6 The Sermon

Stanly Has a Lynching: The Murder of Alexander Whitley: A Family Legacy Entangled in a Web of Fiction & Folklore.


 

6

 

The Sermon

 

   Prohibition and the role of activist preachers were explosive political issues in the presidential elections of 1888 and 1892. Harrington overtly states his political position on Prohibition in verse 1 of “Lines.”

 

1. Come, young man of the present age and listen to my call,

And don’t be overtaken by strong alcohol [emphasis added],

There was a man both young and gay, his name to you I’ll tell,

It was Burton Tucker, whom you know so well.

 

The Politics of

 

   In 1892, public debate raged in newspapers about the role ministers should take in speaking about a political matter like Prohibition. A lengthy and blistering public critique of a Methodist minister, Rev. Dr. W. M. Robey of Goldsboro, North Carolina, for his involvement in the politics of Prohibition provides some insight into the dilemma activist preachers faced. When Dr. Robey’s political activities were discovered, the result was a public rebuke.

 

Dr. Robey’s church was closed for some time on account of his impaired health and yet he was able to ride seventy-five miles during an extraordinary hot spell of weather and occupy a very hot hall upon a hot

 

Every true Methodist layman, we believe, blushes when he hears of a Methodist preacher upon a political platform.

 

We will claim the right to protest against sick Methodist preachers traveling over the country making speeches during a warm political contest. By this course they damage the cause of religion, prohibition and Methodism. We love prohibition and Methodist preachers both … but honestly and in the sight of God we believe both are out of place in

 

—Tobacco

 

   Prohibitionists were victorious in garnering support from many clergy despite pressure to avoid direct public involvement. In 1889, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational clerics gathered at a meeting in Chicago and resolved to launch a nationwide effort to “help States thus struggling to free themselves from the bondage and degrading influence of the liquor This marriage of the clergy with the political platform of Prohibition created a social chasm by association, pitting Prohibitionists, viewed as religious, against anti-Prohibitionists, labeled “non-religious.”

   The joining of the forces of religious Prohibitionists and Democrats widened the social divide even further. Democrats, the party of “white supremacy,” struck a chord of unity among white voters by laying blame for the defeat of Prohibition on enfranchised black men portrayed as “ignorant, drunken, and

   The animus white men harbored as a result of being forced to give black men an equal voice in governing through voting rights was used as a wedge to divide and conquer the electorate. In 1891, a successful vote on Prohibition in South Carolina was attributed to “preachers, ladies and white people,” while Prohibition opponents were described as responsible for “a lamentable state of affairs” attributed to “liquor advocates and three-fourths of the

   Prohibition was a volatile political issue in Stanly and surrounding counties in 1892, and it’s fair to ask whether Harrington cloaked his involvement in it by putting his message in song. Regardless, his message is as clear as a sermon: Strong alcohol leads to a loss of control, death, and a fate worse than death.

 

Salvation and Eternal Life

 

   Harrington’s song justifies the lynching of Alex Whitley through the voice of Judy Burris in verse 7.

 

Judy says “Oh, Aleck you’ll die in public sure

For murdering Cousin Burton, and mangling his body so.”

 

   Lurid descriptions of the dismemberment and disposal of Tucker’s body became a focal point in the reports of his death, and Harrington, too, seemed to be obsessed by this occurrence. It was not Tucker’s death that angered Harrington, but rather the destruction of his remains that provided the preacher with a perfect example for his object lesson in his Prohibition sermon on the consequence of being overcome by alcohol.

   Graveyards are considered sacred places, hallowed ground in which the bones of the dead rest. Destruction of the physical body meant that the soul of the deceased was denied a resting place. For some Baptists and other Christians, resurrection is reserved for “the saved” with an intact, buried body resting in peace in a grave. Only for those particular folks will the soul be rejoined with their body and rise from physical death to everlasting life. In Harrington’s world, there was no resting in peace for Tucker, no eternal life—just food for fish.

   The dismemberment of Tucker’s body and the unceremonious disposal of his remains in a creek crossed a sacred line in a brazen repudiation of God’s will. “Lines” reveals Harrington’s anger and depicts his horror that “Aleck”—a heartless villain, a murderer who committed the ultimate sin of destroying a human body, God’s creation—would still receive eternal life, while the innocent Tucker would not.

   The preacher’s outrage is evident in the way he conflated the desecration of Tucker’s remains (17 pieces) for the convenience of a rhyme. He rails against “Aleck” for the destruction of Tucker’s body.

 

6. The like in all Arkansas had never yet been seen.

They cut his body in pieces, The number of seventeen.

Aleck says to Judy, “This secret you must keep.”

They cut his body into pieces and dumped it in the creek.

 

   The preacher artfully lures his audience to agree with his conclusion in the chorus, with its sorrowful lamentation in the last line.

 

They dumped him in the water,

The fish swim o’er his breast,

The water in gentle motion,

We hope his soul’s at rest.

 

   This mournful refrain of false hope signals a fate far worse than death for many followers of the Baptist religion. Tucker’s mutilated body, described by Harrington in contrived, sensational detail, delivered his powerful religious message: The penalty for the use of strong alcohol was the loss of eternal life.

   It would be easy to dismiss “Lines” as just another ballad telling a sad tale of the death of a drunken fool who was seduced by strong alcohol and forfeited eternal life, but it is more than that. Tucker was not the beloved favorite son, slain in the far-away West that Harrington described. The false and misleading depiction of both Tucker and Alex bears witness to Harrington’s allegiance to his theme rather than to the truth.

   While his message in support of Prohibition is patently obvious, it’s not clear whether Harrington’s song was simply an attempt to sidestep the scrutiny of the elders in his church by concealing his political activism, or whether he intended to use the song to stir up men already poised to lynch Alex Whitley.

 

Political

 

   The alliance between religion and politics spawned much of the lynching in 1892. If Harrington did attend and promote this lynching, he was not alone. On the same day Alex Whitley was lynched, the Goldsboro Headlight published an article, “Anchors of Hemp Ropes,” noting, “Rev. Sam Jones Advocates the Lynching of Men like Rev. Jones and Rev. Harrington, cloaked in the leadership of their religious institutions, condoned these events through their provocative statements and sermons. By their attendance at these lynchings, where they offered a prayer for the victim or a blessing for the lynchers rather than condemnation for the murder being committed, they set both a political and a religious example for the men in their communities.

   Harrington had the perfect subject for his song/sermon (a desecrated human body) and a compelling subject of much interest in the 1892 election year (Prohibition). How he obtained his information—the details, the quotes from Judy and “Aleck,”—was a question not easily answered, because he left no discernable trail. However, comparison of the language Harrington used in his song, which was composed prior to the lynching, with the language of news articles that described the lynching after the fact suggests a possible link: Judy Burris.

 

The

 

   Few details are known about how Judy Irene Burris/Burroughs (1871–1957) was discovered or arrested on June 2, 1892.

 

Judy Burris, a young woman, was placed in jail in Stanly County Thursday. Some time ago she and Alex Whitley left that county together for the west. Whitley was accused of the murder of D. B. Tucker, and the return of Judy Burris gave rise to suspicion, and charges made against her, the News says, place in peculiarly close

 

   Five days later, on June 7, Alex was discovered at the home of a relative in Oakboro. The proximity of their capture in Stanly suggests that they returned to Stanly together.

   Judy, a 21-year-old single woman, was the only eyewitness to significant events occurring before and after the death of D. B. Tucker in Arkansas. Caught in a dangerous and intriguing plot, accused of murder, and perhaps listening to men talk about lynching, she sat in a jail cell until the night of June 9, when she and other prisoners were removed by the sheriff before the arrival of the lynch It is not surprising that to save herself, Judy would deflect attention from herself to an acceptable target—Alex.

   Where Harrington might have learned the details he incorporated into his song and attributed to Judy Burris is unclear. There is no documentation that he visited her in jail prior to the lynching. But his song is remarkably similar to both the words attributed to her in news articles published after the lynching, and her statement recorded by a reporter in Arkansas during her return trip to Stanly County after she was freed by the courts. These similarities raise the possibility that Harrington spoke with Judy prior to the lynching and used her false accusations and fabrications in his song to incite men in the community to commit a lynching.