The Crime

The Research

The Reasons

Sources

by Greg Fuller

 

The Reasons

Just as the American court system changed by asking the question of "Why?" rather than "Who?" or "What?" I too began to ask why? In this case, the "Who" was easy to discover but the "Why" is more complex. Why did Ed Harville shoot his friend Lester Jones? My answer was threefold. First, and most obvious, was that alcohol was a factor. Both men were drinking all night. Although Ed Harville denied he was drinking in his testimony, several witnesses stated that he had been. While the prohibition movement was decreasing the number of alcohol related deaths, Clevelanders were still able to find drinks in private saloons. The impaired judgment of Harville and Jones was the result of the German introduction of lager beer some fifty years earlier.
Secondly, the fact that both men worked as laborers and had difficulty finding steady work wreaked havoc on their spirit, and it is my opinion that they related this to their manhood. Harville was so adamant about being done wrong, a feeling that he Central Ave. near the corner of E.40th and E. 55th, 1922;  Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Libraryprobably brought with him from Tennessee, and that continued in his frustrating efforts in Cleveland to find work. A trend that started during the American Industrial Revolution was that migrating African Americans had difficulty finding work in northern industrial cities. Although the black literacy rate soared from 20% in 1850 to nearly 80% in 1890, blacks were still having a difficult time finding work. "Few African Americans could afford to hire the professionals who had sacrificed so hard for their degrees and fewer whites wanted to. And as a result, after reaching a peak in 1910, the proportion of doctors and lawyers in the black population plummeted and did not recover for three generations." (Murder in America)
The use of firearms was the third factor. Handguns were appearing more frequently in northern cities at the turn of the century. From New York to Philadelphia to Chicago, handguns accounted for around 25% of all homicide incidents in the nineteenth century. "The proportion of gun deaths rose dramatically in the early Twentieth Century to forty percent [of all incidents]. The jump is the clear result of a population shift, the upsurge of immigration, and especially of murder indictments among African Americans and Italians; two groups more likely than others to carry lethal weapons." (Murder in America) In relation to the frustrating efforts to find work, African Americans living in high crime areas, still fearful of whites, carried guns. I find it interesting that Ed Harville, an African American, took Mike Castriagano's gun to commit homicide.
To better explain these facts it is prudent to state the general feeling of blacks in 1912 and how they were stereotypically repressed. In the early 1900's, four-fifths of the nation's ten million African Americans still lived in the South and worked in agriculture. In the cities, most blacks had menial jobs and only a small middle class was able to sell their services to the black community. After slavery, racism evolved into many forms. Most notable was the influence of social Darwinism, which in some interpretations held that blacks were a degenerate race, genetically susceptible to vice, crime and disease, and were destined to lose the struggle for existence with whites.
My opinion is that this is a gross misinterpretation and that social Darwinism is unjustified and neglectful towards blacks as well as whites. Such slurs that blacks were part animal, who knew no love were evident in the South. In the North, "Coon Songs" were popular in the theaters and in music. At a time of outright racism in the South and subtle racism in the North, African Americans were in need of leadership. This was found in Booker T. Washington and later in W.E.B. Dubois who feared that black's material wants had developed quicker than their social and moral standards. Dubois was quick to discount Washington's view that the blacks were inferior, and rather felt that blacks should fight for their right for civic equality. Dubois spread his word through Crisis, an NAACP newspaper that he founded. Although the pinnacle of migrating Southern blacks to Cleveland and Northern cities alike did not come until 1920-1930, these racial undertones were becoming more evident in 1912.
The heightened frustrations of Ed Harville and Lester Jones reflect the general attitude of African Americans and of the pressure of white attitudes towards them. Understanding what life was like in their neighborhood at the time of the murder is only a part of understanding the big picture of our nation. The case of Lester Jones mirrors the prevailing attitude in 1912 and many trends of the case are congruent with the attitude of the nation.
Jones and Harville were young and were part of a growing trend of black-on-black crime. They both were drinking and this spurred homicide of anger. A gun was used, which was part of another growing trend in homicide. The frustration of finding menial work was evident as Jones cleaned the bar before it closed and started to play cards with the money he just earned. The difference of how people lived and worked in Cleveland in 1912 was slightly different from other places around our nation, but the gap was closing. Cleveland's attitude towards African Americans was becoming more racist and the resulting black frustration is evident in this case.

Sources