An unflinching account, James McGovern’s Anatomy of a Lynching carefully reconstructs the grim events surrounding the death of Claude Neal—one of the estimated three thousand blacks to die at the hands of southern lynch mobs in the six decades between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War II.
Neal was accused of the brutal rape and murder of Lola Cannidy, a young white woman he had known since childhood. On October 26, 1934, he was taken from his jail cell by a well-organized mob. The following night, the mob tortured Neal and hung him by the neck to the point of strangulation—repeating the process until the victim was dead. Neal’s body was then further mutilated by a large crowd of men, women, and children who had gathered to witness, celebrate, and assist in the lynching. Finally, the battered corpse was put on display, suspended as a warning from a tree in front of the Jackson County, Florida, courthouse. The next morning, under the headline GIRL SLAYER LYNCHED THIS A.M., a local newspaper duly reported the avenging of “pretty Lola Cannidy.”
The approving story that appeared in that newspaper was not the final word on Neal’s lynching. Coming in the wake of the Scottsboro trial, the murder of Neal became a rallying point for liberal and media efforts to force antilynching legislation through Congress. The NAACP, in particular, made vigorous use of the grisly details of the lynching, which its spokesman Walter White condemned as “one of the most bestial crimes ever committed by a mob.” As the public outcry grew in strength, it became obvious that violence towards blacks was increasingly unacceptable to the nation. Change followed controversy, and the killing of Claude Neal became almost the last “classic” southern lynching.
McGovern bases his study on extensive research as well as on interviews with both blacks and whites who remember Neal’s death and who, though requesting anonymity, were willing to discuss the case. He sketches the social background of Jackson County, Florida—deeply religious, crushed by the depression, accustomed to violence, and proud of its role in the Civil War—and examines which elements in the county's makeup made it an ideal breeding ground for mob violence. Detailing the efforts that turned the Neal case into a national cause célèbre in the antilynching campaign, McGovern traces the political impact of the event and the quick decline and then disappearance of community-approved lynching in the South. The most detailed and extensive account of a single lynching yet published, this is a powerful dissection of the extraordinarily violent incident that prompted A. A. Brill to write, “DeSade in all his glory could not have invented a more diabolical situation.”
James R. McGovern (1928–2012) was a professor of history at the University of West Florida and the author of Yankee Family and Emergence of a City in the New South: Pensacola, 1900–1945.
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