I have struggled with this week's Sepia Saturday prompt. I struggled, in part, because I wanted my topic to be "special" in honor of the special achievement of reaching the celebrated 100 mark. In my search for a topic, however, I could find no obvious connections with my own family photos or history. My regular blog posts have been chronologically retracing the places where I have lived or traveled through in my life. Since I am relatively new to blogging, my "virtual travels" have all been within the state of Oklahoma thus far, so I decided to focus on something that happened in this state where I was born. My topic, I concluded, would be something about Oklahoma, in the year 1911 - one-hundred years ago.
My struggle was compounded, however, when I followed this lead and came upon a topic that was quite disturbing to me. I tried to set it aside and look elsewhere for a different topic, but I was haunted by it, and in the end I could not leave the horrible story behind.
Okemah, Oklahoma 1911
On the afternoon of May 25, 1911 in the little town of Okemah, Oklahoma it was reported that early that same day Deputy Sheriff George Loney had attempted to arrest Mr. A. Nelson, an African-American, for stealing cattle. During the arrest Loney was shot and left to bleed to death outside the Nelson house. It was believed that Loney was shot by Lawrence Nelson, the suspected thief's teenage son. Laura Nelson, however, Lawrence's mother, claimed that it was she who had fired the fatal shot. Laura, her husband and their son Lawrence were put under arrest and jailed. It is not clear what became of their baby during this ordeal. Mr. Nelson pleaded guilty to larceny of cattle and was shipped off to serve a two year sentence in the state prison. Laura and Lawrence were charged with murder and were held in the county jail in Okemah.
Three weeks after the murder of Deputy Loney a mob of 40 armed (white) men arrived at the Okemah jail. They tied up the jailer and stole away with prisoners Laura and Lawrence Nelson. The Sheriff, J.Dunnegan, sent several search parties out when he learned of the incident, but no traces of the prisoners or the mob could be found. No traces could be found, that is, until the next morning when a crowd was seen gathering on a bridge over the nearby North Canadian River to observe this scene:
|Postcard: Crowd gathered to observe Lawrence Nelson (on left) and Laura Nelson (on right) hanging from bridge.|
The photo, above, was taken by the local photographer George H. Farnum. It is one of several photographs he took of the scene, including close-ups of Lawrence and Laura taken from a boat while floating below their corpses hanging from the bridge. Lawrence's hands were bound and his pants were down to his ankles while Laura's hands were free in this picture. Farnum made these photos into postcards that were actually sold locally as souvenirs. The U.S. Post Office had recently (1908) declared it illegal to send postcards with pictures of lynchings through the mail. Apparently, these postcards functioned as gruesome "trophies" to share the event with others.
Included in this crowd at the bridge was a local man named Charley Guthrie. An active member of the local Ku Klux Klan, he would later tell stories of this lynching scene to his son, Woody, who was born in Okemah the following year. Woody (Woodrow Wilson) Guthrie, unlike his dad, would grow up to be an outspoken advocate for the downtrodden and disenfranchised in America through his music.
Following is a video of the song "Don't Kill My Baby & My Son" performed by artist Brooke Harvey.
This song is one of three songs written by the aclaimed folk artist Woodie Guthrie about the lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson. This haunting version stands as a moving requiem to this shameful event in Okemah, Oklahoma of 100 years ago.
Please click on the link to check out the many other Sepia Saturday posts for the 100 Celebration this week.