CW: mentions of rape, violence, gruesome crime scene details, murder
Yesterday I had every intention of writing an article to commemorate the death of Emmett Till. Since, for the last several months, I’ve been close reading and annotating case files related to his murder, I figured I’d have the facts and data required to compose an informative essay. “Today, August 28th,” I typed, “is a painful reminder of a family tragedy that made national headlines many decades ago.” Then I stopped. The words felt empty, forced, robotic.
Pages 74 and 85 of the 464 page FBI document that details the days leading up to and following the murder of Emmett Louis Till feature photos of a ring that city officials used to identity his body. The document describes the discovery as follows:
“Upon arriving at the scene, they found the body to be lying, face down, in a boat. The boat was pulled up on the bank of the river. They turned the body over and discovered a silver ring on one of the body’s fingers.”
The document goes on to explain that the ring was inscribed “May 25, 1943” and with the initials “L.T.” Given the fact that his body was horribly disfigured as a result of a brutal and bloody beating, the ring helped city officials identity him.
Again, I’ll stop. Because phrases like “horribly disfigured” and words like “brutal” and “bloody” don’t even begin to capture the terror and violence that he experienced in his final moments.
Chester A. Miller, the Mississippi undertaker tasked with picking up a body on the banks of the Tallahatchie River, arrived at Emmett’s final resting place on August 31, 1955. He found Emmett’s body lying face down on a boat on the river bank and, after turning the body over, saw Emmett’s silver ring.
Before I continue I want you to take note of the date that Miller found Emmett’s body: August 31, 1955. That is three days after Emmett’s death. According to weather observations between September 1942 and December 2012, August temperatures in Mississippi in 1955 were in the 90s. So when Miller found Emmett’s body — with barbed wire wrapped around his neck, pieces of his skull beside his body in the boat, “the whole crown of his head” crushed in, and several other gruesome and horrifying cuts, bruises, and holes visible on his body — several postmortem changes were underway.
There are five stages of decomposition: fresh, bloated, active decay, advanced decay, and skeletal. A naked, dead body, like Emmett’s, lying in the heat on the bank of a river will slowly turn a color resembling green by day three due to “the formation of sulfhemoglobin facilitated by the commensal intestinal bacteria that invade the tissues after death”, but but day two, the body will be impacted by “the invasion of the body by flies and the life cycle of flies,” as well as the swelling of organs and soft tissues, according to researchers Abdulaziz M. Almulhim and Ritesh G. Menezes.
So, Emmett’s ring was important for the sake of identification purposes when Miller prepared his body for burial and transported him to a funeral home in Greenwood, Mississippi. The ring was also important for other reasons, though, that are best explained in a 2008 piece published in the Women’s Studies Quarterly by Valerie Smith entitled Emmett Till’s Ring.
“On July 13, 1945, Mamie Till received a telegram at her home in Argo, Illinois, notifying her that her estranged husband, Private Louis Till, had been killed in Italy. The Department of Defense subsequently sent her his personal effects, including a silver ring he had bought in Casablanca, engraved with his initials and a date, May 25, 1943. During the following ten years, their son, Emmett Till, would occasionally try on his father’s ring. Since Emmett was only four when Louis Till was killed, the ring was always too large for him. But in mid-August 1955, as he packed for what was to have been a two-week visit with relatives in Money, Mississippi, he tried the ring on again. Still too big for his ring finger, it now fit the middle finger perfectly. Emmett and his mother agreed that he could wear the ring on his trip to show his cousins and his friends.”
I read that passage over and over again, imagining the look on Emmett’s face when his mother agreed to let him wear his father’s ring when he went on a trip to visit his family. I was immediately reminded of multiple moments during my childhood when I’d try on articles of clothing or pieces of jewelry that were too big, longing for the day I’d be grown up enough or big enough to be allowed to wear them out of the house. Then I thought about future moments I hope to have with my own child who will, inevitably, go through similar experiences while growing up.
Consider for a moment, though, the audacity of claiming inevitability. It’s easy to forget that senescence is a privilege, especially given the countless systemic, structural, and institutional phenomena that impact our lived experiences. The type of systemic, structural, and institutional phenomena that led to the brutal and bloody murder of an innocent, 14-year-old, Black boy just a month after his birthday.
Before Emmett’s body was transported to Chicago, “so many people came to look at the body while it was at the funeral home the police had to keep people back,” according to the FBI case file. By the time Emmett’s body made it Chicago for burial, his body was reportedly so swollen and disfigured that one could “hardly tell who this person [was].”
When Emmett’s mother — who was identified in the case files as Mamie Bradley — saw his body she said that she was able to identify him by looking very carefully at his “ears, forehead, hairline, hair, nose, lips, and chin.” She knew it was her son “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” she said. She didn’t need the ring to identify him.
When she decided that his casket would remain open, and his body be left in the same condition as when she first identified him at the funeral home, during his funeral, she said that she “wanted the world to see what they did to [her] baby.” Her baby. Her son. Her child. The same little boy who could not wait to fit into his late father’s ring. The ring Louis Till bought in Casablanca.
Before Casablanca, and before his estrangement from Emmett and Mamie, Louis Till abused Mamie, eventually choking her to unconsciousness. In response, Mamie threw scalding water on him and went to the courts to ensure that he would stay away from her. When he violated the court order to keep his distance, a judge gave him a choice: jail or military service. He chose to enlist in the U.S. Army. Shortly before Emmett’s fourth birthday, Louis was hanged after being charged with the rape and murder of a woman in Civitavecchia, Italy. According to multiple sources, the events that led to the charges were complicated. In a book review of John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, Paul Von Blum writes that not only were the living victims unable to identity Louis Till, but “the facts of the Louis Till case are ambiguous.” He adds that:
“On the evening of June 27, 1944, while antiaircraft artillery rumbled in the background, ‘all hell broke loose,’ as Wideman reports. Two Italian women were allegedly raped and one Italian woman was murdered. American soldiers were in the vicinity, including Privates Louis Till and Fred McMurray. Masked intruders, according to the file, were responsible for the crimes, including one who carried a gun. When they burst through the door where one of the rape victims, Frieda Mari, lived, one of them lit a match, ostensibly allowing the inhabitants to identify them as ‘three colored men.’ But the witness accounts were sketchy and vague, probably an inevitable response in light of the horrific crimes they experienced.”
In 2016, Wideman spoke with NPR about his book and related research and said that, when digging deeper into Louis Till’s case, “there were very few connections, almost none, that…made it beyond any question of doubt that Till and McMurry had done these killings and rapes.” The truth lies somewhere between memory and history.
When Emmett was six-years-old, two years after his father’s execution, he contracted polio which resulted in a persistent stutter. He and his mother moved to Detroit where she met, fell in love with, and married “Pink” Bradley. Emmett decided to live with his grandparents instead and his mother and “Pink” followed suit moths later. After some time, Mamie and “Pink” got divorced but “Pink” had other plans. When Emmett was 11-years-old, “Pink” returned and threatened his mother. Emmett grabbed a butcher knife and threatened to kill “Pink” if he didn’t leave his mother alone.
Two years later, Mamie’s uncle visited her and Emmett and shared stories about how great it was to live in Mississippi and Emmett begged for his mother to plan a trip for him to visit. A week before Emmett arrived in Mississippi, Lamar “Ditney” Smith — a Black farmer and civil rights activist — was shot on the lawn of a courthouse about 160 miles from where Emmett’s body was found on the bank of the Tallahatchie River.
You’ll never know if a moment you spend looking at your child’s ears, forehead, hairline, hair, nose, lips, or chin will be the last. You’ll never know if your child’s ring, hoodie, or bike will be the object that helps strangers identity their body. I want to remain hopeful and say that, “chances are, you’ll never have to experience (insert violently traumatic and devastating tragedy here) given X statistics, Y facts, and Z data.” But that would be inappropriate. It’s all statistics, facts, and data until it’s you who is being asked to identify the dead body of your young child.