The Atrocity Exhibition


Without Sanctuary brings an art photography format to a collection of lynching pictures that are sickening to behold. It’s hard to imagine this book sitting out for idle perusal on someone’s coffee table, yet the very ghastliness on display makes it a powerful document of repressed history. While journalists and historians have been describing these atrocities since the late 19th century, the photos convey a dehumanization hard to put into words. If there is ever a trial of the white race, here is Exhibit A.

Most of the people shown hung or burned are black men, and many photos also include the proud white people who either did the deed or gleefully watched. These people wanted to pose with the corpse—it was often part of the ritual—and the results are reminiscent of the trophy picture in which a big game hunter shows off his kill. There’s the same quiet gloating, the same nonchalance. Some of the pictures also have inscriptions like “This is the barbecue we had last night”—that remark accompanies the photo of a charred upper body hanging from a pole. Clearly, the victims were treated like animals, but it’s the victimizers who’ve lost their humanity.

Without Sanctuary served as a catalog for the exhibit “Witness,” which drew such large crowds to the Roth Horowitz gallery that it reopened March 14 at the New-York Historical Society. The book provides the story behind each picture, if known. A few of them show white victims, some of them enduring “frontier justice” out West. Some were Italians or Jews, like Leo Frank, whose hanging in 1915 helped spark the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. These were individuals answering for alleged crimes. Some of the black victims had also been charged with serious crimes like murder and rape, but even if they were guilty, the subsequent execution was never really about revenge. In some cases, the victims had simply failed to show enough humility around white people, and were grotesquely, openly murdered to remind the entire black community of its “place.”

Lynchings directed at black people were so frequent, and sustained over so many years, that they qualify as acts of terrorism. These were symbolic killings. That’s why they were done so publicly. That’s why the victims were often killed many times over, their bodies sometimes obliterated or cut up for sou- venirs and distributed to the white mob. Scariest of all, the mobsters did not bother to conceal their identities. There are no Klan masks in these pictures, just “regular” folks, even sometimes “the best citizens.” An essay by historian Leon Litwack includes braggadocio from a U.S. senator, a newspaper editor, and a member of a state legislature along the lines of “I directed every movement of the mob.” In some Southern states, this evidently qualified a man for public office.

Without Sanctuary presents the pictures in a way that works against the utterly casual and disdainful spirit in which they were taken. The antique dealer who collected them, James Allen, found them at flea markets and garage sales. This was throwaway stuff. Postcards. Snapshots. And they document what the whites clearly regarded as throwaway lives. Litwack points out that sometimes the mob learned later that the person they’d just killed so brutally was completely innocent. The attitude about that seemed to be “oops.”

It seems appropriate that Without Sanctuary recontextualizes these photographs as precious and tragic, as evidence. But I know from years of research into one particular lynching that people are divided about the uses of such horrific artifacts, and that this cuts across racial lines. Better to give this wound some air so it can heal? Or better to just bury it? In an angry essay, Hilton Als refers to “the usefulness of this project which escapes me” and goes on to ask, basically, Why do I have to look at this, and aren’t you only asking me to look because I’m black? Well, given the subject matter here, I think it’s good that Als asks hard questions, the ones that make white people uncomfortable. We don’t need to go all the way to Texas and the lynching of James Byrd Jr. just a couple of years ago to know that black life in America is still held cheap.

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