FMixing Irish immigrants and descendants of enslaved Africans, in effect pitted against each other by the wealthy, Philip Dray’s A Lynching at Port Jervis spans just 261 pages but is nonetheless a sprawling book.
It details the mob murder of Robert Lewis on June 2, 1892, an incident immediately appreciated “as an omen that the lynching, then surging uncontrollably beneath the Mason-Dixon line, was about to extend its tendrils downward. north”.
“The name, Port Jervis, the only town in New York where a lynching took place between 1857 and 1950, has become synonymous with intolerance in the north,” Dray writes.
The quaint town was seen not as an outpost of southern fashionable savagery, but as a “satellite” of Manhattan, where sophisticated and astute people took the train to do their shopping.
If, as Dray suggests, the outrage in Port Jervis helped spark the anti-lynching crusade of leaders like Ida B Wells or T Thomas Fortune, it failed, and still fails, to bring about anything close to the “account” quoted in its subtitle.
Carefully enough, Dray lists the lawless executions so far. Thanks to technology, he explains, the shameful spectacle of black Americans being lynched in modern terms, often by police officers, is more pervasive than ever. Images from cellphones and police body or dash cams bring the racist violence non-stop to a wider audience than ever before.
Unlike the Buffalo massacre in cold blood, the Port Jervis lynching seems almost picturesque. Certainly, its three protagonists – a conflicted white couple from May to September and an affable, light-skinned African American – acted with a recklessness that seems almost delusional.
Smart, pretty and brunette, Lena McMahon, 23, was adored by her adoptive parents. Although she lived at home, running the family store’s candy counter gave her unusual independence.
Philip Foley, a dandified salesman and “flirty woman killer”, first met with approval as a suitor. Once Foley was kicked out of his hotel for failing to pay a substantial bill, Miss McMahon’s guardians saw things differently.
Robert Lewis knew Foley while working at this hotel, the Delaware House. Foley was an obvious sportsman and generous tipper, a flexible operator who persuaded the impressionable black man to pinch food and drink from his employer.
Lewis was fired but remained in Foley’s grip. Lena McMahon too. Defying her parents, unaware of Foley’s insolvency, she became his lover and plotted to flee to New York. How, without even enough money for a room, did Foley convince her that a marriage would work? The entanglement induced by love and lust makes it almost understandable. But Lewis being pressured by Foley to “take” Lena if he wanted her – Foley saying she would resist at first but it wouldn’t matter – how did that happen? What black man could then believe that this would not lead to certain death?
With great detail, Dray recounts how after the rape, Lewis was apprehended. He was discovered with fishing gear on a “slow coal barge”. He told his captors how McMahon’s white boyfriend Foley “urged him to do the deed”.
So it was that in the aftermath of Lewis’ hanging, in which hundreds attended, and after other black men came forward to say how Foley offered them $5 to sexually assault his lover, Foley was arrested as an “accomplice” to Lewis. Many white people have murdered lovers and then claimed “a black man did it.” But how did Foley know he would escape without punishment?
‘Judge’ William Crane, a revered Port Jervis lawyer, is a heroic figure to emerge from the tragedy. He tried several times to calm the crowd and free Lewis. At one point, hoping to buy time, he seizes on the idea that Lewis might be brought before his victim, McMahon, so she can identify him beyond doubt.
The “victims” were sometimes allowed to light the stake to destroy their suspected attackers, and, developing this extraordinary custom, Dray shows the considerable scholarship with which he enriched his story. Particularly chilling is its tale of a woman, about to set fire to her true clandestine lover, who is reprimanded with a final plea: “How, after we’ve been so in love, can you do this?”
If nothing more, the Port Jervis Lynching gave rise to a classic work of American literature. Stephen Crane, younger brother of William Crane, was the author of a penetrating short story, The Monster. His mythologized Port Jervis is stratified by race, ethnicity and social class.
To expand our understanding of America’s enduring enchantment with violence, guns, and white supremacist control, A Lynching in Port Jervis is superlative.
A 1900 “race riot” and near-lynching of an African American in Akron, Ohio comes to mind. Louis Peck was detained for allegedly assaulting a young girl. When it was discovered that he had been taken to Cleveland, rioters blasted the stone prison and set fire to a municipal building. Peck was tried and convicted within 20 minutes. In 1913 he was found guilty of being wrongfully imprisoned and released.
The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the north during the boom years of the 1920s is also instructive today. So did the subsequent rise of the John Birch Society and a proliferation of riotous rebellions in the civil rights era.
Am I wrong to find Dray’s account of such developments unsatisfactory, for its lack of answers? There may be no response to racial hatred except that prescribed by A Lynching in Port Jervis. Investigate, reflect and solve.
A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age is published in the United States by Farrar, Straus & Giroux