Gather round, dear readers, and you will hear of a time when “giant negroes” roamed the earth. These giants committed shocking crimes. Newspapers from sea to shining sea documented their foul deeds.
Especially the New York Times.
The Times first acknowledged the existence of these fearsome creatures on August 5, 1897. The headline was “Insane Negro Giant in Newark.”
Over the next four decades, the New York Times provided all the news that was fit to print about “giant negroes.” Articles with headlines such as these:
“Giant Negro Attacks Police.” [Sept. 24, 1900]
“Negro Giant Guilty.” [July 28, 1905]
“Armed Negro Giant Goes Mad on Liner.” [May 15, 1916]
“Giant Negro Disables 4 Policemen in Fight.” [June 12, 1927]
“Posse in Gun Battle Ends Giant Negro’s Reign of Terror...” [March 6, 1932]
And it wasn’t just the New York Times. Rampaging black giants were a nationwide phenomenon. Naturally, headline-writers at major newspapers were all over this:
“Officer Is Hurt By Giant Negro.” [Atlanta Constitution, April 2, 1906]
“Giant Negro, a Walking Arsenal, Believed He Was To Be Burned Alive.” [Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1908]
“Giant Negro, Trapped, Seizes and Throws Officer.” [Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1911]
“Wife of Hotel Proprietor and a Giant Negro Sought.” [Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1916]
“Giant Negro Gambler Flees After Shooting Two on Windsor Street.” [Hartford Courant, December 11, 1922]
And who could forget this all-time classic:
“Capture Giant Negro Moron at Gary...” [Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1926]
The Washington Post, for some reason, avoided the term “Giant Negro” in its headlines. But not in its news copy. For decades, the Post, too, alerted its readership to the violent doings of gigantic black men.
On October 10, 1902, the Post reported on a preacher who went berserk after a revival meeting. “For ten hours..., Rev. Lewis Roy, a giant negro, of Little Washington, Rappahannock Country, Va., terrorized the whole southern section of the county, and had a posse of armed men searching for him.”
On September 6, 1909, it was the tale of William Stockett – “the giant negro who attempted suicide Friday night by shooting himself in the head, but subsequently attacked the physicians, attendants, and nurses on two occasions and freed himself from a strait-jacket...”
This report, published on April 10, 1912, was datelined Louisville, Ky.: “Cooped up in a room with a giant negro, two policemen battled for their lives here tonight, and when the negro finally fell dead with five bullets in his body both officers were covered with blood and nearly prostrated.”
On December 31, 1928, the Post ran an Associated Press account of a cop-killer in New Jersey. “David Ware, giant negro, was arrested tonight for the slaying of State Trooper Peter Gladyes, while one of the most extensive man hunts in which aircraft, bloodhounds and troops participated, was in progress.”
As late as December 17, 1944, there was the story of a young “Government girl” who fended off a street robber. “Suffering from a possible skull fracture as the result of the attack, Miss Gladys Lavender, 17, a Navy Yard clerk, told police ‘a giant negro’ attempted to snatch her purse....”
(I apologize if some of you will have trouble sleeping tonight.)
I am fascinated by all these giant Negroes. But I want to focus on the New York Times coverage, for several reasons.
First, based on my electronic searches through six newspaper databases, the New York Times used the phrase “giant negro” more than all the others.
Second, publisher Adolph S. Ochs – the man who transformed the Times into a world-class news organization – disdained the sensationalistic tone of the more successful New York papers (owned by Pulitzer and Hearst) during the heyday of “yellow journalism.” Upon taking over the Times in 1896, Ochs promised “to conduct a high-standard newspaper, clean, dignified and trustworthy.”
Clean. Dignified. Trustworthy. Like this report from New Orleans, published on September 24, 1900:
“A terrific fight occurred this morning between the police and a crazy negro whom they were attempting to arrest. A negro of gigantic build named Edward Gurley, laboring under the hallucination that he had been called to heaven, cut the throat of his nephew, Oscar Montgomery, in order that he might take him along with him.”
(Gurley was killed after he attacked two police officers “with savage ferocity.”)
The third reason I’m concentrating on the New York Times is because of an irony. Adolph Ochs also happened to have a leadership role in the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. According to the ADL’s website:
“Early on, ADL took significant steps to eradicate the negative images of Jews in print.... The League was still in its infancy when Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times and an ADL executive committee member, wrote a memo to newspaper editors nationwide discouraging the use of ‘objectionable and vulgar’ references to Jews in the media. ... By 1920, the practice had virtually stopped.”
Yet here’s how the Times described armed robber David Mitchell on September 27, 1927 (in “Chain Store Thugs Trapped At Last; ‘Black and White’ Team, Giant Negro and White Youth, Staged 100 to 200 Hold-Ups”):
“Tall, stocky, powerfully built and with a huge chest and arms, he impressed every one who saw him as thoroughly ‘hardboiled’ yet primitive.”
(Not sure what “primitive” means. Perhaps he went around barefoot, wearing animal skins.)
Upon discovering the NYT’s long-lost tales of giant Negroes, the first thing I wondered was... just how gigantic were they actually? Alas, the suspects’ height and weight were not always reported in these stories.
But in “Giant Negro in Prison,” published on June 21, 1903, we get this: “ ‘Big’ Scott, alias Charles Scott... who for years has terrorized negroes, was arrested Friday night by Detective Boyle of the West Thirty-seventh Street Station as a suspicious person. Scott is a negro and stands 6 feet 4 inches.”
Then there was Livingstone Drummond, the focus of a 1922 Times article (“Seize Giant Negro, Hide Him for Safety”). Arrested for “highway robbery, atrocious assault and attempted murder,” Drummond also measured 6-foot-4. He weighed 215 pounds.
Six-foot-4. That’s big. But giant big?
Apparently the definition had grown looser since this 1897 story (“Insane Negro Giant in Newark”): “Lemuel Footz, a giant negro, went insane to-day, and after attempting to kill his wife roamed the streets for half an hour clad only in an undergarment. He was finally captured, and committed for an examination. ... Footz is nearly seven feet tall.”
Now that’s a giant Negro.
In the coming days, I will share more stories of giant Negroes from the pages of the New York Times (and elsewhere). And I’ll tell you right now, not all “giant negroes” were bad.
UPDATE (07/11/07): This post was picked up today by Racialicious, Carmen Van Kerckhove’s cooltastic pop-cult blog.
I want to share part of a comment by Racialicious reader “Stef,” a self-identified “little white girl” (5-foot-4) married to a bona fide giant Negro (6-foot-4):
“I think his size totally plays into people’s perceptions of him. People are always marveling over how calm and laid-back he is. This is true, but would it stand out to people as much if he were a smaller guy? It’s like they expected him to be aggressive or something, and it seems like this expectation is linked to his size. Then, once people get to know him, they often remark that he is a ‘teddy bear’ (read: he’s a big guy, but, hey! he’s actually pretty nice!).”