Henry Smith (1876-1 February 1893) was an African-American handyman who was tortured and murdered at a public lynching at the Paris Fairgrounds in Paris, Texas. Accused of murdering the three-year-old daughter of a policeman known for his cruelty to prisoners, Smith had fled to Arkansas and was brought back for the staged, public murder.
Henry Smith was born in 1876 in Texas, and would likely have attended its segregated schools. He became a handyman in Paris, Texas. He was known to have a drinking problem, which occasionally resulted in run-ins with the law. Arrested for drunkenness, he was said to have been beaten by Vance, a policeman known for his brutality mistreating prisoners.
In late January 1893, Myrtle Vance, the policeman’s three-year-old daughter, disappeared and was later found murdered. When the police found no clues to the child’s death, people in the area decided Smith must have committed the crime in retaliation for his treatment at Vance’s hands. Witnesses claimed that Smith allegedly: “picked up little Myrtle Vance … near her father’s residence, and … carried her through the central portion of the city… En route through the city he was asked by several persons what he was doing with the child.” Learning that he had been accused, Smith fled to Hope, Arkansas.
Smith was captured in Arkansas and returned as a prisoner by train to Paris. His captors, accompanied by a mob of an estimated 10,000 residents took him from his captors and placed him on a prepared carnival float. They transported him through town and out to the Paris Fairgrounds on the prairie. There organizers had built a lynching scaffold, painted with the word “Justice”.
Smith was tied up and tortured for 50 minutes by male members of the girl’s family, who thrust hot iron brands into his flesh, from his feet and legs to his head. They included Myrtle’s father, uncles, and twelve-year-old brother. A February 2, 1893 article in the New York Sun reported, “Every groan from the fiend, every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd.” Eventually, the family stuck the irons into his eyes and down his throat.
Finding he was still breathing, the crowd poured oil on Smith and set him on fire. According to some newspaper accounts, Smith remained alive during the burning. He was reported to have torn himself away from the post and fallen off the scaffolding, where he died. The crowd fought over the hot ashes to collect Smith’s bones and teeth as souvenirs.