The Necessity of an Example

About ten o’clock on the morning of the discovery of the murder, Captain McBane and General Belmont, as though moved by a common impulse, found themselves at the office of the Morning Chronicle. Carteret was expecting them, though there had been no appointment made. These three resourceful and energetic minds, representing no organized body, and clothed with no legal authority, had so completely arrogated to themselves the leadership of white public sentiment as to come together instinctively when an event happened which concerned the public, and, as this murder presumably did, involved the matter of race.

“Well, gentlemen,” demanded McBane impatiently, “what are we going to do with the scoundrel when we catch him?”

“They’ve got the murderer,” announced a reporter, entering the room.

“Who is he?” they demanded in a breath.

“A nigger by the name of Sandy Campbell, a servant of old Mr. Delamere.”

“How did they catch him?”

“Our Jerry saw him last night, going toward Mrs. Ochiltree’s house, and a white man saw him coming away, half an hour later.”

“Has he confessed?”

“No, but he might as well. When the posse went to arrest him, they found him cleaning the clothes he had worn last night, and discovered in his room a part of the plunder. He denies it strenuously, but it seems a clear case.”

“There can be no doubt,” said Ellis, who had come into the room behind the reporter. “I saw the negro last night, at twelve o’clock, going into Mr. Delamere’s yard, with a bundle in his hand.”

“He is the last negro I should have suspected,” said Carteret. “Mr. Delamere had implicit confidence in him.”

“All niggers are alike,” remarked McBane sententiously. “The only way to keep them from stealing is not to give them the chance. A nigger will steal a cent off a dead man’s eye. He has assaulted and murdered a white woman⁠—an example should be made of him.”

Carteret recalled very distinctly the presence of this negro at his own residence on the occasion of little Theodore’s christening dinner. He remembered having questioned the prudence of letting a servant know that Mrs. Ochiltree kept money in the house. Mr. Delamere had insisted strenuously upon the honesty of this particular negro. The whole race, in the major’s opinion, was morally undeveloped, and only held within bounds by the restraining influence of the white people. Under Mr. Delamere’s thumb this Sandy had been a model servant⁠—faithful, docile, respectful, and self-respecting; but Mr. Delamere had grown old, and had probably lost in a measure his moral influence over his servant. Left to his own degraded ancestral instincts, Sandy had begun to deteriorate, and a rapid decline had culminated in this robbery and murder⁠—and who knew what other horror? The criminal was a negro, the victim a white woman;⁠—it was only reasonable to expect the worst.

“He’ll swing for it,” observed the general.

Ellis went into another room, where his duty called him.

“He should burn for it,” averred McBane. “I say, burn the nigger.”

“This,” said Carteret, “is something more than an ordinary crime, to be dealt with by the ordinary processes of law. It is a murderous and fatal assault upon a woman of our race⁠—upon our race in the person of its womanhood, its crown and flower. If such crimes are not punished with swift and terrible directness, the whole white womanhood of the South is in danger.”

“Burn the nigger,” repeated McBane automatically.

“Neither is this a mere sporadic crime,” Carteret went on. “It is symptomatic; it is the logical and inevitable result of the conditions which have prevailed in this town for the past year. It is the last straw.”

“Burn the nigger,” reiterated McBane. “We seem to have the right nigger, but whether we have or not, burn a nigger. It is an assault upon the white race, in the person of old Mrs. Ochiltree, committed by the black race, in the person of some nigger. It would justify the white people in burning any nigger. The example would be all the more powerful if we got the wrong one. It would serve notice on the niggers that we shall hold the whole race responsible for the misdeeds of each individual.”

“In ancient Rome,” said the general, “when a master was killed by a slave, all his slaves were put to the sword.”

“We couldn’t afford that before the war,” said McBane, “but the niggers don’t belong to anybody now, and there’s nothing to prevent our doing as we please with them. A dead nigger is no loss to any white man. I say, burn the nigger.”

“I do not believe,” said Carteret, who had gone to the window and was looking out⁠—“I do not believe that we need trouble ourselves personally about his punishment. I should judge, from the commotion in the street, that the public will take the matter into its own hands. I, for one, would prefer that any violence, however justifiable, should take place without my active intervention.”

“It won’t take place without mine, if I know it,” exclaimed McBane, starting for the door.

“Hold on a minute, captain,” exclaimed Carteret. “There’s more at stake in this matter than the life of a black scoundrel. Wellington is in the hands of negroes and scalawags. What better time to rescue it?”

“It’s a trifle premature,” replied the general. “I should have preferred to have this take place, if it was to happen, say three months hence, on the eve of the election⁠—but discussion always provokes thirst with me; I wonder if I could get Jerry to bring us some drinks?”

Carteret summoned the porter. Jerry’s usual manner had taken on an element of self-importance, resulting in what one might describe as a sort of condescending obsequiousness. Though still a porter, he was also a hero, and wore his aureole.

“Jerry,” said the general kindly, “the white people are very much pleased with the assistance you have given them in apprehending this scoundrel Campbell. You have rendered a great public service, Jerry, and we wish you to know that it is appreciated.”

“Thank y’, gin’l, thank y’, suh! I alluz tries ter do my duty, suh, an’ stan’ by dem dat stan’s by me. Dat low-down nigger oughter be lynch’, suh, don’t you think, er e’se bu’nt? Dere ain’ nothin’ too bad ter happen ter ’im.”

“No doubt he will be punished as he deserves, Jerry,” returned the general, “and we will see that you are suitably rewarded. Go across the street and get me three Calhoun cocktails. I seem to have nothing less than a two-dollar bill, but you may keep the change, Jerry⁠—all the change.”

Jerry was very happy. He had distinguished himself in the public view, for to Jerry, as to the white people themselves, the white people were the public. He had won the goodwill of the best people, and had already begun to reap a tangible reward. It is true that several strange white men looked at him with lowering brows as he crossed the street, which was curiously empty of colored people; but he nevertheless went firmly forward, panoplied in the consciousness of his own rectitude, and serenely confident of the protection of the major and the major’s friends.

“Jerry is about the only negro I have seen since nine o’clock,” observed the general when the porter had gone. “If this were election day, where would the negro vote be?”

“In hiding, where most of the negro population is today,” answered McBane. “It’s a pity, if old Mrs. Ochiltree had to go this way, that it couldn’t have been deferred a month or six weeks.” Carteret frowned at this remark, which, coming from McBane, seemed lacking in human feeling, as well as in respect to his wife’s dead relative.

“But,” resumed the general, “if this negro is lynched, as he well deserves to be, it will not be without its effect. We still have in reserve for the election a weapon which this affair will only render more effective. What became of the piece in the negro paper?”

“I have it here,” answered Carteret. “I was just about to use it as the text for an editorial.”

“Save it awhile longer,” responded the general. “This crime itself will give you text enough for a four-volume work.”

When this conference ended, Carteret immediately put into press an extra edition of the Morning Chronicle, which was soon upon the streets, giving details of the crime, which was characterized as an atrocious assault upon a defenseless old lady, whose age and sex would have protected her from harm at the hands of anyone but a brute in the lowest human form. This event, the Chronicle suggested, had only confirmed the opinion, which had been of late growing upon the white people, that drastic efforts were necessary to protect the white women of the South against brutal, lascivious, and murderous assaults at the hands of negro men. It was only another significant example of the results which might have been foreseen from the application of a false and pernicious political theory, by which ignorance, clothed in a little brief authority, was sought to be exalted over knowledge, vice over virtue, an inferior and degraded race above the heaven-crowned Anglo-Saxon. If an outraged people, justly infuriated, and impatient of the slow processes of the courts, should assert their inherent sovereignty, which the law after all was merely intended to embody, and should choose, in obedience to the higher law, to set aside, temporarily, the ordinary judicial procedure, it would serve as a warning and an example to the vicious elements of the community, of the swift and terrible punishment which would fall, like the judgment of God, upon anyone who laid sacrilegious hands upon white womanhood.