Sam Hose's Christian America

Sam Hose was burned to death in Georgia on a Sunday.

First he was chained to a pine tree at a place called Old Troutman Field, outside the city of Newnan, which is about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Then his ears were cut off. Then he was stabbed several times, blood spurting to cheers from the gathered crowd. Then his fingers were cut off, severed at the joints.

His genitals were also cut off.

Then he was set on fire.

"Now he was twisting around the tree," wrote one man who was there. "Now biting at the bark of the pine, jumping and springing and twisting and fighting for every inch of his life."

The local paper reported that Hose tried to pull himself up out of the fire with his fingerless hands. The chain that held him snapped, and he fell to the ground. His body was again hacked at with knives, but he wasn't dead, so Sam Hose was pushed back into the fire.

Some more kerosene was poured on.

He died after about 20 minutes. It was 2:50 p.m. on April 23, 1899. It was a Sunday.

Sam Hose was one of 27 people lynched in Georgia that year. His lynching was one of the 458 that occurred in the state between the end of Reconstruction and 1930.

His last words, as reported by a local paper at the time, were, "Oh, my God. Oh, Jesus!" because this was America, a Christian country.

Because this was America, a Christian country, the Sunday crowd that killed Sam Hose was coming from church. More than 500 came from nearby Newnan. Hundreds came from Palmetto, a city slightly to the north. Word of the in-progress lynching reached Atlanta right as people were leaving their morning worship services. According to historian Philip Dray, the news sparked "a mad rush of worshippers to the train station seeking the swiftest possible passage" to the lynching.

The railroad company was so overwhelmed by the demand it arranged an unscheduled run on the Atlanta to West Point line, with six passenger cars at 1 p.m. The seats were all immediately filled. People who had just come from church were so desperate to get on board they climbed through the windows and clung to the sides of the train. The company arranged for a second train, this one with 10 cars. Those were completely filled too.

"Both trains," writes Dray, "sped south at full throttle."

Conservative estimates say about 1,500 people were on those trains. Others put the figure as high as 4,000, which is the number reported at the time.

Sam Hose was dead already when the people arrived. "Oh," someone in the crowd was reported to say. "He died too quick."

The crowd wasn't going to leave with nothing, though, so they took souvenirs. The chain that was used in the burning was hacked up, the links passed out. The pine tree was cut down and chunks of the charred wood were taken too. Sam Hose's body was divided and distributed like communion.

Meeting the two trains when they got back to the city, an Atlanta reporter wrote that "the excursionists returning tonight were loaded down with ghastly reminders of the affair . . . pieces of flesh and pieces of wood placed at the negro's feet . . . . Persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."

One can find, today, pretty much every day, Christians concerned about how America is not a Christian country anymore. Things have changed, times have changed, and America isn't like it used to be. They don't mean things like this, though. They're not thinking about the "Christian America" that was Sam Hose's America.

All that talk, however, of that imagined idyllic past when Biblical morality was given due deference and Christians had a respected place in the public square is haunted by the Sunday when churchgoers came back from a place called Old Troutman Field with bits of Sam Hose's chopped-up body.

It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.

When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.

When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.

It may well be that religious liberty is threatened in America today. That's not a good reason, though, to get nostalgic for the past that was Sam Hose's Christian America.