RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. This morning our colleague, Steve Inskeep, is dipping into the inbox at the Race Card Project, where people express their thoughts on race and cultural identity in just six words.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Six words that often begin a story, like this story set in Montana.
CAROL ZACHARY: My name is Carol Zachary and these are my six words - grandfather's poker gift, a hanging invitation
INSKEEP: Grandfather's poker gift, a hanging invitation. An invitation to a hanging, a small white envelope with a black border. Those six words are certainly an invitation to hear more about this story, so we're joined by NPR special correspondent Michele Norris, who is the founder and the curator of the Race Card Project. Welcome come back to the program.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Good to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: Wow, profound start there. What's going on?
NORRIS: Well, a little bit about Carol - she now lives in Washington, D.C. She grew up in Idaho. She spent summers visiting her grandparents in Montana, small town called White Sulphur Springs. And on one of those trips, she was put on punishment. In defiance, she had said no to her grandmother, she had sassed back. And her grandmother said when the family goes out on a fishing trip, you have to stay home.
ZACHARY: She left with my brother and I was left with a grandfather who has emphysema, who can't really speak much anymore, who's crippled in a dark, dank cabin for an afternoon. This man, who had no idea what to do with granddaughters, girls, at all, finally said to me in this barely audible voice - go get a deck of cards. And what he taught me that afternoon was nine-card stud. A game with so much exposure that it would just make you sweat. And he never threw the game. And at the end of the afternoon, I won. I won my first game against my grandfather.
NORRIS: You hear her pride there. And her grandfather was proud of her too. And to show his pride, he went and got that envelope.
ZACHARY: It was a double envelope. And I started to open it up and read it. It was an invitation to a hanging that he had received in 1917. And attached to it were these three pictures of the men to be hanged. Well, I was a tomboy. I was curiosity with the C. I just started to pepper him with questions - oh, grandpa, what was it like? Did they lose their heads? Did their eyes bug-out? Did everybody cheer? Did everybody cry? And da-da-da-da. And he raised a hand, which told me to shut up. And he said three words - it was awful.
INSKEEP: That's all he said. But I'm like her, I have a million questions including - tell me more about this invitation.
NORRIS: The invitation is formal. It looks like an invitation to a wedding or some sort of rather swank affair. We know from our reporting that invitations to hangings in the early 20th century were fairly common. And in fact, in Montana, they were required by law. And Carol Zachary's grandfather was a county auditor, so he, by law, would have been required to attend that hanging. And when we saw this invitation, when we visited Carol at her home, we sat outside on her patio and she pulled out this big blue family album to show us that invitation that she received when she was just 9 years old and she showed it to us. Let's listen.
ZACHARY: I'm just taking the dust off my album.
NORRIS: What's this right here?
ZACHARY: And this is the description.
NORRIS: Oh, the description of the - it says triple.
ZACHARY: Well, it says triple hanging. It's an envelope and it says on the outside 1917, February 16. And then the invitation itself - it's Mr. - and then someone has written into it Herbert Fleming, your presence is requested at White Sulphur Springs, Montana on the morning of Friday, February 16, in the year of our Lord 1917, to witness the execution of Henry Hall, Harrison Gibson and Lester Fahley. And then the pictures. And it's RSVP.
NORRIS: Now, Steve, I just want to interject here - she mentions pictures and I want to explain what she's actually describing. Our listeners can go to the website and see this as well. Steve, the invitation contained three wallet-sized black and white photos of the men she just named - Henry Hall, Leslie Fahley and Harrison Gibson. They're black men and each photo, as you see there, is marked with the man's nickname, etched there on the photo. Henry Hall, for instance, has the name Bama etched on his photo. And the photos are curious, they don't look like mugshots.
INSKEEP: No, no. They're dressed up. At least two of them, if not three, are wearing ties. They're wearing suit jackets. They're not looking at the camera necessarily.
NORRIS: No, they look like professionally light portraitures.
INSKEEP: Yeah, like magazine photos, modern magazine photos. And these are the photos that are illustrating this invitation to a hanging. Now, I have to ask, these are African-American men, it's the early 20th century, it's a hanging was this a lynching?
NORRIS: We now know that it was not a lynching. Carol Zachary thought that too. It was a legal hanging. These three men were arrested for a murder that took place in the commission of a robbery. Very little is known about these men. They were said to have been railroad workers. They were called hobos in some accounts, itinerant workers. And it was the first legal triple hanging in the state of Montana. It was a pretty big deal. It was a big news story across the state in 1917. There was some controversy around the execution. There was an effort to commute the sentence. We came across a very thorough newspaper account in the Anaconda Standard, an article published in Butte Montana on the day of the hanging February 16, 1917. And the article quoted then Montana Governor Samuel Stewart at length and the governor himself said he was concerned that perhaps the race of these men may have been a factor. And he determined that it was not based on the evidence that was presented at trial, he denied clemency, the three men were hanged all at the same time on the morning of February 16.
INSKEEP: So you were able to find some of the story behind these six words and this invitation. What's still not known?
NORRIS: Well, it's not at all a case closed issue for Carol Zachary. There's still a lot of mystery involving this. The mystery of those photos and why they looked like that. The mystery of why her grandfather gave her the envelope and despite the fact that it was a legal hanging said it was awful. She wrestles with this. And she's careful to point out that she's not trying to say that this hanging was a mistake or some kind of miscarriage of justice, but she says it just feels incomplete to her. And, Steve, when she first saw that envelope as a 9-year-old, she was fascinated by it. But now when she talks to us about the process of pulling out that envelope as an adult, she approaches it with something much closer to dread.
ZACHARY: I couldn't believe what I saw. I remembered them as being very fierce, but as I laid them out there, they were three stunningly beautiful young black men. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Stupid, sorry.
INSKEEP: She's whispering so I want to be clear on what's happening here. She's apologizing, she's getting upset. She says the word stupid. It sounds to me, Michele, that what she's saying is I put these pictures away and I changed the faces in my mind to make these young men were suitable to be hanged. And then I looked at the pictures again and realized my own bias, that I had changed my idea of who these young men were.
NORRIS: I don't want to read too much into that. When she was a child, she looked at them and she was 9 years old and they looked fierce to her. And now as an adult, someone who's lived a life, someone who has children herself, someone who has her own opinions about the death penalty - she looks at these pictures and she sees something else and she wonders about the message in that gesture, the fact that her grandfather gave her the envelope. And one of the things she wonders is if he wanted her to understand that some things shouldn't make us feel good. That even if this was a legally sanctioned hanging, that in the end, it's the taking someone's life and some things shouldn't feel satisfying even when they're dictated or sanctioned by law.
INSKEEP: The six words came from Carol Zachary of Washington, D.C. And she spoke with NPR's Michele Norris, curator of the Race Card Project. Michele, always a pleasure when you come by.
NORRIS: Good to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: And you can visit our website to find out more and see the actual invitation to the hanging as well as the pictures we discussed. It's NPR News.
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