It all started last summer, when I got the most beautiful and amazing truck as a present for my eighteenth birthday. A nice, smooth, red Chevrolet. Since my college application had been accepted, and I was going to start there in September, I thought I’d take my shiny new girlfriend for a little road trip around the states, with a couple of my other friends from school. Most of my friends had already gone around travelling and were already in college – so I knew I could rely on their help if I got lost. It was an exciting time in my life – I was eighteen, I knew how to drive, and I was eager for a taste of my own independence.
We eventually settled on a route that would take us all the way through the Bible belt, to the East coast. I had an aunt who lived in California, and I thought it would be cool to go all the way over there and visit her. I knew it was a ridiculously long way away from where I lived, but I was so in love with my new truck that I felt like I had to do it. It was quite a long way away, but we made plans and we all felt ready. We were gonna do it. Our first port of call was Memphis, Mississippi.
From there, we would drive all the way from Arkansas, then go to Fort Worth, Texas. That was the first phase of our travel plan. It was quite exciting – and I couldn’t wait to get there at Memphis; and actually see history with my own eyes. Little did I know, I was about to get a dose of history, all right, but not one that I wanted to see.
In my eagerness, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I was in the middle of nowhere – not a helpful description because most of the land we saw looked the same; dry and unoccupied. We did see some nice mountains and hills, though.
I can’t remember exactly where I turned, but before I knew it, my eyes gleamed when I realized we were actually near a town. We were all getting tired of seeing the same desert land everywhere, so it was a breath of fresh air to see some buildings. The sign told us we were approaching “Grill Harry”.
We were immediately disappointed that it made no mention about how close we were to Memphis. Also, we were all puzzled over the town’s name – where and how did they get a name like that?
Maybe it was named after some obscure Mississippi barbeque dish that we hadn’t heard about? Or maybe some guy named Harry who lived here one day invented his own barbeque grill and he became the local town savior; and the people loved him so much they decided to name the town after him? Or maybe it was named after some old Native American tribe called… I don’t know - the Grillharree?
Well, we were all stupid. And at the time, the mere mention of grill made us all hungry for some barbeque food. So we parked at a motel, and went to look around to get something to eat, and then ask for directions.
While we looked around, we decided, just out of sheer curiosity to ask the locals about the town and its name. It wasn’t a particularly large town, and some of the buildings looked at least a hundred years old. But it had a gas station, and a motel. Also, to our joy, it had a BBQ restaurant there.
It was simply called "The Grill Harry BBQ” – the entry sign reading: “Get the taste of the South in Y’all Mouth!” We went in there hungry for food, and answers. We noticed, upon entering that there was an old fashioned photograph that looked at least a hundred years' old hung up and framed on the wall. It featured lots of men, even some women crowded round a bonfire - they were carrying sticks and it looked like they were busy doing something.
There was a strange shape in the middle of the fire; it looked like a large, weirdly shaped lump of coal. A caption at the bottom of the picture was written in pen, which read: "Copyright - Howard Douglas, Baxtertown, MS, 1907" I didn't understand the importance of the picture, but strangely, when I asked the catering staff around the place, it seemed that they didn't either. They told me they believed it was just some crazed cowboy bonfire event, just added for the atmosphere of the place. I wasn't getting any answers.
But wherever we asked around, nobody seemed to know anything about the town’s name or history. Most people just shrugged their shoulders. It seemed like they knew no better than we did. Once we looked at the menu, the staff instantly recommended the special to us:
The Grill Harry Special - Dig into this gluttonous meat-fest with two lots of BBQ ribs marinated in oil and sauce, complete with chargrilled fillets of steak, Onion rings with potato fries and coleslaw! $16.99.
My friends and I had all come to the conclusion after seeing this, that it was an entirely innocuous name that was simply to do with a BBQ dish, and nothing more. We were also eager to try it, since it looked really delicious. The bill didn’t look too kind on our wallets, but it was definitely a satisfying dish. Five stars all the way.
But there was something that didn’t sit right with me. It’s hard to describe - when I looked at our plates, at the way the food had all been arranged – with the two ribs joined together to make an arc, with the grilled steak beneath and around it, all in the center, while the fries and coleslaw almost surrounded the meat. It was such a weird arrangement and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The way the sauce was poured all over the middle, almost made it look like a person, keeling over. Was I imagining it? Why did they take so much care to lay their food out in that particular way? Whatever it was, I still ate it without complaint. Seventeen Dollars was definitely a good price, considering the quality of the meat.
I was still a little confused about the name though, even though all my other friends had settled on it simply being named after a delicacy and nothing more. The more I thought about it, the less I was convinced. It just seemed so odd, and out of place. Who was this “Harry”? And why was there a barbeque restaurant, with a special course that was named after him? But, the more I pondered over it, the heat started to make me feel dizzy.
That’s right – I forgot to mention. It gets real freaking hot in the Deep South. I still don’t know how the locals put up with it. Also, the mosquitoes were beginning to hover over me and see me as a tasty snack. I think I was coming down with a fever or something – or maybe it was the food. I told my friends I wasn’t feeling okay, and they said I should get some rest in the bed. So I left the restaurant before they did, and made my way back to the motel… but I began to stumble and sweat, while walking outside. The heat was so intense. I collapsed, and passed out on the sidewalk.
When I woke up, it was much darker. I heard the noise of crickets chirping. I grunted, and slowly got up. This wasn’t the same roadside I had passed out on all right – it wasn’t a sidewalk at all. I looked around. I was in a completely different location. All the houses were different – the road had vanished; it had been replaced by the same dry, desert ground that I’d witnessed plenty of when I drew up here. I noticed that there were no cars. What I saw instead were horse drawn buggies. I noticed that people were even dressed differently – everybody was wearing dull white shirts with overalls, and fedora hats. It was like I’d somehow ended up in the Old West.
Where was I? I decided to look around and get my bearings.
I couldn’t help but notice how out of place I was – with my red t-shirt and my blue slacks. People were staring at me from all directions. I didn’t feel comfortable. I heard some guy mutter, with a heavy accent: “Sweet Jesus, I think there ought to be a bounty on that poor fella’s tailor.” I heard some other guys laugh at this comment, but I was too busy worrying about myself to appreciate the joke.
I ended up in an alleyway between a wooden saloon and a perfumery. Then I felt something rush into me out of nowhere. I was knocked to the ground. A black guy, who looked about my age had bumped into me. He was wearing a white shirt with overalls too like everyone else.
“I’m so sorry sir," I started, "I didn’t see-”
“Shhhhhh!!” he hissed frantically, and motioning with his hand. He was clearly in some kind of panic. Like he was running from something. Then he got up, and bolted in the other direction.
I decided that I ought to turn back and ask somebody for directions. I saw a man approaching on a horse, far back behind me. Dressed with a suede vest, a fedora hat, and a star badge on his lapel – he looked just like one of those old fashioned sheriffs. I walked up to him and asked him:
“Excuse me, sir – can you tell me where I am right now? I’m a bit lost.” He looked at me disapprovingly. “Yeah, you definitely are lost son. You been drinkin’, or somethin’?”
He talked with such an obvious deep south accent. Nobody I ever knew had spoken like that. It was the kind I only heard in TV shows. I sighed – just needing an answer. "You’re in Baxtertown, Mississippi, boy. My town, ya hear? Think you oughta watch yourself. This place is crawlin’ with danger.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a threat, or a warning. I nodded, and apologized profusely. I didn't want any trouble - I’d just passed out and ended up somewhere I’d never been before. Baxtertown? How far was that from Grilled Harry? How did I get here?
“Hold, son… wanna ask ya somethin’,” the Sherriff asked me. He produced what turned out to be some kind of local newspaper, and handed it over.
“We’re lookin’ for this here fella. You seen him anywhere?”
I looked at the paper, called The Baxtertown Herald and skim read the headline:
“NEGRO WANTED FOR ASSAULT.”
Below the headline was a picture of a black man – and it was no doubt – the same guy I bumped into just earlier. Then I noticed something even more shocking. In the top left corner, read the date and time: “Tuesday May 14th, 1907.”
1907. I looked around, and felt slightly uneasy. Had I... Had I actually travelled back in time? Well... that made more sense, I figured - either it was this or I was in the middle of some elaborate prank.
“We’re all here on the lookout for this damn nigger. He’s gonna pay for what he’s done, make no mistake.”
I remember hearing him voice these words with utter contempt. And I was utterly shocked to hear him so casually use such inappropriate, offensive language in front of me. But if I really had travelled back in time, then maybe… I shuddered. I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the worst of it.
Then I heard a small commotion. A mob of people were coming into view, all carrying torches, planks of wood, and weapons, and making a clamor. The sheriff, as if he’d just noticed something, turned on his horse towards the wooden saloon.
Then I heard a woman scream from a distance.
“I see him! He’s over there!”
This antagonized the mob of people who I’d seen earlier. I looked back and saw them. I had a bad feeling I knew what was about to happen. Some were carrying planks of wood, which seemed too cumbersome and heavy to be used as weapons, I remember thinking. The noises from the crowd grew more and more restless.
“Where is that filthy nigger!?”
“Let’s get ‘im!”
“Where is that dark son of a bitch!”
Suddenly I heard a score of cheers, from the other side of the saloon, and the same hapless black guy from earlier stumbled through the same alley where we briefly met – a gang of people were following close behind him. Now the crowd roared into a frenzy. I froze in horror, as everyone around me set upon the poor guy. I heard them all shout:
“Get that nigger!”
In the midst of the action – I couldn’t see what was properly going on. But somewhere in the mess of bodies and movement, I knew the guy I just bumped into was being brutally mauled and attacked by dozens of people. It was horrifying. And my eardrums were ruptured with the cheers and screams of everyone around me. What the hell was wrong with them? It was like they were all at a football game. I wanted to leave, but I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the sheriff from earlier.
“Whoah-hoh - stay here son – you ain’t seen the best part yet!”
I felt even worse when I heard him say this. That poor guy was being brutally ganged up on and attacked by an entire crowd, and this sheriff; this guy who was supposed to be a cop was not doing a thing about it? He was just sitting there on his horse watching. And he wanted me to watch it with him. I froze in horror. All I could do was watch, as this man was so relentlessly beaten and attacked, while everyone savaged him like a pack of wild animals.
Then, after what felt like an hour, the sheriff proceeded through the crowd, and pulled out a lasso from his waist. People began to clear away. Now that I’d seen the damage they’d done to him, I really wished I hadn’t. The guy lay on the trail, writhing in agony. His clothes were soaked in blood. His face was bruised and bloodied in places. He was in so much pain he could barely move. His mouth was open, but nothing he said could be heard, his cries were all drowned out by the ferocious baying of the mob. Was this it? Had they finally had enough? Was the sheriff going to lock him up in jail and let him face charges for the crime he’d committed?
Not so. The sheriff, once he’d tightened his lasso around the lifeless body, he hollered out to the crowd:
“Everybody get to the town square – let’s go have ourselves a little barbeque!”
I did not like the sound of that one bit. But the crowd on the other hand cheered at this idea. They roared with delight – and even as the sheriff on his horse dragged the wretched victim through to the square, they could not resist the opportunity to kick him as he was dragged limply to what would be his execution site.
I can only explain that out of some perverse, morbid curiosity, I decided to go along with them. It was a terrible idea, but I didn’t know what else to do. If I had known then, what sickening cruelty the mob had in store for him, I would have voluntarily gouged my own eyes out. There were planks of wood gathered in the middle of the town square; it looked like some makeshift funeral pyre. Somebody was carrying a metal can, and pouring some kind of liquid all over it. There was a tree behind the pyre, with a small rope hanging from it. I wasn’t a history major, but I knew exactly what was coming next.
And, as expected, they carried the victim towards the wooden pile, and dumped his body on the wooden pile. He lay motionless – but it was clear that he was still alive. They then took him, raised him up, and fitted his head through the loop of the noose. [Oh no...] I remember frantically thinking.
[Just no. No. No. No. They're not actually going to... -are they?]
The ear-splitting noises from the crowd were just unbearable. This man was going to die. And they could not wait to kill him. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what sort of crime you’d have to commit if you had to deserve this kind of punishment. The poor man struggled, and with all the strength he could muster, I heard him shout these last words:
“Please! I ain’t never touched Martha Mae! Don’t give me no sick death because I ain’t white!”
But his shouts fell upon deaf ears. In reply, the crowd only roared louder:
“Light ‘em up!”
"Put ‘em in the air!”
“Burn in Hell!”
Suddenly, the man was lifted into the air, hanging from the rope around his neck. He struggled as much as he could, his feet looked like they were doing some frantic dance. Then, the torch was thrown.
I felt the warmth of the sea of flames just as I saw it. It made my face feel much drier. And the rapture of the crowd standing around intensified. The man struggled hopelessly, as the gigantic yellow flames began to tickle his feet. At this point, I could only watch, mesmerized as the hellfire began to consume him. His feet were now smouldering. People were cheering, jeering and laughing at him – cracking sick jokes here and there. I can’t think of any way to describe it, other than ungodly. They said things like:
“How’s it hanging?”
"Well lookie here – we got ourselves a fine barbeque, huh?”
"Hey there, nigger boy! Send us all a postcard when you get there to Hell!”
“Who’s thirsty!? Ain’t we got some more whiskey?”
I’d never felt so repulsed by human nature before in my entire life. I had to leave immediately, or I would be sick all over the place.
Then, as I was turning back, I heard a snap. Then I heard a collective “Whooaahh-Whoah!” I regretfully looked and saw the man’s rope had burned and broken. Now he had fallen on the pyre, consumed entirely by the flames. All I could see was his silhouette. He made vivid movements with his hands, and tried to crawl to safety.
But the crowd had rushed to the fore, and they weren’t having any of that. Some of them had used their tools, and pitchforks as poker sticks, to push him back on the pyre. It was sick. They'd turned his revolting death into some kind of sport.
“Let’s put this nigger back on the grill!”
“Who’s hungry for grilled Harry?”
Harry. So that was his name. I felt even more awful even knowing that. Looking at the helpless dark figure pushed all the way into the centre of the flames just brought tears to my eyes. That poor man just wanted to be free from this indescribable agony, but he was doomed. There was no escape for him.
Those monsters… those sick monsters! How could they possibly do this to a man? I wanted to cry and be sick at the same time. And I wanted to get the hell out of there.
The disgusting horror show had finally come to an end. I was panting, shuddering, sweating and crying over a pool of my own sick. What was that I had last eaten - The “Grilled Harry Special”?
I was immediately sick all over again. So that’s how this horrible town got the name. Exhausted, I collapsed and lay in the pool of my own vomit. I felt like had well and truly witnessed Hell on earth.
In the background, I heard what sounded like music. It was an old fashioned country music band; there was a banjo player, a guitarist, and a harmonica. I groaned silently. As if I needed any more taste of the deep south to remind me of this nightmare. They were singing about what had happened in the town that day. My memory was never that good, but even now, I can still remember every word of this dreadful song. The words are still stuck in my head. I’ve tried to forget them, but I can’t. Even now, it still rings in my head. It goes like this:
“Well once upon a time, in Baxtertown,
The shops were all-a-closin’, it was near Sundown,
There was a young fella named Harry Lee
A lazy good-for-nothing with no family.
Grill Young Harry, torch the wood,
Hang him by the tree and cook him good!
Burn Young Harry, Roast that one!
Grill that fella till he’s Well Done!
Now Harry did set his eyes that day,
On the fair and beautiful Martha Mae.
And in his dark heart, he did know
That he wanted her so bad, it hurt him so.
Now, Harry Lee ain't no reg'lar customer,
‘Cause in his eyes he had lust for her,
He emerged from the darkness and stole Martha Mae,
And she never was found till the very next day.
Well, fair Martha made it home and told God’s truth,
And all the town elders, and all the town’s youth,
Did decide to go-a-hunting out that day
To avenge the honor of fair Martha Mae!”
Well Harry Lee was found, that following night,
And the folks of good Baxtertown put up a fight!
And they did deliver justice to Harry Lee
And him to town centre, they did carry.
“I never touched fair Martha Mae!”
I never touched her!” he did say
But Baxtertown said: “You lie! You lie!”
“Now, straight to Hell your soul must fly!”
And that was the end of young Harry Lee,
Now unto y’all I say the moral of the story:
Separation of the races is right and good
For the purity of White Womanhood.
I felt somewhat captivated by both the depraved nature of the song’s content, and the happy, upbeat melody from the music they were playing.
I think I became so overwhelmed by what I’d experienced, that I passed out once again.
I woke up, in the bed of the motel where I’d stayed. My friends were all around me. I asked them what had happened. They said that they’d found me passed out on the sidewalk. I asked them how long. They said I’d been out for a whole three hours. It was evening.
At this point, I told them everything. They were of course, a little shocked by what they’d heard, by the level of detail that I described it and everything. But they assured me nonetheless that I had just grown dizzy from a fever, and had a weird, graphic dream.
However, I got up from my bed, and rushed out of the motel - there was something I had to check. The restaurant was still open. I bolted down the street and braved the heat once more, running down the sidewalk and straight into the Grill Harry BBQ. And then - my worst nightmares were realized. I looked clearly at the photograph from 1907 with a horrifying new perspective and understanding of its contents. Those people in the photograph were exactly the same as the ones I witnessed that night. And that black mass in the middle of the fire? That was him. The person I bumped into in the alley... Harry. Being burned alive and trying to make his escape.
The people were pushing him back onto the fire. And then - I walked outside... I looked at the arrangement of some of the houses. I was in a familiar spot - I could see where the town centre used to be. There was a tree in the distance. The tree! That tree! The tree where Harry was strung up, and burned! I was looking straight at it. They erected this sick restaurant in the town center to commemorate... just to commemorate...
Psychologically, I could take no more. I broke into tears. It was all real. Not a weird dream. My friends and I decided to drive back home. We cancelled our road trip for another day.
I have since done a bit of research into what happened. I looked all over the web, and even visited the Library of Congress. Eventually, I managed to piece together everything I could.
In the summer of 1907, May 14th, in what was then named Baxtertown in Lafayette County, MS, a 15-year-old white girl by the name of Martha Mae Roberts, who was the daughter of the town Sheriff Noah Roberts, was reported missing. The local law enforcement spent the day searching for her, but turned up with no results. The next day, however, at approximately 11 AM, Martha Mae was spotted, lying half-dead and half-naked near a riverbank.
She told the police that a man had snatched her, beat and raped her, but she didn’t get a good look at his face, and could not identify him as he was wearing a thick veil. Two witnesses came forward and reported that they had seen her talking with a black man prior to her disappearance. In the later stages of the investigation, the black man was found to be nineteen-year-old Harry Lee Smith, an out-of-towner with no family, who was looking for work.
When law enforcement approached Smith, he ran away, and tried to escape. Sheriff Roberts had engaged the town in a hunting party, where he vowed in his own words that they would "Teach that no-good nigger a lesson (sic)". Once Harry was found, he was attacked by the mob of townspeople. He was punched, kicked, stabbed, mutilated, and then dragged to the town square by Sheriff Roberts.
There they suspended him over a makeshift funeral pyre from planks of wood, by a rope, then poured coal oil all over the wood, and lit it with a torch, simultaneously hanging him with the ligature and burning him to death at the same time. At some point, the rope gave way and snapped - Harry Lee fell straight onto the pyre, and it is apparent that he tried to make his escape. However, the mob ringleaders decided to have a little fun by using their tools on hand to stop him from escaping. Harry Lee died shortly thereafter.
A photograph of the lynching up-close was taken by a local photographer named Howard Douglas, which was later sold at an auction. Lynch Law was very common in the days of the Jim Crow south – especially for young black men like Harry Lee Smith. Smith had, in all likelihood, probably known that even if he had protested his innocence, his case would never have even made it to trial. Black men were simply not respected in those days, and had no rights at all. He probably knew he was doomed as soon as the accusation stuck to him.
Whether or not Smith was the one who assaulted her however, is still not known for certain. Curiously, Martha Mae had admitted, shortly after the incident that she did not think that Smith was her assailant; the reason being that she could not make out her attacker’s skin color given how well disguised he was.
She also confessed that the reason why she had spoken to him in the first place, was because she noticed that he was lost, and needed directions, so she wanted to help him out. A careless of naiveté which had sealed Smith’s fate. People of the time did not look too kindly upon interracial encounters. As such, the identity of Martha Mae’s real attacker was never truly discovered. In hindsight, it would appear that Harry Lee was burned to death simply for having the nerve to be seen talking with a white girl.
Consequently, in praise of the “Divine justice(sic)” as quoted in the Baxtertown Herald that was delivered to Harry Lee Smith for his crimes, Baxtertown then became known by a new name: “Grilled Harry Lee”, but later abbreviated to simply: “Grilled Harry”. Though this incident might have appeared shocking and disgusting to anyone unfamiliar to the historical context surrounding it (such as myself at the time), it was just one example of a very common incident that was not unknown to happen throughout history, and since it only happened in a small country town, it didn’t even make state headlines.
To be honest, I’m not even surprised if that’s the reason why none of the locals I spoke with understood the story behind their town’s name. But then on the other hand - how do I explain that sick restaurant and its revolting delicacy? ... Looking back, I can only guess that the restaurant's head of staff must have had one sick sense of humor, and a twisted appreciation for the town's history. There's no way they could have not known about the event - since they possessed the only copy of the photograph in existence, they simply had to know what it was and they just weren't telling me.
If any of you are shocked by what I’ve revealed to you right now, then all I have to say is simply this. Deep within the archives of human history you'll find the most gruesome examples of injustice; trust me - they are there if you know where to find them. But that does not mean you have to. Perhaps it is better still that you don’t – that way, you can all instead carry your head high and maintain your grand, shared illusion that there is good in human nature.
I still don’t quite fully understand why I ended up seeing that vision. But in a way, it felt like… I’d secretly asked for it, simply by wanting to know more. Just by being curious about the town name. Now I can never unsee what I’ve seen. I never asked for this to happen to me, and now that it has, it’s completely changed who I am.
When you realize what unspeakable atrocities humans are capable of, it makes you question what the word “inhuman” really means, when you consider how only humans are capable of inflicting this degree of brutality. So, be careful where your curiosity leads you. Some things are better left under the rug. Some mysteries are better left unsolved. Be careful what you wish for.