1893 Lynching by Fire of Henry Smith

Spectacle in Texas Shocked Many, But Did Not Bring an End to Lynching

Photograph of lynching of Henry Smith in 1893
Lynching victim Henry Smith bound on scaffold before being tortured and burned alive in Texas. Library of Congress/Getty Images

Lynchings occurred with regularity in the late 19th century America, and hundreds took place, primarily in the South. Distant newspapers would carry accounts of them, typically as small items of a few paragraphs.

One lynching in Texas in 1893 received far more attention. It was so brutal, and involved so many otherwise ordinary people, that newspapers carried extensive stories about it, often on the front page.

The lynching of Henry Smith, a black laborer in Paris, Texas, on February 1, 1893, was extraordinarily grotesque. Accused of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl, Smith was hunted down by a posse.

When returned to town, the local citizens proudly announced they would burn him alive. That boast was reported in news stories which traveled by telegraph and appeared in newspapers from coast to coast.

The killing of Smith was carefully orchestrated. The townspeople constructed a large wooden platform near the center of town. And in view of thousands of spectators, Smith was tortured with hot irons for nearly an hour before being soaked with kerosene and set ablaze.

The extreme nature of Smith's killing, and a celebratory parade that preceded it, received attention which included an extensive front-page account in the New York Times. And the noted anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells wrote about the Smith lynching in her landmark book, The Red Record.

"Never in the history of civilization has any Christian people stooped to such shocking brutality and indescribable barbarism as that which characterized the people of Paris, Texas, and adjacent communities on the first of February, 1893."

Photographs of the torture and burning of Smith were taken and were later sold as prints and postcards.

And according to some accounts, his agonized screams were recording on a primitive "graphophone" and later played before audiences as images of his killing were projected on a screen.

Despite the horror of the incident, and the revulsion felt throughout much of America, reactions to the outrageous event did virtually nothing to stop lynchings. The extra-judicial executions of black Americans continued for decades. And the horrendous spectacle of burning black Americans alive before vengeful crowds also continued.

The Killing of Myrtle Vance

According to widely circulated newspaper reports, the crime committed by Henry Smith, the murder of four-year-old Myrtle Vance, was particularly violent. The published accounts strongly hinted that the child had been raped, and that she had been killed by literally being torn apart.

The account published by Ida B. Wells, which was based on reports from local residents, was that Smith had indeed strangled the child to death. But the grisly details were invented by the child's relatives and neighbors.

There is little doubt that Smith did murder the child. He had been seen walking with the girl prior to her body being discovered. The child's father, a former town policeman, had reportedly arrested Smith at some earlier point and had beaten him while he was in custody.

So Smith, who was rumored to be mentally retarded, may have wanted to get revenge.

The day after the murder Smith ate breakfast at his house, with his wife, and then disappeared from town. It was believed he had fled by freight train, and a posse was formed to go find him.The local railroad offered free passage to those searching for Smith.

Smith Brought Back to Texas

Henry Smith was located at a train station along the Arkansas and Louisiana Railway, about 20 miles from Hope, Arkansas. News was telegraphed that Smith, who was referred to as "the ravisher," was captured and would be returned by the civilian posse to Paris, Texas.

Along the way back to Paris crowds gathered to see Smith. At one station someone tried to attack him with a knife when he looked out the train window. Smith was reportedly told that he would be tortured and burned to death, and he begged members of the posse to shoot him dead.

On February 1, 1893, the New York Times carried a small item on its front page headlined "To Be Burned Alive." 

The news item read:

"The negro Henry Smith, who assaulted and murdered four-year-old Myrtle Vance, has been caught and will be brought here tomorrow.
"He will be burned alive at the scene of his crime tomorrow evening.
"All the preparations are being made."

The Public Spectacle

On February 1, 1893, the townspeople of Paris, Texas, assembled in a large crowd to witness the lynching. An article on the front-page of the New York Times the following morning described how the city government cooperated with the bizarre event, even closing the local schools (presumably so the children could attend with the parents):

"Hundreds of people poured into the city from the adjoining country, and the word passed from lip to lip that the punishment should fit the crime, and that death by fire was the penalty Smith should pay for the most atrocious murder and outrage in Texas history.
"Curious and sympathizing alike came on trains and wagons, on horse and on foot, to see what was to be done.
"Whisky shops were closed, and unruly mobs were dispersed. Schools were dismissed by a proclamation from the mayor, and everything was done in a business-like manner."

Newspaper reporters estimated that a crowd of 10,000 had gathered by the time the train carrying Smith arrived in Paris at noon on February 1. A scaffold had been built, about ten feet high, upon which he would be burned in full view of the spectators.

Before being taken to the scaffold, Smith was first paraded through the town, according to the account in the New York Times:

"The negro was placed upon a carnival float, in mockery of a king upon his throne, and followed by the immense crowd, was escorted through the city so that all might see."

A tradition at lynchings at which the victim was alleged to have attacked a white woman was to have the woman's relatives extract vengeance. The lynching of Henry Smith followed that pattern. Myrtle Vance's father, the former town policeman, and other male relatives appeared on the scaffold.

Henry Smith was led up the stairs and tied to a post in the middle of the scaffold. The father of Myrtle Vance then tortured Smith with hot irons applied to his skin. 

Most of the newspaper descriptions of the scene are disturbing. But a Texas newspaper, the Fort Worth Gazette, printed an account that seems to have been crafted to excite the readers and make them feel as if they were part of a sporting event. Particular phrases were rendered in capital letters, and the description of the torture of Smith is gruesome and ghastly.

Text from the front page of the Fort Worth Gazette of February 2, 1893, describing the scene on the scaffold as Vance tortured Smith; the capitalization has been preserved:

"A tinner's furnace was brought on with IRONS HEATED WHITE."

Taking one, Vance thrust it under first one and then the other side of his victim's feet, who, helpless, writhed as the flesh SCARRED AND PEELED from the bones.

"Slowly, inch by inch, up his legs the iron was drawn and redrawn, only the nervous jerky twist of the muscles showing the agony being induced. When his body was reached and the iron was pressed to the most tender part of his body he broke silence for the first time and a prolonged SCREAM OF AGONY rent the air.

"Slowly, across and around the body, slowly upward traced the irons. The withered scarred flesh marked the progress of the awful punishmen. By turns Smith screamed, prayed, begged and cursed his tormentors. When his face was reached HIS TONGUE WAS SILENCED by fire and thenceforth he only moaned or gave a cry that echoed over the prairie like the wail of a wild animal.

"Then his EYES WERE PUT OUT, not a finger breath of his body being unscathed. His executioners gave way. They were Vance, his brother-in-law, and Vance's song, a boy of 15 years of age. When they gave over punishing Smith they left the platform."

After the prolonged torture, Smith was still alive. His body was then soaked with kerosene and he was set on fire. According to the newspaper reports, the flames burned through the heavy ropes that bound him. Free from the ropes, he fell to the platform and began to roll about while engulfed in flames.

A front-page item in the New York Evening World detailed the shocking event that happened next:

"To the surprise of all he pulled himself up by the railing of the scaffold, stood up, passed his hand over his face, and then jumped from the scaffold and rolled out of the fire below. Men on the ground thrust him into the burning mass again, and life became extinct."

Smith finally died and his body continued to burn. Spectators then picked through his charred remains, grabbing pieces as souvenirs.

Impact of the Burning of Henry Smith

What was done to Henry Smith shocked many Americans who read about it in their newspapers. But the perpetrators of the lynching, which of course included men who were readily identified, were never punished.

The governor of Texas wrote a letter expressing some mild condemnation of the event. And that was the extent of any official action in the matter.

A number of newspapers in the South published editorials essentially defending the citizens of Paris, Texas.

For Ida B. Wells, the lynching of Smith was one of many such cases she would investigate and write about. Later in 1893 she embarked on a lecture tour in Britain, and the horror of the Smith lynching, and the way it had been widely reported, no doubt gave credibility to her cause. Her detractors, especially in the American South, accused her of making up lurid stories of lynchings. But the way Henry Smith was tortured and burned alive couldn't be avoided.

Despite the revulsion many Americans felt over their fellow citizens burning a black man alive before a large crowd, lynching continued for decades in America. And it's worth noting that Henry Smith was hardly the first lynching victim to be burned alive.

The headline on the top of the front page of the New York Times on February 2, 1893, was "Another Negro Burned." Research in archival copies of the New York Times shows that other blacks were burned alive, some as late as 1919.

What happened in Paris, Texas, in 1893 has largely been forgotten. But it fits a pattern of injustice shown to black Americans throughout the 19th century, from the days of slavery to the broken promises following the Civil War, to the collapse of Reconstruction, to the legalization of Jim Crow in the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

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McNamara, Robert. "1893 Lynching by Fire of Henry Smith." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/1893-lynching-of-henry-smith-4082215. McNamara, Robert. (2017, August 31). 1893 Lynching by Fire of Henry Smith. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1893-lynching-of-henry-smith-4082215 McNamara, Robert. "1893 Lynching by Fire of Henry Smith." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1893-lynching-of-henry-smith-4082215 (accessed November 18, 2017).