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They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina's Last Lynching Victim

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The most comprehensive account of the horrific Earle lynching Before daybreak on February 17, 1947, twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for the murder of a Greenville, South Carolina, taxi driver named T. W. Brown, was abducted from his jail cell by a mob, and then beaten, stabbed, and shot to death. An investigation produced thirty-one suspe The most comprehensive account of the horrific Earle lynching Before daybreak on February 17, 1947, twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for the murder of a Greenville, South Carolina, taxi driver named T. W. Brown, was abducted from his jail cell by a mob, and then beaten, stabbed, and shot to death. An investigation produced thirty-one suspects, most of them cabbies seeking revenge for one of their own. The police and FBI obtained twenty-six confessions, but, after a nine-day trial in May that attracted national press attention, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury. In They Stole Him Out of Jail, William B. Gravely presents the most comprehensive account of the Earle lynching ever written, exploring it from background to aftermath and from multiple perspectives. Among his sources are contemporary press accounts (there was no trial transcript), extensive interviews and archival documents, and the “Greenville notebook” kept by Rebecca West, the well-known British writer who covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Gravely meticulously re-creates the case’s details, analyzing the flaws in the investigation and prosecution that led in part to the acquittals. Vivid portraits emerge of key figures in the story, including both Earle and Brown, Solicitor Robert T. Ashmore, Governor Strom Thurmond, and West, whose article “Opera in Greenville” is masterful journalism but marred by errors owing to her short stay in the area. Gravely also probes problems with memory that resulted in varying interpretations of Willie Earle’s character and conflicting narratives about the lynching itself. Although the verdict was in many ways a victory for white supremacy during the waning years of Jim Crow, it still drew unprecedented public attention to the horrors of lynching, and no similar event has occurred in the state since. Yet, more than seventy years latar, the crisis in criminal justice — especially as it pertains to African Americans, who are incarcerated at far higher rates than whites — remains a national challenge. This book is a compelling reminder not only of past traumas but of how far South Carolina and the country has yet to go.


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The most comprehensive account of the horrific Earle lynching Before daybreak on February 17, 1947, twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for the murder of a Greenville, South Carolina, taxi driver named T. W. Brown, was abducted from his jail cell by a mob, and then beaten, stabbed, and shot to death. An investigation produced thirty-one suspe The most comprehensive account of the horrific Earle lynching Before daybreak on February 17, 1947, twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for the murder of a Greenville, South Carolina, taxi driver named T. W. Brown, was abducted from his jail cell by a mob, and then beaten, stabbed, and shot to death. An investigation produced thirty-one suspects, most of them cabbies seeking revenge for one of their own. The police and FBI obtained twenty-six confessions, but, after a nine-day trial in May that attracted national press attention, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury. In They Stole Him Out of Jail, William B. Gravely presents the most comprehensive account of the Earle lynching ever written, exploring it from background to aftermath and from multiple perspectives. Among his sources are contemporary press accounts (there was no trial transcript), extensive interviews and archival documents, and the “Greenville notebook” kept by Rebecca West, the well-known British writer who covered the trial for the New Yorker magazine. Gravely meticulously re-creates the case’s details, analyzing the flaws in the investigation and prosecution that led in part to the acquittals. Vivid portraits emerge of key figures in the story, including both Earle and Brown, Solicitor Robert T. Ashmore, Governor Strom Thurmond, and West, whose article “Opera in Greenville” is masterful journalism but marred by errors owing to her short stay in the area. Gravely also probes problems with memory that resulted in varying interpretations of Willie Earle’s character and conflicting narratives about the lynching itself. Although the verdict was in many ways a victory for white supremacy during the waning years of Jim Crow, it still drew unprecedented public attention to the horrors of lynching, and no similar event has occurred in the state since. Yet, more than seventy years latar, the crisis in criminal justice — especially as it pertains to African Americans, who are incarcerated at far higher rates than whites — remains a national challenge. This book is a compelling reminder not only of past traumas but of how far South Carolina and the country has yet to go.

37 review for They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina's Last Lynching Victim

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mike Grambo

    How could this happen in 1947? The reviews appearing on the book’s dust jacket say it very well. This is a very comprehensive, moving account of South Carolina’s last lynching. Don’t miss your chance to explore mid-20th century American culture and its potential for racial violence. With 841 footnotes across 337 pages, the detail unearthed and carefully presented by the author about the characters and the social environment is striking. In any other telling of this story what we might only have ex How could this happen in 1947? The reviews appearing on the book’s dust jacket say it very well. This is a very comprehensive, moving account of South Carolina’s last lynching. Don’t miss your chance to explore mid-20th century American culture and its potential for racial violence. With 841 footnotes across 337 pages, the detail unearthed and carefully presented by the author about the characters and the social environment is striking. In any other telling of this story what we might only have experienced as a grainy, black and white photo image of 1947, has come to life in 3-D, and in livid color through the monumental efforts of the author, William B. Gravely. In some ways it is hard to read this book. You do feel the pain of the victim Willie Earle, his mother and the black community, though the author largely sticks to presenting the facts and attitudes from that time. But along with the facts, the author reviews the causal historical antecedents and traces their influence to today, as evidenced by the Dylann Roof shooting at the African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. But the reward for the reader is a satisfyingly wide view of how the murder of Willie Earle came to be in 1947, in a moderate sized city in South Carolina. Earle’s lynching is important because it is shockingly recent. The press coverage at the time uniformly questioned how could this happen, in our time? The answer, Gravely argues, is unchanged from colonial days—an unshakeable belief in God-given white supremacy and the need to retain dominion over non-whites, violently, if necessary. To Be Left Alone One theme that Gravely discusses is loudly voiced at the trial of the 31 men charged with lynching by one of attorneys who cries out to the jury “Why can’t they leave us alone?” In this instance it is asked of the northern-based press reporting on the trial in Greenville, SC, in 1947, and by extension to all northerners and non-southerners. At the time of the trial, Rebecca West, British journalist writing for the New Yorker Magazine seizes upon this plea to be left alone, asking what is it that the defendants wish to be alone to do? To be left alone is also the same request voiced by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of American in one of his early addresses in Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy. Shelby Foote, Civil War historian, notes that this plea to be left alone is the succinct reason that Confederate troops expressed for their willingness to fight—to be left alone to allow the continuance of slavery and so to protect southern “honor.” Library of Congress Cataloging Information The Library of Congress (L of C) cataloging information has traditionally been placed immediately behind the title page of books. This information was the basis for the printed paper card catalogs in public and private libraries. More recently, books often go to press before official cataloging information is prepared. And that is the case with this book. However, for those seeking more about this topic the L of C assignment to subclass HV64 is most relevant, although E185.65 (African Americans, lynching) also contains books on this topic. This book might also have been classed as “Hate Crimes” or “Negro History of South Carolina,” or “Southern States, Race Relations.” But within the HV class, this book is in the company of a number older, scholarly works focusing on lynching in the South, among which now They Stole Him Out of Jail is the latest and most impressive. Library of Congress number: HV6465.S6 G73 2019 Subjects Earle, Willie, -1947—Death and burial Lynching—South Carolina—History—20th century. Lynching—Press coverage—United States—History—20th century The subclass HV64 in the L of C system is reserved for “social pathology. Although this class is not specifically assigned for lynching, nearly all books about lynching in the American South are found here. Subclass H H1-99 Social sciences (General) Subclass HV HV1-9960 Social pathology. Social and public welfare. HV6001-7220.5 Criminology HV6251-6773.55 Crimes and offenses HV64 Lynching Michael Grambo Linden, Virginia

  2. 5 out of 5

    Shannon Livezey

    This was a very educational read on part of South Carolina’s history of race relations. However I did not enjoy the style of writing so much as I felt the author jumped around quite a bit and added unnecessary fluff to the telling. I would recommend this book to those who would like to know more about South Carolina’s lynching history, how biased the whole system has been against African Americans, and what they can do to right these wrongs.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bill Warden

    This is a very deep book about a troubling subject. I think anyone who has lived in the South should read this book. Prepare to be ashamed of our past, but we can learn from it and move forward.

  4. 4 out of 5

    KG

  5. 5 out of 5

    Brittany

  6. 5 out of 5

    Zack Mauldin

  7. 5 out of 5

    Pete Warden

  8. 4 out of 5

    J.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Laura Mcfarland

  10. 5 out of 5

    Georgia

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    Meg

  12. 4 out of 5

    vanessa

  13. 4 out of 5

    ColumbusReads

  14. 4 out of 5

    Christina

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    Mocha Girl

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    Shatika

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    Sara

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    the overstuffed bookshelf

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    Steph G

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    Alyson

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    Haloise

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    Angelica Pavelock

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    Maren

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    JeanAnn S.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Laura Quigley

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    Erin Dredge

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    Emily

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    Lyndsay Lemon

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    Emily

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    Taylor Tomassini

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    Jessica

  35. 5 out of 5

    Letícia

  36. 5 out of 5

    Annie Garvey

  37. 4 out of 5

    Emma Dahlgren

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