Pennsylvania had three lynchings in the years when that was common practice in America. Maryland had one. In Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1911, a black man named Zack Walker was burned alive for killing a white steel mill cop. They dragged him from the hospital, still chained to his bedstead, and burned him to death in front of thousands of witnesses in a field south of the city. No one was convicted of the crime. When he staggered from the pyre, a mass of flames, with rakes they shoved him back in. I have seen the picture of what was left of him. It would not fill a grocery bag. Around it are the bare feet and legs of young boys. I found the photos in the back of a cabinet drawer of the West Chester newspaper when I became an editor there.
A year after the lynching, John Jay Chapman, poet, dramatist and social critic, came to Coatesville, hired a hall there and held a memorial service. Only two people came. But the speech was published in Harper's Weekly (Sept. 21, 1912) and Chapman's book of essays, "Memories and Milestones," (1915) and has become a classic. Here is part of what he said:
We are met to commemorate the anniversary of one of the most dreadful crimes in history — not for the purpose of condemning it, but to repent for our share in it. We do not start any agitation with regard to that particular crime. I understand that an attempt to prosecute the chief criminals has been made, and has entirely failed; because the whole community, and in a sense our whole people, are really involved in the guilt. The failure of the prosecution in this case, in all such cases, is only a proof of the magnitude of the guilt, and of the awful fact that everyone shares in it.
I will tell you why I am here; I will tell you what happened to me. When I read in the newspapers of August 14, a year ago, about the burning alive of a human being, and of how a few desperate, fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, while around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone call, as if by magic, silent, whether from terror or indifference, fascinated and impotent, hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness, and no one man among them all who was inspired to risk his life in an attempt to stop it, no one man to name the name of Christ, of humanity, of government!
As I read the newspaper accounts of the scene enacted here in Coatesville a year ago, I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal — a cold thing, an awful thing. I said to myself, "I shall forget this, we shall all forget it; but it will be there."
What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth. I have seen death in the heart of this people.
For to look at the agony of a fellow-being and remain aloof means death in the heart of the onlooker. Religious fanaticism has sometimes lifted men to the frenzy of such cruelty, political passion has sometimes done it, personal hatred might do it, the excitement of the ampitheater in the degenerate days of Roman luxury could do it. But here an audience chosen by chance in America has stood spellbound through an improvised auto-da-fé, irregular, illegal, having no religious significance, not sanctioned by custom, having no immediate provocation, the audience standing by merely in cold dislike.
I saw during one moment something beyond all argument in the depth of its significance. No theories about the race problem, no statistics, legislation, or mere educational endeavor, can quite meet the lack which that day revealed in the American people. For what we saw was death. The people stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.
Let me say something more about the whole matter.
The subject we are dealing with is not local. The act, to be sure, took place at Coatesville and everyone looked to Coatesville to follow it up. Some months ago I asked a friend who lives not far from here something about this case, and about the expected prosecutions, and he replied to me: "It wasn’t in my county," and that made me wonder whose county it was in. And it seemed to be in my county. I live on the Hudson River; but I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville nor of today. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years — the wickedness of the slave trade. All of us are tinctured by it. No special place, no special persons, are to blame. ....
There is no country in Europe where the Coatesville tragedy or anything remotely like it could have been enacted, probably no country in the world. On the day of the calamity, those people in the automobiles came by the hundred and watched the torture, and passers-by came in a great multitude and watched it — and did nothing.
On the next morning the newspapers spread the news and spread the paralysis until the whole country seemed to be helplessly watching this awful murder, as awful as anything ever done on this earth; and the whole of our people seemed to be looking on helplessly, not able to respond, not knowing what to do next. That spectacle has been in my mind.
The trouble has come down to us out of the past. The only reason slavery is wrong is that it is cruel and makes men cruel and leaves them cruel. Someone may say that you and I cannot repent because we did not do the act. But we are involved in it. We are still looking on.
Do you not see that this whole event is merely the last parable, the most vivid, the most terrible illustration that ever was given by man or imagined by a Jewish prophet, of the relation between good and evil in this world, and of the relation of men to one another? This whole matter has been an historic episode; but it is a part, not only of our national history, but of the personal history of each one of us."