At one point in American history, there was nothing quite as entertaining as a lynching. During the late 19th and early 20th century, lynchings were common practice. The “Lynching Era” is one of the darkest chapters in American history.
Disturbingly, it was big business to create postcards of these so-called events. These postcards were typically sent to relatives and friends with inscriptions such as “Wish you were here,” or “You missed a good time.”1
On the 2nd of May, 1911, Deputy Sheriff George Loney formed a posse and made his way to the Nelson farm in Okemah, Oklahoma. A cow had been stolen from another nearby farm and they had penned 15-year-old L.D. Nelson as the thief of said cow.
When they arrived at the house, they discovered the butchered cow. L.D.’s father, Austin, confessed that he had stolen the cow because “he had nothing for his children to eat.”2
What happened next has been obscured by time. Several reports offered different versions of events. What is known for fact is that a scuffle broke out and L.D. shot Sheriff Loney dead.
Apparently when Loney was searching the house, he spotted a musket hanging on the wall. When he demanded the gun, L.D. panicked, thinking that he was going to shoot and kill his father for the theft. L.D. reached for another gun in a bid to scare him away. However, when his mother, Laura attempted to wrestle it from him, it discharged and hit Loney in the leg, killing him.3
Austin, L.D. and Laura were all arrested. Austin was charged with the theft of “a domestic animal, to whit one cow.” In a bid to save his family, he pleaded guilty and was sent to three years in prison. However, both L.D. and Laura were charged with the murder. They were denied bail and sent to the county jail to await their arraignment. Their lawyers suggested that an intervening preliminary hearing had doubted that the prosecution would have enough evidence to make a prima facie case.
Tragically, a group of local white men decided to take preemptive action.
On 24 May, a group of around 40 men stormed the jail at approximately midnight. The men bound, gagged and blindfolded the jailer, rendering him unable to later identify them. Laura – who had been allowed to care for her 2-year-old daughter, Carrie – was raped by several of the men.
Afterwards, she and L.D. were dragged from their cells and into awaiting wagons. They were taken to a steel bridge over the North Canadian River. Laura managed to set Carrie down by the foot of the bridge as she and L.D. were led towards the side of the bridge. Here, a noose was looped around their necks and they were thrown over the side of the bridge.
The violent murder of African-Americans was so accepted at the time that a grim postcard was made of the lynching by George Henry Farnum, a photographer who captured the aftermath of the lynching.
The following morning, their hanging bodies were discovered by a teenage boy. As word of the lynching was circulated around the town, groups of white people came to gawk at the gruesome scene. According to reports, a neighbor found Carrie and took her home.
A district judge convened a grand jury but no charges were ever filed because witnesses were unwilling to identify any of the 40 murderers.
Nobody was ever charged with the brutal murder. However, one of the most prominent perpetrators was said to be Charley Guthrie, the father of the singer, Woody Guthrie. Ironically, Woody would grow up to become one of America’s preeminent troubadour of social justice. He later said that what formed him was seeing the postcard of the lynching his father was alleged to have been involved with.4
In 1998, Brooklyn-based artist Kim Mayhorn created a multimedia installation titled “A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day.” The installation memorialized the lynching simply with an empty dress. The disembodied dress represented the void in the historical record and Mayhorn’s effort to redress the absence of Laura.5
- The Star Ledger, 26 June, 2000 – “The Rope of Hate”
- To Be a Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe’s Storm.s ‘Her Name was Laura Nelson’” – Viola Ratcliffe
- The Norman Transcript, 1 November, 2016 – “Oklahoma’s Unfortunate Legacy of Racism”
- The Daily Beast, 12 March, 2015 – “The Real Lynchings in SAE’s Oklahoma Backyard”
- Chicago Defender, 24 April, 2018 – “The New Lynching Memorial Remembers Black Women Who Were Also Killed by Lynch Mobs”