StMU Research Scholars

Featuring Scholarly Research, Writing, and Media at St. Mary's University
February 14, 2017

The Lynching Era: The Tragic Hanging of Laura and L. D. Nelson

Winner of ten Spring 2017 StMU History Media Awards for

Best Descriptive Article
Most Captivating & Engaging Article
Best Use of Multiple Images
Best Featured Image
Best Article in the Category of “United States History”
Best Article in the Category of “Social History”
Best Overall Research
Best Use of Primary Sources
Article with the Best Conclusion
Award for Best Storyteller

The period from 1880 to 1930 is one of the darkest chapters in American History for its numbers of murders by lynching, and has come to be known as the Lynching Era.1 Acts of violence against blacks in the South rose dramatically in the years after the Civil War. Intimidation, beatings, and murder became normal occurrences during this period of time, where people of color were killed by hanging or other tortuous ways. The thousands who fell victim to unthinkable torture and death had done nothing to bring this fate upon themselves; it was a result of the entwined racism that was the mindset of many of the whites who lived in the South. In this time period, any small “act” could bring a person of color to this fate.2

In the case of Laura Nelson, it was May 2, 1911. Three men, under the eyes of Okfuskee County Deputy Sheriff George Loney, went to search the house of Laura Nelson. Laura and her husband Austin were suspected of having stolen a cow and butchered it. Austin Nelson admitted to the crime, as the meat was found in their possession during the search. Laura’s husband stated in regards to him steeling the cow, “he had nothing for his children to eat.”3

Laura Nelson hanging from the Canadian River Bridge | George Henry Farnum, photographer 1911 | Image courtesy of LA Progressive

While Sheriff George Loney was searching the Nelson’s house, he discovered a loaded musket that hung on the wall of their cabin. Firmly, the Sheriff demanded it, and urged that it be unloaded. With this, officers stated that Laura reached for another gun from the hands of her teenage son, L. D. Nelson. This is when a struggle began between the Sheriff and L. D. in trying to gain control of the gun. Unfortunately in L. D.’s wrestle with Sheriff Loney, the gun went off. The bullet hit Sheriff Loney in the leg, and killed him. Laura’s husband Austin fully admitted to the act of stealing and killing the livestock, and stated that Laura was only “reaching” for this weapon to retrieve it from her son before an altercation would begin. This statement from Austin Nelson led him immediately to a penitentiary, which is what in actuality saved him from a lynch mob. But with Austin’s statement taking full personal blame, in the hopes of keeping his wife and son from punishment, he was indeed disappointed; unfortunately his confession did not keep them from harm. Both Laura and L. D. were arrested and put in the Okfuskee County jail to await trial for the murder of Sheriff Deputy George Loney. Even though Laura pleaded for her and her son’s innocence, they remained in jail.4

While days passed for Laura and L. D. in jail, on May 24, 1911, a mob of some forty men descended upon the jail. Fourteen year old L. D. and his mother Laura Nelson were dragged from their cells in that Oklahoma city, and put into wagons. They traveled six miles outside of the city, and then they entered a Negro settlement. Once there, the mob of men, using tow sacks, gagged both L. D. and Laura. Laura was then raped, and then the mob took her to the Canadian River Bridge where she was hanged by a noose made of hemp. Only twenty feet away on the bridge, L. D. was hanged as well, with his clothes partly torn from his body. Their bodies remained on the bridge overnight until discovered the next day by a young boy passing by.5

L.D. Nelson hangs from the Canadian River Bridge |photograph by George Henry “Bill” Farnum | courtesy of The Nelson Lynching of 1911

While lynchings were said to be a secretive activity, this one of Laura Nelson and her son seemed to prove otherwise. It was as if the perpetrators were immune from the law. This “secret” lynching is what led to the monstrous photographs that were taken of Laura and L. D. Nelson. “The Lynching of Laura Nelson and Son” that started off as a photograph taken by the local photographer of the town, George Henry Farnum, soon transitioned into becoming a popular lynch postcard.6 These were widely distributed, despite the ban on “violent mail” by the Postal Service. These lynch postcards proved to be very profitable, and some individuals even sold them as door to door salesmen. The spread of racism paralleled the spread of these postcards, as it allowed people to be “involved” with these lynching without physically having to be present. It heightened the idea that white supremacists had the power and control in society, as they sought to spread their bigotry throughout the country.7

The impact of these lynching have continued for many decades, and in one case, they have continued in an irony of history. Woody Guthrie, who is said to be one of the most influential modern folk music artist, made his mark. Through his music he portrayed his thoughts on lynching by condemning it. Guthrie was born only a year after the lynching of Laura and L. D. Nelson, but their story impacted him later on in his life when he began to develop his anti-lynching music.8

Guthrie was struck to produce this music when inspiration hit him in an art gallery. It was the mid 1930’s, and now the lynchings caught by the photographs that were originally used to popularize them were being used in art exhibits to inspire anti-lynching actions. Artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Jose Clemente Orozco produced paintings, drawings, and prints that were shown in two major exhibits. These exhibits were sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and even by the Communist Party to highlight the tragedy and extreme horror that lynch mobs brought to the United States. For the organizers of these exhibits, these two galleries hoped to educate the population and criminalize these acts as the crimes they had always truly been. Woody Guthrie attended and witnessed these art pieces himself, and from this he expressed, “This painting is so real I feel like I was at a lynching, and it…takes all of the fun and good humor and good sport out of you to set here and realize that people could go so haywire as to hang a human body up by a gallus pole and shoot it full of Winchester rifle holes just for pastime.’’9

Woody Guthrie | Image Courtesy of The Journal of American History

This interaction also made Guthrie remember some horrors from his own childhood. Woody Guthrie says, “It reminds me of the postcard picture they sold in my home town for several years, a showing you a negro mother, and her two young sons, a hanging by the neck from a river bridge, and the wild wind a whistling down the river bottom, and the ropes stretched tight by the weight of their bodies…stretched tight like a big fiddle string.”10

The postcard that Woody Guthrie was recalling was indeed the one of Laura and L. D. Nelson. While Guthrie was incorrect in his claims that there had been three individuals, he let this memory and his viewing of the artwork allow him to create music. Inspired by the Nelson postcards and the gruesome event of that May day in 1911, Guthrie wrote the song, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son,” which tells of Guthrie’s remembrance of his past, as he expresses in his lyrics that he heard the “lonesome moan” of Laura crying out, “You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge, but don’t kill my baby and my son.”11


“As I walked down that old dark town
In the town where I was born,
I heard the saddest lonesome moan
I ever heard before…
O, don’t kill my baby and my son, 

O , don’t kill my baby and my son.
You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don’t kill my baby and my son…

Then I saw a picture on a postcard
It showed the Canadian River Bridge,
Three bodies hanging to swing in the wind,
A mother and two sons they’d lynched”12

What is most ironic and even more significant about Woody Guthrie producing a song in remembrance of Laura and her son L. D. Nelson, was that Woody Guthrie’s own father, Charles Guthrie, is said to have been one of the many men in the mob that claimed Laura and L. D.’s lives. No one is certain whether Charles Guthrie was a strong participation or if he was simply a witness to the crimes. While Charles Guthrie stood for lynching and proclaimed white power, his son rose up against it all. Woody Guthrie even admits that well into the 1920’s, his father was a long-standing member of the Ku Klux Klan. But maybe it is this as well that pushed Woody to keep making music that stood against everything his own father practiced. Guthrie was shocked by all of the violence against black people, especially the one of L. D. and Laura Nelson, even when this lynching had occurred over a year before Woody was born. Guthrie wanted to make his music powerful and wanted it to linger in everyone’s minds. He often even included the graphic images from the lynchings, especially the postcards of L. D. and Laura Nelson. Woody Guthrie took this anti-lynching movement into his music to contrast the culture in America that was still strongly racist. Guthrie took his scarred memories of being raised in a racist environment and used his experiences to create a message of hope for change.13

The Lynching in Lee County, Georgia, January 20, 1916 | Image courtesy of The Crisis

The lynching of Laura Nelson is just one of the thousands that occurred during this era. Even more despicable acts of torture came to others. Women such as Mary Turner, who committed no crime, was doused in gasoline just before her unborn baby was cut from her womb to be stomped into the ground.14 Sam Hose, who was killed by a mob after defending himself from an attacker, had his fingers, ears, and genitals cut from his body before the mob set him on fire. The lynch mob then fought over who got to keep his bones as souvenirs.15

The lives lost during this time period were lost in a way that resembles a national demonic nightmare. Many Americans celebrated these acts as moments of white pride and power. But this fifty year period of agonizing murder is the longest, compared to all other countries that have faced attacks on others for their ethnicity.16 It is horrific facts like these in our country’s history that compel us to face them and not let them be ignored or forgotten. These thousands of lives that matter were taken because of pure racist hatred, and it is crucial as a country that these acts will serve as a reminder of where we once were and where we should promise never to return.

  1. For the literature on lynching, see Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, American Lynching (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2012); Amy Louise Woods, Lynching and spectacle: witnessing racial violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).  For the most important early work on American lynchings in the post-Reconstruction era, see Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (New York: Humanity Books, 1892, 2002).
  2. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 19.
  3. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 21.
  4. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 21.
  5. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 22.
  6. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.
  7. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 22-23.
  8. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2016, s.v. “Woody Guthrie,” by Howard Bromberg.
  9. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 663-664.
  10. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 664.
  11. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 664-665.
  12. For the full text of the song, see Woody Guthrie, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son;” for a recent performance of the song, see Brooke Harvey’s rendition on Youtube.
  13. Mark Allen Jackson, “Dark memory: a look at lynching in America through the life, times, and songs of Woody Guthrie,” Popular Music and Society 28, no. 5 (December 2005): 665.
  14. Viola Ratcliffe, “To Be A Witness: Lynching and Postmemory in LaShawnda Crowe Storm’s ‘Her Name Was Laura Nelson'” (M.A. Thesis, Bowling Green State University, 2015), 20.
  15. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.
  16. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 666-668.

Gabriela Serrato

Author Portfolio Page

Recent Comments


  • Jaedon E

    Congratulations on the award! Very much well earned!! One thing I can remember about a lynching story was my aunt telling me that she had seen may of Black African-Americans being lynched. An nothing being changed about it. Something that I did not know was that how the lynching’s significantly increased after the Civil War.

  • Isabella Lopez

    This was beautifully written, but it was so painful to read. Congratulations on your many awards. It broke my heart to see them in that manner. You have such a talent for making scenes. you covered a great amount of information and it felt very clear and organized. Much of it stuck out at me because the way your phrased it.

  • Tabitha Babcock

    Wow, congratulations on all the awards. That’s quite the list. I am going to have to say that I didn’t like that you included the very graphic photos. I think they’re potentially triggering. I really liked the inclusion of the song though, I’ll have to look it up to find the melody. The description of the horrific acts being committed to people during this time really put this article over the edge.

  • Jacob Anthony Ayala

    First of all congrats on all your awards. I know you put a lot of hard work into writing this piece. It really shows in the description and storytelling of this. I found it really gross how something as small of a cow could cause people to bring out so much hate. Its sad to see all this hate in our world.

  • Victoria Castillo

    Great article Gabriela and congratulations on all the awards! While this article was sad to read due to the undeniable violence these victims were faced with, it was nice knowing that there were others who advocated against it, especially when the lynching era was still in full swing. Reading that Woody Guthrie was the son of a Ku Klux Klan member and advocated against his own fathers’ ways was also a great deal of irony. The pictures of Laura and L.D. Nelson did a great job in portraying the vileness of the acts done to them, and showed just how horrible it was for people of color during those times. Learning about the postcards of the lynching, however, was something I never knew about, so hearing that people spread these postcards to be “involved” with the lynching’s are both surprising and not.

  • Alexandra Ballard

    It’s so hard to hear about a lack of humanity, it’s scary. It’s scary to believe with enough pressure from someone society will revel in the murder of human beings. It’s hard to fathom that people believe there are groups of people who don’t deserve to live. I appreciate your ability to tell this story with enough detail to leave the reader feeling every emotion without significant gore. Every award is so deserved, good job!

  • Maria Luevano

    congratulations on all the awards, they are very well deserved! This was an amazing article written with such detail. I could feel all the emotions while reading and looking at terrifying images. It is ridiculous to think this all started from a stolen cow. It saddens me to think humans were at fault for these gruesome killings and what could ever compel someone to do this to another being simply for having a darker skin tone? Nonetheless, this was a great article, great job Gabriela.

  • Hunter Stiles

    First of all, congratulations on an extremely captivating article. This is probably my most favorite organization style I have seen on this website!
    This one was shocking. A nice example of an interesting article The author makes the story even more dramatic and horrifying for the reader by detailing how people of color , like the featured family, were utterly abandoned by the state and white people could treat them however they wished without suffering any penalties or inquiry. These kinds of stories serve as a stark reminder of how cruel people can be, and this particular incident took place less than 100 years ago. I think the only thing we can and must do to honor the memories of people like Laura and L.D. Nelson is to remember these tragedies so that they never occur again.
    I would also like to applaud you for your selection of images, they really help to surface the readers emotions and understanding of how real and horrific these situations were.
    Extremely well job on your article!

  • Sierra Christa

    Wow, just wow. Your story was extremely powerful and informational. Although it was hard to read at time, it needed to be shown and said. It is extremely upsetting to think about and see those individuals who had their lives taken from them for things they could not control. The mention of Mary Turner was extremely shocking that people were cruel enough to do that to an unborn baby. Congrats on all the awards, your article was extremely powerful and shined a light on the part of history many Americans want to keep in the dark.

  • Danielle Sanchez

    Congratulations on your award! The lynching era consisted of acts of violence against blacks in the south which rose dramatically in the years after the Civil War. Lynching was caused by deep racism that was the mindset of many whites who lived in the south. Which brought people of color to their death. The impacts of these lynching continued for many decades.

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