by Darcia Helle

When I hear the phrase “Trial by Media”, I think of high profile cases like OJ Simpson’s trial for murdering Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. I think of Nancy Grace and the other pundits who pronounce their opinions as fact, all the while taking great pleasure in creating the lynch mob mindset among their viewers. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to TV, nor is it something new to ‘modern day’ life. The more I read about old murder and death penalty cases, the more I realize that the media has been responsible for public opinion and trial verdicts since the invention of the printing press.

indexRecently I read an advanced copy of a book called Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: The Hanging of Albert Edwin Batson by Jim Bradshaw and Danielle Miller. The book is dry, at times difficult to follow, and better suited as discussion for a college course than a casual read for the true crime fan. The case itself, however, is a compelling example of trial by media.

In 1902, Ed Batson was a soft-spoken, 21-year-old migrant worker from Missouri, who’d never been in serious trouble, and according to all who knew him, had no propensity toward violence. He’d been working in the rice fields of Welsh, Louisiana when he was accused of brutally murdering an entire family. In 1903, despite conflicting and, at best, circumstantial evidence, Batson was hanged for the crime.

Before Batson was even placed under arrest, the local media went to work proclaiming his guilt. One early article published by the Signal, stated:

“Batson’s motive for wiping out the Earll family is a mystery unless it was for getting hold of the mules [which] is [too] preposterous for belief. If he had any grudge against the Earlls, or any one of them, it is not known here and his tigerish thirst for blood is beyond understanding. Some are inclined to think the man became insane, being unable to believe he could have butchered his victims as he did had he been in his right mind.”

index2On the day of the Earlls’ funeral, the Weekly American printed a provocative piece, describing the scene with unflinching detail:

“…next came two drays bearing the battered remains of the Earll family, butchered by the fiend Batson.”

The same article closed by emphasizing Batson’s guilt:

“…where in one immense grave the bodies of Batson’s victims were laid to rest.”

ed4At the time of the murders, a “tramp” had been seen in the area. This was mentioned once, early on, but never followed up on by media or, more importantly, by police. The community had Batson, a poor migrant, as an easy target, and, for whatever reason, their scapegoat for the murders. No murder weapon was ever found. No plausible reason was ever given for Batson killing the family. He’d never had any sort of confrontation or other incident with any one of them that might have raised suspicions. Regardless, Batson had worked for the family, and therefore his close proximity was all the community needed to declare him guilty.

One Lake Charles newspaper, on the day of Batson’s arrest, led their story with this headline:

“Swift Justice for Ed Batson. Despicable Wretch Arrested Last Evening.”

Long before Ed Batson was arraigned, a headline in the New Orleans Picayune called him: “Batson, the Butcher”.

ed3At the time of the Earll murders, the town of Welsh, Louisiana had a population of only 320 people. Everyone knew everyone else. Consequently, it’s easy to understand why no one there wanted to believe one of their neighbors could have committed such a horrible crime. That doesn’t explain why the issue of the tramp wasn’t explored, though it might simply be that he was unknown and long gone, and therefore not accessible.

ed6Although Batson’s close proximity to the crime contributed to his conviction, the newspaper reporters ensured his guilty verdict. Every potential juror living in or anywhere around Welsh, Louisiana read the papers which declared Batson to be a murdering butcher. During the time Batson was held in the local jail, the police actually allowed the local people to parade through, ogle, jeer, and otherwise gawk at him. Batson was a caged animal, a man to despise, a sideshow event.

Fortunately, we no longer allow our citizens to parade through a jail and throw apples at the accused. But we do plaster their faces on the TV screen, the computer screen, and the pages of newspapers. The media, and particularly the talking heads who earn their money by ed7spewing venom, offer a slanted perspective, a one-sided image of the person they want us to revile. Mainstream media, in its many forms, is largely responsible for establishing public opinion. It’s a psychological fact that once an opinion is formed, people cling to those beliefs even in the face of conflicting information or outright contradictory proof.

Ed Batson was put to death for a crime he, in all likelihood, did not commit. Otherwise intelligent jurors pronounced him guilty, not because of what the evidence said, but because of what the media said. Our justice system is fragile, reliant on independent thought free of prejudice. Maybe it’s time we expected those same qualities from our news media.


Please click to below to view Darcia’s Helle’s many excellent posts:

“Met Her on the Mountain”: Cold Case Social Worker Hog-Tied, Raped and Killed in Appalachia

Jovial Private Bartender Snaps; Assaults and Drags Obnoxious 84-Year-Old Club Patron

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Great Gasoline Mass Murder

Edward Elmore Rode the Legal Railroad to 30 Years on Death Row: His Crime? Simple! He Was Black and Poor

 “The Wrong Carlos”: Non-Violent Manchild Executed for Murder He Did Not Commit

The Electric Chair Nightmare: An Infamous and Agonizing History

Autopsies: Truth, Fiction and Maura Isles and Her 5-Inch-Heels

Don’t Crucify Me, Dude! Just Shoot Me Instead! Spartacus and Death by Crucifixion

To Burn or Not to Burn? Auto-Da-Fé Is Not Good for Women or Children!

The Disgraceful Entrapment of Jesse Snodgrass: Keep the Narcs Out of Our Schools

Why Should I Believe You? The History of the Polygraph

“Don’t Behead Me, Dude!”: The Story of Beheading and the Invention of the Guillotine

Aileen Wuornos, America’s First High-Profile Female Serial Killer, Never Had a Chance

The Terror of ISO: A Descent into Madness

Al Capone Could Not Bribe the Rock: Alcatraz, Fortress of Doom

Cyberspace, Darknet, Murder-for-Hire and the Invisible Black Machine

darcDarcia Helle lives in a fictional world with a husband who is sometimes real. Their house is ruled by spoiled dogs and cats and the occasional dust bunny.

Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.

Join Darcia in her fictional world:


23 Responses to ‘Trial by Media’ Is Not a New Phenomenon: The Kangaroo Hanging of Alvin Edwin Batson

  1. liselasalle says:

    I have to admit Darcia that your blogs are one of my ‘plaisir noir’. From beginning to end, I am enthralled because I am so totally embarked in the narrative. The shadow of the ‘tramp’ was floating in the air…

    Sad to realize that trials by media are a tradition like Christmas and Easter.

    If not from a decent faction of our society, George Carlin’s comedy about public executions might have become a reality.

    It is time we hold news media accountable. The word alleged is hardly ever used and the idea of calling someone on trial a ‘butcher’ publicly should have been enough to shut down the newspaper. But monster and butcher are words still widely used in the media about people awaiting trial.

    But as you said, now with Mass Media there is a wider reach and we are perpetuating the old fashion lynchings on a larger scale.

    Great article and food for thought

  2. Darcia Helle says:

    “Sad to realize that trials by media are a tradition like Christmas and Easter.”– Perfect summation.

    What’s really scary about this phenomenon is that, while the internet has made information more accessible, it has also spawned an incredibly lazy, narrow-minded society. Most people now only seek out and read news they already know they’ll agree with. “Independent” news is rare. Instead our news is slanted according to political parties and beliefs of the owners. So republicans seek out news from FOX, while democrats seek out news from MSNBC. Consequently, we have no well-informed, honest debates on issues. Instead, we have a lot of people spewing their opinions, and seeking out “facts” specifically to back them up.

    • liselasalle says:

      Very true Darcia. Even if TV stations like Fox or MSNBC invite guests from both sides, they always make sure that the ‘expert’ defending the opposite point of view is weak.

      And the distortion of facts is disturbing. I can only think of Benghazi.

      That is why I trust people who can report from both sides and admit that there could be mistakes on every side of the coin.

      When it comes to crime, why does it have to be guilty or innocent right away? It seems that people will never be satisfied with ‘we do not know but in the meantime, we have to abide by the law.’

  3. Rick says:

    Darcia – Another great post. It shows that the lynch-mob mentality of the media to vilify arrestees is not a new phenomenon but is now done through a different, more powerful medium than newspapers: television. Your ability to take the reader back to bygone eras is astounding. I believe that you missed your calling as a historian. . .

    • liselasalle says:

      Crime Historian would be a shoe in for Darcia. If they could only bump shows like Duck Dynasty to replace it with an educational show about crime and the justice system with someone like Miss Helle at the helm, I would pay for cable again.

    • Darcia Helle says:

      Rick, you have made my day! Thank you. :)

      • Tom Davidson says:

        Excellent piece, Darcia. It makes me wonder about the expanding “court of public opinion” in the social-media age. Also (totally irrelevant), the picture of Batson at the top of the piece — he resembles Franz Kafka? Maybe I’m imagining things. His dismal story has a Kafka touch.

        • Darcia Helle says:

          Batson does have a surprising resemblance to Kafka. I might even easily mistake one for the other. Just one example of why eyewitness testimony is unreliable.

  4. […] ‘Trial by Media’ Is Not a New Phenomenon: The Kangaroo Hanging of Alvin Edwin Batson […]

  5. […] ‘Trial by Media’ Is Not a New Phenomenon: The Kangaroo Hanging of Alvin Edwin Batson […]

  6. lesli says:

    There’s no denying that the media were not at all restrained or unbiased in this case, but I don’t know what evidence was presented at trial; maybe it was actually convincing. What about the fact that he showed up in Lake Charles with mules belonging to the victims and gave his name as Ward Earl? That’s pretty suspicious. I’ll have to read the book to find out more.

    • John says:

      I agree with lesli. You need to use another example for your attack on the press.

      Having grown up within 2 miles of the murders, my grandfather and father told me stories of the murders. As a matter-of-fact, my grandfather lived in the very same house as the murders as a young child. They were not prone to hyperbole, but had strong convictions that the law got the right man. Mr. Batson’s actions certainly didn’t help his cause, especially leaving the scene with property of the Earls, trying to sell it, and then fleeing to Missouri.

      I am no defender of the media as I find there reporting to be despicable at times. Surely they fanned the flames in this case, but no one has offered any evidence that even remotely refutes Mr. Batson’s own actions. Furthermore, all of of the offerings of proof of Batson’s innocence look and feel like speculation and come from outsiders, some with their own axes to grind. Some of these outsiders were the very same media/authors that you seem to despise.

      Your statement that “Ed Batson was put to death for a crime he, in all likelihood, did not commit” is most probably incorrect at best, but, at worse, more than likely laziness on your part to do the research necessary to present creditable examples of the media abuses you are crusading against. I wish you luck in your crusade, because we mostly agree, but please use better examples in the future.

  7. […] ‘Trial by Media’ Is Not a New Phenomenon: The Kangaroo Hanging of Alvin Edwin Batson […]

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