A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded Age

Author: Philip Dray
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 272 pages.
Reviewer: Alan J. Singer | December 2022

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama memorializes the over 4,000 African Americans murdered by vigilante terrorism in the American South between the end of Reconstruction in the United States in 1877 and 1950, as well as the more than 300 victims of racial terrorism in other states. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia were the worst offenders, but there were also significant numbers of vigilante murders of African Americans in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Eight hundred steel columns hang from the ceiling at the Memorial, each with the name of a county where a lynching occurred, with the names of victims engraved on it. The only lynching in New York State during this period occurred in the town of Port Jervis, Orange County in 1892. Port Jervis is located on the Delaware River at the border of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. At the end of the 19th century, it was an important stop on the Delaware and Hudson Canal for barges transporting anthracite coal to Philadelphia and New York City from Scranton area coalmines and on the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad.

In his new book, A Lynching at Port Jervis: Race and Reckoning in the Gilded, Philip Dray documents racial violence in this town about sixty-five miles northwest of New York City. Dray is also the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Random House, 2002), which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He credits the Black Lives Matter movement with drawing renewed attention to events like the one in Port Jervis that were largely erased from history and popular memory. The story of what happened to Robert Lewis, a 28-year-old African American teamster and coach driver on Thursday June 2, 1892, is largely told through the eyes of white residents and white-owned newspapers. Unfortunately, as Dray explains, there are no sources that address the Black perspective on the lynching of Lewis by a white mob. A corner’s inquest was held with witness testimony, but there is no surviving transcript. At least one witness, Officer Simon Yaple, is known to have named some of the members of the murderous mob, but none were ever brought to justice.

Robert Lewis, a powerful man of about five feet seven and 170 pounds, was accused of assaulting and sexually abusing a 22-year-old white woman named Lena McMahon on a riverbank where the Cuddeback Brook meets the Neversink River before it flows into the Delaware River just south of Port Jervis. Participants in mob violence claimed that before he was murdered, Lewis confessed to the accusation and implicated McMahon’s white boyfriend, Philip Foley as an accomplice. Lewis was lynched on East Main Street, now U.S. Route 6.

Dray describes McMahon’s boyfriend as “dapper” and a “decade her senior, who was new to Port Jervis and sold insurance for a New York firm,” the Guaranty Alliance Insurance Company (p. 13). It appears that he also worked at a local pool hall (p. 57). Foley, whose first name was mistakenly listed as William in a June 4, 1892 New York Times account of the lynching, had already had legal problems for refusal to pay his hotel bill at the Delaware House where he resided­–the same hotel where Robert Lewis formerly worked. Foley was also suspected of improper advances on a chambermaid in the hotel and minor thefts.

Lena McMahon was considered a “girl of considerable beauty,” but there were also questions about her mental state. She was adopted at age five from an orphanage, was know to get lost in familiar areas, and may have suffered from seizures. Lena’s family was hostile to her relationship with Foley and had unsuccessfully tried to have him arrested for vagrancy.

Unfortunately, the injustice committed against Robert Lewis in 1892 continues today as we learn very little about him as a person and his life. This is most likely a fault of contemporary newspaper accounts, rather than of the author.

Dray spends a considerable amount of time describing the relationship between Lena McMahon and Foley, which is crucial to his account because, while captive, Lewis supposedly claimed that Foley put him up to the attack on his girlfriend. The evening before the “assault,” McMahon and Foley were reported in local newspapers to have spent the night together sleeping on the bank of one of Cold Brook (p. 60-61). They lingered along the stream on Thursday morning until Foley left before noon.

Shortly after Foley left her, Lena claimed that she was approached by a heavy set Black man with a light complexion whom she did not know, although he appeared to know her. In her testimony about the assault, she claimed that she was “terribly frightened” because he had an “evil look in his eyes” and that after she rebuffed him he grabbed her shoulder and covered her mouth in an attempt to keep her from screaming. Local boys interrupted the attack on Lena and her attacker, presumably Lewis, picked up fishing gear and left the scene. While Lena initially claimed the man who attacked her was a “tramp,” one of the boys, 12-year-old Clarence McKetchnie, later identified Lewis as the assailant. Dray reports that while her clothing was torn and there was blood on her face, it was never clear from her testimony whether Lena was ever sexually molested (p. 62-63).

Soon after the assault, Foley arrived on the scene and found Lena talking to a group of female factory workers taking a break. Speaking with Foley, Lena downplayed her injuries, said she did not know her assailant, but believed she could identify him–and told him she thought the boys who interrupted the assault knew who he was.

Robert Lewis was soon captured by a posse on the towpath of the D & H Canal while hitching a ride on a slow moving coal barge, not a very likely escape plan. Lewis made no effort to avoid capture. He had fishing gear and said he planned to spend the night fishing.

Carley, part of the posse that captured Lewis, claimed that he questioned Lewis while they were bring him back to town. According to Carley, Lewis confessed to what had taken place, but claimed that Foley, whom he had seen leaving the stream bank and whom he knew from the hotel, told him where Lena was sitting, that she would be receptive to a sexual encounter, and if he wanted a “piece to go down and get it.” Carley reported that Lewis told him that Foley told Lewis that although Lena would “kick a little,” he should “never mind that” (p. 70). Lewis seemed to think that the entire situation could be resolved if they questioned Foley, and Lewis had a chance to speak to Lena’s father.

Dray was skeptical about the account of the conversation between Lewis and Carley. Any Black man at that time would have known what the probable outcome of a confession to assaulting a white woman would be and that the situation was not something that could be resolved. Meanwhile, another African American man, Charles Mahan, was arrested in nearby Otisville as a suspect in the assault on Lena McMahan.

The initial police plan was to bring Lewis to Lena’s home to see if she could identify him, although Lena continued to maintain her attacker was a stranger, probably a tramp, who was living in the woods near where she and Foley had camped. This plan was interrupted when a rumor spread that Lena died from her wounds, dooming Robert Lewis. A crowd of over 300 white men had gathered and was now transformed into a mob. The white mob murdered Robert Lewis by lynching him from a tree on East Main Street near the intersection with Ferguson Avenue (p. 84-85).

Port Jervis’ small African American community, in defiance of white authority, insisted on a proper funeral for Lewis and contributed funds for burial at Laurel Grove cemetery, while at least some whites tried to steal souvenir relics from his body.

Soon after the murder of Lewis, Foley was arrested and his arrest, rather than the attack on McMahon, the lynching of Lewis, or the desecration of Lewis’ body, became the local focus and the focus in the press. An article in the Tri-States Union claimed that in “P.J. Foley the people of Port Jervis seem to have a more despicable character than the negro Lewis, whom certain unknown people recently lynched . . . compared with Foley, the lynched negro appears honorable in his brutal manliness,” not innocent, not unjustly and illegally murdered, but “honorable in his brutal manliness” (p. 103). Foley was never implicated in the murder of Robert Lewis and was not convicted of any crime despite Lena McMahon’s accusations that he had blackmailed her by threatening to destroy her reputation.

In the age of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, it is difficult to dissect aspects of events that took place over a hundred years ago, especially in a case in which the surviving documentation is sporadic and clearly biased. How much of Lena McMahon’s story should be believed? Does questioning her account reflect what we now recognize as gender bias? On the other hand, how much of her story was colored by racism? We know from similar accusations made by white women against Black men that led to the arrest and imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys and the murder of Emmett Till, that in a climate of intense racism, white women sometimes protected their reputations by fabricating stories of disrespect or assault. It is hard to believe that Robert Lewis did not know that a “confession” meant a certain death sentence.

Philip Dray is an engaging writer who makes clear when his work is solidly grounded in sources and when it is conjecture; however, the title of the book is a little misleading. A significant problem is that there is just not that much to write about the murder of Robert Lewis. To fill the book out, Dray has extended discussions of the history of Port Jervis, its canals and railroads, an earlier lynching in the area, the unprofessionalism of the Port Jervis police force, Stephen Crane’s sojourn in the village, Ida B. Well’s campaign against lynching, and the problem of racism in the United States. These are important stories and well-written, but they are largely tangential to the book’s title. I think the publisher recognized this because comments by historians on the book jacket discuss how Dray “shines a spotlight on the forgotten national dimensions of the Southern barbarism of lynching” and “Northern racism,” without reference to this specific crime.

While Dray makes effective use of the Port Jervis Gazette, I have read many of the local newspaper accounts of the murder of Robert Lewis, as well as coverage in the New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle. I believe Dray should have quoted more from them in the book. Dray is correct that the newspaper reports expressed outrage at events in Port Jervis, but in my reading of newspaper accounts, I found the newspapers were principally concerned that the incident was a “an embarrassment to the town and there was no sympathy expressed for the victim of the lynching, Robert Lewis, something that Dray could have discussed at greater length (p. 92). In a June 4, 1892 editorial, the New York Times coverage was especially racist, arguing “It is not to be denied that negroes are much more prone to this crime than whites, and the crime itself becomes more revolting and infuriating to white men, North as well as South, when a negro is the perpetrator and a white woman the victim” and bemoaning that “the penalty prescribed by law is not sufficient for the offense which is punished by lynching.” The racism imbedded in the newspaper accounts definitely reflected a much larger part of the story.

A Lynching at Port Jervis concludes with bibliographical essay in which Dray offers a chapter-by-chapter list of sources. I think it works for a popular audience, but as a historian, it limited my ability to confirm statements and dig deeper into events. On balance, this is an important book and is highly recommended.

Alan J. Singer is a Professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology at Hofstra University.

Start typing and press Enter to search