Exquisite Corpse
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Exquisite Corpse

In an earlier time, a lynch mob would display the body of its victim with impunity, often gathering around it for a group photograph. These images, and the bodies they represented, were the icons of white supremacy. Circulated in newspapers, the pictures displayed the power of the white mob and the powerlessness of the black community. After the highly publicized lynching of Claude Neal in 1934, photographers took hundreds of shots of his mutilated body and sold them for fifty cents each. The photograph of Neal’s hanging body eventually became a postcard. One group of white people, gathered around a burned black body, was communicating to another group in another county: they had done their part, asserted their place in the world. The image was certain to incite other communities to follow their example: this was the golden age of lynching.

The body of the victim assumed a magical quality for the lynch mob: the corpse was an object to be tortured, mutilated, collected, displayed. To snuff out life was rarely enough: more ritual was required. In 1937, when a Georgia mob was unable to lynch Willie Reid because the police had already killed him, they broke into the funeral home where he lay, carried his body to a baseball diamond, and burned it. Even a mob that had already hanged, maimed, and burned a man might still feel compelled to exhume his body in order to inflict further indignities; so it was with the corpse of George Armwood, in 1933.

As the historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has noted, the spectacle of lynching dramatized a social hierarchy where whites and blacks, women and men, knew their place. Blacks were terrorized, white women were vulnerable, and white men were on top, invulnerable and free. Still, whites projected immense sexual power onto blacks; the terror of lynching reflected their own anxieties.

Indeed lynching also seems to be the expression of a peculiar necrophilia, manifest in the desire to possess the bodies of victims, in the passion with which [End Page 70] dead bodies were handled and displayed—as if they were talismans of life itself. The East Texas lynch mob that killed David Gregory in 1933 pulled out his heart and cut off his penis before tossing his body onto a pyre: those were the most potent emblems of vitality. Such actions bespeak nothing so much as a perverse fondness for the dead body.

While lynch mobs subjected the corpses of their victims to the most spectacular abuse, victims’ families were more concerned with matters of the spirit. Most often they buried their loved ones in silence: for these families, the corpse was less important than the soul.

The same can be said of those families who refused to bury lynch victims. In 1889, after a mob broke into a Barnwell, South Carolina, jail and lynched eight African American men, the local black community displayed its solidarity at the funeral. More than five hundred people lined the street, and several women implored the Lord to “burn Barnwell to the ground.” The community refused to bury six of the men, claiming that the whites who killed them should bear that responsibility. In Virginia, Joseph McCoy’s aunt refused to bury the body of her nephew, who was lynched in 1897. “As the people killed him, they will have to bury him,” she explained. The body, whether buried or left to the elements, had become a symbol of the injustice and barbarism of the white community, the failure of the nation’s founding principles: Let the dead bury their dead.

When Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley refused to hide her son’s corpse. His mutilated and decomposed body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days after he died. Despite the sheriff’s opposition, she insisted that her son be returned to Chicago. Bradley opened the casket as soon as it arrived at Illinois Central terminal, and promptly announced that she wanted an open-casket funeral so everyone could “see what they did to my boy.” On the first day the casket was open for viewing, ten thousand people saw it; on the day...