Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

April 29, 1904

Guest post by Robert Kinser, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

On April 29, 1904, the Iowa State Bystander ran a story titled “The Victim of a Fiendish Joke.” The story comes out of Hamburg, Iowa, a small town in far southwestern Iowa. It details the death of John C. Goodlow, who the story calls an “aged negro,” who was found dead in an old corn crib. Goodlow was killed in a practical joke gone wrong, perpetrated by a group of young white men. The men accused Goodlow of a made-up crime and punished him. The pretend punishment began with the men “tieing him with ropes and nailing his feet to a board.” The men then proceeded to cover him with “wood, rags, and shavings, and a kerosene rag [was] placed near his nose.” Then a bucket of water, which the men told Goodlow was coal oil, was poured on him. Just before the torch lit the supposed coal oil, Goodlow fell silent. The group of men took the wood off of Goodlow and untied him. When they realized he was dead, they quietly dumped his body in the corn crib where he was found the next day.

This article really caught my attention because it shows the attitudes of the times. For a man to be killed in such a way today would be murder. At this time it was simply a “fiendish practical joke.” This highlights the societal acceptance of violence against blacks at the time. The story says that the involved parties “maintained a discreet silence about the affair” and that the “victim was buried with a certificate from the coroner’s jury that death was due to ‘natural causes.’” Everyone just wanted to ignore the circumstances of Goodlow’s death and forget about it. The story does say that “one at least of the participants has come to regret the part he took,” but ultimately this incident became a topic for gossip, not a serious crime. Even the story refers to the incident as “fun,” stating, “The jokers realized that their fun had been carried too far.” Charges may not have been brought, however, the story made national news, being featured in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Herald, The Indianapolis Recorder, and the Hendricks’ Columbian from Columbia Falls, Montana.

This also shows that such violence was not as rare as it should have been. It is reasonable to assume that Goodlow believed that the group of white men was actually going to burn him alive. This fear and anxiety likely led him to his death. If such violence were rare, Goodlow may have caught on to the terrible joke and would have known the men were not trying to kill him. In reality, this “punishment” was not unheard of so Goodlow fell victim to this horrifying violence. I simply cannot understand how this could be considered a good joke, even if it had not had the tragic outcome.

This page has paths:

This page references: