April 02, 2024

Hell Put to Shame

By Earl Swift
Review by
Hell Put to Shame is a courtroom drama, a true crime tale and a finger in the eye of those who sweep our ancestors’ shame under the rug.
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Hell Put to Shame: The 1921 Murder Farm Massacre and the Horror of America’s Second Slavery is the type of history that can be hard to pick up because it forces the reader to confront a tragic injustice. How can something so horrible have been forgotten to history? Like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, this book tells the story of a century-old series of murders, committed by or at the behest of white power brokers seeking a dollar—a tale as old as time.

Journalist and author Earl Swift’s book is set in rural Georgia in the 1910s and ’20s, where wealthy plantation owner John S. Williams entrapped and kept Black people against their will and forced them to work his plantation. The murders in this story were highly publicized at the time, dubbed the Murder Farm case in newspapers across the country. But this narrative transcends the true crime genre. In telling the story of the killings, Hell Put to Shame offers a look at the unkept promises of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a preview of the Civil Rights battles to come, a Southern courtroom drama akin to John Grisham and a character study of complicated people like Georgia Gov. Hugh Dorsey and crusading NAACP investigator Walter White. It reminds the reader of a cruel system of near-slavery that persisted for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, unchecked by various white power centers.

Several key figures in the story died or had scattered to the wind soon after the murders were exposed. Swift tracks down descendants who had little or flawed information about their relatives’ roles in the crimes. But limited records and eyewitness accounts can at times limit the storytelling, as, for example, the reader gets to know the prominent Dorsey and White better than the central figures, who left a daintier paper trail.

Swift’s frustrated search for the paupers cemetery where some of the victims were allegedly buried is representative both of the challenge of telling a 100-year-old story and our culture’s willingness to actively forget events that make us uncomfortable. There is no monument or plaque to recognize the victims’ lives or deaths. Though incomplete, Hell Put to Shame provides a vital look at a neglected history.

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Hell Put to Shame

Hell Put to Shame

By Earl Swift
ISBN 9780063265387

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