the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



UPON leaving the hospital, I remained several days in Memphis, spending most of my hours enjoying the shade and sunshine of a small park, which is pleasantly situated in the main portion of that town. One morning, while doing this, I was accosted by one whom I soon recognised as a fellow-worker of mine in the stave factory. From him I learnt that the firm had smashed, no pay day had come, and the stores had all absolutely refused to honour the firm's orders; while some men had left the town disgusted, and others were patiently waiting a settlement that would never come. This man was going north, so I left him at Memphis, intending to beat my way to New Orleans, and from that town to the state of Texas.

These states of Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, are the homes of the negroes of old. It is a strange contrast to see the old negroes, who in their young days were slaves, reverently raising their hats to any seedy looking white man whom they meet, calling him such titles as captain, major, colonel and even general-and the half defiant gloom of the free, young generations, who are still in some respects slaves to the white men. These negroes lived in small wooden shanties, and rarely received money for their labour. They worked for the planter at so much a day. This gentleman kept on the plantation a large general store, and supplied their wants at such an exorbitant price that the negroes were seldom out of debt, when the busy season commenced. In the cities, silk would be far cheaper than the common flimsy muslin which póor black Dinah so much coveted from her master's store. I have heard many an old negro say that he was far worse off as a freeman than as a slave.

The prisons in the north were like hotels, but here in the south went to the extreme of cruelty. In some places a man would be tried and perhaps fined ten dollars and costs. A citizen, having need of a cheap labourer, would pay this fine, take possession of the prisoner, and make him work out his fine on the farm. This citizen would buy the prisoner cheap overalls, dungarees, shirts, shoes, etc., for a few dollars, and charge the prisoner four times their amount. The prisoner was not free to refuse these, and being forced to work out their price, was kept in this way twice the number of his days. I was very much afraid of all this, although a wandering white man was not in nearly so much danger as a negro.

Some days after leaving Memphis, I arrived at a small town, where I was surprised to see an unusual amount of bustle, the surrounding country for miles having sent in all its able bodied men. Every man was armed with a gun, and they stood in small groups talking outside the various stores. It seemed as though there had been rumours of an invasion, and that these men were organising to defend their homes and country, but I had not the least idea of what had really happened. The small groups now began to join together into larger ones, and the larger groups joined until they became one large body of men. This one body then shouldered guns and moved quickly along the main street, the men's faces being drawn and pale. I followed on, perhaps the one unarmed man among them, curious to know the meaning of it all. They came at last to a halt, and, to see the reason for this, I stepped across the way, and saw that they had halted before a large building, which, by its barred windows, I had no difficulty in recognising as the jail. One man had curled around his shoulders a long rope, and this man with two others knocked loudly with the butt ends of their guns on the prison door. Almost in an instant the door was flung wide open, and the sheriff stood in the open way to know their wants. The men must have demanded the prison keys, for I saw the sheriff at once produce them, which he handed to these men without the least show of resistance. This man with the rope and several others then entered the jail, and the silent crowd without cast their eyes in that direction. Up to the present time I had not heard a distinct voice, nothing but the buzz of low whispering. But suddenly from the jail's interior there came a loud shriek and a voice crying for mercy. Men now appeared in the open doorway, dragging after them a negro at the end of a rope. This unfortunate wretch was possessed of a terror that is seldom seen in a human being. He fell on his knees to pray, but was jerked to his feet ere he could murmur the first words, O Lord. He staggered to and fro and sideways, at the same time howling and jabbering, foaming at the mouth, and showing the horrible white of his eyes. I can well understand a man screaming, trembling and crying for mercy, when actually enduring bodily pain, but that one should show such a terror at the thought of it, filled me more with disgust than pity. That this prisoner should have been so brutal and unfeeling in inflicting pain on another, and should now show so much cowardice in anticipation of receiving punishment inadequate to his offence, dried in me the milk of human kindness, and banished my first thoughts, which had been to escape this horrible scene without witnessing its end. For it was now I remembered reading of this man's offence, and it was of the most brutal kind, being much like the work of a wild beast. They now marched him from the jail, their strong arms supporting his terror stricken limbs, but no man reviled him with his tongue, and I saw no cowardly hand strike him. Soon they came to a group of trees on the outskirts of the town, and, choosing the largest of these, they threw the rope's end over its strongest branch, the prisoner at the same time crying for mercy, and trying to throw his body full on the ground. When this was done a dozen hands caught the rope's end, made one quick jerk, and the prisoner's body was struggling in the air. Then all these men shouldered their guns, fired one volley, and in a second the body was hanging lifeless with a hundred shots. In five minutes after this, nothing but the corpse remained to tell of what had occurred, the men having quietly scattered towards their homes.

A few days after this, I was in New Orleans, intending to spend a week or two in that city, before I started on my journey to Texas. It was in this city, three days after my arrival, that I became the victim of an outrage which was as unsatisfactory to others as to myself. Having been to the theatre, and being on my way back home late at night, half a dozen men, whom I scarcely had time to recognise as negroes, sprang from a dark corner, and, without saying a word, or giving the least chance of escape or defence, biffed and banged at my face and head until I fell unconscious at their feet. Their motive, without a doubt, was robbery, but having my money concealed in a belt next to my body, they had to be satisfied with a five cent piece, which was all my pockets contained. Such brutal outrages as these are seldom committed by white men, who, having the more cool courage, demand a man's money at the commencement, and do not resort to violence, except it be their victim's wish. But this not very intelligent race half murder a man without being sure of anything for their pains. White men will search a man as he stands, and if he possesses nothing, he may go his way uninjured, followed perhaps, by a curse or two of disappointment; but these negroes prefer to murder a man first, and then to search the dead body. They are certainly born thieves. On the river boats, that ply the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans, which are all manned by negroes, with the exception of those holding the higher offices, a negro thief will often spoil a six dollar pair of trousers in robbing his victim of a twenty-five cent piece. When a man is asleep the negro will bend over him, feeling the outside of his trousers where the pockets are. if he feels the shape of a coin, instead of working his fingers carefully into the mouth of the pocket, he takes out his razor and, holding the coin with the fingers of his left hand, cuts it out, bringing away coin, part of the lining, pocket and trousers. When the victim wakes he, or some one else, sees the hole, and they at once know the meaning of it. I remember a trip on one of these boats when a white man feigned a sleep, lying on his back on a bale of cotton, with his hands in his coat pockets. In his right pocket was a revolver, which his right hand held ready cocked for use. These negroes are always on the look out for sleepers, and one of these thieves was soon bending over his expected victim. He had felt a coin and, taking out his razor, was in the act of cutting it out, when here was a sharp report, and the negro fell back shot through the brain. The supposed sleeper quietly rose to his feet, and when the captain and some officers came, he simply pointed to the negro and the fallen razor, and no other explanation was needed. At the next stopping place the captain had a few words with the authorities, and the dead body was taken ashore, but the white passenger continued his journey without being bothered about a trial or examination. There was no more thieving during that trip.

I soon left New Orleans, being possessed with a restless spirit, and, after visiting Galveston, Euston, and many more towns of less importance, I made my way through the heart of Texas to the town of Paris, which lies on the borders of the Indian territory. It was in a saloon in the main street of this town that I had my attention drawn to a glass case, wherein was seen hanging a cord, at the end of which was something that looked very much like a walnut. On looking closer, I saw a small heap of dust at the bottom. Seeing that this case contained no stuffed animal, nor any model of ingenious mechanism, I began to read the printed matter, curious for an explanation. This small thing dangling at the end of the cord purported to be the heart of a negro, whom the people had sometime previously burned at the stake. He had suffered a terrible death: so had his little victim, a mere child of a few years, who had been found in the woods torn limb from limb. This negro had been arrested by the sheriff, and sentenced to a short term adequate to his offence. After he had been released, he had taken his revenge on the sheriff's child, bearing her off when on her way to school. The sheriff's wife, being the child's mother, had with her own hand applied the torch to this monster, and if her hand had failed, any woman in this land of many millions would have willingly done her this service.

I left Paris that night, catching a fast cattle train, and arrived the following morning at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Bill Cook, the train and bank robber, and his gang, were being tried this morning, and a special train was now waiting to convey them to the penitentiary. I saw this notorious free-hooter, when he was brought to the station-a young man between twenty and thirty years, receiving a sentence of forty years' imprisonment. One of his gang, Cherokee Bill, a desperado of nineteen years, indicted for murder, and remained in Fort Smith to be hanged. The train steamed out with its many deputies to guard a few prisoners-few, but proved to be very dangerous.