Henry Smith was lynched in Paris, Texas, on February 3, 1893, in front of an estimated 15,000 onlookers. His death was one of the earliest documented public lynchings. Ida B. Wells, a journalist, and anti-lynching activist was struck by the heinousness of Smith’s execution. In her groundbreaking essay The Red Record, which sought to expose the injustices of racially motivated mob violence, she offered a full account of the incident.
Smith was charged with the murder of Myrtle Vance, a four-year-old white child, and the daughter of a Paris police officer, Henry Vance. On January 27, her body was discovered in the woods near Paris. Many Paris inhabitants thought Smith was inoffensive and feeble-minded, so he supported himself by working odd tasks at the homes of local whites.
Despite his outward appearance, his interactions with the child’s father appeared to make him an obvious target for suspicion. Several days before Myrtle’s death, Henry Vance, a man is known for his rage and abuse of inmates had arrested Smith and assaulted him for disorderly behavior and intoxication.
Some locals believed Smith had committed the crime against Myrtle as a form of retaliation. Smith escaped to Detroit, Michigan, after learning that he had been designated a suspect, and then boarded a freight train bound for Arkansas, where he had previously resided.
Smith may have felt he might find refuge in his previous hometown. He was apprehended more than a hundred miles from Paris in Hope, Arkansas. The news of Smith’s planned homecoming quickly circulated across Arkansas and Texas. Because no trial was planned, citizens of Paris rapidly publicized the date and hour that Smith would be tortured and burned.
5,000 people awaited Smith’s return to Paris when the train taking him to the station in Texarkana arrived. He was placed atop a platform (like a float in a parade, according to others) that took him to a scaffold built near Paris with the word justice written across the front. Men, women, and children strained their necks and straddled other spectators to get a clear view of the event, which drew 15,000 people to the scaffold.
Vance’s relatives stood with Smith on the shabby wooden platform, cutting his clothing from his body piece by piece and tossing the pieces to the throng as keepsakes. They then slashed his torso with hot iron rods, forcing them down his neck and into his eyes.
After that, he was drenched in oil and set ablaze. Smith shouted in excruciating pain. Smith attempted to flee the platform as he and the coals beneath him began to burn, but he fell 10 feet to the earth. Members of the mob lassoed him and dragged him back into the fire.
Texas Governor Stephen Hogg, outraged by the lynching, sent a telegram to the Sheriff of Lamar County the day after Smith’s burning, urging that those responsible be apprehended. No one was ever arrested for the torture and murder of Henry Smith, despite the governors’ pleas for justice and the public nature of the crime.
Nearly two weeks after Smith’s death, a group of white men killed Smith’s stepson, William Butler, in nearby Hickory Creek, for allegedly suppressing knowledge about Smith’s whereabouts. Butler’s killers were never brought to justice.