You have seen their picture. The world has. They are the poster kids for lynching. The poem and song Strange Fruit was written about the sight of them standing in the air. Here’s more about Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
- Arrested for allegedly robbing and murdering James Cameron and raping his wife.
- They were taken to the fortress-like jail in downtown Marion, the county seat1, population 25,000. There the sheriff and his men beat and interrogated each boy separately until they extracted confessions. Afterwards Tommy, Abe, and Jimmy were locked into separate cells to await trial. For some reason, Robert was released.
- When Abram Smith tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up, he was lowered and men broke his arms to prevent any other efforts to free himself.
- A local studio photographer, Lawrence Beitler, took a photograph of the dead men hanging from a tree surrounded by the large lynch mob; it included women and children. He sold thousands of copies of the photograph in the next ten days.
- Mary Ball later testified that she had not been raped.
- James Cameron stated in interviews that Shipp and Smith had, in fact, shot and killed Claude Deeter.
- The night of the lynching, studio photographer Lawrence Beitler took a photograph of the crowd by the bodies of the men hanging from a tree. He sold thousands of copies over the next 10 days, and it has become an iconic image of a lynching.
- In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York City and the adoptive father of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, saw a copy of Beitler’s 1930 photograph. Meeropol later said that the photograph “haunted [him] for days” and inspired his poem “Bitter Fruit”. It was published in the New York Teacher in 1937 and later in the magazine New Masses, in both cases under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. Meeropol set his poem to music, renaming it “Strange Fruit“. He performed it at a labor meeting in Madison Square Garden. In 1939 it was performed, recorded and popularized by American singer Billie Holiday. The song reached 16th place on the charts in July 1939, and has since been recorded by numerous artists, continuing into the 21st century.
James Cameron, who survived the lynching, and Tommy went to school together.1 Cameron identifies Tommy’s body as the one hanging closest to the trunk of the lynching tree in the famous picture.
Carr also quotes an elderly black man who was the same age as Thomas and had grown up as his neighbor. He shared with an interviewer that Tommy had once told him about holding up white people, that this was justified because whites in the South had killed his uncle. The neighbor tried to dissuade Thomas from this course, pointing out that, after all, he had a good job and even a car.
Thomas Shipp’s grave is in Weaver, Indiana, which was an all-black town near Marion. It was left unmarked for fear that whites might dig up the body for souvenirs. Today all that remains of Weaver are a church and the cemetery.
Little is known about Abram Smith.