The Odd Case of Martha Gellhorn’s “Justice at Night” Pontius Pilate’s famous question haunts us still, “What is truth?”

Image by Shutterstock

Martha Gellhorn’s “Justice at Night,” the first piece in her 1988 nonfiction collection, The View From the Ground, is about witnessing a lynching in the 1930s. Like most of Gellhorn’s writing, it gets its power from first-person narration, poetic images, precise language, and the use of scenes. Gellhorn, who died in 1998, was a master of what we now call literary nonfiction, and her “Justice” is still shocking.

Gellhorn, as unnamed narrator, and a companion, Joe, have bought a car in New Jersey for $28.50 (about $500 now), its backseat “full of fallen leaves,” to “tour across America.” First stop: The South.

Gellhorn builds motifs of danger and suspense from the start. The dust is “moving and uncertain as sand”; America’s beauty is “its desolation.” The few people they see are in the fields, “thinking or just standing.” Around them are “broken shacks” where they “more or less live.”

“The towns or villages give an impression of belonging to the flies,” Gellhorn writes, “and it is impossible to imagine that on occasion these languid people move with a furious purpose.” A purpose is revealed in time.

One night, 30 miles from Columbia, Mississippi, their car “pant[s] wearily” and dies. Two men in a passing truck say they can give them a lift, if they don’t mind a detour to see a lynching first.

“Justice at Night” is so shaped, the way fiction often is, that I told friends if a lesser writer had written it I would think the piece was made up.

“Northerners?” the driver says. “Where did you all come from?”

The men drink corn liquor as they drive. They say they have heard that the black man being lynched is named Hyacinth. The white woman who owns the land he sharecrops has accused him of rape and demanded he hang. The men discount her story because, they say, she is too old and ugly for a young man like Hyacinth to rape. She is “cruel hard” to black people and “got a bad name for being a mean one.”

Novelist, journalist, and St. Louis native Martha Gelhorn in a 1941 photo with Chinese General Yu Hanmouwith (center) and Ernest Hemingway (right). (Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Gellhorn writes that the men are not “blind with anger against the Negro, or burning to avenge the honor of the nameless widow,” but they justify what is about to happen with, “Helluva place it’d be if you said white folks lied and niggers told the truth.”

Joe whispers to her that they cannot just let a man be hung. Gellhorn writes: “But I couldn’t think of anything to do.” Joe tries to reason with the men, until one says, “Lissen, sonny, this here ain’t none of your goddam business.”

There are 50 cars full of men at the lynching site, which has been used before. The mob laughs and calls each other by name. They drink as they wait for their victim to be brought from a jail, “looking down the road for something to appear; something that would give this party meaning.” The “enormous tree…stood by itself and had a curious air of usefulness,” Gellhorn writes.

More men arrive with “the usual thin unhinged bodies, that soiled look of people who live in little crowded places.” Hyacinth is with them.

“I couldn’t think of anything at all,” Gellhorn writes. “I kept wondering why we were here.”

Hyacinth is hung from the tree. “There was a choked sound beside me and it was Joe, crying, sitting there crying, with fury, with helplessness, and I kept looking at Hyacinth and thinking: it can’t have happened.” A man comes forward with a torch made from newspaper and lights Hyacinth’s kerosene-soaked body. “I went away and was sick,” Gellhorn writes.

The two men in the truck take them on to Columbia. “Sorry we hadta keep you waiting,” they say.

“Justice at Night” is so shaped, the way fiction often is, that I told friends if a lesser writer had written it I would think the piece was made up.

 

•  •  •

 

But The View From the Ground is a “selection of articles,” Gellhorn reminds us in the book—“peace-time reporting” grouped by decades, from the ‘30s to the ‘80s. The one exception, she admits in her introductory note, is a piece titled “My Dear Mr. Hopkins,” which “is not an article but a compilation of reports.”

The only thing she has to say of “Justice at Night” is that “the time of the event in the first article, ‘Justice at Night,’ 1931, places it [in the book’s chronological order], not the later date of publication.” (“Justice” was originally published in August 1936, in The Spectator.)

The book also includes “hindsight comments” by Gellhorn, after each of her five groupings of articles. In her commentary “The Thirties,” she says that after dropping out of Bryn Mawr in 1929 she went to Europe, where she got a “very high class education” watching “history as it happened.” She returned to the United States in 1931.

“This period is lost in the mists of time,” she says. “I remember very little.” She and her partner Bertrand de Jouvenel “made a long hardship journey across the continent from the east to the west coast” that fall. (Bertrand, not Joe?)

Later, she says,

 

 

“I remembered “Justice at Night” suddenly; it emerged intact, from its burial in my brain, and wrote itself as if by Ouija board one sunny morning in London in the summer of 1936. I don’t know that it belongs here since it is not direct reporting; recollection in tranquility four and a half years late. Recollection is not infallible.”

 

 

In London she had been “cadging bed and breakfast from HG Wells,” who “nagged steadily about my writing habits.” He wanted her to regularize her writing time from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm, as he did.

Though literary nonfiction is not straightforward journalism, there is an expectation that events described will be “veritable”—true, real, and valid—unless the prose cues us to read it as something else.

“That morning,” Gellhorn says, “to show him I could write if I felt like it, I sat in his garden and let ‘Justice at Night’ produce itself. Wells sent it to the Spectator. I had already moved on to Germany where I ceased being a pacifist and became an ardent anti-fascist.”

Though literary nonfiction is not straightforward journalism, there is an expectation that events described will be “veritable”—true, real, and valid—unless the prose cues us to read it as something else. (Along with nonfiction novels, autofictions, and New Journalism, there is a genre called speculative nonfiction now.)

I decided to see if I could revisit the lynching that Gellhorn witnessed, find out more about Hyacinth, compare historical or journalistic accounts with Gellhorn’s, and maybe even visit the site.

 

•  •  •

 

The NAACP says that between 1882 and 1968 there were at least 4,743 lynchings in the US; 73 percent of the victims were black. Mississippi had the most lynchings of any state, at 581.

Monroe Work today, a project named for a University of Chicago-trained sociologist and the Director of Records and Research at the Tuskegee Institute, shows there were about 20 lynchings in the counties around Columbia, Mississippi, in the decade when Gellhorn says the events of “Justice at Night” occurred. Of those, eight were blamed on rape, attempted rape, or “assault.”

The most famous was the public murder of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi. Hartfield had a white girlfriend, which white men turned into a lie about rape. A New Orleans paper announced before the event: “3,000 Will Burn Negro. Negro Jerky and Sullen as Burning Hour Nears. Some of the angry civilians, it is said, want Hartfield lynched, while others want him burned.”

The Jackson, Mississippi, Daily News, said: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched By Ellisville Mob at 5 O’Clock This Afternoon. Governor Bilbo Says He Is Powerless to Prevent It—Thousands of People Are Flocking Into Ellisville to Attend the Event—Sheriff and Authorities Are Powerless to Prevent it.”

Hartfield was hanged from a gum tree, shot many times, and burned, in front of 10,000 spectators. Pieces of his body were taken as souvenirs, and photo postcards were sold afterward.

The Hartfield lynching was in June 1919, however, and its details exceeded those depicted in “Justice.” I could find no record of what Gellhorn says she witnessed, though of course many acts of racist violence went undocumented.

Then I read somewhere that Gellhorn had actually been in North Carolina, not Mississippi, in the fall of 1931. Perhaps she transposed geographies, I thought, though that would be a poor writing choice. I found records of 19 lynchings in North Carolina in the decade around 1931, but the closest in time was that of Oliver Moore, in Tarboro, in August 1930.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector,” Gellhorn’s first husband, a writer named Ernest Hemingway, told The Paris Review. I should have trusted my instinct.

 

•  •  •

 

Martha Gellhorn was born and raised in St. Louis. Her father was a gynecologist and social reformer. Her mother (whose own father was a professor of clinical medicine at Washington University), also went to Bryn Mawr—with Eleanor Roosevelt—and became a founder and vice-president of the National League of Women Voters. In 1916, when the Democratic National Convention was held in St. Louis, suffragists including Martha’s mother lined 12 blocks of Locust Street in silence and made a tableau of rights and liberty in front of the Art Museum. Martha was one of two little girls placed before the tableau to represent the future. The idea of standing up for the dispossessed stuck with her all her life.

In Europe, after she left college, Martha Gellhorn began to write for publication. She started her affair with Bertrand de Jouvenel, a French philosopher and writer, and they traveled together in the US in the period described in “Justice at Night.”

In Fall 1934 Gellhorn got a job with FERA, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, reporting on conditions of the unemployed in the Depression. FERA was headed by Harry Hopkins, whose chief investigator, Lorena Hickok, was “a very close friend, possibly lover, of Mrs. Roosevelt,” according to Caroline Moorhead, editor of The Letters of Martha Gellhorn. Hopkins sent Martha’s reports to Eleanor Roosevelt—some of which are included in View From the Ground—and the two women became lifelong friends.

But Gellhorn was fired from FERA within a year, for instigating a “riot” in Idaho. Workers there were being maltreated in their menial job, and as she recalls in “The Thirties,” “By buying them beer and haranguing them, I convinced a few hesitant men to break the windows of the FERA office at night. Afterwards someone would surely come and look into their grievances. Then I moved on to the next stop, Seattle, while the FBI showed up at speed in Coeur d’Alene, alarmed by that first puny act of violence.”

When she was recalled to Washington and fired in 1935, she was unrepentant. “I wrote to my parents jubilantly and conceitedly: ‘I’m out of this man’s government because I’m a “dangerous Communist” and the Department of Justice believes me to be subversive and a menace. Isn’t it flattering? I shrieked with laughter when Aubrey [Williams; Hopkins’ deputy] told me; seems the unemployed go about quoting me and refuse—after my visits—to take things lying down.”

As she emptied her desk, FDR’s secretary called and said FDR and Eleanor “were worried about my finances because I would not find another government job with the FBI scowling, so they felt it would be best if I lived at the White House until I sorted myself out.”

Gellhorn stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom for two months and moved on, but she began her second book there. The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936) is a collection of four novellas based on material she collected for FERA. The preface was by HG Wells. Eleanor Roosevelt praised the book in her syndicated newspaper column.

The book was successful. “It is because they are so typically true that these tales are so tragic,” the Times said in its review. Graham Greene said in The Spectator that Gellhorn had not fallen to the “female vices of unbalanced pity or factitious violence.” The Saturday Review of Literature said the four stories “ring as true as a report from a relief worker’s notebook.” Gellhorn blurred what was veritable and what was imagined, but our expectations for fiction allow for this. “Based on a true story” even helps sell books and films.

“Justice at Night” was published separately about the same time. It found its way to Walter White, Executive Secretary for the NAACP. White, who often passed as white, had also been an investigator and undercover agent for the NAACP, investigating lynchings. He was struck by “Justice at Night” and sent it to Eleanor Roosevelt. He and Eleanor both were working to get federal anti-lynching bills through Congress, but legislation was blocked more than once by Southern Democrats, whom FDR believed he needed to win re-election and to keep the New Deal going. White asked Gellhorn to testify about the lynching she had witnessed to a Senate committee, presumably in support of the Costigan-Wagner Bill.

“Justice at Night” was published separately about the same time. It found its way to Walter White, Executive Secretary for the NAACP. White … was struck by “Justice at Night” and sent it to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Gellhorn wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt on November 11, 1936, and asked if Hick (Lorena Hickok) had told Eleanor of “my latest bit of muddle-headedness. It’s very funny; and I was going to appeal to you to extricate me, but that seems too much of a good thing and I am going to be a big brave girl and tidy it all up by myself. It concerns that lynching article which you said you liked….”

Gellhorn says (here) that she sent the piece to her agent in London, who sent it to The Spectator.

“At which point Gellhorn, with $50 reward,” Gellhorn says in breezy-guilty mode, “ceased to remember the tale and went on to the next thing.”

“Justice” was reprinted in Germany, “stolen by a thing called the Magazine Digest,” Gellhorn says, reprinted again “somewhere in the US,” and then was “swiped and reprinted” yet again by a publication called the Living Age, which “simply annexed it without so much as a by-your-leave.” This had created a problem.

“Well,” Gellhorn wrote Eleanor Roosevelt. “The point is, that article was a story. I am getting a little mixed-up around now and apparently I am a very realistic writer (or liar), because everyone assumed I’d been an eye-witness to a lynching whereas I just made it up. […]

“Around now, I feel that I have attended twenty lynchings and I wish I’d never seen fit to while away a morning doing a piece of accurate guessing. The nearest I ever came to a lynching was being picked up late at night, somewhere in North Carolina, by a drunk truck driver, on his way home from a ‘necktie-party.’ He made me pretty sick and later I met a negro whose son had been lynched and I got a little sicker. Out of that, years later, appeared this piece. I have a feeling I am on something of a spot but I can’t see why exactly. Anyhow I shall write Walter White and tell him I’m only a hack writer, but not a suitable witness. Though God save and protect his cause, on account of it’s a good one.”

Eleanor replied November 30 and counseled Gellhorn to keep the mistake quiet, for political expediency. “[Y]ou had just enough actual fact to base it on for your rather remarkable imagination to do the trick and make it as realistic as possible! I do not think Walter White will care as long as you do not spread it around that you had not actually seen one.” Truth is a moveable feast.

On December 10, Eleanor wrote again and told Gellhorn she had helped White in his cause. Eleanor wished “‘more people had the ability to visualize a lynching’ as [Gellhorn] had done, however upsetting.”

 

•  •  •

 

The “Justice at Night” case was an unfortunate slip the first time, when Martha Gellhorn had just turned 28. It probably was not even all her fault. More than 50 years later, however, it was. Even if an editor at Atlantic Monthly Press, which published View From the Ground in 1988, had insisted on including “Justice,” Gellhorn could have refused. She covered instead, by calling it an “article” and (paraphrasing Wordsworth) a “recollection [my emphasis] in tranquility four and a half years late.” Caroline Moorhead, who is also Gellhorn’s biographer, says, “…Martha, all her life, blended fact and fiction.”

Did the fake news, so to speak, help anyone at the time? Did it hurt anything? Walter White must have felt let down, despite what Eleanor Roosevelt told Gellhorn. Any time the Left claims moral high ground but is shown to be wrong, or is caught in a fabrication, traction is lost.

But history leans to silence. What did the flapping leaves of one article/story accomplish? Who did it influence? Did it change behavior, good or bad? Looking back from the 80-year vantage it seems—and as a writer and book editor, I am loath to say it—that this sort of thing does not matter much. Not much except in the most important sense, the sense of being True even if not true: it tells us who we are and what it has been like to live in our time. This is what Ezra Pound means when he says, “Literature is news that stays news.”

 

 •  •  •

 

Martha Gellhorn went on to have a 60-year career as war correspondent, public intellectual, and literary writer. She published 21 books. Her mind was vital and she worked to the end. Given her friendship with the Roosevelts and others, and how early in the century she began to publish, it is surprising to read in her late letters about events in the second Clinton term. She saw everything of the American Century, it seems, and went everywhere, and when at the age of 89 she decided she had had enough of ovarian and liver cancer, old age, near-blindness, and loneliness, she arranged her affairs, cleaned her apartment, and swallowed a cyanide capsule she had been hiding for years. She faced violence head-on when she could. She was practical and tried to shun sentimentality.

Near the end she wrote to Milton Wolff, Commander of the Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, which she had reported on. That was her first war.

“Having written all my life on behalf of the abused,” she said, “I am certain that not one word ever did the slightest good. But I am a writer and know nothing else to do. It is tiring and unrewarding. On the other hand, complete silence is worse, so even if it’s only a mouse squeak it is better than nothing.”