The Lynching Era: The Tragic Hanging of Laura and L. D. Nelson

"The Lynching of Laura Nelson and Son" |George Henry Farnum, photographer 1911 | Image courtesy of The Coli

Winner of ten Spring 2017 StMU History Media Awards for

Best Descriptive Article
Most Captivating & Engaging Article
Best Use of Multiple Images
Best Featured Image
Best Article in the Category of “United States History”
Best Article in the Category of “Social History”
Best Overall Research
Best Use of Primary Sources
Article with the Best Conclusion
Award for Best Storyteller

The period from 1880 to 1930 is one of the darkest chapters in American History for its numbers of murders by lynching, and has come to be known as the Lynching Era.1 Acts of violence against blacks in the South rose dramatically in the years after the Civil War. Intimidation, beatings, and murder became normal occurrences during this period of time, where people of color were killed by hanging or other tortuous ways. The thousands who fell victim to unthinkable torture and death had done nothing to bring this fate upon themselves; it was a result of the entwined racism that was the mindset of many of the whites who lived in the South. In this time period, any small “act” could bring a person of color to this fate.2

In the case of Laura Nelson, it was May 2, 1911. Three men, under the eyes of Okfuskee County Deputy Sheriff George Loney, went to search the house of Laura Nelson. Laura and her husband Austin were suspected of having stolen a cow and butchered it. Austin Nelson admitted to the crime, as the meat was found in their possession during the search. Laura’s husband stated in regards to him steeling the cow, “he had nothing for his children to eat.”3

Laura Nelson hanging from the Canadian River Bridge | George Henry Farnum, photographer 1911 | Image courtesy of LA Progressive

While Sheriff George Loney was searching the Nelson’s house, he discovered a loaded musket that hung on the wall of their cabin. Firmly, the Sheriff demanded it, and urged that it be unloaded. With this, officers stated that Laura reached for another gun from the hands of her teenage son, L. D. Nelson. This is when a struggle began between the Sheriff and L. D. in trying to gain control of the gun. Unfortunately in L. D.’s wrestle with Sheriff Loney, the gun went off. The bullet hit Sheriff Loney in the leg, and killed him. Laura’s husband Austin fully admitted to the act of stealing and killing the livestock, and stated that Laura was only “reaching” for this weapon to retrieve it from her son before an altercation would begin. This statement from Austin Nelson led him immediately to a penitentiary, which is what in actuality saved him from a lynch mob. But with Austin’s statement taking full personal blame, in the hopes of keeping his wife and son from punishment, he was indeed disappointed; unfortunately his confession did not keep them from harm. Both Laura and L. D. were arrested and put in the Okfuskee County jail to await trial for the murder of Sheriff Deputy George Loney. Even though Laura pleaded for her and her son’s innocence, they remained in jail.4

While days passed for Laura and L. D. in jail, on May 24, 1911, a mob of some forty men descended upon the jail. Fourteen year old L. D. and his mother Laura Nelson were dragged from their cells in that Oklahoma city, and put into wagons. They traveled six miles outside of the city, and then they entered a Negro settlement. Once there, the mob of men, using tow sacks, gagged both L. D. and Laura. Laura was then raped, and then the mob took her to the Canadian River Bridge where she was hanged by a noose made of hemp. Only twenty feet away on the bridge, L. D. was hanged as well, with his clothes partly torn from his body. Their bodies remained on the bridge overnight until discovered the next day by a young boy passing by.5

L.D. Nelson hangs from the Canadian River Bridge |photograph by George Henry “Bill” Farnum | courtesy of The Nelson Lynching of 1911

While lynchings were said to be a secretive activity, this one of Laura Nelson and her son seemed to prove otherwise. It was as if the perpetrators were immune from the law. This “secret” lynching is what led to the monstrous photographs that were taken of Laura and L. D. Nelson. “The Lynching of Laura Nelson and Son” that started off as a photograph taken by the local photographer of the town, George Henry Farnum, soon transitioned into becoming a popular lynch postcard.6 These were widely distributed, despite the ban on “violent mail” by the Postal Service. These lynch postcards proved to be very profitable, and some individuals even sold them as door to door salesmen. The spread of racism paralleled the spread of these postcards, as it allowed people to be “involved” with these lynching without physically having to be present. It heightened the idea that white supremacists had the power and control in society, as they sought to spread their bigotry throughout the country.7

The impact of these lynching have continued for many decades, and in one case, they have continued in an irony of history. Woody Guthrie, who is said to be one of the most influential modern folk music artist, made his mark. Through his music he portrayed his thoughts on lynching by condemning it. Guthrie was born only a year after the lynching of Laura and L. D. Nelson, but their story impacted him later on in his life when he began to develop his anti-lynching music.8

Guthrie was struck to produce this music when inspiration hit him in an art gallery. It was the mid 1930’s, and now the lynchings caught by the photographs that were originally used to popularize them were being used in art exhibits to inspire anti-lynching actions. Artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Jose Clemente Orozco produced paintings, drawings, and prints that were shown in two major exhibits. These exhibits were sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and even by the Communist Party to highlight the tragedy and extreme horror that lynch mobs brought to the United States. For the organizers of these exhibits, these two galleries hoped to educate the population and criminalize these acts as the crimes they had always truly been. Woody Guthrie attended and witnessed these art pieces himself, and from this he expressed, “This painting is so real I feel like I was at a lynching, and it…takes all of the fun and good humor and good sport out of you to set here and realize that people could go so haywire as to hang a human body up by a gallus pole and shoot it full of Winchester rifle holes just for pastime.’’9

Woody Guthrie | Image Courtesy of The Journal of American History

This interaction also made Guthrie remember some horrors from his own childhood. Woody Guthrie says, “It reminds me of the postcard picture they sold in my home town for several years, a showing you a negro mother, and her two young sons, a hanging by the neck from a river bridge, and the wild wind a whistling down the river bottom, and the ropes stretched tight by the weight of their bodies…stretched tight like a big fiddle string.”10

The postcard that Woody Guthrie was recalling was indeed the one of Laura and L. D. Nelson. While Guthrie was incorrect in his claims that there had been three individuals, he let this memory and his viewing of the artwork allow him to create music. Inspired by the Nelson postcards and the gruesome event of that May day in 1911, Guthrie wrote the song, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son,” which tells of Guthrie’s remembrance of his past, as he expresses in his lyrics that he heard the “lonesome moan” of Laura crying out, “You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge, but don’t kill my baby and my son.”11

 

“As I walked down that old dark town
In the town where I was born,
I heard the saddest lonesome moan
I ever heard before…
O, don’t kill my baby and my son, 

O , don’t kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don’t kill my baby and my son…

Then I saw a picture on a postcard
It showed the Canadian River Bridge,
Three bodies hanging to swing in the wind,
A mother and two sons they’d lynched”12

What is most ironic and even more significant about Woody Guthrie producing a song in remembrance of Laura and her son L. D. Nelson, was that Woody Guthrie’s own father, Charles Guthrie, is said to have been one of the many men in the mob that claimed Laura and L. D.’s lives. No one is certain whether Charles Guthrie was a strong participation or if he was simply a witness to the crimes. While Charles Guthrie stood for lynching and proclaimed white power, his son rose up against it all. Woody Guthrie even admits that well into the 1920’s, his father was a long-standing member of the Ku Klux Klan. But maybe it is this as well that pushed Woody to keep making music that stood against everything his own father practiced. Guthrie was shocked by all of the violence against black people, especially the one of L. D. and Laura Nelson, even when this lynching had occurred over a year before Woody was born. Guthrie wanted to make his music powerful and wanted it to linger in everyone’s minds. He often even included the graphic images from the lynchings, especially the postcards of L. D. and Laura Nelson. Woody Guthrie took this anti-lynching movement into his music to contrast the culture in America that was still strongly racist. Guthrie took his scarred memories of being raised in a racist environment and used his experiences to create a message of hope for change.13

The Lynching in Lee County, Georgia, January 20, 1916 | Image courtesy of The Crisis

The lynching of Laura Nelson is just one of the thousands that occurred during this era. Even more despicable acts of torture came to others. Women such as Mary Turner, who committed no crime, was doused in gasoline just before her unborn baby was cut from her womb to be stomped into the ground.14 Sam Hose, who was killed by a mob after defending himself from an attacker, had his fingers, ears, and genitals cut from his body before the mob set him on fire. The lynch mob then fought over who got to keep his bones as souvenirs.15

The lives lost during this time period were lost in a way that resembles a national demonic nightmare. Many Americans celebrated these acts as moments of white pride and power. But this fifty year period of agonizing murder is the longest, compared to all other countries that have faced attacks on others for their ethnicity.16 It is horrific facts like these in our country’s history that compel us to face them and not let them be ignored or forgotten. These thousands of lives that matter were taken because of pure racist hatred, and it is crucial as a country that these acts will serve as a reminder of where we once were and where we should promise never to return.

  1. For the literature on lynching, see Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, American Lynching (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012); Amy Louise Woods, Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).  For the most important early work on American lynchings in the post-Reconstruction era, see Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (New York: Humanity Books, 1892, 2002).
  2. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 19.
  3. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 21.
  4. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 21.
  5. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 22.
  6. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.
  7. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 22-23.
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Woody Guthrie,” by Howard Bromberg.
  9. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 663-664.
  10. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 664.
  11. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 664-665.
  12. For the full text of the song, see Woody Guthrie, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son;” for a recent performance of the song, see Brooke Harvey’s rendition on Youtube.
  13. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 665.
  14. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 20.
  15. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.
  16. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.
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69 Comments

  • This article attracted me from the very beginning. The list of awards this article received is very impressive, and the article definitely proved to be well deserving of each award. The story of Laura and L.D Nelson is one I have never heard before, but I feel that is the culture of America. We hide the worst parts of our history even though they were powerful symbols of that time. These ruthless murders where meant to show the “white pride and power” over African Americans in the South. But, when I began reading about Woody Guthrie, it was almost a bittersweet feeling. Rather then joining his community in displaying the same hatred and discrimination towards African Americans, he used his music to condemn lynching.

  • This article was definitely worth the read although it is heartbreaking. It’s unbelievable how much evil one can have towards others for their color of skin. I can’t believe the unjust acts allowed in a country that was supposed to be built with equality for all. It sickens my body knowing there are many cases such as Laura and L.D and all many other innocent lives lost simply because they weren’t a certain color of skin. I’m glad that era is long gone but never forgotten.

  • This article was very well-written and provided great detail, however, it was heart-wrenching to read. I had never heard of the horrendous doings that happened during this era, but I am glad I read about them because it’s a topic that people should be aware of. I knew America was never a country of freedom and equality during this time, but reading how this was considered ‘white power’ is absolutely disturbing. I don’t think I can ever understand how much hatred someone can possess over a person because of the color of their skin.

  • Well all the awards are very well deserved. I really enjoyed this article, and the picture was the thing that hooked me to read this article. Its insane to me how much white people wanted to be the supreme race and its more insane that some white people still believe they are superior because of their skin color. It was really messed up how the mob was just able to walk into the jail and take LD and Laura from the jail. i am sure that there had to be some sort of security, and these people just waltz in there and take them like nothing. Its so sad how they died, and i wonder what happened to the father.

  • This was an incredible and powerful article. I knew that there were a lot of lynching going on during this time period but I had never heard of this story. I have a hard time comprehending someones hate for another simply because of the color of their skin. It just baffles me. I could not imagine finding a family member or friend hanging from a bridge, with their clothes torn. absolutely disgusting.

  • This article made my stomach knot. It makes me sick to think that America, who stands as the leader of the free world, was built on these foundations of racism and lack of justice. I would like to know if these lynch mobs were ever caught or if just a few here and there were caught. The violence against people of color is surprising and disturbing since the very constitution says all men are created equal. Why this continued for so long and why it was acceptable is disgusting and completely unacceptable.

  • Great article about a horrible topic. It baffles me how people can treat their fellow man in such a horrible way. I found myself disturbed at all of the accounts of lynching in this article. Not just because they were horrible but because the people being lynched did not deserve such horrible treatment. The fact that their were secret postcards depicting people being hung and people treated lynching like it was some kind of game was also horrible. Overall this was a very well researched and detailed article that I enjoyed reading even if the topic was gruesome.

  • This has got to be one of the most disturbing articles that I have ever read. It is truly disturbing indeed. It baffles me to such an extent how people could do this to other people just because of the color on their skin. These pictures were incredibly disturbing to look at, but they were absolutely astounding at the same time. This article was an absolute great read and I am surprised it took me so long to discover this one. No wonder this article received so much awards as it did.

  • I absolutely loved how reading this article and seeing how it was set up because I personally feel like it brought such a great light to such a burdening topic. It perfectly depicted this story and gave the time era the justice it deserved. I found the story of Laura and L.D. Nelson absolutely saddening, but I feel like this story in particular brought a new light to the lynchings that wen ton during this time.

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