Death by Northern White Hands: On Philip Dray’s “A Lynching at Port Jervis”

By Adolf AlzupharJune 26, 2023

Death by Northern White Hands: On Philip Dray’s “A Lynching at Port Jervis”

A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age by Philip Dray

PORT JERVIS is a town in New York, a state that appears in American discourse as one of the great beacons of progressivism, one of the reasons why the Civil Rights Movement happened. But on June 2, 1892, residents of Port Jervis lynched a young Black man named Robert Lewis.

As his recent book A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age (2022) recounts, author Philip Dray came across this little-known incident while in the archives of Tuskegee University and, after digging deeper, arrived at the terrible truth that “lynching was not a series of random, aberrational incidents but an institutionalized form of white terror.”

It was the summer of a presidential race between Democratic former president Grover Cleveland and Republican incumbent Benjamin Harrison. The Republicans had recently fought to expand voting rights to Black people in the South, while the Democrats did not want Washington to meddle in Southern affairs. Port Jervis was still establishing itself on the banks of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. In 1848, the Erie Railroad had set up its machine shops there, which, along with other industries such as a silk mill, tannery, brewery, bottling plants, and 82 factories, made for a bustling city.

Black folks lived in northern Port Jervis, in what “was referred to as ‘N***** Hollow’ by white Port Jervians” as recently as the 1960s, but were eventually displaced to Farnumville. The writer Stephen Crane, who grew up in Port Jervis, called the northern outskirts and Farnumville the “curious suburbs.”

In the summer of 1892, Clarence McKetchnie, a white 12-year-old boy, claimed to have “heard a woman scream” and seen Robert Lewis molesting Lena McMahon, a young working-class white woman.

At the time, McMahon was seeing Philip Foley, a relationship that her mother disapproved of. When she heard about the relationship, she struck McMahon on the mouth so hard that she developed frequent memory loss. Foley had spent two months in Goshen jail and worked at a billiard hall. He lived with a Black family when he had no money and eventually took up residence in an area named “Bully Acre,” which was controlled by Italian and Irish gangs. Foley’s pet name for Lena was “Little Girl.”

McKetchnie’s rumor spread quickly. At a gathering in town, John Doty asked Sol Carley, a railroad flagman, if he wanted to “catch” the light-skinned Black man, Lewis, who was suspected of having molested McMahon. When they “caught sight of him, […] to their surprise, rather than hurrying along the path, Lewis was hitching a ride on a slow-moving coal barge.” Carley told Lewis, “Bob, we’ll have to take you in.” Lewis protested his innocence to the police. But the police handed him over to a mob.

A maid ran into Judge William Howe Crane’s study to tell him that a crowd was going to lynch a man. At the time, Dray tells us,

[n]o serious scholar of the law supported lynching, yet the experts challenged themselves to find ways to streamline criminal prosecutions in order to meet several aspects of the problem lynching represented: the people’s demand for retribution and punishment in something approaching real time; the belief that certain crimes could not be adequately punished by the courts; and the intense public frustration with the cumbersome rules and procedures of the justice system.

Crane went to the scene where he did not recognize Lewis, “a bus driver [who] was a familiar presence in lower Pike Street, where Crane had his law office.” Lewis was “[b]adly bruised and bloodied.” The judge tried to tell the mob—some of whom were among the town’s most respected citizens—that such matters were for the courts to handle, but the mob lynched Lewis anyway. At the coroner’s inquest, a police officer named the mob’s ringleaders, and another, who had done nothing to stop the lynching, disapproved of it; Judge Crane testified that “careless words” doomed Lewis, but “efforts to hold accountable the leaders of the lynch mob foundered.”

On June 18, two weeks after Lewis was lynched, McMahon collapsed in her father’s arms on a little-used mountain road. Dr. Sol Van Etten told her parents that “she might ‘never again be right in her mind.’” Was she “haunted by her role in the death of an innocent man,” as Dray advances? Lena McMahon, like Carolyn Bryant Donham, the 21-year-old white woman who accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of rape, was never punished for the destruction she brought upon Lewis, his family, and the entire community.

As a writer, Stephen Crane, the judge’s younger brother, sought to explore subjects like “morality and man’s obligation to self and society,” the Civil War, and the South, but his closest “published rehearsal of the Robert Lewis lynching,” Dray tells us, is a short story, “When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers,” about “an Italian immigrant who suffers an epileptic seizure and collapses” in Manhattan. “Half articulate exclamations could be heard. There were men who nearly created a battle in the madness of their desire to see the thing,” the younger Crane describes.

Lewis also made an appearance in Stephen Crane’s last book, The Monster, which particularly influenced Ralph Ellison. Like Lewis, the main character, Henry Johnson, is an “invisible man.” “Although the word ‘lynching’ never appears,” Dray clarifies, Johnson is “‘a wailing mourner’ at his own funeral,” which “marks the symbolic murder of the Black man by the world that has made him a monster,” according to literary scholar Elizabeth Young. In The Monster, Dray tells us, Crane “had chosen to confront a question largely evaded in late nineteenth-century America: How should a conscientious white person respond to the most egregious forms of racial prejudice?” Dray aptly names the chapter in which he presents The Monster “The Blunders of Virtue,” signifying both the tribulations and limits in how Crane, and American literature in general, engaged with lynching.

Dray’s own handling offers a course correction. A Lynching at Port Jervis reads not only as a moment of philosophical, historical, and political experience but also as a literary ballad. The complexity that Philip Dray captures in his book can only come from a deep commitment to both justice and literature, and it glows because of it. Who were these residents of Port Jervis who so quickly lynched Robert Lewis without due process? Dray asks us to consider American democracy and how the law could have acquiesced so quickly to popular “justice” and lynching.


Adolf Alzuphar is a Haitian human rights activist. He contributes to The Brooklyn Rail and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Adolf Alzuphar is a Haitian human rights activist. He contributes to The Brooklyn Rail and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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