Wexler, Laura E. 1971-
WEXLER, Laura E. 1971-
PERSONAL: Born December 14, 1971, in Baltimore, MD. Education: Penn State University, B.A., 1993; University of Kansas, M.A., 1997.
CAREER: Writer. Freelance journalist. Georgia Magazine, Athens, GA, assistant editor, 1997-2001; University of Georgia, English Department, Athens, nonfiction writing instructor; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, writing instructor.
Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching inAmerica, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: On July 25, 1946, a group of white men gunned down two black couples, Roger and Dorothy Malcolm and George and Mae Dorsey, in Waldorp County, Georgia. More than fifty years later, Laura Wexler, a freelance journalist and writing instructor working at the University of Georgia's student newspaper became interested in this unsolved quadruple homicide. Wexler was lucky enough to find an uncensored FBI file on the case, including the names of all the suspects, two of whom were still alive. In addition to these two, Wexler interviewed the widows of the other suspects, and numerous Waldorp residents, both black and white, who knew or claimed to know something about the case, over 100 people in all. The result was Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America.
The story starts with an altercation between Barnette Hester, a white man, and his black tenant, Roger Malcolm, who wound up stabbing Hester. Released from jail on bail, posted by another white man, Malcolm returned to his rural community, while rumors began to swirl that he would be killed. Despite the fact that Hester recovered from his wound, the rumors grew stronger, and one day, Malcolm and his wife, with their relatives, the Dorseys, were dragged from a car by a white mob and brutally shot to death. One farmer described the repeated gunshots as sounding like a "fire in a canebrake," the continuous popping sound that sugar cane makes when it's burning. The murderers were never caught, but the fact that the victims included two women and a recently returned World War II veteran sparked national outrage. President Truman sent in the FBI to conduct a four-month investigation, the original source of Wexler's book.
"Smart and highly readable . . . Wexler's account uncovers compelling personal and historic material in equal measure," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. This included the fact that George Dorsey had been seen in town with white women, indicating that his killing may not have been solely due to being with Roger Malcolm at the same time. And the rumors that the original stabbing victim, Barnette Hester, was having an affair with Roger Malcolm's wife, Dorothy. It's a complex story, and "Wexler excels in her rich capacity to integrate the racial and social nuances in the everyday lives," according to Booklist reviewer Vernon Ford. She also accepts the inevitable difficulty in pinning down the truth, drawing out a particular witness's version of events only to show how that version doesn't account for some of the key facts or how bias or malice might be distorting the witness's recollections.
"It would have been a coup for Wexler to solve the mass murder," wrote Steve Weinberg in the Denver Post, "to name names of the guilty after all these decades. In a way, however, the book tells a more compelling story because the case remains unsolved."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 15, 2002, Vernon Ford, review of Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America, p. 553.
Denver Post, February 9, 2003, Steven Weinberg, "Lynching in 1946 Recalled."
Publishers Weekly, October 14, 2002, review of Fire in a Canebrake, p. 71.
Laura Wexler Home Page,http://www.fireinacanebrake.com/ (March 18, 2004).*