"I'd never read a worse story of a murder of a single individual," says Houston author Patricia Bernstein. "And that includes all the stories of the Christian martyrs during the Spanish Inquisition. Many are equally bad, but I don't think any are worse."
Bernstein is referring to the 1916 Waco lynching of Jesse Washington, the subject of her harrowing new book, The First Waco Horror, which she will be signing and discussing at Brazos Bookstore this week. Washington was a 17-year-old retarded black child accused by vigilantes of raping and murdering a white woman. He was chained to a tree, beaten and stabbed repeatedly; his ears, fingers, genitals and toes were hacked off; and what was left of his body was burned. As if this all weren't horrific enough, a professional photographer recorded the event and sold the pictures as souvenirs. The nauseating, brutal photographs, reprinted in Bernstein's book, are as disturbing for their images of the casually smiling, white onlookers as for those of Washington's mutilated corpse. "The really ironic thing," says Bernstein, "is that at the time, Waco regularly referred to itself as the Athens of Texas, a real center of prosperity and gentility for the region." In fact, Waco was then home to several institutions of higher learning, including Baylor University and two "colored" colleges.
The book finds an unlikely hero in the petite, plucky form of Elisabeth Freeman, a young woman active in the women's suffrage movement who was sent into Waco by W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP to investigate the atrocity. Freeman used everything from basic detective skills to flirtation in her efforts to gather the necessary horrid details from the townsfolk. Most of the people interviewed by Freeman at the time did their best to minimize the incident and, for lack of a better word, whitewash it. But Harold Lester Goodman, a Jewish citizen of Waco, refused to follow suit. Goodman, who witnessed the lynching firsthand, describes his own reaction as one of "great fright." This response may have resulted from knowledge of the infamous Leo Frank incident, in which a Jewish factory owner in Marietta, Georgia, had been viciously lynched several months before.
Also displaying remarkable heroism in the book is Sheriff Sherman Eley of Lima, Ohio. While Waco sheriff Sam Fleming viewed the lynching on his watch as an inevitability, a few states away Eley secretly moved a black man accused of assaulting a white woman to a jail in a neighboring town. When he refused to tell an angry mob where the man was being held, they beat the sheriff, stripped him of his clothes and dragged him through town by a noose. By the time Eley broke down and told them what they wanted to know, the prisoner had been safely moved a second time.
The book is intensively researched, vividly written and almost novelistic in scope, with scores of unforgettable characters, many recalled firsthand in interviews with descendants. "The real reason this stuff stopped happening," says Bernstein, "wasn't due to any high moral awakening in these towns. It was the realization that a reputation for violence wasn't in their economic interest." Who says there's no such thing as bad publicity?