H.L. Mencken: Courage in a Time of Lynching
Subscriptions were cancelled, threats made on him and Sunpapers’ staff, and advertisers’ products were boycotted, but Mencken's words were published.
On December 4, 1931, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, an African American named Matthew Williams shot and killed his white employer, then turned a pistol on himself, inflicting a wound. Staggering away from the scene of the crime, he was shot by the employer's son, then arrested and taken to a Salisbury hospital. Hours later, a mob descended on the building, seized Williams, dropped him from a window, dragged him to the courthouse green, and hung him from a tree. A crowd of 2,000 men, women and children cheered. The body was then doused with gasoline and burned. One member of the mob cut off several of Williams's toes and carried them off as souvenirs.
It was the first lynching the state had witnessed in 20 years. The local townspeople celebrated the occasion by draping the tree with an American flag.
"Had the outrage occurred in some other Southern state, this might have been the end of it," noted the New York Outlook. As it happened, the lynching occurred in Maryland, a state that took pride in the Sunpapers — the (Baltimore) Sun and the Evening Sun. The family-owned institution had a reputation for accuracy, fairness and independence, free from private interests. Its publisher, Paul Patterson, always stood by his men. On the lynching story, the Sunpapers lived up to their reputation. The editorial pages issued denunciations of the lynchers, demanding that the perpetrators be arrested and tried.
But it was the Sunpapers' most famous columnist, H.L. Mencken, who helped lead his newspaper into a contentious fight that raged for years. Mencken's fame, as journalist Alistair Cooke noted, was "rightly grounded on the vigor he brought to unpopular causes." At the end of all the controversies, even his enemies came to realize that Mencken's great strength was his courage.
Criticism of Press Cowardice
The 1931 lynching on the Eastern Shore revolted Mencken; he was furious that no one had done anything to stop Williams's murder, only one of more than 5,000 lynchings that had occurred in the United States since 1922. Equally disturbing was what Mencken perceived as the cowardice of some of the press on the Eastern Shore. Editors played down details of the atrocity in order to cool off the explosive atmosphere.
In his column — carried in the Sunpapers — Mencken singled out the Salisbury Times and the Cambridge Daily Banner as prime examples of "a degenerating process" that had been undermining the region for years. The Banner, Mencken said, had criticized the lynching "formally, but only formally." The Salisbury Times, he wrote, "went to almost incredible length of dismissing the atrocity as a 'demonstration.' Well, the word somehow fits. It was indeed a demonstration of what civilization can come to in a region wherein there are no competent police, little save a simian self-seeking in public office, no apparent intelligence on the bench, and no courage and decency in the local press. Certainly it would be irrational to ask for enlightenment in communities whose ideas are supplied by such pathetic sheets as the Cambridge Daily Banner and the Salisbury Times." Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunpapers' cartoonist Edmund Duffy drew a sketch of the lynching to accompany Mencken's article on the editorial page, ironically captioning his cartoon with the title of the state anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland."
Editors from the Worcester Democrat of Pocomoke City, Maryland accused Mencken and Duffy of being "jealous" because they had not gotten to "enjoy" the lynching. Mencken reprinted extracts from the Worcester Democrat in his subsequent column. "They serve very well," he wrote, "to show what effect the lynching spirit, if it is allowed to go unchecked, has upon the minds of simple people — even upon the more literate minority thereof." The Eastern Shore, Mencken wrote, was being run by "its poor white trash" that still accepted "the brutish imbecilities" of the Ku Klux Klan. Mentally and morally, he said, "it has been sliding out of Maryland and into the orbit of Arkansas and Tennessee, Mississippi and the more flea-bitten half of Virginia." He proposed the shore be detached from Maryland and joined to Delaware and Virginia to form a new state to be called "Delmarva."
The Price Paid
Within 48 hours of Mencken's column being published, thousands of dollars worth of orders from Baltimore's retailers were cancelled by cities along the Eastern Shore. As the 1931 Christmas season approached, residents who regularly shopped in Baltimore now began going to Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Alarmed, members of the Baltimore Association of Commerce, including the Western Newspaper Union, bought advertisements in Baltimore and shore papers appealing for good will. "Please do not judge the people of Baltimore by what appears in the Baltimore Sun," one read. "The Sun is being condemned on all sides by the people of this city, who feel that Mencken's article was a most disgraceful attack on one of the finest sections of the state."
The Sunpapers' office was besieged with complaints. Subscriptions were cancelled. Stores that sold copies of the newspaper were forced to stop, on threat of boycott. Copies of the Sunpapers were thrown on the streets and burned before they could be placed on sale. Two circulation trucks were ambushed, their papers thrown away, and their drivers beaten. Reporters who went to Salisbury to cover the story were threatened with violence. According to Mencken, one of the photographers, Robert F. Kniesche, "was saved from rough handling, and maybe even murder, only by escaping in an airship."
Talk of revenge went on for weeks. The editor of the Easton Journal advised Mencken not to set foot on the Eastern Shore "for the next 20 years. In Salisbury, they'd rather lynch you." He warned that Mencken's toes, and perhaps his ears, might be taken as souvenirs. The publisher of the Crisfield Journal called Mencken "a curse on humanity." Bundles of letters reached Baltimore criticizing Mencken for writing "crap" and the Sunpapers as "not even fit for the outhouse." As Mencken recalled, "The main charge was that I was an apologist for drunkards, whores and murderers, but there were also correlative charges that I was both a Communist and a German spy."
When a second lynching occurred in Princess Anne, Maryland in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's refusal to speak out on the atrocity was a matter of discussion throughout the country. Determined that this outrage not be dismissed, Mencken joined forces with Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP to promote the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill that would make lynching a capital offense. Mencken's impassioned testimony in support of the bill galvanized senators on the committee. Predictably, Roosevelt refused to challenge the Southern leadership of his party, and the bill died.
Undeterred, the Sunpapers printed the story of the lynching in large headlines. Once again subscriptions were cancelled; once again circulation men, reporters and photographers were threatened. "A curious feature of the whole uproar was that public opinion in Baltimore seemed to be predominantly on the side of the lynchers," recalled Mencken. "I got more threatening letters from city people than from the simians of the lower Shore itself."
Amid the economic hardship of the Great Depression, when every loss of a subscriber mattered, the paper's publisher, Paul Patterson, held his ground. African-American journalist George Schuyler, of the Pittsburgh Courier, later said Mencken and the Sunpapers "had guts."
Animosity towards the Sunpapers lingered for years. "Baltimore was as segregated racially as Johannesburg," recalled former New York Times' columnist Russell Baker. Although the Sun was an all-white newspaper, there were those who still thought the Sunpapers "soft" on black people, rooted in the columns Mencken had written denouncing the lynchers.
Elsewhere, however, there was praise. "The Sunpapers have fulfilled the best traditions of intelligent journalism," wrote the editors of New York Outlook. "Newspapers are not police forces, nor prosecutors, nor courts. Their job is not to arrest, try and punish the perpetrators of crimes. Their job is rather to inform and arouse the public so that these processes may be carried out. If they accept and work at it as hard as the Sunpapers have done, over a period of time they can exert an enormous influence for the good. The two Baltimore papers have given other newspapers a high mark to shoot at."
In 1934, the Nation magazine placed Mencken on its Honor Role of the Nation for his denunciation of the two lynchings. But on the Eastern Shore he remained persona non grata, detested even in Ocean City, a seashore town 25 miles from Salisbury. Characteristically philosophical, Mencken was unperturbed. As he put it, "Inasmuch as I had no desire to be admired by morons I let the Shoremen howl."
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast," which was published in 2005 by Oxford University Press.