Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Daring to Curse a White Boy

Louis Wright and his fellow members of Richard and Pringle’s famous Georgia Minstrels arrived in New Madrid, Missouri, by train on the snowy morning of Saturday, February 15, 1902. In the afternoon, the black performers gave a street parade, and some of the local white boys taunted the “flashily dressed” minstrels with gibes as they marched through the downtown area. As Wright and one or two of the other performers walked back to the opera house after the parade, two young white men started throwing hard, slush-packed snowballs at them. When the young black men told them to quit, the local toughs responded by hurling insults as well as more snowballs. Growing angry, Wright turned and cursed the white boys. The town marshal showed up just in time to avert further trouble, advising the white boys to go home and the minstrels to stay off the streets.
That evening, a large crowd packed the opera house in New Madrid for the minstrel performance, and a number of boys and young men, including those who had clashed with the minstrels on the street earlier in the day, took seats at the front of the auditorium near the stage. As one of the black performers later recalled, the local youth were still angry that “a nigger had dared to curse a white boy,” and they wanted to find him, take him out, and whip him. The show had barely begun when some of the young white men started making wisecracks about the performers, and the minstrels promptly replied in kind. The banter seemed good-natured at first, but it soon turned ugly. The remarks, loud enough to be heard throughout the auditorium, became more and more insulting as the performance progressed.
Some of the older men in the audience tried to make peace, but just as the performance closed, a half-dozen young white men tried to charge the stage. As they were going through a narrow passageway that led up the stairs onto the stage, somebody pulled out a revolver and fired a shot. Another report said that the white men had already reached the stage and had begun to attack the minstrels with chairs before the first shot was fired.
Exactly who fired the first shot is unknown. The account of the affair that went out to the St. Louis Republic and other white newspapers across the country asserted that the first shot came from one of the black performers on the stage, but one of the minstrels claimed a couple of weeks later that none of the young black men even had a handgun.
After the first gunshot, the place erupted into chaos. Suddenly, “half a dozen pistols were being fired at random by the negroes and white men,” said the Republic. Panic ensued…, and men, women and children rushed pell-mell from the building, screaming and crying.”
In all, about twenty shots rang out. At least one minstrel and one white man received minor wounds. The minstrels escaped out a side door and took refuge in their railroad car, which was parked on a side track nearby.
Local law officers arrived and placed the minstrels under arrest. Taken to jail, they all denied firing any shots or knowing who did, and no weapon was found on any of them. They spent the night crammed into a damp cell with standing room only.
Outside, things died down for the night, but the next day groups of men collected on the corners discussing the shooting affray at the opera house the night before and plotting vigilante action. Meanwhile, throughout the day on Sunday, the prisoners were taken one by one from the jail to the courthouse across the yard for interrogation before a special jury, composed of thirty of the town’s “best citizens,” which had been called to investigate the shooting.
Under an intense “sweating,” one or more of the minstrels revealed that Louis Wright was the person who had cursed the white boys on Saturday afternoon. Most newspaper accounts said Wright was also identified as the man who fired from the stage, but the minstrels denied this.
However, the identification was good enough for the would-be lynchers. Late that night, Sunday, February 16, five men marched to the jail and took Louis Wright out under the ruse that they were part of the special jury and needed to question him some more. Joined by a mob of fellow vigilantes, the so-called “jury” took Wright to a big elm tree at the edge of town and strung him up.
Whether the only offense Louis Wright committed was daring to curse a white boy or he also fired random shots from the stage, one thing seems clear: Wright and his fellow minstrels, as the Independence (KS) Daily Reporter said three days after the incident, were “not the only ones to blame by any means” for the melee that led to his lynching. In turn-of-the-century America, young black men were often lynched if they killed a white person or sexually assaulted a white woman, but some, like Louis Wright, were lynched on even shakier pretexts.
This story is condensed from my book Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

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