In 1898, in Lake Comorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brook Haven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Pittsburg, Kansas, a black man's throat was slit and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole. Two black men were hanged from a telephone pole in Lewisburg, West Virginia. And two in Hempstead, Texas, where one man was dragged out of the courtroom by a mob and another was dragged out of jail.
A black man was hanged from a telephone pole in Belleville, Illinois, where a fire was set at the base of the pole and the man was cut down half-alive, covered in coal oil, and burned. While his body was burning, the mob beat it with clubs and nearly cut it to pieces. Lynching, the first scholar of the subject determined, is an American invention. Lynching from bridges, from arches, from trees standing alone in fields, from trees in front of the county courthouse, from trees used as public billboards, from trees barely able to support the weight of a man, from telephone poles, from street lamps, and from poles erected for that purpose. From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century black men were lynched for crimes real and imagined, for "disputing with a white man," for "unpopularity," for "asking a white woman in marriage," for "peeping in a window."
The children's game of "telephone" depends on the fact that a message passed quietly from one ear to another to another will get distorted at some point along the line.
In Pine Bluff, Arkansas a black man charged with kicking a white girl was hanged from a telephone pole. In Long View, Texas a black man accused of attacking a white woman was hanged from a telephone pole. In Greenville, Mississippi a black man accused of attacking a white telephone operator was hanged from a telephone pole. "The negro only asked time to pray." In Purcell, Oklahoma a black man accused of attacking a white woman was tied to a telephone pole and burned. "Men and women in automobiles stood up to watch him die."
The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone pole so closely resembled a crucifix.
Early telephone calls were full of noise. "Such a jangle of meaning less noises had never been heard by human ears," Herbert Casson wrote in his 1910 History of the Telephone. "There were the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, the flapping of birds' wings. . . . There were spluttering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming."
In Shreveport, a black man charged with attacking a white girl was hanged from a telephone pole. "A knife was left sticking in the body." In Cumming, Georgia a black man accused of assaulting a white girl was shot repeatedly then hanged from a telephone pole. In Waco, Texas a black man convicted of killing a white woman was taken from the courtroom by a mob and burned, then his charred body was hung from a telephone pole. A postcard was made from the photo of a burned man hanging from a telephone pole in Texas, his legs broken off below the knee and his arms curled up and blackened. Postcards of lynchings were sent out as greetings and warnings until 1908, when the Postmaster General declared them unmailable. "This is the barbecue we had last night," reads one.
"If we are to die," W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1911, "in God's name let us not perish like bales of hay." And "if we must die," Claude McKay wrote ten years later, "let it not be like hogs. . . ."
In Danville, Illinois a black man was hanged from a telephone pole, cut down, burned, shot, and stoned with bricks. "At first the negro was defiant," The New York Times reported, "but just before he was hanged he begged hard for his life."
In the photographs, the bodies of the men lynched from telephone poles are silhouetted against the sky. Sometimes two men to a pole, hanging above the buildings of a town. Sometimes three. They hung like flags in still air.
In Cumberland, Maryland a mob used a telephone pole as a battering ram to break into the jail where a black man charged with the murder of a policeman was being held. They kicked him to death then fired twenty shots into his head. They wanted to burn his body, but a minister asked them not to.
The lynchings happened everywhere, all over the United States. From shortly before the invention of the telephone to long after the first trans-Atlantic call. More in the South, and more in rural areas. In the cities and in the North there were race riots.
During the race riots that destroyed the black section of Springfield, Ohio a black man was shot and hanged from a telephone pole. During the race riots that set fire to East St. Louis and forced five hundred black people to flee their homes, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. The rope broke and his body fell into the gutter. "Negros are lying in the gutters every few feet in some places," read the newspaper account.
In 1921, the year before Bell died, four companies of the National Guard were called out to end a race war in Tulsa that began when a white woman accused a black man of rape. Bell had lived to complete the first call from New York to San Francisco, which required 14,000 miles of copper wire and 130,000 telephone poles.
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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
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Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists (Hanging Loose, 2002). She teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University and is co-editor of Essay Press. "Time and Distance Overcome" is included in Notes from No Man's Land (Graywolf, 2009) which won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award.
"Time and Distance Overcome" appears in Discoveries: New Writing from The Iowa Review (Spring 2012).
"Time and Distance Overcome" is an essay that will appear on the Daily Palette in four installments. To read the previous installment, please visit the following link: Eula Biss, Part 1.
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