Fiction tells true story of injustice
Basing his novel on a true story, author Batt Humphreys jumps into the racial divide that is Charleston, S.C., in 1910.
In "Dead Weight," Humphreys tells of Daniel "Nealy" Duncan, a hard-working, forward-looking young black man who's preparing for his wedding to sweet Ida.
In a perfect case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nealy is accused of murdering a Jewish merchant.
Using transcripts from the actual trial, the author inserts fictional Hal Hinson from the New York Tribune to tell Nealy's story.
Hal's story threatens to overtake Nealy's in this book, as he romances the local brothel owner, meets the Ku Klux Klan and shows off his hand-to-hand combat skills.
He also spends time at the deluxe plantation homes of the lawyers in the case and takes lots of showers. It seems a stretch that a grand old hotel in Charleston would have showers in the rooms, but since Hal gets roughed up a lot, it's a good thing. Nealy comes across as what he likely was, an unassuming victim of what we now call racial profiling. The Jewish merchants were willing to do business with the African-American community of the day — as Jews were almost equally ostracized. Nealy is slowly paying for his wedding suit at Max Lubelsky's tailor shop. When Lubelsky is murdered and his widow is attacked a few weeks later, the Charleston police know they must produce a suspect quickly. They arrest a dozen or more black suspects, because someone says they saw a black man running from the scene.
The hint is that a fellow merchant, angry over the possibility that other stores will open on the sabbath, Saturday, may be involved. He and Max have a violent argument about it shortly before the deadly beating. And later, the same merchant loudly expresses his displeasure at Max's widow running the shop.Poor Nealy goes to make the final payment on his suit on the very day Max's widow, Rose, is beaten by a hooded assailant. She identifies him in a lineup, and it's off to jail for this promising young man.
Hal comes to cover his murder trial. He files short, opinionated pieces a few times during and after the event, but it seems his main function is to add romantic adventure to the story. Hal meets and immediately falls for Randy Dumas, the wealthy and beautiful brothel owner. He employs Mojo, a street-smart black boy who wants a little excitement and all the food he can eat.
It's obvious Hal's sympathies lie with the African-American community and Nealy. A third-person narrator tells Nealy's story and that of the Jewish merchants. Hal narrates his chapters. It's bit confusing to decipher what Hal knows and what is general knowledge.
Hal's mobility allows him a tour of Charleston as first the prosecuting attorney and then the defense attorney invite him to their gracious homes on the river.When John Peurifoy, the prosecutor, takes him on a horseback ride, it turns out the destination is a Klan rally. Tensions are high and Hal is in real danger, even though Peurifoy is his guide.
In contrast, Brice Matthews, the defense attorney, impresses Hal with his fairness. On their ride, Matthews challenges Hal with a course full of jumps — indicative of the leaps of faith the jury will be required to take.
All the while, Hal and Randy have an intensely physical relationship, as well as an intellectual one. The scene in the cemetery is quite shocking for 1910.Hal and Randy move mountains and endanger others to fulfill Nealy's dearest dreams. But the end, as readers will guess, cannot be happy.
The author sets up a tiny glimmer of hope for Nealy, as his attorney tries to establish a reasonable doubt, but there's no doubt at all about the outcome of this trial.
It's what happens afterward that is most peculiar. A huge hurricane descends on the city, with plenty of images of dark gray skies, lashing rain and violent winds.
A hurricane really did follow the real Daniel Duncan's trial, and it was known as Duncan's Hurricane, a symbol of the suffering city.
Much to his credit, author Humphreys has written to the state of South Carolina requesting a posthumous pardon for Duncan.
Humphreys used actual trial transcripts for the book, including a heart-breaking letter Nealy writes as he prepares to face the gallows:
"...Tell my family and friends that I am at rest, because I am innocent, and the Lord knows that I am today. They have taken advantage of me for something I know nothing about. But that will be all right. I will meet you when the roll is called."
Daniel Duncan was the last man hanged by the state of South Carolina. It was horribly botched, leaving him struggling and gasping for air for 39 minutes.
Humphreys will not let readers forget this injustice.