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Henry Smith (1876 - February 1, 1893) was an African American teenager who was lynched in Paris, Texas. Smith allegedly confessed to murdering the four-year-old daughter of a law enforcement officer who had allegedly beaten him during an arrest. Smith fled, but was recaptured after a nationwide manhunt. He was then returned to Paris, where he was turned over to a mob and burned at the stake.
Henry Smith was a handyman in Paris, Texas. One day in early 1893, Smith was seen acting drunk and disorderly, Deputy Henry Vance was sent to arrest him. Smith resisted and Vance "was forced to use his club" to subdue him. On Thursday, January 26, 1893, Henry Vance's three-year-old daughter disappeared from the front of the boarding house where her family lived. Witnesses said they saw Smith "picked up little Myrtle Vance ... and ... carry her through the central portion of the city. En route through the city he was asked by several persons what he was doing with the child." One of the witnesses Smith spoke to was the mayor of Paris. Smith claimed he was taking her to her mother or to the doctor. Smith returned home Friday morning. His wife asked him about "that white child." He replied, "I ain't seen no white child, and don't have nothing to do with white folks." Smith left and was not seen again until he was captured in Arkansas.
About 2:00 p.m. on Friday, January 27, 1893, a search party formed at the courthouse and found the child's body covered by leaves in Gibson's pasture. When the girl was found dead on the side of a road, the townspeople were furious. Rumor spread that the victim had suffered severe injuries from rape and physical mutilation. But an investigation by journalist Ida B. Wells revealed the rape accusation to be false:
As a matter of fact, the child was not brutally assaulted as the world has been told in excuse for the awful barbarism of that day. Persons who saw the child after its death, have stated, under the most solemn pledge to truth, that there was no evidence of such an assault as was published at that time, only a slight abrasion and discoloration was noticeable and that mostly about the neck.
It was a brutal murder, but no more brutal than hundreds of murders which occur in this country, and which have been equalled every year in fiendishness and brutality, and for which the death penalty is prescribed by law and inflicted only after the person has been legally adjudged guilty of the crime.
The search for the alleged murderer captured public imagination, and railroad companies offered free transportation to anyone in the manhunt. Smith was tracked east through Reno and Detroit, Texas. On January 31 he was captured near his hometown in Hempstead County, Arkansas, at the unincorporated flag station, Clow, Arkansas, 50 miles from the Texas border. Search party members from Paris immediately identified him.
Initially denying any involvement in the murder, Smith finally confessed on the train to Paris. He said he was drunk and was motivated by revenge against the child's father. Smith said he spent the night sleeping in the pasture next to the dying child, killing her by suffocation when he awoke the next morning.
The murder of Myrtle Vance was described by newspapers as the most atrocious killing in the history of Texas. Shortly after Smith's capture, local residents decided to take the law into their own hands, to make "the punishment fit the crime" and allow the victim's family to take part.
When the train transporting Smith arrived at the stop at Texarkana, Arkansas, it was met by a mob estimated at 5,000. A committee from Paris urged "that the prisoner not be molested by the Texarkana people, but that the guard be allowed to deliver him" to the citizens of Paris. The mob agreed.
When Smith realized what was awaiting him, he begged the policemen guarding him to protect him. The city's mayor ordered all the bars closed on the night before Smith's arrival and disorderly crowds were broken up. Schools were closed the day of his arrival. They said that "it was not in the power of all the officers in Texas to save him ... they could not if they [wanted to] ... as they themselves were virtually prisoners in the hands of the committee from Paris." Smith asked his guards to shoot him and not turn him over to the mob. Smith's train arrived in Paris at 1 PM on February 1. "A committee demanded Smith of [City Marshall] Shanklin. He told them that he could not. They pointed to the great multitude of armed, angry men, and told him those men were there to take Smith at all hazards. Seeing resistance was useless and there would be a bloody riot, Shanklin submitted and went away."
A large crowd of from 5,000 to 15,000 people packed into an area of as little as 400 sq yards (335 sq meters), took Smith from his captors and placed him on a mule cart. They paraded him through town and to an open stretch of prairie between the cemetery and railroad tracks. There, organizers had built a 10-foot scaffold painted with the word "Justice."
Smith was tied up and tortured for 50 minutes by Henry Vance, his 15-year-old son, and his brothers-in-law. The men placed hot irons under Smith's feet, burned his trunk and limbs and finally gouged his eyes. A February 2, 1893 article in the New York Sun reported, "Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd."
Finally, the crowd poured oil on Smith and set the scaffold on fire. According to some newspaper accounts, Smith remained alive during the burning. He was reported to have torn himself away from the post and fallen off the scaffolding, where he died. The crowd sifted through the ashes to collect Smith's bones and shards of wood as souvenirs.
Sheriff D. S. Hammond of Lamar County wired the Governor back saying "I am helpless. Have no support." Lamar County Assistant Country Attorney E. A. McCuistion responded, "Officers are helpless. An enraged public stands waiting for the prisoner, who is expected at 1 o'clock."
The Governor responded to the Sheriff Hammond,
And to ACA McCuistion he wrote,
Sheriff Hammond replied to the Governor, "Henry Smith has arrived and is in charge of from 5,000 to 10,000 enraged citizens. I am utterly helpless to protect him." Shortly afterward, ACA McCuistion wired the Governor, "All is over: death by hot iron torture-diabolical affair."
Hogg issued the following orders to the offices of the County Attorney and law enforcement offices:
The Paris Daily News argued that by the time Gov. Hogg started wiring officials (shortly before Smith's train was expected to arrive), it was not possible to prevent his lynching, even if they had wanted to do so. They opined that Gov. Hogg's orders were "looked upon as a joke. It is not believed that he means it. It is impossible to embody into a wired special to The News the various phases of public sentiment, all drifting in one direction."
But on February 6, Gov. Hogg sent an open letter to the Texas legislature urging them to stiffen the state laws against lynching. He wanted to allow the family of the victim to sue for damages, to make the local sheriff ineligible to run for re-election if a prisoner is taken from his custody and harmed, and to allow for changes of venue when there is a risk of mob violence. His letter concluded:
The Paris Daily News produced a tract entitled "The Facts in the Case of the Horrible Murder of Little Myrtle Vance and the Fearful Expiation at Paris, Texas February 1st, 1893." The book was written by James Pleasant uncle of the child with the corroboration of his brother Henry Vance. The copyright of the tract was signed over to Henry Vance and the proceeds of its sale were intended for the Vance family. It included photographs related to the murder and the lynching, official communications between Gov. Hogg and local Lamar County officials, and editorial comments (pro and con) from various newspapers.