horrific use of the railroad apparatus in racial terror.

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