Wednesday, January 20, 2016

swift justice

There's a square, a park, in downtown San Jose that I never pass without feeling a shudder. It was here that in 1933 an enraged mob broke into the courthouse across the street, dragged out a pair of jailed accused kidnapper-murderers, and lynched them from trees in the park. It was covered by a live radio broadcast and became the first "media event" lynching. (Lynching having the connotations it does, I should add that everyone involved in this story, including the original murder victim, was white: there were few blacks in San Jose then.) (Quick Wikipedia summary)

A lot of people at the time expressed satisfaction at this form of "swift justice," including the state's Governor, who'd made a point of not calling out extra protection after the mob formed, and nobody was ever charged for or even accused of the lynching, but many others were appalled, which is why a cartoon ironically titled "California Points With Pride" won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

This blot on San Jose's escutcheon was swept under the rug for many years, and I didn't hear much about it until a local reporter/historian wrote a book about it not 25 years ago, and it's still considered an obscure point. But now that book has been adapted into a play, Swift Justice by Tom McEnery, another local-history enthusiast whom the program book rather weirdly does not mention is a former mayor of the city, and produced by a small local theater located just two blocks from the park, and even closer to the site of the kidnapping, which was behind a now long-gone department store where the original victim was the well-loved scion of the owning family.

The event is, however, not so entirely forgotten to prevent the entire run of the play from selling out before it opened. I went last night and found it entirely worthwhile, giving a much more vivid idea than I'd had of the events and characters involved, particularly the men who were lynched. Fortunately the irony - criminals in one event become victims in the next - was not overmilked. The story proceeds slowly and somewhat jerkily - the first half is mostly devoted to depicting the prospering, developing air of San Jose and the place in it of this prominent store and of the young man who was murdered, and the kidnapping doesn't occur until just before intermission - but it builds up, and the return at the end to the frame story - the grieving recollections of an old man who'd been a friend of the family and who (like them) opposed the lynchings - was powerful and moving.

A lot can be credited to the actors, who, despite a lot of awkward pauses (were they trying to remember what their next lines were in the rambling script?), were professional in quality and successful at conveying characters (especially evident from those who played multiple parts). Probably best was Drew Benjamin Jones as the mastermind kidnapper, one of those sneeringly overconfident fellows who thinks he has all the angles covered but actually knows nothing about what he's doing. There was a highly fannish air to the guy: he sounded and acted like many I've known, though none were quite as sinister.

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