Susan Smith’s Dracula

It was a story of incomparable horror that gripped the nation in the autumn of 1994: a young, white single mother is stopped at an intersection while driving with her two sons on a dark and desolate South Carolina road when suddenly she is accosted by a man who materializes, like an apparition, from the shadows. He is black, armed, and in a hurry, hijacking the maroon Mazda compact and forcing the frantic 23-year- old Susan Smith to drive before finally kicking her out, and speeding off into the night with her two towheaded boys. When the car was dragged nine days later from the bottom of John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, the bodies of the two toddlers were found still strapped in their car seats.

An hour’s drive away across the state line in Charlotte, another white mother, Glenda Gilmore, was driving her own son to preschool when she first heard of the shocking affair on National Public Radio.

 “I hugged my own little guy and stumbled out of the car. Some of the other mothers were crying. We said lingering goodbyes that morning and arrived early that afternoon to gather our children.” 

That evening the television news broadcast the composite sketch of the gunman who had abducted Smith’s sons, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander. On the screen appeared a scowling, dark-complexioned black man, lithe as a bantamweight, with beady eyes that peered from underneath a knit cap.  Suddenly, a wave of clarity washed over Gilmore like a riptide following a full moon.

“Susan Smith was lying, I realized in a rush,” Gilmore would later write. “For I had ‘seen’ this man before in sources almost 100 years old. He was the incubus: in mythology, he is a winged demon that has sexual intercourse with women while they sleep; on the ground in 1898 he represented the black beast rapist.”

In her madness, Smith had subconsciously described for a police sketch artist the boogeyman conjured by three white supremacists-cum- warlocks who met in the spring of 1898 to plot the violent overthrow of North Carolina’s liberal, interracial government, known as the Fusionists. Holed up at the Chattawka Hotel in the coastal city of New Bern, the three men — Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the state Democratic party, Josephus Daniels, the publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, and a young attorney named Charles Brantley Aycock — conceded that their party had virtually no shot of winning a fair ballot because of the Democrats’ abysmal record during their stint as North Carolina’s governing party.

That reckoning came early on Nov. 10, 1898, when a mob of 2,000 heavily armed white men marched to the office of the only black newspaper in Wilmington —  the largest city in the state at that time  — battered down the door, poured kerosene on the wooden floors, set it ablaze, and then joined scores of vigilantes-on horseback in an attempt to “kill every damn nigger in sight.”When finally the guns fell silent and the flames ebbed, the mayor, board of aldermen, and police chief had been forced to resign, 300 African Americans lay dead, and dozens more of their neighbors and  “white nigger” allies chased from town to live the rest of their days in exile.

The putsch on the banks of the Cape Fear River is widely known as the first coup d’etat in U.S. history, and it was spearheaded by a series of cartoons published in the Raleigh News and Observer in the months leading up to the pogrom.

returning to North Carolina to produce nearly 75 single-panel cartoons between August and early November, supplying the white-supremacists’ public relations campaign with a potent visual element to help fill in the gaps – especially for barely literate whites– complementing headlines that shrieked of the deflowering of white womanhood, and furnishing posterity with archival material to reference whenever, like Susan Smith, the need arose for an alibi.

The criminologist Kathryn Russell-Brown has dubbed these attempts to exculpate white wrongdoing as “racial hoaxes,” and prime examples include Boston’s Charles Stuart, who murdered his pregnant wife in 1990 and fingered a fictitious black carjacker as the culprit to throw the police off his own trail, or a white, Milwaukee entrepreneur, Jesse Anderson, who stabbed his wife 21 times in a restaurant parking lot in 1992 and told police that the couple had been attacked by two African American men.

“The only way I can describe it,” the white police officer Darren Wilson told the grand jury in 2014 after he gunned down an unarmed 18-year old African American, Michael Brown, on a suburban St. Louis street, “it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”


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