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  • "Better than Ben Hur":Lynching and the Ghost of Sam Hose
  • Dennis B. Downey (bio)
Edwin T. Arnold . What Virtue There Is in Fire: Cultural Memory and the Lynching of Sam Hose. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. 208 pp. Notes and index. $28.95.

The April 1899 death of Sam Hose near Newnan, Georgia, typifies the phenomenon of "spectacle lynching" in the American South at the turn of the twentieth century. As faithfully retold by Edwin T. Arnold, literary scholar and native of the area, Hose's brief life and tragic death are freighted with significance and anchored in the web of community relations at that time and place. "Don't make it too hot," someone in the crowd shouted as the pyre ignited, fearful that the victim's agony would be cut short (p. 115). When the lynching was over, spectators rummaged through the charred remains for souvenirs, which they shared with neighbors the next morning. It was a Sabbath afternoon, a "Black and Bloody Sunday" a local newspaper called it (p. 132), and many in the crowd had come from church services to the meadow where the ritual was enacted. There was nothing sacred about this assembly, though some did invoke divine judgment as a kind of benediction. The entire episode played out like a macabre social drama that recalled William Faulkner's fictional Shreve McCannon's testament: "It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it?"

Racial lynching as a topic of social and scholarly interest continues to enjoy wide attention. In addition to What Virtue There Is in Fire, there have been no fewer than three other major books on the subject published this year. Perhaps most noteworthy is Amy Louise Wood's Lynching and Spectacle, an insightful study of the role of visual imagery in commemorating and popularizing mass violence. Wood's book builds on the 2000 publication of a group of lynching postcards in a work entitled Without Sanctuary. Both studies provide striking visual reminders of the commonplace features of what Mark Twain called scornfully "the United States of Lyncherdom."1

Were the subject not so ghastly one might be tempted to say there is a "renaissance" afoot in lynching studies, with important recent book-length studies by Michael Pfeifer, William D. Carrigan, Christopher Waldrep, and others. Philip Dray's 2002 At the Hands of Persons Unknown remains a flawed [End Page 468] but useful overview of the subject. A better introduction to the diversity of viewpoints on lynching is found in the collection Under the Sentence of Death: Lynching in the New South (1997).2 There continue to be articles, book-length studies, and innumerable websites devoted to individual incidents of racial lynching and vigilantism in the South.

I say this because it provides a proper context for appreciating the work at hand, Edwin Arnold's deep investigation into the 1899 lynching of Sam Hose and the "cultural memory" of that act of community-sanctioned mob violence 100 years later. In what amounts to an exceptionally well-written and sound case study, Arnold draws from and reflects what might be called the established scholarly orthodoxy on lynching. What Virtue There Is in Fire takes the narrow perspective of lynching as a distinctively Southern phenomenon that reveals important features of regional race relations in the tumultuous half-century after Emancipation. This is the established convention, and the breadth of scholarship—to say nothing of the sheer magnitude of lynching's commonplace occurrence in the South—argues for this perspective. The best recent scholarship, however, takes into account an escalating pattern of racial violence outside the proverbial South and the too-frequent occurrence of mass lynchings every bit as vicious as the Hose affair in places as diverse as Leavenworth, Kansas; Belleville, Illinois; Wilmington, Delaware; and Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Unlike state-sanctioned executions, lynching was an extralegal (therefore criminal) punishment that often enjoyed popular or community support. Michael Pfeifer has called it "rough justice" in an effort to distinguish mob execution from the more formal administration of criminal sanctions that yielded to due process and the right of the accused to a day in court. Rarely were perpetrators held accountable for their actions, and in...


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