2 Four Stories

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


 

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Four Stories

 

   The lives and deaths of Alex Whitley and Daniel Burton (D. B.) Tucker are described, and thus defined, through narratives from four different points of view, each based on the presumption that Alex Whitley murdered D. B. Tucker. An examination and comparison of these stories and songs reveals how certain facts were included and others conflated or omitted to shape their narratives.

   Over the past 125 years these narratives have become entwined with each other in folklore and embraced as fact. I have examined these stories and their sources in an attempt to disentangle them, to sort the facts from fiction and fiction from folklore. Once exposed, the truth reveals the tensions boiling beneath the bucolic landscape of Stanly County, North Carolina, that erupted in the mob murder of Alexander Whitley on June 9, 1892.

 

“Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B.

 

   The first story about this lynching was written in the form of a ballad constructed before the lynching and reflects the perspective of a prominent Baptist preacher, Reverend E. P. Harrington. His ballad, “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker,” tells a story about the death of D. B. Tucker and forecasts the lynching of Alex Whitley, whom Harrington named “Aleck.” His song is recognized as a lynching

   Lynching ballads tell a story of murder by a mob, appearing to capture the event and emotions of the community both through lyrics that describe the event and through a familiar tune that tells a similar tale. In the 1800s, the performance of lynching ballads at square dances entertained folks. This tale of a mob murder with a soul-saving moral was reinforced each time the tune was sung or played.

   Most lynchings are not memorialized in ballads. However, the lynching of Alex Whitley is portrayed in two such songs: “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker” and “Alec Whitley.” These ballads are two separate compositions, but they are entwined, and each song has two kernels of truth: Daniel Burton Tucker died under suspicious circumstances in Arkansas, and Alexander Whitley was lynched.

 

Newspaper Reports in 1892

 

   A second account arose through a series of newspaper articles published after the lynching. These stories present information about the lives of Alex Whitley and D. B. Tucker from the perspective of various newspaper men who either witnessed the lynching or wrote down stories about the lynching from people in the community. Statements made before the lynching from a cell in the Albemarle jail by Judy Burris, Alex’s half-sister, who was with him in Arkansas at the time of Tucker’s death, also likely influenced much of the newspaper coverage.

   In 1892, the news reports of Alex Whitley’s death were clear: He was lynched, and the lynching was accepted as normal. The Charlotte Democrat recorded his lynching in a historical context:

 

The lynching in Stanly County is the third [in the state] this year, and just keeps up the average, which is five a year. There is growing feeling in North Carolina against lynching for any crime save an

 

   His murder was viewed as a mere statistic, acceptable because of the presumption that he was guilty of a crime that was “an outrage.”

   Lynch law was the topic of much discussion in newspapers across the country in 1892. “Origins of Lynch Law,” a news article published in Texas that year, provided a brief history lesson on lynching, beginning with the definition from Webster’s “the practice of punishing men for crimes or offenses by private, unauthorized persons, without a legal trial.” This article attributed the term lynch to Colonel Charles Lynch, a Virginia farmer “who took the law into his own hands.” The admission that “lynch law is not a law” did not negate support for its effective application by Colonel Lynch in the case of “obnoxious Tories” not reachable by statutory Lynching data and news articles written in the 1800s about lynchings and political issues of that era provide a more complete historical context and reveal a different story about the murder of Alex Whitley.

   Alex Whitley’s name entered a database, one of 155 black and 100 white lynching victims across the country in a year marked as the peak of lynching when North Carolinians lynched six people, exceeding the state’s average of five (see appendix). Those murders, like most of the 4,730 people lynched in the United States between 1882 and are reduced to statistics.

 

“Alec Whitley: The Man and The

 

   A third story was told about the death of Alex Whitley and D. B. Tucker through the words of a crime fiction writer. In 1949, Heath Thomas wrote a story and named his protagonist “Alec Whitley.” A subsequent story in 1957 related his alleged discovery of a ballad entitled “Alec Whitley.” He integrated the ballad into his new story, titled “Alec Whitley: The Man and The Ballad,” and submitted this version of his story to the folklore society in 1960. Thomas framed his story in a biblical motif, incorporating bits of information from various sources: “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker,” news reports, oral history passed down from previous generations, court records, and his alleged newly discovered ballad.

   “Aleck” and “Alec” Whitley are both depicted as reprehensible villains, judged deserving of lynching, and both Rev. E. P. Harrington and Heath Thomas leave no doubt that their tales are about the real Alexander Whitley. Titillating narratives in both the ballads and the folklore story are intertwined with snippets of accurate information about the lives of Alex Whitley and D. B. Tucker, seamlessly woven together to give the appearance of authenticity. These songs and stories have been accepted both as the truth and as folklore, characterized as slightly embellished. Cast in the context of an historical background of lynching, politics, and religion at the time they were composed, the underlying message is clear: Alex Whitley deserved to die.

 

Academic

 

   The fourth narrative about the deaths of Alex Whitley and D. B. Tucker comes from the perspective of academic studies. Researchers examined the social construct of lynching, gathered data on its occurrence, and published opinions about how and why lynching occurred and continued unchecked. Focusing on an analysis of previous stories and ballads, these studies attempt to explain why Alex Whitley was lynched. Yet when facts are distinguished from fiction and folklore, and additional facts not previously addressed are included, a more accurate evaluation of the murder of Alex Whitley emerges.

   As I dug into the lives of Alex Whitley, the men who murdered him, my dead relatives, and the men who wrote about his lynching, I began to understand how and why respected men in the community extracted fragments of the truth from the broader context of events and shaped these tales as morality lessons or as illustrations to explain the violence of mob murder. Wrapping events in titillating tales of murder and lynching, burying them in the lyrics of songs and sermons, reduced the lives of my family to mere caricatures. These men and women are long dead now, and many of their descendants were silenced by promises to ancestors to not talk about this lynching, Alex Whitley, or the past.

   Often voices of folks long dead woke me in the early morning hours, some urging me to tell their stories, others begging me to keep secret their bonds of despicable brotherhood. Unlike those before me, I took no oath of silence and had no agreement to protect prominent men and their families from scrutiny that might unveil who they were, how they fabricated stories as a means to serve their ends, and what they did on a June night in Town Creek.