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Why Jim Left

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you have ready Huckleberry Finn you may have questioned why the slave Jim ever bothered to escape from Hannibal, Missouri, in the first place. It was a place to sleep and three squares a day in return for a few odd jobs for Miss Watson, with plenty of time for a smoke with Huck and the boys back of the barn.

Let me put that question to rest. There are some things about Missouri that Mark Twain must have forgotten to mention in his book.

Here's one thing from St. Louis newspapers, the year Mark Twain was born. A slave there was arrested for a minor offense. A free black man named Mackintosh, a steward on a steamboat docked at St. Louis, attempted a rescue, but was himself arrested by two officers. A scuffle broke out on the way to jail; one of the officers was killed, the other wounded.

Mackintosh ended up in jail, from which an angry mob of citizens took him. A lynch mob tied him to a tree in the woods near St. Louis while they tried to figure out what to do, as a crowd of three thousand watched. "Burn him," someone in the crowd shouted. It seemed like a good idea. Brush was piled around the prisoner and set on fire.

After Mackintosh's legs burned and he dropped into the fire, a bystander said "There, it is over with him; he does not it feel any more now." "Yes, I do," said a voice from the flames.

Killing a man without a trial was a bit outside the law, even for Missouri, and so the case was brought up before a grand jury under Judge Lawless.

The case posed a dilemma for the judge. Lynching Mackintosh was lamentable, even bad, the judge agreed, but how to dispose of the case. If the man had been killed by a few men, then they ought to be indicted and punished. But if it were the act of many, as it appeared, "incited by electrical and metaphysical influences which occasionally carried a multitude to do deeds above the law," then "it was no affair for a jury to interfere in."

The jury agreed, declared the affair to be electrical and metaphysical, and the proceedings were dropped. In the same climate, at nearby Marion College, two college students who had taught two slaves to read, in preparation for freeing them, were surrounded by a mob and given a choice of two hundred lashes or leaving Missouri forever.

They both decided, like Huck's Jim, that there were healthier climates than Missouri.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.