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

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

Philip Dray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $29 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-19441-3

The shocking 1892 lynching of a Black man in a small town 65 miles northwest of New York City is recounted in this vivid and well-researched chronicle from historian Dray (There Is Power in a Union). “Seen as a portent that lynching, then surging uncontrollably below the Mason-Dixon Line, was about to extend its tendrils northward,” the case helped spark an antilynching crusade, according to Dray. He meticulously reconstructs the events leading up to the murder, detailing how Lena McMahon, the manager of a local confectionery, was seen struggling with a light-skinned Black man on the bank of the Neversink River; how hotel worker Robert Lewis, who was apprehended on a “slow-moving coal barge” headed out of town, allegedly told his captors that Lena’s white boyfriend, Philip Foley, had “urged him to commit the act”; and how a mob “wrested control” of Lewis before he could be turned over to the police, and slipped a noose over his head “within seconds.” Dray also delves into the history of Port Jervis, profiles bystanders who tried to stop the lynching, recounts the inquest that acquitted eight men of assault and incitement to riot, and doggedly sorts through theories about what really occurred between McMahon, Foley, and Lewis. The result is an illuminating and distressing look at America’s history of racial violence. (May)