they have burned books,” German poet Johann Heinrich Heine wrote in
the 19th century, “they will end in burning human beings.”
Indeed, Texans have done both.
From the earliest days of Anglo colonization up until the 1940s, Texans
frequently took the law in their own hands, particularly in response
to brutal crimes and even more particularly if a minority had been
identified as the perpetrator. (The perception of culpability could
be as damning as real guilt.)
Hundreds of people, from suspected cattle thieves to rapists and murders,
died at the end of a rope in Texas in extralegal proceedings on the
docket of “Judge Lynch.” Of course, sometimes an enraged mob considered
hanging or shooting too humane for an offender. In some instances,
mobs or more organized vigilantes mutilated and then burned their
As photography developed, so did a horrific sub-genre: The lynching
photograph. Sometimes, entrepreneurs even peddled graphic post cards
of lynching victims, their self-appointed executioners standing proudly
nearby. Surviving examples of those images, shocking to most modern
sensibilities, are scarce today.
Even rarer are images of another form of lynching – book burnings.
In those instances, mobs went after ideas, not men. It happened in
Nazi Germany, and, unfortunately, even in Texas.
One image of a literary lynching surfaced in Fort
Worth last spring. The panoramic view, taken in Mineral
Wells and dated 1908, sold for $550 to someone at the annual meeting
of the Texas State Historical Association in March.
The photograph, made by a camera that mechanically swept a scene to
produce a wide, high-resolution negative, shows scores of men and
women gathered in front of a wooden, open-air tabernacle. The people
are standing in a circle around a fire fueled by books and other things
they believed were wrong.
A readable, but old-style cursive on the front of the photograph offers
this caption: “The Christian people of Mineral
Wells burning their rag [time] music, forty-two blocks [dominoes],
cards, suggestive pictures, yellow back novels, etc.”
A portion of the photo’s top margin is missing, but it features this
continuation: “…music dealer burned his entire stock of rag time,
and one young lady, alone, burned $65 worth of rag music.”
The photo bears no specific date, but a lack of shadows indicates
it must have been snapped on a cloudy day. Most of the men in the
image sport straw boaters, with many of the women wearing beribboned
straw Gibson-girl hats. Open parasols dot the crowd. Visible on one
side of the image are early-day automobiles and horse-drawn buggies.
inspired this crowd to burn music and books?
The only clue is a sign on the tabernacle: “Ham-Ramsey Union Evangelistic
That would have been a Baptist evangelist named Mordecai Ham, and
his song leader, W.J. Ramsey of Chattanooga, TN.
But of the two, Ham generated the headlines – and sparked the book
bonfires. Born in Kentucky in 1877, Ham descended from a long line
of Baptist preachers. Though a Sunday school superintendent at 16,
he opted at first to make a living in the business world. After college,
he worked as a traveling salesman for a grocery company and later
at a photo processing plant in Chicago.
When his grandfather died, Ham decided to take up the ministry. He
delivered his first sermon in the fall of 1901. Well received, he
began preaching all over Kentucky, drawing larger and larger crowds.
Next he fervently took on sinners in Louisiana. Recognizing ample
opportunities for ferreting out sin and sinners, Ham came to Texas
the first time in 1903.
Claiming to have already converted 30,000 people, Ham began traveling
throughout the south, passionately exhorting people to resist various
forms of sin, from strong drink to rag time music to pulp novels.
The Kentuckian found plenty of work in Texas. A 1906 revival in Houston
drew 4,000 people to a downtown skating rink and led to 500 baptisms.
Not everyone who heard Ham felt compelled to seek salvation. Some,
particularly anti-prohibitionists, took the opposite tact and assaulted
or tried to kill the preacher. Others, though not moved to violence,
viewed the 31-year-old preacher’s marriage to a 15-year-old as somewhat
unseemly. Clearly, Ham had a gift for motivating people to action,
of one form or another.
A couple of years after his sermons inspired the book-burning in Mineral
Wells, Ham traveled to Gonzales.
Among those attending the revival was a man known to have killed four
people. About halfway into his sermon, Ham saw the man jump up and
heard him yelling “Saved! Saved! Saved!”
The incident inspired choir director Jack Schofield to composition,
resulting in a new hymn called “Saved, Saved” that became a gospel
In the fall of 1934, long after the book burning in Mineral
Wells, Ham conducted a revival in Charlotte, NC. Inspired by what
Ham had to say and how he said it, a 16-year-old stepped forward to
be baptized. His name was Billy Graham
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July
22, 2005 column
by Mike Cox - Order Here