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The Paris Lynching of Henry Smith

Horror photo
The 1893 lynching of Henry Smith was the beginning of what scholars call "Spectacle Lynching" - a vigilante execution where the lynchers are known by name, and in which the lynching is attended and condoned by thousands of spectators, city leaders, and private industry. In this photograph, Henry Smith is being tortured by hot iron rods rolled over his body and on the soles of his feet (LOC).

The public lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Lamar County, Texas in 1893 was detailed in a commemorative book by his murderers.

Paris, the New South

In the early 1890s, Paris, Texas was a busy and fairly prosperous town. The financial panic that hit in the period dealt the city with some uncertainty, but overall, Paris saw itself growing. Horse-drawn street cars, hotels, restaurants, numerous churches, cotton compresses, seed oil mills, substantial public buildings, two major railroads, and a silk-stocking district along South Main and Church streets attested to the city's economic progress.

Many laborers from outside of the city flocked to Paris in this period to find work. One of them was Henry Smith, who traveled with his wife from his home in Ozan (Hempstead County, Arkansas) to Paris. Smith did not have steady employment, and apparently was an alcoholic. According to his wife, Sue Smith, he had beaten her and attempted to rape their daughters. Henry Vance, a deputy police officer, had arrested and clubbed Smith for public intoxication. According to Vance, Smith had begun to harass him after the incident. In late January of 1893, Vance's daughter, three-year-old Myrtle, went missing. Her mutilated body was found in a park in the southeast part of town. Examination determined that she had been raped and "literally torn in twain." The violence perpetrated against her little body had been so extreme that her perineum had been torn, which led her to bleed to death.


Understandably, the Vance family and all of Paris were outraged by the incredible violence endured by this child. Crowds of white men milled outside the courthouse, waiting for word on a suspect. Black men met at the courthouse, condemning the crime in an official statement. It became obvious rather quickly that a black man was to be singled out as the culprit - Henry Smith, the man who had sworn vengeance against Henry Vance and who was now nowhere to be found. Several witnesses claimed that they had seen him carry the girl through town, and a hat similar to Smith's was found at the crime scene. (Interestingly, at least one account of Smith's arrest stated that Smith was found to be wearing his hat.)

By this time, Henry Smith had left Paris. If he did so because he was actually guilty of the crime, or because he simply wanted to remove himself from the impending explosion of mob violence in Paris, is not known.

Citizen's militia and the sheriff's office formed several posses, comprised of both black and white men, to find Henry Smith. The posses were led by James T. Hicks, B. B. Sturgeon, and G. W. Crook. The Texas & Pacific Railroad and the St. Louis & San Francisco Railway both offered free rides to the posses. The posses followed Smith's trail to Clow (near Hope) in Hempstead County, Arkansas, where Constable Robinson, an African American man from Ozan, arrested him. Smith was captured but adamantly denied culpability. Area newspapers widely reported his arrest, but also that something very sinister was in the works: a headline in the Austin Weekly Statesmen portended that "unless all signs fail the horrible murder of the little girl will be speedily avenged."

James Hogg, the Texas governor, was concerned about mob violence. His telegrams to D. S. Hammond, the county's sheriff, implored him to place Henry Smith into custody so that he could face trial; Hogg even ordered that Smith not be brought to Paris to avert mob violence. The Sheriff and county attorney responded that they were "helpless" against "an enraged public."

Condoned Murder

The posse took Henry Smith back to Paris on the Texas & Pacific passenger train. Here, surrounded by the armed posses, Henry Smith confessed to the crime. His confession was by then already moot, because the posse was convinced they had the correct culprit, and knew that the citizens of Paris were planning for vengeance. Thus, they deliberately showed Smith at every town along the town's path. It took a week to bring Smith to Paris, with a violent frenzy building among the whites throughout North Texas. The whites in Paris - including law enforcement officers, bankers, business owners, and other prominent individuals - erected a scaffold on the prairie behind the town's Texas & Pacific Depot. Newspapers reported that Smith was to face a public execution for his crime. People from as far away as Sherman, Greenville, and Dallas came to Paris to witness what was to become the first "spectacle lynching" in the United States.

The term "spectacle lynching" was coined by historians after Smith's brutal murder. I call what happened to him a "murder" because this was not a legal execution; Smith never received a trial. Instead, upon his arrival into Paris, white town folk paraded him on a float through downtown, men placed a cardboard crown mockingly on his head, and they drove him to the scaffold they had hastily built on the south side of town. This parade passed by the manicured lawns and genteel homes along Church Street in the afore-mentioned silk-stocking row, where thousands lined up to jeer the doomed man, then follow him to his final destination.

The county judge, J. C. Hodges, addressed the crowd, saying that the "people of Lamar county and their neighbors had assembled to discharge one of the most solemn duties ever executed by a people, whether in their own right or by the arm of law... Here the people, horrified at a crime so atrocious... had resolved upon a punishment commensurate to the offense."

Myrtle Vance's family — father Henry, her fifteen year old brother, and her uncle, James Pleasant — awaited Smith on the make-shift platform on which the word "JUSTICE" had been painted. They tied him to a stake. A pail of hot coals heating branding irons stood at Smith's feet. Vance read the confession Smith had given, then proceeded to torture him. The men took the branding irons and burned the soles of Smith's feet, then rolled the irons along his body until they reached his eyes, and gouged them out. Smith's tongue was cut off, and the men sliced off his genitalia. Using cotton bolls soaked in oil, the men lit Smith, who was still alive, on fire. The fire's intense heat burned his lower extremities first, so that Smith was aware of his immolation throughout the ordeal. At one point, his ropes burned off and his mutilated arms tried to wipe his sightless eyes. The scaffold collapsed, and Smith attempted to escape the flames, but the crowd pushed him back with their feet. James Pleasant, one of the murderers, surmised in his book on the "Paris Horror" that Smith must have been possessed, as he "clung to his unhallowed life." The slow burning of a human body who continued to wail across the prairie on this cold February at the southern entrance to the city was attended by fifteen thousand people.

After the spectacle, souvenir hunters picked through the charred remains to find bones, and professional photographers took photographs to sell as postcards.

Projecting Supremacy and Victimhood - a Southern Narrative

While the newspapers along the Red River Valley condoned this "grim spectacle," newspapers in larger cities condemned the "barbaric" eye-for-an-eye retaliation. The New York Herald even asked independent sources to verify accounts as they couldn't deem such "increditable" eye witness testimony possible. The Indianapolis Journal wrote that the "father of the child, the leader in the desire for revenge, and his conduct proved he was imbued with the Spirit of a Demon." Many Texans lamented that this execution was uncivilized, atrocious, and inhuman. Governor Hogg demanded that the men responsible for the lynching be arrested, but this never happened. Lamar county citizens simply called Hogg's demands "political horse play." A rumor circulated that "2,500 negroes" were to overrun Paris, but this was a lie, of course. The white supremacist overtone of the lynching can be summarized in a letter sent by a New Yorker to Henry Vance after the lynching: "On behalf of thousands of New York City thoroughbred men... permit me to commend and applaud in the highest possible way, the action of yourself and friends. New York... will stand should to shoulder with Texas... in wiping such devils from the earth."

The Paris News published a commemorative book, complete with photographs of the murderers, called "The facts in the case of the horrible murder of little Myrtle Vance and its fearful expiation at Paris, Texas, February 1st, 1893." The newspaper also argued in an editorial from Feb 5, 1893 that the lynching of Henry Smith was simply a response to Reconstruction, a period which allowed the suppression of whites. This projection drew a number of convoluted conclusions and outright generalizations: "The time has come when the moral and law-abiding must resolve that, come what may, they will no longer submit to be dominated by ignorance and brutality." To the editors of the Paris News, the crime against Myrtle Vance was not committed solely against Myrtle Vance, and the crime was not solely perpetrated by Henry Smith. Instead, the raping of Myrtle Vance stood for the violation of white supremacy by the people freed from slavery. A former Confederate soldier from Gainesville, TX likened the lynching to an act of God, "meted... through the instrumentality of the people." Paris lawyer J. W. Ownby explained that the rape of Myrtle Vance constituted the besmirching of all white womanhood by "black, Indian, and Mexican savages," thereby perpetuating the South as a mythic place of virtue while ignoring the thousands of rapes committed against minority women by white men before and during this period. An editorial in the Memphis Commercial defended the actions of the white mob in Paris because "the crimes by negroes keep the people of every southern community in a perpetual condition of suppressed terror and rage." This "southern community" that courted victimhood and garnered the newspaper's sympathies, by the way, was composed of the same people who owned almost all of the property in the city, who held all of the city's power positions, who led the law enforcement agencies and the courts, whose generational wealth continued to grow, whose labor was paid by high wages and investment dividends, and whose children had ready access to high schools and colleges.

Historian's Reckoning

As there are no other sources to go by from this period except the newspapers, historians have to assume that Henry Smith raped and killed Myrtle Vance in one of the most gruesome ways possible. His arrest, at least for questioning, was warranted. But, historians also must recognize the circumstances surrounding the capture of Henry Smith, his confession, the extra-legal mob violence meted out to him, and the editorializing after the lynching. It's the duty of historians to consider not just the primary sources, but interpret the era when the event occurred. The 1890s was a period of overt white supremacism that was buoyed by a growing body of literature that suggested race was a scientific fact. White supremacy and racism became cannon in white churches, universities, and in politics. Any affront to their power often led to horrific consequences. The spectacle lynching of Henry Smith in February of 1893 is testament to all of this.

Myrtle Vance, daughter of a Lamar County deputy sheriff, became the victim of a horrendous assault and murder, for which Henry Smith, a black man, was accused (Photo from the commemorative book published by the Paris News, 1893, LOC).
Photographs taken throughout the process of lynching included a grim procession that made tis way to the depot, where Smith was lynched; this photograph shows the courthouse in the background (LOC).
The scene in downtown Paris on the day of the lynching included thousands of people who came to watch Henry Smith paraded in a mock parade on the way to his death (LOC).
The men who arrested Henry Smith, and then gave him over to the mob, were never held accountable for their complicity (LOC).
The elaborate headstone for Myrtle Vance in Paris' Evergreen Cemetery anchors several of the family members' graves and symbolizes profound grief. Henry Smith was not afforded a tomb, though. Without standing trial, he was murdered in public based on hearsay and possbily, deflection; his remains were burnt to ashes and the bigger pieces of his body were carried off as souvenirs.

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1 Comment

Ann Lucas
Ann Lucas
Nov 02, 2023

Couldn’t sleep after reading this.

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