When the press exploited the lynching of a white woman to attempt a race war
On September 29, 1897, hunters in Rockingham County, Virginia discovered a rain-soaked, partially decomposed female body hanging by her neck from a Sycamore tree in the uninhabited western foothills of the Massanutten Mountain range, just a few miles north of the settlement of Keezletown.
Her name was Peb Falls, and her local reputation preceded her death.
Theories immediately emerged that Falls had been lynched either by blacks after supposedly stealing money from one of them, or by whites who were repulsed by her associations with blacks. And while the true identity of her attackers is lost to time, it may be argued that the news media — particularly from the northern states — played a significant and odious role not just in her lynching and ruining her reputation but in their attempts as a result of her murder to artificially incite a race war.
Lynching done the “Virginia way”
From the end of the civil war, mob violence and lynching were used to subjugate blacks and uphold white supremacy, especially in the Deep South. African-American men, women, and children — sometimes accused of crimes and sometimes not — were tortured, hung, shot and even set on fire, sometimes in front of cheering crowds.
Virginia, however, was able to avoid the gruesome “spectacle lynchings” of her “brutish” southern neighbors, adopting instead a more polite “Virginia Way” manner of lynching that usually consisted of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman, a handful of masked men and a quick, quiet hanging in the dark of night.
This process was considered “gentlemanly.”
In a few rare cases, white people were also subjected to this “gentlemanly” form of domestic terrorism. And Peb Falls’ story is a unique and heartbreaking snapshot of a desperately poor, mentally disabled white woman accused of no lawbreaking, but who merely journeyed outside the rigidly-defined boundaries of 1890s moral, social and racial orders. But with Falls, that social order, commanded by a northern press insistent on creating news rather than reporting it, went a grisly step further and not only publicly impugned her reputation, but helped murder her simply for her “disreputable character.” Then, as a result, tried to prod readers into taking their race hatred a vicious step further.
Peb Falls’ life was described in various news accounts as “hideously depraved from her early youth,” “absolutely without moral character” and she was depicted as “the worst white woman in the Virginia Mountains.” These and other equally cruel displays of victim-blaming suggest to modern-day readers a woman who was most likely mentally ill or substance-abusing, and unjustly labeled as disgraceful due to her propensity for socializing at first with “low-class, abusive white men.”
Then, the press reported, “She fell still lower and associated with the low negroes.”
Tarred, feathered, ejected
Months prior to her lynching, this “miserable white woman’s” fraternizing with these “low class” black men was so repulsive to the local white citizenry that they decided to teach her a lesson.
“They could not kill her, as she was a white woman,” stated an anonymous Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call journalist in describing a bizarre example of southern propriety reserved only for the white females, “and it was not much use beating her.” After some local white men implored her to “make her evil life less conspicuous,” she was pulled from a shack in the small railroad town of Cowan’s Depot just west of Harrisonburg, stripped naked in the street and held tightly by several men. The paper reported, “As she screamed, [they] applied burning hot tar to her body from head to heels, then showered small feathers all over her and turned her adrift naked, save for the tar and feathers.”
The tar and feather crowd may have been satisfied with their debasing and shocking act but apparently it did little to “reform” Peb, who reportedly went on receiving “shelter, food and moonshine whiskey” from those “low negroes.”
Over the few months her behavior became even more erratic as she spiraled further into mental derangement and hopeless alcoholism. At one point this destitute woman was forced out of town and forced to live “like a wild animal” in the woods surrounding Cowans Depot, “sleeping in the fields and woods.”
“The woman had not associated with her own race for years, and was of little worth,” a wire service account stated, emphasizing her human irrelevance to readers, thus rendering her social banishment and violent death more palatable.
Making the news
The practice of newspapers reporting sensationalistic, speculated and hyper-exaggerated news stories grew originally from such pre-Civil War news magazines as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly. This became a novel way of maintaining readership in the 1890s-era pressure-cooker of 24-hour news cycles and intense competition from rival papers. And while many readers felt that lines of propriety were routinely crossed, these methods nonetheless made good copy and certainly sold well. This was the start of what became known as “yellow journalism,” or the practice of melodramatically over-dramatizing or even altering news stories so that newsboys could hawk more papers.
Who was truly guilty?
After news of the discovery of Peb Falls’ hanged body began circulating, the press shifted gears, seemingly intent on ginning up a race war by speculating with no facts that she had been lynched by the blacks she lived with, under some bogus pretense that she stole their savings. “Some of her negro friends, inspired by the lynching example of the whites, may have decided it was their duty to go the tar and feathering whites one better, and murder the woman outright,” hypothesized the Morning Call reporter.
The reporters bolstered this manufactured claim by the fact that in defiance of typical mob behavior, no one allegedly bragged or admitted participating in the lynching of Peb Falls. “Ordinarily the participants in a lynching bee talk freely enough,” the Morning Call reported. “They are the local heroes of the hour and do not take much pains to conceal their identity. But in this case it is different.”
For at least one of those northern reporters, this alone was proof enough that blacks must have lynched Falls. “If a black man were to admit he had a hand in the lynching of a white woman,” he suggested, “it would mean a rope and a quick death for him.”
Rumors of more lynchings and an anticipated race war emanated almost gleefully from unscrupulous journalists in Rockingham as Sheriff’s deputies and detectives arrived to question locals about the murder. One “Yankee” reporter with the Buffalo (New York) Evening News seemed intent on initiating that conflict himself by warning that “Citizens there will not wait for the law, but will as soon as the perpetrators of this outrage are discovered, lynch those immediately concerned,”
“If the negroes who strung her up are found,” the reporter went on, making up the news as he went, “they will be given the same punishment by whites.”
Another reporter similarly warned “… the authorities are determined to make an example of the lynchers as they will not tolerate the lynching of a white woman by negroes.”
In contrast, Southern journalists were more measured in their reporting. A writer in the Stanford (Kentucky) Journal reported (probably more realistically) that “the negroes and the respectable whites believe that the woman was killed by the same set of men who tarred and feathered her,” who then blamed the blacks to deflect attention from themselves.
The lynching was rightly condemned across the Commonwealth of Virginia although barely mentioned in the Virginia press. Governor Charles O’Ferrell, a reputed white supremacist but strong opponent of mob violence, would not accept the woman’s “wickedness” as an excuse for her murder. He quickly declared that regardless of race, he would severely punish the murderers if they were found after the Stanford Journal embarrassingly concluded that “Virginians must be deteriorating when they get to lynching women.”
That Pennsylvania reporter was still salivating at the prospect of a good race war, however, and four days after Peb’s body was found he was still trying to generate enough race revulsion to keep this story angle alive. “More lynchings in prospect,” he desperately scribbled, adding that her lynching as performed by local blacks “must never be forgiven or forgotten, even if the woman did sink down to the negro level. Universal horror is expressed at the lawless murder, and the community declares its intention to round up the negro killers and lynch them without delay.”
Soon, Rockingham County became so embarrassed by the entire affair that the local paper, the Rockingham Register, took the absurd step of claiming that no lynching took place at all, asserting falsely that “Neither the Commonwealth’s Attorney nor the Sheriff of Rockingham has received any information of the alleged hanging and they discredit the whole story absolutely.” This may have been their last-ditch effort to discredit the northern journalists’ scurrilous reporting.
Like most lynchings, however, there are sadly no records of anyone caught or prosecuted for the lynching of Peb Falls. And the imminent race war that was seemingly so desirous of those carpetbagging reporters never transpired.
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