A LYNCING IN THE PORT OF JERVIS
Race and reckoning in the gilded age
By Philip Dray
Illustrated. 260 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $29.
On June 2, 1892, a white mob grabbed a black man and hanged him from the tall branch of an old maple tree in Port Jervis, NY. Several days later, a jury took the hour to pass its verdict on what had happened: “Robert Lewis died on June 2 in the village of Port Jervis from being hanged by the neck by one or more unknown persons.”
The language for the verdict was passive and clumsy—a sentence that must tangle itself in order to endure such moral twists. Lewis was the victim of a lynching who attacked him after hearing rumors that he had sexually assaulted a white woman. The lynching was attended by 2,000 people, but no one was held responsible for Lewis’s murder. By killing a man and not being punished for it, the mob had achieved two goals: absolute power and absolute impunity. As Philip Dray puts it in his new book, ‘A Lynching at Port Jervis’, ‘The mob had not only ‘convicted’ and summarily executed Robert Lewis; it had now literally exonerated itself.”
Dray is also the author of “At the Hands of Persons Unknown” (2002), a comprehensive history of lynching in the United States. The title of that earlier book suggested how typical it was for lynching to cultivate a pronounced anonymity. Besides the practical purpose of protecting lynchers from arrest and prosecution, the sense of collective irresponsibility also had a symbolic function. “The lynching was seen as a conservative act, a defense of the status quo,” Dray wrote in “At the Hands.” “New persons committed a crime because the lynching had been the will of the community.”
What distinguished the lynching from Port Jervis was where it happened. Of the 1,134 recorded lynchings of black people in the United States between 1882 and 1899, it was the only one to have occurred in upstate New York. Port Jervis was a thriving city just 65 miles from Manhattan — a railroad and manufacturing hub that prided itself on being the first municipality in the area to install electric street lamps. Dray describes how the mob that attacked Lewis had stopped under those streetlights – “the symbol of Port Jervis’ most progressive ambitions” – to size them up to decide if they were sturdy enough to hang. Northerners who wanted to see lynching as a Southern problem could not console themselves with their own pretensions to enlightenment. A newspaper headline the next day simply read: VIOLATE SOUTHERN METHODS.
“A Lynching at Port Jervis” happens to arrive just over a week after a white supremacist murdered 10 black people at a grocery store in Buffalo. Dray himself says that while his previous books on civil rights history have been guided by a faith in racial progress, this time he’s not so sure. In addition to reduced voting rights and continued police brutality, he cites the resurgence of armed vigilantes as an outburst of some very old forces “that refuse to die.” Dray considers the insurgents in the Capitol on January 6 as prime examples of what Abraham Lincoln called the “mobocratic mind,” a lawless disorder that speaks the language of law and order. Lincoln said this combination of arrogance and violence made the vigilante both spectacularly destructive and insidiously caustic.
In the first part of his book, Dray walks us through the complicated circumstances leading up to Lewis’ murder, which involved a young white woman named Lena McMahon and her white lover, Philip Foley. When grabbed by the crowd, Lewis confessed to assaulting her and said Foley instigated him; at another point, Lewis denied any involvement altogether. McMahon, for her part, said she was attacked by a black man. Foley said he wasn’t there, so he didn’t see what had happened. McMahon’s parents despised Foley and accused him of blackmailing the family by threatening to release incriminating (and unspecified) information about their daughter. When Lena’s father entered the courtroom, he lunged at Foley, yelling, “He’s the Negro who should have been hanged.”
Dray is an excellent and conscientious narrator, making sure to warn us when the historical record is spotty or ambiguous, while still providing vivid detail where he can. We learn that the railway in Port Jervis brought pride but also danger, with an elderly woman in town making a professional specialty picking out the hot embers that flew from the locomotives into the eyes of children. Dray tells how the cacophony of the mob that killed Lewis was compounded by a participant speaking through a tube down his throat: “His croaking, mechanically altered utterances contributed greatly to the sense of disorder.”
While some white Port Jervians were shocked that a lynching had taken place in a quaint town like theirs, writer Stephen Crane didn’t seem too surprised. After leaving the Port Jervis of his childhood for the Jersey Shore, Crane learned that his older brother William had tried to stop the mob from murdering Lewis. Five years later, Crane wrote “The Monster,” a novella about a black man who becomes disfigured and saves a white child from a fire, and about the small town they live in, which itself had long been disfigured by bigotry and bigotry.
In the summer of 1892, African-American journalist Ida B. Wells had recently moved from Memphis to New York City, where her newspaper’s office was destroyed by a mob outraged by her reports of lynching gangs. She speculated that Lena McMahon may have been having a consensual affair with Robert Lewis — hence, Wells argued, the shady innuendo in Foley’s blackmail letters. Dray is agnostic about this question, an answer that wouldn’t change the fact that a mob kidnapped a man and hung it from a tree: absolutely nothing could justify the mafia’s behavior.
That lynching was both a criminal act and a moral atrocity should have made the need for federal anti-lynching legislation clear to anyone who cared about the rule of law. But a larger story emerging from “A Lynching at Port Jervis” is how, for all the work of Wells and other anti-lynching activists, it took decades to bring legal action over “one of the few issues affecting are scandalous enough on black lives to arouse white concern,” Dray writes.
Even then, his epilogue ends in medias res – featuring a man who grew up in Port Jervis and remembers how the white guys would bully black guys like him. Dray seems to feel that the story he has written remains unfinished; what happened in Buffalo earlier this month suggests that there is still a terrible legacy from more than a century ago.