Friday, March 09, 2007

March 9

An innocent man was executed on this date in 1762. Jean Calas, an elderly French merchant, had been accused of hanging his son Marc Antoine -- allegedly as a consequence of the young man’s acceptance of Catholicism. The elder Calas, a Protestant living amid a sea of Catholics in Toulouse, discovered the body of his son hanging from a door in his home in mid-October 1761. As mother and father wept and waited for the police and doctors to arrive to claim the son’s body, their neighbors began to surmise that a murder had occurred and that Jean Calas had hanged his own son in a religious dispute.

Propelled along by innuendo and hysteria, the police captain of Toulouse arrested the entire Calas family and charged the father with the horrific crime. Calas’ son Pierre was banished from Toulouse, and his two daughters were dispatched to convents. The family’s property was confiscated, and his two daughters were dumped in a convent. A jury of thirteen convicted Jean Calas and sentenced him to be tortured on the rack and then burnt to a crisp; the sentence was executed on 9 March 1762.

Three years later, after Calas’ widow had drawn the sympathetic attention of Voltaire among others to her husband's case, a Parisian court exonerated Calas of the crime and declared his complete innocence. The court ordered the Toulouse court to reverse its verdict -- an order that was ignored in the town that condemned Jean Calas to die.


One hundred and thirty years later, three other innocent men were put to death by a mob in Memphis, Tennessee. There, between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on 9 March 1892, three black grocers -- Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart -- were taken from their jail cells and shot a mile north of the city limits, their bodies left in an open field where they were discovered the next morning. Several nights before their lynching, the three men had wounded several police deputies who raided their store unannounced; the People’s Grocery, as their business was called, posed an economic threat to local white grocers, who no longer enjoyed a racial monopoly in the segregated area of Memphis known as the Curve. The store had become a focal point of white resentment, and the police raid was a mere pretext for destroying its business.

Ida Wells Barnett, a young Memphis journalist and friend of Thomas Moss, wrote bitterly about the lynching and devoted the rest of her life to the cause of exposing the South’s “red record” of violence against blacks. A year after Moss, McDowell and Stewart were killed, Barnett wrote about their deaths and the absence of justice in Memphis:
"It was done by unknown men," said the jury, yet the Appeal Avalanche which goes to press at 3 a.m., had a two column account of the lynching. The papers also told how McDowell got hold of the guns of the mob and as his grasp could not be loosened, his hand was shattered with a pistol ball and all the lower part of his face was torn away. There were four pools of blood found and only three bodies. It was whispered that he, McDowell killed one of the lynchers with his gun, and it is well known that a police man who was seen on the street a few days previous to the lynching, died very suddenly the next day after. "It was done by unknown parties," said the jury, yet the papers told how Tom Moss begged for his life, for the sake of his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant. They also told us that his last words were, "If you will kill us, turn our faces to the West."

. . . . Although these men were peaceable, law abiding citizens of this country, we are told there can be no punishment for their murderers nor indemnity for relatives. I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been down, and the guardians of the public peace and confidence scoffed into the shadows, and all authority given into the hands of the mob, and innocent men cut down as if they were brutes the first feeling was one dismay, then intense indignation.
After Moss, McDowell and Stewart were dead, a mob of whites descended on the store and helped themselves to cigars and wine. They rifled the cash register and made off with McDowell’s trunk. When they discovered that the trunk contained nothing more than grocer’s clothes, they dumped the contents on the storeroom floor.

The rest of the store’s inventory was auctioned off to a white grocer at one-eighth its actual value.

Labels: , ,