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At the Hands of Persons Unknown [Book Review]

Each year when spring rolls around, I tell myself that this will be the year that I go on a picnic. I’m going to pack a basket with a nice but not too fancy lunch. I’ll grab a blanket and head to a park with a nice rolling meadow or lawn where I can bring along a book or magazine. I’d focus on having a good meal and then doing nothing but enjoying a nice day and some quiet. I’m perfectly fine having a solo picnic or maybe bringing a friend or two along. It might be cool to do this at the Bryant Park summer movie series or some other laid back outdoor event.

What I’ve never considered doing or thought others might enjoy is packing a picnic lunch for attending a lynching. Because who the hell does that?

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Well apparently in the 18th and 19th century, this was a thing. People (and I use the term loosely) would pack a lunch, gather up their family members (kids included) and attend lynchings. Railroad companies would add extra cars or schedule special trains to accommodate mobs that wanted to attend lynchings.

After torturing and murdering the victim the mobs would sometimes dismember the bodies for souvenirs. Pictures were taken for postcards and fingers, ears, genitals, etc were cut off and distributed as keepsakes.

You would think such barbarism would have ended in medieval times. But, humanity’s capacity for inhumanity has remained a constant despite attempts at appearing civilized and genteel.

Hundreds and sometimes thousands of spectators would gather to watch and participate in these public murders. Yet, few were held accountable for these extrajudicial executions as they were often attributed to “persons unknown”. The theory was that public consensus condemned the accused and the community, therefore, had the right to carry out the execution. Hence nobody was personally accountable as the killing was not murder and was said to have been carried out at the hands of persons’ unknown.

Philip Dray details the history of mob violence and lynchings in At the Hands of Persons Unknown. Dray lays out how lynchings were used as a form of political terrorism aimed at subjugating Black people and enforcing white supremacy. Lynchings primarily occurred during the period from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement and mostly took place in the Southern cotton-growing states. But, later mob murders in the form of riots occurred in the Midwest and Northern states.

Quite often, rape and assault were cited as the reason for a lynching. And in such cases, always when a Black man was accused of raping a White woman. But, never in cases of White men raping Black women. Upon closer investigation, it was often found that the victims were actually murdered for some perceived threat to or disregard of white superiority or a trivial crime.

Lynchings were often carried out by members of the general White community. But, some police officers and sheriffs were complicit by either directly participating in lynchings or allowing prisoners to be removed from their custody. At the Hands of Persons Unknown is incredibly informative when it comes to explaining how the efforts of Black activists resulted in legislation that held law enforcement accountable for prisoners murdered under their watch and also for investigating and arresting the persons responsible.

Books like At the Hands of Persons Unknown can run the risk of further dehumanizing their subjects by reducing their lives to just being victims. But, Dray took the time to flesh out victims’ backgrounds where possible. There’s a lot of information packed into what’s a relatively short book and some of it is absolutely grotesque. Yet, Dray’s writing style manages to make the content easy to follow and absorb.

I highly recommend At the Hands of Persons Unknown as an introduction to the campaign against lynching. It provides a fairly comprehensive account of WEB DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and the NAACP involvement. It also provides a really good background for the legal history and progression against vigilantism in the form of lynching as well as the racial motivations behind the creation of the Black criminal stereotype.

While I recommend At the Hands of Persons Unknown be forewarned that it’s difficult to read because of the subject. There are quite a bit of descriptions of violence and the details of some of the cases covered are gruesome. So this might not be the book for you if you have issues with depictions of violence.

I also recommend the book as a companion guide to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There’s not a lot of in-depth detail at the memorial for each of the individual cases of lynching. But reading At the Hands of Persons Unknown gives a good background on some of the cases. Reading the book before going to the memorial can give a bit more context. But reading the book after should be equally fine and won’t ruin the experience.

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