Chavis, Charles L. Jr. The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. ISBN 9781421442921. $29.95. 288pp. 

The academic study of lynching began as an exploration of the cultural, economic, and political systems that produce vigilante violence, but it has long been hindered by the problem that the facts in many such cases are occluded; they were deliberately concealed from (or by) authorities at the time and are thus now invisible to latter-day scholars attempting to make sense of it all. Perhaps to compensate, some scholars have focused on certain incidents about which much is already known to produce accounts of heightened granularity. Dave Tell, in his 2019 book, Remembering Emmett Till, critiqued the increasingly forensic analysis of the Till murder for producing, albeit inadvertently, a sense that some ultimate meaning can be derived from the kind of sanguine technicalities more common to the “true crime” genre. At this point, what does any one case study add to our overall picture of racial violence in general that was not already known?

When it comes to Charles L. Chavis Jr.’s The Silent Shore, the answer is quite a bit. Namely, Chavis has uncovered the never-before revealed account of an investigation carried out by the Pinkerton agency in the immediate aftermath of the 1931 lynching of Matthew Williams in Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This investigative report names names and provides a rich and nuanced account of the local culture immediately following the lynching. Chavis deserves tremendous credit for having rescued this investigation from archival obscurity and embedding it within a most readable account, even if the author perhaps does not seem to recognize the full implications of his own work, interpreting what lies before him through older scholarly frameworks that do not always quite fit.

Here is what happened: On December 4, 1931, in Salisbury, Maryland, an African American man, Matthew Williams, was found severely wounded in the office of his employer, Daniel J. Elliott, who had been shot dead. Although no motivation could be given for the apparent murder, Williams’s guilt was taken for granted, and a lynch mob numbering more than one thousand swiftly formed outside the hospital where he had been taken for treatment of his injuries. Mob members breached the hospital and threw Williams out of a window, whereupon others dragged him to the courthouse lawn, hanged him from a tree, doused his body with gasoline, and burned it.

Chavis establishes the context quite well, relaying what is known about Williams’s life and surveying the history of the Black community of Salisbury, including previous acts of violence targeting the community. Next, he walks through the day of the lynching itself in tremendous detail, down to tracking the movements of individual nurses and orderlies in the hospital and demonstrating the deliberate ineffectiveness of the police. Chavis devotes a chapter to Albert Cabell Ritchie, the Maryland governor with pretensions of presidential greatness, who, following this lynching, found himself caught between more progressive urban Democrats and more conservative southern Democrats. Ritchie opposed federal anti-lynching laws, believing “that a strong-willed governor like him could end lynching simply by enforcing state laws” (87). 

But all these details were already well documented. The beating heart of this book is Chavis’s account of a secret investigation into the lynching that has not, until now, seen the light of day. Ritchie and Attorney General Preston Lane hired the Pinkerton agency for this investigation, and the agency sent Patsy Johnson, a former pugilist, to Salisbury to see what he could find out. Here, Chavis rather brilliantly elects to relay the minutiae of Johnson’s day-by-day experiences in Salisbury, following his encounters with random people at the barbershop, gymnasium, café, sporting goods store, poolhall, and more. Such a blow-by-blow account of Johnson’s every move for each day of his investigation may sound tedious, but it proves endlessly fascinating, because there was one topic on the lips of nearly every person he met, and Johnson’s own status as a stranger to the community was not going to stop them talking about the lynching of Matthew Williams. During the first few months of 1932, Johnson assembled an extensive list of lynch mob members and even leaders, and he recorded allegations of police involvement in the lynching and the later cover-up. The chapters covering Johnson’s investigation provide gripping reading, even when they just summarize a fruitless day of work, because the stakes were so high.

Chavis produces a wonderfully readable narrative, but he occasionally stumbles when trying to contextualize this story within the broader scholarship of lynching. For example, he asserts, “Racial terror lynchings directly correlated with economic strife, strife to which whites have historically responded with racial violence” (37). Later he links such violence to whites having “to compete with African American laborers during the Depression much as they had following the Civil War” (79). Yes, as Chavis notes, the economic downturns of the 1890s and 1930s coincided with increased racial violence, but such a statement does not quite capture the nuances needed to understand lynching fully. In his 2017 book, Doing Violence, Making Race: Lynching and White Racial Group Formation in the U.S. South, 1882–1930, sociologist Mattias Smångs argues that both lynching and the formal Jim Crow system constituted a means of generating white racial identity across class boundaries following Reconstruction. Economic contraction threatened the salience of those boundaries, reducing lower-class white and Black people to a parity intolerable for the former. It is not simply that economic competition resulted in violence, but rather that this competition fundamentally threatened white identity and motivated white violence, as other scholars of lynching have shown.

However, a greater issue is Chavis’s choice to frame the work of lynch mobs in general thusly: “In considering the historical nature of the lynch mob dating back to the 1890s, in most cases those behind the lynching were sworn to secrecy. This secrecy, or system of silence, was not only directed at protecting the men behind the lynching, but it was also invoked to protect the whiteness of communities” (106). Yet Chavis is describing the same decades that saw the emergence of the iconic lynching photograph featuring smiling white men posing alongside their victims. Those men were not trying to protect their identities. They were openly proud of what they had accomplished, as were the many men who freely talked to Patsy Johnson about their role in the murder of Matthew Williams. Time and again, however, Chavis invokes a supposed “system of silence,” sometimes in a most contradictory fashion. “Indeed, the brazenness of their statements speak to the confidence they possessed in the white supremacist power structure that undergirded not only the community of Salisbury but also other communities in the United States,” Chavis writes. “Based upon the casual conversation in the barbershop, it is clear that the lynching was a community affair protected by a system of silence” (114–115). What Chavis’s study reveals is not a system of silence so much as a system of impunity. The men who so casually related to Johnson their involvement in the lynching would not rat on each other to any agency of law enforcement, but they were nonetheless petty gossips and puffed-up braggarts whose ability to keep a secret was inversely proportioned to the advisability of doing so. No matter how pathetic they were, they remained white men in a specific time and place that granted them fundamental, overriding license for the sort of deeds they had done. 

Would not some analysis of the gabby nature of lynch mobs provide a greater context for events the United States has more recently witnessed—namely, the attempted coup d’état of January 6, 2021, when loyalists of Donald Trump breached the Capitol Building, many of them documenting their own participation for social media throughout? Is it perhaps the nature of such mobs to be self-obsessed? This is not an idle comparison; Chavis himself opens The Silent Shore by reflecting upon the events of January 6 thusly: “Failing to understand the elusive nature of white supremacy makes room for well-intentioned whites to dismiss the overt acts of racial violence, personified in the manifestation of lynch mobs, neo-Nazis, and the alt-right, as being anecdotal one-offs of the actions of a deranged marginal faction” (x). As some scholars have noted, whiteness and white supremacy are riven with central paradoxes. The white race is superior, but whiteness is so fragile that a single “drop” of “Black blood,” no matter how far down the ancestral line, is enough to render an individual ontologically suspect. White men, especially, boast their strength and courage even as they proclaim their fundamental fear of Black people and Black spaces. Is maybe the gossip-ridden “system of silence” another of the paradoxes that underlay white supremacy? It is a shame that Chavis did not seize the opportunity to explore this question.

In the end, nothing was done with Patsy Johnson’s report—it was shelved away to remain hidden for nearly a century before Chavis doggedly unearthed it. But the existence of this report should change our perspective, given how well it proves that lynchings could be investigated. American society was not fated to have every inquiry conclude that another lynching had occurred “at the hands of persons unknown.” For only a few dollars a day, plus expenses, even an inexperienced former boxer could return a nearly complete list of all the lynch mob leaders. The real “system of silence” did not exist among the members of the mob; rather, it was practiced by political elites who, for their own ends, chose to side with ravening murderers rather than the demands of justice.

Guy Lancaster


Works Cited

Smångs, Mattias. Doing Violence, Making Race: Lynching and White Racial Group Formation in the U.S. South, 1882–1930. Routledge, 2017.

Tell, Dave. Remembering Emmett Till. University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Chavis, Charles L. Jr. The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021. ISBN 9781421442921. $29.95. 288pp. 


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