Please note: There are quotations from Wells and her contemporaries (ca. 1890s), in addition to quotes from contemporary (ca. 1890s) newspapers in which they use the words “negro” and “colored.” I use these words only in direct quotes, not in my own analysis or narrative.
Ida B. Wells was an outspoken advocate for African American civil rights in the late 1800s. Although she started out on a righteous path, she quickly lost her way, by being long on rhetoric and short on facts.
In 1895, Wells published The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In addition to several factually inaccurate lists of lynching victims, The Red Record contains narratives which describe lynchings in detail. Some of these narratives, while biased - such as Hamp Biscoe or C.J. Miller - are firmly based in fact. Unfortunately, the number of true stories is dwarfed by Wells’ rhetoric.
One example of Wells’ rhetoric trumping the truth is the following narrative regarding a rape that allegedly occurred in Elyria, Ohio, in 1888:
“The Cleveland Gazette of January 16, 1892, publishes a case in point. Mrs. J.C. Underwood, the wife of a minister of Elyria, Ohio, accused an Afro-American of rape. She told her husband that during his absence in 1888, stumping the State for the Prohibition Party, the man came to the kitchen door, forced his way in the house and insulted her. She tried to drive him out with a heavy poker, but he overpowered and chloroformed her, and when she revived her clothing was torn and she was in a horrible condition. She did not know the man but could identify him. She pointed out William Offett, a married man, who was arrested and, being in Ohio, was granted a trial.” 1
There was a small paper in Elyria at the time; Cleveland, with its many local newspapers, sits only 23 miles to the north. It was practically guaranteed that newspapers at the time - even “respectable” papers - would sensationalize the story of a black man breaking into the home of, brutally assaulting, and raping the wife of a prominent Prohibitionist minister. And yet, there is nary a whisper of this horrific crime in any contemporary newspaper.
Wells then ambushes the reader with the information that Mrs. Underwood, well … apparently, she made the whole thing up:
“I [Ms. Underwood] met Offett at the Post Office. It was raining. He was polite to me, and as I had several bundles in my arms he offered to carry them home for me, which he did. He had a strange fascination for me, and I invited him to call on me. He called, bringing chestnuts and candy for the children. By this means we got them to leave us alone in the room. Then I sat on his lap. He made a proposal to me and I readily consented. Why I did so, I do not know, but that I did is true. He visited me several times after that and each time I was indiscreet. I did not care after the first time. In fact I could not have resisted, and had no desire to resist.
“When asked by her husband why she told him she had been outraged, she said: "I had several reasons for telling you. One was the neighbors saw the fellows here, another was, I was afraid I had contracted a loathsome disease, and still another was that I feared I might give birth to a Negro baby. I hoped to save my reputation by telling you a deliberate lie." Her husband horrified by the confession had Offett, who had already served four years, released and secured a divorce.” 2
Let’s unpack this story, which resembles a passage from a seedy romance novel far more than it does investigative journalism.
Wells stated that, in 1888, at the height of the prudish Victorian era, the white wife of a prominent, outspoken Prohibitionist minister invited a strange black man into her home. She couldn’t explain why she did it, but let’s say he hit her with “The Whammy.” Her young, impressionable, white children were in the room with them while they shamelessly flirted with one other. They got so hot and bothered that they needed to get it on like … yesterday, so they tricked the children into leaving the room. The second they were gone, Mrs. Underwood plopped herself down on this strange black man’s lap, whom she had only met on one occasion prior. Then … they had crazy wild sex. Several times. Which Mrs. Underwood immediately regretted, so her next obvious step was to snitch out Mr. Offett to the police for raping her.
Then, in 1892 … long after Mr. Offett had been tried and convicted for raping Mrs. Underwood, Wells stated that Mrs. Underwood had a change of heart, and therefore decided to ruin her life by coming forward to say that she lied about the rape.
- American Lynching
Chronicling America API Challenge - Lynching in America
This story seems unlikely. Why would her neighbors wait four years to expose her; why would they care more about the fate of this strange black man sitting in prison more than the fate of their neighbor, a white Prohibitionist minister’s wife? Mrs. Underwood was already a mother, and would have known how babies are “made;” certainly she would have known that it would not take four years to show symptoms of either a pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. Lastly, even if Mrs. Underwood had told her husband of her outrageous affair, what are the chances that he would have risked his own reputation by exposing her, or divorcing her?
Luckily, we don’t have to ponder over any of these questions, because all evidence suggests that none of it ever happened.
There is no evidence of the rape or Offett’s arrest or conviction outside Wells’ writing and her one source, The Cleveland Gazette, which is an African American newspaper. A paper, by the way, that is pretty much impossible to get your hands on, if you wanted to check your facts.
Not only is there no proof that the incident occurred, there is no evidence that any of those people ever existed. There is no proof whatsoever that a J.C. Underwood ever existed in Elyria, a very small town in which roughly 5,000 people lived between 1880 and 1890. A protestant church in Elyria at which Rev. Underwood could have been employed has no record of him. He obviously wasn’t a minister at one of Elyria’s two Catholic churches.
There is also no evidence of a William Offett anywhere near Elyria - or anywhere else - in 1888 or 1892.
Police reports from 1888 are not held at the current police station. Requests for arrest records and prison records from the county and historical society have gone unanswered. There is a good chance they may have been lost. Considering that much of Wells’ “investigative reporting” was light on investigating and fact-checking, it would not be at all surprising if the tale of Mrs. Underwood was yet another of Wells’ tall tales.
Further, it is curious that Wells chose to include this fiction at all, because the imaginary Mr. Offett was not lynched. He was tried and convicted by a court of law. He was sentenced to jail time. Wells infers, then, that trials are the same as lynchings, even when the punishment is not death. It can be inferred that Wells believed that black men should not be punished for rape, because they were incapable of committing it. It can only be assumed that Wells included this morbid tale to further slander white women as weak-minded, sex-starved succubi who thirsted not only for black mens’ bodies, but for their blood, for their very lives.
We still see the effects of Wells’ rhetoric today. Wells blamed white women not only for black male violence (rapists), but especially for the resultant white male violence (lynch mobs). It was Ida B. Wells that first said that white women fabricate rape accusations to cover for their wanton, witch-like behavior. It was Ida B. Wells that first said white women and their “false rape accusations” harm men, with no consideration whatsoever of the confirmed rape victim. What's worse is that most lynchings were not incited by rape accusations!
Wells avoided inconvenient facts: The women who came forward were confirmed rape victims. Many had external injuries. Lizzie Yeates, who was 5 years old at the time of her rape, had bruising on her neck where she had been held down, and visible tearing, which was confirmed not only by her family, but also by a doctor. And yes, Wells failed to mention that many of those “women” were not even women, but young girls, around the age of 5. Wells paid no mind to the plight of these white victims, because those white victims did not suit her narrative; in some cases, she went so far as to infer that those little girls seduced their adult male attackers.
Hardly following the path of righteousness.
1 Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States.” The Gutenberg Project, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-h.htm.
© 2018 Carrie Peterson