Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, image accessed NPR.org.

After investigating over 4,000 incidents of “racial terrorism” that took place in the United States between 1877 and 1950 in the form of lynchings, the Equal Justice Initiative realized the trauma left in their wake had never been properly confronted by the nation. The EJI sought to remedy this and opened the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018. Memorial visitors first encounter sculptures of chained slaves before experiencing memorial square, an exhibition of 800 6-foot monuments that represent lynchings in each of the counties where they took place. The memorial concludes with a bronze sculpture that examines “contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice.”

Woven into the fabric of racially-motivated violence in America is a summer night in Marion, Indiana in 1930. On August 7, black teenagers Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron were held in the Marion jail for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. Before they could stand trial, a mob comprised of white residents tore the young men from their cells and brutally beat them, mutilating and hanging Shipp and Smith from a tree on the courthouse lawn. They intended to send a message to other African American residents, one which Marion NAACP leader Katherine “Flossie” Bailey scrambled to prevent.

A crowd at the Marion courthouse looks on following the lynching of Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Organization of American Historians.

Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took a photograph of the swinging bodies, capturing a white crowd that looked on in a mixture of satisfaction, hostility, amusement, and bewilderment. This photo was reproduced on postcards and circulated by the thousands. NPR noted that in the late 1930s white poet, activist, and Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol remained haunted by the image of “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” and penned a poem about the lynching, published by the teacher’s union. Inspired by Meeropol’s words, artists like Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, Sting, Kanye West, and Nina Simone have performed their own versions of “Strange Fruit.”

Historian Dr. James Madison contends that the Marion lynching continues to command attention because it took place outside of the Deep South and occurred after the Ku Klux Klan-prompted lynchings of the 1920s. The East Tennessee News noted weeks after the lynching that the “deplorable affair” confirmed the notion that “mob law” can break “forth in all its furry [sic] in North as readily as in the south.” The paper added that only the enactment of a federal law would “serve to discourage the tendency of irresponsible hoodlums who are inclined to take the law into their own hands.” Prior to August 7, 1930, it is believed that the last lynching in Indiana took place in 1902 in Sullivan County and the resurgence sent shockwaves through Indiana and around the nation.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

As white residents gathered on the afternoon of the 7th, formidable NAACP state president Flossie Bailey mobilized. Born in Kokomo, Bailey was described as a “hotrod,” “born leader,” and “superb organizer” for her tireless work with the NAACP. She established the Marion branch in 1918 and built it up, despite encountering apathy created by Great Depression conditions. She became head of the Indiana NAACP and offered her house as headquarters when Marion’s Spencer Hotel refused to accommodate black guests.

As the restless crowd hoisted Claude Deeter’s blood-stained shirt from the window of the Marion City building, Bailey called Sheriff Jacob Campbell to alert him to the mob’s plan to lynch the prisoners. According to NAACP acting secretary Walter White, upon Bailey’s phone call, Sherriff Campbell checked the jail’s garage and found that gasoline had been removed from the cars and the tires flattened, preventing transportation of the endangered prisoners. He made no attempt to procure working cars, despite three hours passing until the lynching. Bailey also called on Governor Harry G. Leslie’s secretary, operating in his absence, to dispatch troops to the restless city. He abruptly hung up on her.

Mary Ball, courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal, August 11, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Bailey tried to intervene, Mary Ball’s father, Hoot Ball, entered the jail to speak with Sheriff Campbell and, upon failing, the crowd broke into violence and stormed the jail. The Muncie Evening Press estimated that of the thousands gathered around the jail “only about 75 men actually took part in the rioting,” encouraged by the shouts of onlookers. The mob penetrated the front and side of the jail using crowbars and hammers. Officials inside tried to stop rioters with tear bombs, one of which was lobbed back into the jail and exploded among nearly fifty prisoners.

Walter White declared the lynching of Shipp and Smith to be the “most horrible and brutal in the whole history of lynching.” He stated that Smith was taken first and lynched from the jail bars and “When first pulled up he held on to the rope, preventing strangulation.” Shipp “fought furiously for his life, burying his teeth in the arm of one of the lynchers. In order to make him loosen his teeth his skull was crushed in with a crow-bar and a knife plunged into his heart.” 

The rancorous mass took Smith’s life by dragging him to the courthouse square and hung him from a tree before a crowd that included children, an act witnessed and recounted by Muncie podiatrist Dr. E. Frank Turner. He saw the “ghastly spectacle” around 8 p.m. and, hearing that water would be used to disperse the crowd, “felt that everything would be alright, and went away.” When he returned around 10 o’clock, he saw the mob drag Shipp and Smith to the courthouse lawn. Lynchers utilized shadows created by tree branches to obscure their identities. Dr. Turner recalled that:

The body went up, dangling on the rope, and a demoniacal yell surged from the crowd. It was hideous! That mob sounded like wild wolves, the yells were more like vicious snarls. Some even clapped their hands. 

Not all observers cheered, he recalled. Some wept and others condemned the crowd.

Grant County jail where white residents mobbed Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Wisconsin State Journal, August 11, 1930. The Journal noted that the arrow indicated the “window from which one body was suspended.”

Cameron, the youngest of the three accused men, was ripped from his cell and nearly hanged before someone in the crowd shouted that he was not involved in the crime. Muncie policeman Earl Doolittle noted that when Indianapolis officers finally arrived in their “big touring car” they were “greeted with boos and catcalls” from the crowd, lingering to prevent the coroner from removing the bodies. This was the same crowd that had left the jail “ravaged,” with “gaping holes in the walls” and the “twisted remains of broken locks.” Reportedly by midnight, an “indignation meeting” formed in Johnstown, the Marion neighborhood where African Americans lived. Hundreds of black residents listened to speeches about the sheriff’s unwillingness to order officers to shoot at the mob. Officers broke up the meeting, which prevented further violence. An Illinois newspaper reported that about 200 black residents fled Marion for Weaver, a historic black community in Grant County, out of fear of escalating violence.

At the time of the lynching, the state militia was training in Kentucky and, therefore, the “lawless element” controlled the scene of the lynching for over half a day. After Sheriff Campbell removed the bodies the following day, the crowd used penknives to cut buttons and shreds of fabric from the victims’ clothes as “souvenirs.” Shipp’s and Smith’s bodies were then taken to Shaffer Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Muncie because Marion lacked a black mortician.

Echoing editor George Dale‘s 1920s skewering of the Ku Klux Klan via the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Muncie Evening Press condemned the act, stating “Not alone Marion but the state of Indiana stands today disgraced in the eyes of the world as a result of the lynching of two Negroes in that city last night. As for Marion herself she will be regarded abroad as a city of barbarians.” The paper believed that Marion could be partially redeemed only by indicting rioters on murder charges. The article noted “This ought not to be difficult.”

NAACP acting secretary Walter White, courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Flossie Bailey knew otherwise. According to James Madison, after the crime Bailey convinced Walter White to investigate the lynching. Fearing her phone calls were being monitored, she traveled back to Kokomo to communicate with NAACP leaders in Indianapolis and Marion. She received threatening phone calls, Madison noted, and drivers “deliberately backfired their cars as they cruised past her house.” Despite these threats, Bailey worked diligently to hold the perpetrators accountable. She joined a delegation of ten African American citizens from Marion and Indianapolis that met with Governor Leslie, including prominent pastors and Walker Manufacturing Company attorney Robert L. Brokenburr. In a formal resolution presented by Bailey, the group demanded that Governor Leslie ask for Sheriff Campbell’s resignation and promise protection for those who would testify about the identity of the lynchers. According to The Kokomo Tribune, Governor Leslie responded by claiming that “rumors had come to him that negroes in Marion were equipped with dynamite and were threatening to blow up the county jail.”

Bailey countered this rumor directly in a letter-to-the-editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers in the country. The Courier previously printed a story about plans for retaliation by Marion’s black residents. Bailey noted that this was a “LIE,” one absolutely not perpetuated by the city’s black pastors, as the Courier had claimed. She stated that because of the rumors she and her husband “are daily receiving anonymous letters of a threatening nature” and alleged that “The Negroes who start rumors of this sort are the ones who will not help in anything constructive.” She concluded her letter “A few of us refused to be intimidated and do all we can in the name of the Association [NAACP] to bring law and justice again to Marion.”

The county grand jury began its investigation into the lynching in September. Bailey testified that she warned Sheriff Campbell of the formation of the mob just before 5 p.m., countering Campbell’s statement that it was made after 7 p.m. When questioned about his lack of action, he stated he feared hitting a woman or child with a stray bullet. Ultimately, the jury decided that Sheriff Campbell handled the mob in a “prudent manner” and exonerated him of any responsibility for the deaths of Shipp and Smith. 

Flossie Baily and husband Dr. Walter Thomas Bailey, courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Unable to extricate Campbell from office, Bailey and her husband focused their efforts on prosecuting the lynchers. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that they led the effort to gather names from witnesses at “considerable personal risk.” White sent a list of twenty-seven alleged participants, along with evidence of their involvement, to Governor Leslie and Indiana Attorney General James M. Ogden. According to Thornbrough, only seven men were arrested, two tried, and both acquitted. She noted that at the trial of the second man, antagonism “against the blacks who attended it was described by a representative of the national NAACP as ‘appalling.’ Most of the whites who packed the courtroom were jubilant when the accused man was acquitted.” The New York Age noted of Bailey that “A high tribute is paid her courage and energy in working to restore order in Marion and to bring the lynchers to justice.” The NAACP awarded Bailey with the Madam C.J. Walker Medal for her refusal to be intimidated in her quest to bring the perpetrators to justice.

While Bailey’s efforts were ultimately unfruitful, she used the Marion lynchings as a springboard to enact anti-lynching legislation in Indiana. House Democrats introduced a bill in February 1931, for which Bailey organized statewide meetings, and convinced African Americans to contact their legislators. Her legwork paid off. Governor Leslie signed the bill into law in March, which allowed for the dismissal of sheriffs whose prisoners were lynched. The law also permitted the families of lynching victims to sue for damages. The Indianapolis Recorder, one of state’s preeminent African American newspapers, praised the law. The paper stated, “Indiana has automatically retrieved its high status as a safe place to live.” It added that without the law, Indiana “would be a hellish state of insecurity to our group, which is on record as the most susceptible victims of mob violence.” Although the newspaper praised Governor Leslie, it credited a “small group which stood by until the bill became a law.”

Using this momentum, Bailey and her NAACP colleagues worked to pass a similar bill on a federal level. Madison noted that she tried to change national lynching laws by publishing editorials, wiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and distributing educational materials to Kiwanis clubs. Although these efforts were unsuccessful, Bailey fought for the rights and safety of African American citizens until her death in 1952, challenging discrimination at IU’s Robert W. Long Hospital, speaking against school segregation, and suing a Marion theater for denying Bailey and her husband admittance based on their race.

Memorial for Peace and Justice, courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Memorial for Peace and Justice has made tangible the tragic events of August 7, 1930. Perhaps one day the American landscape will represent Flossie Bailey and other individuals who tried to prevent racial terrorism at considerable personal risk. Learn how to apply for a state historical marker via the Indiana Historical Bureau.

 

SOURCES USED:

“Marion and Indiana Are Disgraced,” “Negro Killers Hanged in Courthouse Yard After Big Mob Storms Jail; Trio Accused of Attacking White Girl,” “Muncie Man is Lynching Witness,” and “Police Tell of Scenes at Marion,” Muncie Evening Press, August 8, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Negroes Leave City,” Journal Gazette (Mattoon, Illinois), August 9, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Gross Failure of Officials Is Exposed by Investigators” and “Lynching, North and South,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 30, 1930, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mrs. F.R. Bailey, Letter to the Editor, The Pittsburgh Courier, August 30, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Marion, Indianapolis Negroes Call upon Governor for Action,” The Kokomo Tribune, August 21, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Five Heard in Lynching Quiz,” Muncie Evening Press, September 3, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Sheriff Was Negligent,” The New York Age, September 6, 1930, accessed Newspapers.com.

“The Anti-Lynching Law” and “Cruising Around,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 14, 1931, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

James H. Madison, “A Lynching in the Heartland: Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930,” Journal of American History (June 2011), accessed Organization of American Historians.

James H. Madison, “Flossie Bailey,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2000): 22-27.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 67-69.

Justice for a G-Man: The FBI in College Corner

In August 1935, Special Agents Nelson B. Klein and Donald C. McGovern from the Cincinnati office of the FBI began investigating convicted criminal George W. Barrett, the “Diamond King,” for his suspected involvement in a number of motor vehicle scams in Ohio and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Justice had Barrett under surveillance since 1931 for dealing in stolen automobiles. In “Barrett v. United States,” in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, heard on March 17, 1936, the court provided details on Barrett’s criminal activities, stating:

His method was to buy an automobile, obtain title papers for it, steal an automobile of similar description, change its motor numbers to correspond with those on the purchased car, obtain duplicate title papers, and then sell the stolen car to some dealer.

In each instance, Barrett sold the stolen vehicles with papers purporting to show that the sales were legitimate.

Special Agent Nelson B. Klein. Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation at “History – Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Special Agents Klein and McGovern learned that Barrett was in Hamilton, Ohio after a recent car deal there with the Central Motor Company, but neither they nor the local police were able to question him before he left the area. Acting on a tip, the G-Men – a term used to describe government men, particularly the federal agents working under J. Edgar Hoover – suspected Barrett might travel to College Corner at the Ohio-Indiana border, where Barrett’s brother lived. They drove there on August 16, 1935 and spotted Barrett near the residence of his brother’s home, along with a vehicle matching the motor number of an automobile involved in one of Barrett’s recent schemes. Klein telephoned the sheriff’s office in Hamilton for assistance in arresting Barrett, and he and McGovern parked their car and waited. Before Sheriff John Schumacher and Deputy Charles Walke arrived, Barrett returned to his car with a package in which he had hidden a gun.

Special Agent Donald C. McGovern. Courtesy William Plunkett, The G-Man and the Diamond King, page 37.

Barrett went to unlock his car door, but as Klein and McGovern started their vehicle and began to approach, he abruptly turned and started walking away. Fearful that he was trying to flee and would elude them again, Klein jumped out of the FBI vehicle and called out to him to stop. Barrett ignored the calls and continued walking down a nearby alley with Klein in pursuit.

Once back in the open, the “Diamond King” opened fire, striking Klein numerous times. Klein returned fire and succeeded in hitting Barrett in the legs, but the federal agent succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

In the days following, newspapers across the country reported on the gun battle that had ensued in College Corner. On August 18, 1935, just two days after the shooting, the Indianapolis Star reported that Barrett would stand trial in Indianapolis and would be taken there as soon as his wounds allowed. Although College Corner falls right along the Indiana-Ohio line, agents confirmed that Klein had fallen dead on the Indiana side. The Richmond Item reported: “the trial, to be held in the Indianapolis Federal Courtroom, will be the first murder trial ever conducted in the Southern Indiana District Court.”

[Zanesville, Ohio] Times Recorder, August 17, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press, August 17, 1935, page 2. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item, August 31, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Federal officers transferred Barrett from the Hamilton, Ohio hospital to the City Hospital in Indianapolis on August 21. On August 26, the [Hamilton] Journal News reported on the recovery of one of the automobiles Barrett reportedly stole and transported over state lines from San Diego to Hamilton. Barrett allegedly changed the motor and serial numbers of the car before selling it to a garage in Hamilton. Jurors wasted no time in indicting Barrett for the murder of Special Agent Klein and for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.

George W. Barrett. Courtesy Find a Grave.

Passed in 1919, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act – also known as the Dyer Act – helped supplement individual states’ efforts to combat automobile theft in the country. In the fall of 1919, newspapers reported that the practice of stealing automobiles was on the rise throughout the U.S., especially in some midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Indianapolis News claimed that over 22,000 automobiles were stolen in eighteen western and midwestern cities in 1918. Other articles put the number closer to 30,000. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, who introduced the legislation, argued that the losses amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while also causing hefty increases in automobile theft insurance.

Stolen vehicles reported by Representative Dyer. Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1919, section 2, page 13. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The act sought “to punish the transportation of stolen motor vehicles in interstate or foreign commerce.” In accordance with the law, anyone who knowingly transported or caused to be transported a stolen motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce could be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both. Those found guilty of violating the law could also be punished in any district through which the guilty party transported the vehicle. According to former Special Agent William Plunkett in The G-Man and the Diamond King:

The BOI (later the FBI) gained more influence in 1919 with the passage of the Dyer Act . . . now it could prosecute criminals who’d previously evaded the Bureau by driving across a state line. More than any other law, the Dyer Act sealed the FBI’s reputation as a national investigative crime-fighting organization.

Federal officers arrested many professional automobile thieves in the 1920s and 1930s after the law went into effect. In many instances, these criminals were wanted for other offenses, including murder. Prior to the passage of the act, federal agents did not have the authority to pursue such criminals and had to let local and state authorities try to handle the rising number of cases. In some instances, local authorities caught and successfully imprisoned criminals and gangsters of the period, only to see their prison sentences expire or have them escape and commit more dangerous crimes. This was particularly true in the case of notorious gangster John Dillinger. In the early 1930s, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks, plundered police arsenals, killed a police detective in Chicago, and fled the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934 after being held to await trial. The FBI’s website states:

It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.

After Dillinger violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the FBI became actively involved in his capture.

Indianapolis Star, December 4, 1935, page 3. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Both the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act and a recently passed 1934 law making the killing or assault of a United States officer a federal offense punishable by death sealed George Barrett’s fate. His trial began on December 2. According to The Tennessean, he was only the second man to be tried under the new law providing for capital punishment in the killing of a federal officer. Edward Rice, defense counsel for Barrett, argued that Barrett had been warned days before Special Agent Klein’s killing that Kentucky outlaws were after him and might pose as officers. As such, Barrett maintained that he acted in self-defense out of fear for his life. However, during his time on the witness stand, Special Agent Donald McGovern testified that Klein called out to Barrett and clearly identified himself and McGovern as federal officers.

On December 8, the Indianapolis Star reported that the jury only took fifty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. With no qualification calling for life imprisonment, Barrett was to be hanged. District Attorney Val Nolan stated “I think this is the greatest victory for law and order ever achieved in the state of Indiana.” Electrocution replaced hanging in Indiana several years earlier, but because Barrett’s sentence would be carried out under federal law, U.S. criminal code specified death by hanging.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

On March 18, the Indianapolis News noted that George “Phil” Hanna, an expert hangman, would lead the execution. Known as the “Humane Hangman,” Hanna had participated in close to seventy previous hangings in an interest to see them done correctly, without additional pain or suffering to the condemned. Barrett hanged at 12:02 am on March 24, 1936 in the Marion County jail yard, and was pronounced dead ten minutes later. Despite the late hour, fifty people reportedly traveled to the jail yard to witness the hanging.

Nelson B. Klein gravestone. Courtesy Find a Grave.