Murder In Marion: The Journey of James Cameron

by Holland Martin

It was a hot Wednesday evening in Marion, Indiana on August 6, 1930. Three local youths, Thomas Shipp 18, Abram Smith 19, and James Cameron 16 had been standing on the corner by the candy store before deciding to head across the street to Ogden Weaver’s backyard to pitch horseshoes with some other youths. 

Around 9pm they stopped. Thomas asked the other two if they would like to take a ride in his 1926 Ford convertible with him. Shipp had been employed at Marion Malleable Iron Works. After cruising around town Abram suggested they rob someone for money so he could get a car of his own. They drove to an area in Southeast Marion, around 38th and Central Avenue, in the vicinity of the old MacBeth-Evans Glass Company. They crossed the Mississinewa River and turned down a narrow dirt road.  

Not too far away, the trio stumbled upon a man and a woman talking. They were in a car parked off the road and in some bushes. James was handed the gun. He yanked open the car door and ordered them out. Cameron immediately recognized the man as someone whose shoes he had shined many times before at the interurban station.  

The already apprehensive youth hurriedly gave the gun back to Abram and took off running. He ran down the dirt road to 38th Street, crossed the bridge, and quickly made it to the train tracks. He ran down those long tracks and eventually made it home 5 miles away to 31st and Poplar Street without rest. 

Back on the dirt road, the man in the car, Claude Deeter 23 years old from Fairmount and the female 19 year old Mary Ball who lived on the 2100 Block of W. 11th Street in Marion were being robbed of any money and jewelry they had. The couple had been together since earlier that spring and were said to be planning marriage soon. 

Deeter was ordered to walk to the river. Smith and Shipp then turned their attention to Ball. She was not raped, but was said to have had large thorns from bushes removed from her arm and scratches on her face which penetrated great depth during the robbery. Her screams made Claude come back to help her. It is said he was then hit over the head with a blackjack and is believed to have then been shot 3 times by Shipp. Two bullets entered the right side of his chest and abdominal cavity then passed entirely through his body. The third bullet hit him in the left side and was reported to have lodged under his right armpit. Other accounts have him being shot in the chest, the right hand, and in the left forearm. 

A local farmer, Dave Fansler, who lived near the dirt road heard Miss Ball’s screams then the ensuing gunshots and quickly grabbed his shotgun. He rushed to the road and was able to see Shipp and Smith in the 1926 Ford speeding away. He managed to shoot at them during their getaway a few times but is not believed to have hit the vehicle. He did get a decent enough look at Thomas and Abram however and was able to help lead Sheriff Campbell and Marion Police Chief Lindenmuth to the suspects very quickly. 

In one of the books James Cameron had written about his ordeal titled A Time of Terror, he describes finally making it to his home on Poplar Street panting, visibly shaken and drenched in sweat. His mother knew something immediately was amiss but sent him to bed without pressing. He laid in bed thinking of everything that just happened, when suddenly there was a loud banging on the door. As his mother prayed, Officer Harley Burden and several other policemen came to his bedroom and took him downtown to talk to the Sheriff.  

While being interrogated, Cameron admitted to being there but then he got scared and ran all the way home nonstop once he recognized Claude. The Sheriff had heard enough and according to his book A Time of Terror, James was savagely beaten by the other officers in the room before signing a confession. He was then escorted to the county jail and placed in the west wing cell block on the second floor. According to newspaper accounts, Shipp and Smith were said to be stubborn during their interrogation but eventually admitted their part in the crime. The pair also implicated another friend of theirs named Robert Sullivan 18, who lived on the 900 block of South Nebraska Street. He was found to have played no part in any of the incident that evening however. Prosecutor Harley Hardin said he would hold the youths on a second degree murder charge if there was a fatality. He then would ask the grand jury on Monday, September 1st to return first degree muder charges and he would seek the death penalty for all three. 

The next morning after breakfast, inmates looking out the windows saw crowds of people forming outside mumbling epithets, pointing sternly and waiving clenched fists. As soon as dawn broke, people from outside of town started to pour into the city and around the jail. A strong contingent from Fairmount had assembled by then. Around 3pm, James was visited by the young Marion Mayor Jack Edwards and another man. They both asked him a few questions, then left. Deeter had passed away from loss of blood earlier in the day around 1:30pm at Grant County Hospital. His bloody white shirt was hung outside of police headquarters on the flagpole. 

Mrs. Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, wife of local doctor Walter Thomas Bailey, and president of the Marion branch of the NAACP, received news that plans were being made and the three teens at the jail would soon be lynched. Attempts to alert Governor Harry G. Leslie, who was on a vacation trip to Canada, went unanswered. She was able to reach his secretary, Mr. L.O. Chasey, who had close ties to Marion. He hung up on her immediately after saying that recieving any support from the area authorities would prove difficult. Mayor Edwards had also left town. Sheriff Campbell briefly thought of taking the three boys to a safer area. Once he saw his cars had their tires flattened and the gas was siphoned out, he changed course. 

By 8:30pm the crowd outside had reached an estimated ten thousand people and was steadily growing impatient. Rocks began to be hurled at the jail windows and the tone of the crowd was increasingly becoming angry and aggressive. Gasoline was poured on the wall outside the brick jail and was ignited but quickly burned out. The Sheriff addressed the crowd but was met with shouts to bring the three teens out, or they would be going in. It is said Mrs Ball’s father Hoot then told Sheriff Campbell he wanted inside the jail to get the three boys because that is what any father would do for his daughter. Campbell stated to the mob that he would not be shooting at them because there were women and children in the crowd. Some females were then moved to the front. A few members of the mob attempted to rush the jail but were initially repelled by tear gas. 

Sledgehammers were then produced and a few of the men in the huge mass of people grabbed them and took turns destroying the steel jail door. The fire department was called but according to the book A Time of Terror, the fire hoses on the trucks were cut by onlookers with pocket knives and rendered ineffective.  

After an hour of pounding, the door was breached and the enraged mob rushed in past the police officers and sprinted to the west wing of the first floor. They grabbed Thomas Shipp out of his cell. He was first kicked and hit unmercifully inside the jailhouse. Once he was dragged outside the jail on the sidewalk, the frenzied mob pounced on him with insane anger. He fought the crowd back with all he had before finally being overcome by so many crushing blows to his head and the gashing of his body. Shipp’s limp body was hung from the jail window on the east side of the building.  

Taking justice into their own hands once again, the bloodthirsty mob barreled past the officers and were intent on bringing out Abram Smith next. He tried to hide at first but it was no use. Abram began to fiercely fight them in his cell but was overcome and eventually beaten into submission. He too was pulled outside to face the wrath of the crowd. He was severely attacked by a group of women and dragged to the courthouse by the hate-filled mob. Abram was hung on the maple tree a half a block to the west of the jail, on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. To ease the grip of the rope around his neck, Abram attempted to free himself. The lynch mob was said to have lowered him down, broke both of his arms, then raised him back up.  

The crazed mob then went back to the jail window and let Thomas Shipp down. It had been said that Shipp was then dragged down the street by a vehicle that was from local employer Superior Body Works to the courthouse square and hung on the tree along side Smith. His clothes ripped off during the ordeal and he was covered with a white sheet. 

Next, the lynch mob turned its attention to Cameron who was watching everything he could from a second floor cell window. Having just seen the massacre of his two friends, James was very apprehensive in telling the mob he was in the cell when they ordered him to step forward. The crowd outside was chanting “We Want Cameron” over and over. The other inmates tried to protect him as long as they could. Once they all were threatened with death however, the inmates finally pointed out who and where James was. 

James was beaten and roughed up pretty badly from the jail all the way to the courthouse where his friends were hung. As the rope was thrown over the tree limb and the youth was about to be pulled up, someone spoke out over the crowd. They said that Cameron had not been involved in any rape or murder. James called it a voice from Heaven. A local athlete was even rumored to have removed the rope from his neck. He was then let go. The crowd grew silent and made a path for him to limp back to his cell.  

Once he was back inside the jail, Sheriff Campbell finally made the decision to get James to some type of safety. He instructed his deputy and three out of town police officers to get Cameron out of further harms way. He wanted to act quickly, hoping the lynch mob had not changed their minds again and want even more carnage. The National Guard arrived and was beginning to control and keep the crowd towards the front of the jail, James was hidden in one of the police automobiles in the back of the building. Under the cover of darkness, he was taken to a jail 26 miles away in Huntington, Indiana. 

Although brutally battered and bruised, he still could not bring himself to rest. He paced back and forth the rest of the night until the sun came up. Each headlight that shined in the jail windows had Cameron thinking the lynch mob would find him there and attempt to inflict more pain on him. 

Back on the courthouse square, Shipp and Smith’s attire were being clipped off as souveneirs. Small groups walked around all evening bragging about what they saw and had done. Photographer Lawrence Beitler snapped that iconic picture of Thomas and Abram which influenced the song Strange Fruit written in 1936 by Abel Meeropol as well as a controversial mural in Elgin, Illinois. Coroner O.L. Stout of Upland attempted to take the two bodies down from the tree at midnight. Some of the crowd resisted him and they remained there. 

Around 1am, according to newspaper accounts, fires were lit under the two bodies by the mob. Torches were taken from a nearby smudge fire and used. Some of the onlookers who had enough, attempted to cut Thomas Shipp down but were abruptly stopped. Flashlights as well as automobile lights were shined on the bodies throughout the early morning. Newspaper accounts stated there was a little rainfall around 4:30am and that many individuals had umbrellas. A short time later, Sherriff Campbell succeeded in cutting them down. Some clothing and the 3/8 inch rope that was used in the hangings was pounced upon by the younger crowd still there and cut up as six inch reminders. The bodies were taken away and the crowd then began to disperse.  

At daybreak, the same four men assigned by the Sheriff to take James to Huntington were ordered to now take him to the state reformatory in Pendleton. They rode back into town and around the Marion courthouse square before heading south. In the aftermath of the hangings, civil rights activist Walter White visited Marion and called them “amongst the most horrible and brutal in the whole history of lynching “. 

The Reverend J.E. Johnson of Muncie was a popular mortician. He arrived in Marion that afternoon to take the victims to Delaware County from the morgue. Johnson would be preparing Thomas and Abe for their funerals. After some tense moments initially, the pair were returned to Grant County for their funeral two days later. Abram was buried in the Weaver settlement south of Marion near Fairmount. Thomas was buried in a small cemetery in Marion. 

While at the reformatory, according to the Time of Terror book, Cameron was confined to a narrow cell in the guard house the first two months and it really took a toll on his health. His head was continually pounding and he was becoming more and more listless. His mother sent a doctor from Anderson to give him a complete physical. James was diagnosed with a severe concussion which was still affecting him from the jailhouse events in Marion. It was around this time his stepfather Hezekiah Burden, under the influence of alcohol that October, shot at his wife and two policemen before being shot himself. His right leg was thought to need amputation but it was ultimately spared. He stood trial and was given one year in prison at Michigan City before returning to Marion.  

A few months later, around Christmas time, Cameron was transported from Pendleton to the county jail in Anderson, Indiana. Many of the people that visited him said they wanted to help him that night in August but were unable to. The state police had turned away nearly all incoming traffic to Marion.  

In Anderson, James was somewhat befriended by Madison County Sheriff Bernard Bradley. He was allowed time to move around and get more fresh air and exercise because he was still so sick and weak. The Sheriff made him a turnkey trustee and a gopher who would be sent in to town to pick up items such as candy and tobacco for the other inmates. 

Cameron’s murder trial began in the Summer of 1931. The jury consisted of ten men and two women. He was represented by Indianapolis lawyers Robert Lee Brokenburr and Robert L. Bailey. The doctor who treated Deeter at the hospital and Dave Fansler who shot at the fleeing car were called to the stand. The farmer said James was not one of the youths he saw at the scene some 11 months prior. Assistant chief of police Roy Collins, Officer Burden, Sheriff Campbell and police chief Lewis Lindenmuth were also called up to testify.  

Around five or more police officers were also called to the stand. They each denied being brutal to Cameron the night of the incident. Claude’s parents, Will and Grace Deeter also testified that “God should have been the judge” but they had forgiven each of the teens for the crimes against their son. Mary Ball would testify that James was not present at the time of her assault and that she had not been raped by anyone. Sheriff Bradley, his pastor and his mother Vera also spoke on behalf of Cameron. The disgusted Judge Carl Morrow eventually threw out James’ signed confession.  

Prosecutor Harley Hardin expressed very little sympathy for the three teens that night at the jail. He did mention however that he was highly indignant of the uncontrolled crowd taking the law into their own hands. Hardin also said that any action against the 27 individuals believed to have participated in these events would rest largely with public opinion on the matter. None of the crazed mob would ever be charged for any of their crimes that evening. 

James Cameron was found guilty of being an accessory before the fact to voluntary manslaughter. Serving his 2 to 21 year sentence back in Pendleton, he started working in the dreaded shirt shop. He was afforded a level of protection by the prison elders and enrolled in school. On his sixth parole hearing he was released after serving 5 years total. 

Finally free, Cameron had an aunt named Katherine in Detroit and moved north to Michigan. James attended Wayne State University, married a nurse named Virginia Hamilton, and started a family that quickly grew to five children. After graduating, he became a boiler engineer. He moved to Anderson, Indiana in the early 1940’s where he became the first NAACP president in Madison County. In 1942 he was appointed as the state director of civil liberties by Governor Henry F. Stricker. He owned and operated a few small businesses such as a record shop, a knick knack store, and a shoeshine parlor. He also worked at the local Delco Remy plant for awhile. 

In the 1950’s, he moved his family to Wisconsin. It is said he had intentions on taking the family to Canada first, but a stop off in Milwaukee first provided some immediate job opportunities. He worked at a brewery for awhile before taking employment at a packaging company. He also owned a rug cleaning business. Cameron was employed as facilities manager at the Mayfair Shopping Center in Wauwatosa until he was in his mid 60’s.  

After a visit to Israel and Yad Vashem in 1979, James decided to return home and open his own holocaust museum that would tell the stories of lynchings in the United States. He would continue to look for a place for several years. Finally, on Juneteenth 1988, Cameron opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. He said it would be to “commemorate and reconcile America’s dark history”. There would be a few moves to different buildings in the following years. He finally settled in the spacious 12,000 square foot Braggs Boxing Gym to display all his books and pictures. The city sold it to him for one dollar.  

James petitioned for and was granted a pardon by Governor Evan Bayh in 1993. He is said to have broke down in tears when he got the news. In 1999 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.   

Mr. Cameron dealt with various health issues throughout his life. He had been battling lymphoma for five years before passing away on June 11, 2006 from congestive heart failure. His beloved wife Virginia died in November 2010. 

The ABHM was temporarily closed due to lack of funding during the 2008 recession. There was a virtual museum that opened in 2012. In 2019, the physical museum was housed on the ground floor of the Griot Building on W. North Avenue. It is located in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood, on the Northeast side of the city.  

While Cameron had many supporters, there were many people who did not like all the attention he would receive. As the years went on, there was resistance in finding a building for his museum. It would eventually take him 9 years. His book was printed in 1982 only after excerpts of his story were published by Ebony magazine two years prior. Many felt the narrative of the entire story was only told from his perspective.  

Marion and Grant County itself was changed forever after that harrowing evening in August of 1930. The town has noticeably become one that is more accepting of integration and racial progress. Recent national events dealing with politics and race have allowed some of those old attitudes to openly come back however. There will always be some that disagree, but the town has definitely made strides in reconciling some of its ugly past and moving forward to be better in the future.

SOURCES:

James Cameron: A Time of Terror
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1408583.Time_of_Terror

Marion Indiana 1930 Lynching
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wb7DG8SpYds

Cynthia Carr: Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History https://www.google.com/books/edition/Our_Town/4qv9tnUhTNgC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover

Nicole Poletika: Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried To Prevent It
https://blog.history.in.gov/strange-fruit-the-1930-marion-lynching-and-the-woman-who-tried-toprevent-it/

Syreeta McFadden : What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lynching?
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/syreetamcfadden/how-to-survive-a-lynching

Marion Public Library: Indiana Historical Room
https://www.marion.lib.in.us/


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