A Little Talk About Mobs
by O. Henry
“I see,” remarked the tall gentleman in the frock coat and black slouch hat, “that another street car motorman in your city has narrowly excaped lynching at the hands of an infuriated mob by lighting a cigar and walking a couple of blocks down the street.”
“Do you think they would have lynched him?” asked the New Yorker, in the next seat of the ferry station, who was also waiting for the boat.
“Not until after the election,” said the tall man, cutting a corner off his plug of tobacco. “I’ve been in your city long enough to know something about your mobs. The motorman’s mob is about the least dangerous of them all, except the National Guard and the Dressmakers’ Convention.
“You see, when little Willie Goldstein is sent by his mother for pigs’ knuckles, with a nickel tightly grasped in his chubby fist, he always crosses the street car track safely twenty feet ahead of the car; and then suddenly turns back to ask his inother whether it was pale ale or a spool of 80 white cotton that she wanted. The motorman yells and throws himself on the brakes like a football player. There is a horrible grinding and then a ripping sound, and a piercing shriek, and Willie is sitting, with part of his trousers torn away by the fender, screaming for his lost nickel.
“In ten seconds the car is surrounded by 600 infuriated citizens, crying, ‘Lynch the motorman! Lynch the motorman!’ at the top of their voices. Some of them run to the nearest cigar store to get a rope; but they find the last one has just been cut up and labelled. Hundreds of the excited mob press close to the cowering motorman, whose hand is observed to tremble perceptibly as he transfers a stick of pepsin gum from his pocket to his mouth.
“When the bloodthirsty mob of maddened citizens has closed in on the motorman, some bringing camp stools and sitting quite close to him, and all shouting, ‘Lynch him!’ Policeman Fogarty forces his way through them to the side of their prospective victim.
“‘Hello, Mike,’ says the motorman in a low voice, ‘nice day. Shall I sneak off a block or so, or would you like to rescue me?’
“‘Well, Jerry, if you don’t mind,’ says the policeman, ‘I’d like to disperse the infuriated mob singlehanded. I haven’t defeated a lynching mob since last Tuesday; and that was a small one of only 300, that wanted to string up a Dago boy for selling wormy pears. It would boost me some down at the station.’
“‘All right, Mike,’ says the motorman, ‘anything to oblige. I’ll turn pale and tremble.’
“And he does so; and Policeman Fogarty draws his club and says, ‘G’wan wid yez!’ and in eight seconds the desperate mob has scattered and gone about its business, except about a hundred who remain to search for Willie’s nickel.”
“I never heard of a mob in our city doing violence to a motorman because of an accident,” said the New Yorker.
“You are not liable to,” said the tall man. “They know the motorman’s all right, and that he wouldn’t even run over a stray dog if he could help it. And they know that not a man among ’em would tie the knot to hang even a Thomas cat that had been tried and condemned and sentenced according to law.”
“Then why do they become infuriated and make threats of lynching?” asked the New Yorker.
“To assure the motorman,” answered the tall man, “that he is safe. If they really wanted to do him up they would go into the houses and drop bricks on him from the third-story windows.”
“New Yorkers are not cowards,” said the other man, a little stiffly.
“Not one at a time,” agreed the tall man, promptly. “You’ve got a fine lot of single-handed scrappers in your town. I’d rather fight three of you than one; and I’d go up against all the Gas Trust’s victims in a bunch before I’d pass two citizens on a dark corner, with my watch chain showing. When you get rounded up in a bunch you lose your nerve. Get you in crowds and you’re easy. Ask the ‘L’ road guards and George B. Cortelyou and the tintype booths at Coney Island. Divided you stand, united you fall. E pluribus nihil. Whenever one of your mobs surrounds a man and begins to holler, “Lynch him!’ he says to himself, “Oh, dear, I suppose I must look pale to please the boys, but I will, forsooth, let my life insurance premium lapse to-morrow. This is a sure tip for me to play Methuselah straight across the board in the next handicap.’
“I can imagine the tortured feelings of a prisoner in the hands of New York policemen when an infuriated mob demands that he be turned over to them for lynching. “For God’s sake, officers,’ cries the distracted wretch, ‘have ye hearts of stone, that ye will not let them wrest me from ye?’
“‘Sorry, Jimmy,’ says one of the policemen, ‘but it won’t do. There’s three of us–me and Darrel and the plain-clothes man; and there’s only sivin thousand of the mob. How’d we explain it at the office if they took ye? Jist chase the infuriated aggregation around the corner, Darrel, and we’ll be movin’ along to the station.'”
“Some of our gatherings of excited citizens have not been so harmless,” said the New Yorker, with a faint note of civic pride.
“I’ll admit that,” said the tall man. “A cousin of mine who was on a visit here once had an arm broken and lost an ear in one of them.”
“That must have been during the Cooper Union riots,” remarked the New Yorker.
“Not the Cooper Union,” explained the tall man–“but it was a union riot–at the Vanastor wedding.”
“You seem to be in favor of lynch law,” said the New Yorker, severely.
“No, sir, I am not. No intelligent man is. But, sir, there are certain cases when people rise in their just majesty and take a righteous vengeance for crimes that the law is slow in punishing. I am an advocate of law and order, but I will say to you that less than six months ago I myself assisted at the lynching of one “of that race that is creating a wide chasm between your section of country and mine, sir.”
“It is a deplorable condition,” said the New Yorker, “that exists in the South, but–”
“I am from Indiana, sir,” said the tall man, taking another chew; “and I don’t think you will condemn my course when I tell you that the colored man in question had stolen $9.60 in cash, sir, from my own brother.”