Flames After Midnight: Murder, Vengeance, and the Desolation of a Texas Community
The most popular exhibit at the New-York Historical Society this summer is entitled “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” a documentary history of public lynching in the U.S. from the 1870s through the 1950s. It’s a sobering experience for the museumgoers. The victims, mostly but not exclusively African-Americans, were often tortured and castrated before being executed. A few were burned alive. Some of the executions drew huge crowds — the 1916 burning of Jesse Washington in downtown Waco attracted an estimated 15,000 onlookers. Images of the mutilated bodies occasionally resurfaced in the form of grisly postcards, passed hand to hand after the Post Office banned them from the mails. Some of the postcard captions: Lynched. Hangman’s Tree. Coon Cooking.
While lynchings took place throughout the United States, the vast majority occurred in southern states, including Texas. According to the Handbook of Texas, there were 468 Texas victims of lynch mobs between the years 1885 and 1942, a total exceeded only in Mississippi and Georgia. Lynchings in Texas seemed to occur in cycles, sudden and unpredictable outbreaks of fury that spread from community to community like a virus. In the spring of 1922, for example, a single four-week span saw lynchings in Allentown, Bryan, Conroe, Kirven, Plantersville, and Waco.
It is the lynchings in Kirven (now spelled Kirvin), a tiny crossroads community in Freestone County, that are the subject of Monte Akers’ Flames After Midnight. Akers, a lawyer and amateur history buff who moved to the area in 1981, had his interest piqued after hearing a local resident remark, “Kirvin is where they burned the niggers.” Several years later Akers, who eventually served as the chairman of the Freestone County Historical Commission, came across copies of the local newspapers detailing the events of 1922. These led him to begin searching out and interviewing the remaining eyewitnesses, both black and white, who still lived in the area. By the time he left Freestone County in 1990, Akers had accumulated almost all the key bits of evidence surrounding the case, although it took him several more years before he realized how the various facts fit together.
Located in East Central Texas, Freestone County was one of the thirteen counties in Texas where blacks outnumbered whites following the Civil War. A coalition of ex-slaves and Radical Republicans briefly held power there during Reconstruction, but by the turn of the century the county had reverted to the firm control of the “lily-white” Democrats. The construction of the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad in 1906 sparked the founding of a number of new towns in the are, including Kirven, which soon became one of the fastest growing communities in Freestone County, thanks to discovery of oil in 1920 in nearby Mexia. By 1922, Kirven boasted a population of more than 1,000 residents, a telephone exchange, an electric plant, and a movie theater.
Basking in the economic prosperity of Kirven was local landowner John King, who with his five sons was among the area’s wealthiest residents. While local papers referred to the Kings as “men of sturdy character who are towers of strength in their community,” Akers’ informants recalled them as being “domineering,” “outrageous,” and “hard.” Blacks in particular remembered the Kings as “ugly people who didn’t believe in being fair.” Several of the sons had the habit of carrying handguns with them wherever they went, and apparently used them without hesitation to pistol-whip blacks who worked for them. Two of the Kings served as local law enforcement officers — one as a deputy sheriff and the other as Kirven town marshal.
On May 4, 1922, the body of seventeen-year-old Eula Ausley was discovered in a creek bed a few miles outside of Kirven. Ausley, granddaughter of clan patriarch John King, had been brutally assaulted and murdered, and local townspeople immediately formed a posse to hunt down the assailant. A solitary Mexican woodcutter seen in the area was the initial suspect, but by the following morning a rumor spread that gangs of African-American men were roaming the countryside looking for white women to rape and murder. That afternoon McKinley “Snap” Curry, a twenty-two-year old field hand who worked for one of the Kings, was arrested after his estranged wife reported seeing him with blood on his shirtsleeves the previous day.
Curry was taken into custody around 6:00 p.m. by Freestone County sheriff Otis Mayo, who had pursued his own investigative leads while posse members had hunted down Curry. Mayo attempted to drive his prisoner to Waco that evening, but was prevented from doing so by a roadblock formed by the gathering lynch mob. Mayo then drove Curry to the county jail in nearby Fairfield. There Curry allegedly confessed to the crime, and implicated two other men: forty-six-year-old Moses Jones (another sharecropper who worked for the King family), and nineteen-year-old Johnny Cornish. Jones and Cornish were quickly arrested and placed in the same jail cell as Curry. Later that evening, a 165-car caravan led by members of the King family arrived in Fairfield, and the mob demanded that Mayo release his prisoners to them. Mayo quietly handed the men over and the Kings drove back to Kirven. At some point during the evening, Curry was castrated.
When the lynch mob returned to Kirven, a crowd of as many 1,000 people quickly gathered in a large vacant lot in the center of town. Curry and Jones were in turn soaked with gasoline, tied to a plow, and set on fire; Cornish was apparently tied and dragged back and forth through the fire until he was also burned to death (see inset, “A Good Job.”) The local railroad section chief provided some wooden crossties to use for the bonfire, and two local ministers offered a public prayer. A druggist opened his store and served the crowd soft drinks. Some parents brought their children along to watch. After the fire was extinguished, members of the crowd picked out little pieces of bone from the ashes, to take home as souvenirs.
It didn’t stop there. The following day the body of another King field hand was found hanging from a tree, riddled with bullets, and for the next three weeks a wave of racist killings terrorized Freestone County. Much of the violence seems to have been orchestrated by the King family, although some residents remembered the area suddenly being overrun by armed white men from out of town, “sort of like professionals,” according to one of Akers’ informants. While local papers only reported two more deaths, a white resident estimated that as many as a dozen blacks were murdered during this period. A black resident claimed the final number was twenty-seven. One witness recalled driving between Fairfield and Mexia during this period when he came across a black man tied to a tree, surrounded by a crowd of men who were taking turns shooting at his ears and his nose with their pistols. The madness ended only after a posse led by three of the King brothers attacked the small African-American settlement of Simsboro, just outside of Kirven. There they met armed resistance organized by one of the residents, who had fought in France during World War I. In the ensuing gun battle, two blacks and two posse members were killed.
The deaths of two white men provoked immediate calls for an end to the bloodshed, and prompted county officials to organize a mass meeting and produce a resolution declaring, “the killing and terrorizing of Negroes in the county must now cease.” The King family issued a public statement declaring that all guilty parties had been punished to their satisfaction — but the riding plow upon which the three men had died remained undisturbed in the center of the Kirven business district for more than twenty years. During World War II an enterprising farmer and his teenage son hauled it away and sold it for scrap metal.
In the first half of Akers’ book, he relates all of the foregoing events in a straightforward fashion, supported by the standard forms of historical research: newspaper accounts, official records, and interviews with surviving witnesses. In the second half, however, Akers takes his readers back over the evidence piece by piece, to provide an alternative and even more disturbing version of events. And while Akers makes an ill-advised attempt to tease a little suspense out of his investigations, this is no murder mystery that can provide the reader a pleasant shock of recognition upon the solving of the case. Instead, most of Akers’ readers will experience a sickening sense of inevitability when he finally lays out his conclusion: that innocent men were burned alive that night in Kirven, and that some of those involved in the lynching were fully aware of that fact.
Actually, Akers possessed a key piece of information almost from the start of his investigation, although he did not realize it until years later. One of his first interviews was with an elderly black lady who worked for the Kings as a house servant, and she made a guarded but unmistakable reference to the fact that the Kings believed that the actual murderers of Eula Ausley were two white men — members of a neighboring family named Prowell, who previously conducted a bitter and occasionally violent feud with one of the King brothers over a disputed property line. Akers admits he simply ignored the old woman’s testimony until he ran across an account of the burnings published in the New York Call. The Call article noted that on the day of the lynching, Sheriff Mayo had arrested two white men for the crime, after following a clearly marked trail of footprints from the scene of murder to their farmhouse, but released them once Curry, Jones, and Cornish were seized by the mob. A little more digging by Akers turns up the source for the article: a previously unknown report on the incident compiled by an undercover investigator, Dan Kelly, a white man hired by the N.A.A.C.P.
According to the report, John King remained distraught for weeks after the crime, convinced that his granddaughter was murdered by the Prowells, who fled the county as soon as they were released by the sheriff. The sheriff, who was up for re-election the following fall, claimed to have no regrets about turning his suspects loose. “Enough [have] been punished for the deed already,” was his curt reply to questions about his actions, a response that seemed to stun the report’s author:
The people of that community are utterly unaware of the fact that they have done any deed for which they should be ashamed. They feel no kind of conscious scruples. It is no matter of offence to their consciences that these victims may not have been guilty. They have the idea that Negroes have paid the penalty and the matter is settled as far as they are concerned.
Flames After Midnight is not a pleasant book to read, in part because of the extreme brutality of the incidents it depicts, in part because Akers cannot bring his narrative to a satisfying close. Outside of the handful of Simsboro residents who stood up to the posse, there are few heroes in this tale, and even Akers comes to the reluctant conclusion that Snap Curry may have, in fact, been involved in murder, perhaps acting as an accomplice to the Prowells in exchange for a small sum of money. Why he implicated Jones and Cornish remains a mystery. Why the Kings did not insist on tracking down the Prowells after their release remains a mystery. How many lynchings took place in Freestone County in the weeks following the burnings remains a mystery. The identify of the two white men killed at Simsboro remains a mystery. Details about the background and identity of the undercover investigator, Dan Kelly, sent to Kirven by the N.A.A.C.P., remain a mystery. These unanswered questions perplex Akers and frustrate his readers who — in the absence of any official investigation of the lynchings — are forced to rely on him as their sole guide into this particular corner of hell.
By the end of the 1920s, Kirven had virtually dried up. In the aftermath of the lynchings, all but a handful of black families left the area, never to return. They were shortly followed by a number of white farmers who discovered that without access to cheap field labor, it was no longer economical to grow cotton. The expected oil boom never materialized, and the local bank soon closed its doors. Other businesses followed, and a series of mysterious fires later destroyed almost all of the downtown buildings. Most of the remaining buildings were torn down for their bricks.
But the King family continued to thrive — John King eventually put aside his grieving for his granddaughter, and lived to a ripe old age; after his first wife died, he married his fifteen-year-old housekeeper. Horace Mayo failed to get re-elected as sheriff, lapsed into alcoholism shortly thereafter, and committed suicide a few years later. Some of the Prowells eventually returned to the county, settled into retirement, and were buried in the same county cemetery that contained the remains of Eula Ausley.
In his introduction, Akers tells us that the story of the Kirven burnings supply “the best that history can offer — a chance to study something that should never be repeated.” But Akers’ statement must seem more than a little naïve for the thousands who witnessed the recent very public lynching of Gary Graham on television, while political pundits debated whether it helped or hurt Governor Bush’s presidential ambitions to execute a man who might have been innocent. Bush and his advisors, of course, are only stealing a page from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign script, when he rushed back to Arkansas during the New Hampshire primary to personally sign the death warrant of a brain-damaged inmate. Focus-group sessions held by pollsters had suggested that middle-class voters thought the Democrats were too beholden to blacks.
These little exercises in political calculus float through our criminal justice system like postcards bearing gruesome images from a different era. They remind us of a not-so-distant past, when the innocent were punished, the guilty went free, and the media poured on the gasoline and then sold soda pop. o
Contributing writer Paul Jennings is at work on a book about the history of Houston.
The photograph of the Jesse Washington lynching is reproduced from Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, an anthology collected by James Allen and John Littlefield, and based upon the current exhibit of these photographs at the New-York Historical Society (www.nyhistory.org), which can also be viewed at Journal E (www.journale.com). Without Sanctuary includes essays by Allen, Leon Litwack, John Lewis, and Hilton Als, and ninety-eight plates. The book is available from Twin Palms publishers, Santa Fe, New Mexico (www.twinpalms.com).
A Good Job (excerpt)
[The third victim, Johnny Cornish,] was pulled into the fire [with a rope], pulled back, pulled forward. Then he fell quickly to the ground, “clasped his arms around the plow,” thrust his face into the flames, and inhaled deeply, meeting death in the quickest manner available.
“After the third negro had been burned to a crisp, all three bodies were piled together and a mass of fuel and oil flung over them. This was ignited, the flames soaring 25 or 30 feet into the air.” More wood and fuel was piled on them, and the bodies were cremated.
Daylight was breaking, gray as crematorium ash, and the crowd began to disperse.… They had been there nearly two hours, and according to the Kirven Commercial Record, “after forty-eight hours of sleeplessness and without paying much attention to meals, the citizens of three counties who worked unceasingly in the effo
t to solve the most dastardly crime in the history of Freestone County returned to their homes believing that the three negroes had met the fate they deserved, and that they alone were guilty of the crime.”
The Houston Chronicle carried a similar summary: “The blackest entry in Texas’ history of crime had been chalked down on the records against the negro trio – and the general feeling here was that the mob of 600 did a ‘good job’ in the early hours of the morning.”