Cover Image: Hell Put to Shame

Hell Put to Shame

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I received this book as an eARC in return for an honest review. thank you to netgalley and the publisher.

this was a well written book and will leave you sickened by the fact that this was our country only 100 years ago (made even worse by the fact that we haven’t gotten much better). I am giving this 3 stars solely because I was expecting this book to be more about the “murder farm” and not focused so much on the politics. overall it was a good read

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In the book Hell Put To Shame by Earl Swift we learn about a time 60 years after slavery was made illegal how a Georgia farmer and his family enslaved men anyway. It was called peonage when they needed a worker they just mosey on down to the local jail paid someone’s fine and made them work it off and then some. Like most good books it’s not just the murders of the 11 men by A Georgia farmer named John S Williams his sons and his nephew. But we also learned the reporters and lawmakers that tried to put a stop to it other people who did it and some who didn’t live to talk about it. The practice of peonage wasn’t just popular in America in history is wrought with sad stories but the one of slavery always breaks my heart no matter if in America or elsewhere. Mr. Swift has written a compelling interesting book about the practice of peonage in the worst case ever on record and he did a wonderful job. This is a great book I want to thank mariner books for my free arc copy via NetGalley please forgive any mistakes as I am blind and dictate my review.

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Actual rating: 4.5 stars

Wow. Hell Put to Shame shed a light on a largely unknown series of murders during American's second slavery in Georgia, carefully weaving together written records, oral stories, and everything in between. Earl Swift's writing is very frank, matter-of-fact, and truly lets the atrocities of this time speak for itself.

Given the subject, there's no denying this is a heavy read. I often found myself having to put it down/step away to process what I had read. But, he is unflinching in his approach—which, when it comes to these heavy, forgotten histories, I do feel like it's important to be as brutally honest as you can.

The only reason I took it down a half star was because I found myself getting bogged down at times and slightly confused by the all the names/places/dates. I think Swift presented it as well as he could, but for some reason, there were paragraphs at a time that I had to read two to three times over to really understand what he was trying to say.

But, this is definitely an important read and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.

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Put Hell to Shame is a well researched and horrifying story of murders committed by John S. Williams in 1921 Georgia. As a person who loves history and true crime, I had never heard of this case. While I vaguely knew about peonage, this book is a great example of the atrocities that were committed under that system.

Earl Swift did a great job researching and using the actual trial transcripts in his narrative. He showcased how this case had wider implications than just murders in a small Georgia county.

I highly recommend the book!

Thank you Netgalley and Mariner Books for the privilege of reading this ARC.

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"Hell Put to Shame" by Earl Swift is a haunting and powerful work of narrative nonfiction that sheds light on a forgotten chapter of American history. In the spring of 1921, the bodies of eleven Black farmhands were discovered in rural Georgia, exposing the horrors of the peonage system—a form of legal enslavement that persisted in the South long after the Civil War. Swift skillfully weaves together a gripping tale of murder, injustice, and resistance, as he recounts the shocking events that unfolded in the wake of this mass killing. Through meticulous research and vivid storytelling, Swift brings to life the voices of those who fought against the forces of racism and exploitation, including Georgia Governor Hugh M. Dorsey and civil rights activists James Weldon Johnson and Walter F. White. "Hell Put to Shame" is not just a retelling of past atrocities, but a timely reminder of the enduring legacy of racial injustice in America, offering insights that resonate deeply with contemporary struggles for equality and justice. With its compelling narrative and profound relevance, this book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the roots of systemic racism and the ongoing quest for racial justice in America.

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Sometimes it’s necessary to read and understand things that make a person uncomfortable. At the risk of sounding pretentious, those are teachable moments.

And Earl Swift delivers a profoundly important one with his telling of the so-called ‘Murder Farm Massacre’ in Jasper County, Georgia in 1921. It isn’t easy to know that slavery didn’t end when it was outlawed after the Civil War, that countless people actively engaged in it and many more looked the other way while it happened. And it is perhaps even less easy to know that slavery in various ways still exists in America today.

But society needs to know those things. It is the only way it will ever have a chance of ending.

Swift centers the story on John S. Williams, a white farmer in Jasper County who regularly paid the bonds of poor Black men to get them out of jail, often on charges more or less invented to set up the peonage system, in exchange for working on the white owned farms until the debts are paid. Williams, and many others, concocted ways to ensure that the debts were rarely ever paid so the laborers were rarely ever freed. And they were locked up, beaten, and whipped regularly.

In the case of Williams, the slave laborers were also murdered. There is no good way to be murdered but Williams and his sons ensured that the torture of the Black men lasted until their last possible moment of life.

As in so many heinous crimes, it was only the strength and bravery of one man getting away and going to federal investigators that brought anything to light. And it was the strength and bravery of a forced participant in the murders to tell the story so clearly and forcefully that a white jury convicted a white man of murdering a Black man.

John S. Williams murdered far more than one, but it was all he was convicted of.

Swift makes good use of hundred year old court transcripts and newspaper accounts to tell this important story. He sets the scenes in ways that are reminiscent of any Hollywood produced tale of justice in the Deep South a century ago. And he adeptly uses the particular case of the ‘Murder Farm’ to illustrate what came after Reconstruction and how the racial biases of Jim Crow South made it ripe for another round of slavery that few wanted to acknowledge. He shows this through a focus both on the politics of Georgia in the 1910s and 1920s and also on the rise of the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement that would come to know Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader.

Hell Put to Shame is the vehicle for an important part of American history, one that not enough people know or acknowledge.

I received an advance copy of Hell Put to Shame through NetGalley and Mariner Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

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The spring of 1921 was a tumultuous time in Georgia. The civil war might be over but the racial tensions run deep in the south and peonage is a legality for those seeking workers on the land. In this historical true crime book, a tale of disturbing crimes is brought to light and needs to be understood. I recommend for those who read true crime and history. This is a courtroom, police procedural and historical record of an unfathomable crime.

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My thanks to author Earl Swift, publisher Mariner Books, and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an ARC of this title. I attest my review is my own original and unbiased work.

Hell Put to Shame is a true crime story that would be lost to history without the detailed research narrative compiled by author Earl Swift to write a book most readers will find shocking and appalling. If you thought slavery ended with the defeat of the South in the Civil War you learn differently in this book. A system of peonage prevailed in the post-reconstruction South where Blacks were forced to live and work in conditions that resembled slavery. Plantation and farm owners would help bail out arrested Blacks from jail in exchange for working off their fines and wages. But like "Hotel California," once the Blacks checked in they could never check out. The illegal system of peonage created new generations of indentured servants; they just were not referred to as slaves.

Hell Put to Shame is the story of the events of 1921 that played out on the John Williams Plantation that resulted in the murders and attempted coverup of 11 Black men, and untold others whose fate will never be determined. Swift is able to recreate this story through the use of trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and interviews with descendants on both the Williams and victims.

It is difficult to talk about the book without giving away spoilers, something I avoid as a reviewer. Let me say if you are interested in history, true crime, and learning about the topic of peonage (something I knew little about) you will want to read this book. But be advised, it will likely make you angry and wondering how human beings can treat others as chattel and a hatred for anyone of a different color.

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An important story, excellently told and researched. I’d recommend it to any fans of narrative history that links to current events in a meaningful way. Planning to pitch review. Thanks.

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Earl Swift gives an amazing detailed account of the 1921 Murder Farm Massacre and cases of the time that influenced or were influenced by this case, peonage and the general opinion of Americans at this time. This novel open my eyes to something I never really was educated on growing up and actually sent me down on a rabbit hole to learn more. They use court files, witness testimony, and newspaper clippings to really emphasis these cases and the people's involved mindset. It did take me a bit of a read only because, in my opinion it was a lot to digest because of the sheer audacity some people had. I definitely recommend this nonfiction novel to those who love true crime but also those who want another glimpse into how African Americans lived in the 20's.

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Have you ever read a book and find your mind in the wrong century? I found myself, multiple times, thinking, "Man the 1800s were ridiculous," only to have to remind myself that the story of Earl Swift's Hell Put to Shame takes place in the 1920s.

You see, there is a farmer named John Williams who is effectively still using slavery on his land. He uses the peonage system. This means he goes to jail, bails men out who can't pay fines, and then uses various means to never let them leave either through ensuring the prisoners never pay their bills or he just murders them. Yes, murder. A lot. Luckily, some brave men escape and we have some courtroom drama!

Besides the excellent court scenes, Swift does an amazing job tackling the peonage system. I get very wary when subtitles of books seem to reference a much bigger topic than what the story is ostensibly about. In this case, Swift definitely explores the peonage system and how it really is American's second slavery. Also, the author explains the actions of the NAACP around this time to ensure the story is not entirely from a white perspective.

It should be noted that Swift does not shy away from quoting directly from the actual records. Swift has a thoughtful notes section explaining his reasoning for not altering any language. As such, there is repeated use of a racial epithet because... well there is a ton of racists in this story and they had no shame even in the middle of court. Which was a huge part of the problem! So fair warning, the very bad, hateful word is in here more than a couple times.

Overall, the book was absolutely riveting from beginning to end. Swift not only makes the courtroom scenes fascinating and suspenseful, but his exploration of the peonage system and the NAACP at this time is equally readable. It is simply a must read.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Mariner Books.)

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Going into this, I was familiar with sharecropping and its injustices, but only vaguely aware of peonage/debt servitude in the United States. Hell Put to Shame quickly rectified that, and introduced not only the pervasiveness of peonage throughout the South, but also the 1921 mass murder that brought the system into the general consciousness.
The story of the Williams plantation and the eleven men murdered in an attempt to cover up their virtual enslavement is horrifying, as it should be. Swift relies heavily on primary sources, often directly quoting witnesses, lawmen, and perpetrators in order to showcase the crime itself, as well as the state of race relations in the South more generally. The book is incredibly well-researched, with extensive primary sources (trial transcripts, newspaper articles, legal codes, family interviews, etc.) that document the events of the crime and resulting trials, as well as input from historians to provide context of the time period.

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Earl Swift does a great job in stating the facts and using the true crime elements to this book. It felt well-researched and worked with what I was looking for. I had never heard of this case before and this book did a great job in bringing this case to life.

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I will be honest by admitting that I didn’t finish this book; I only got about a third end, before I just skimmed a few pages and walked away in disgust.

Why? Well, I came expecting to get a discussion about the issue of race in America, the many ways racism manifests itself, and how even good people unintentionally wind up playing into it. Instead, I received a court procedural more concerned about the strategies and thoughts of the white people involved in the story, rather than the black people directly experiencing the suffering and trauma.

When Martin Scorese set out to direct the film adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he initially told the story from the white investigators sent to unravel the massive plot. However, he quickly realized that this story needed to be told from the perspective of its victims—the Osage Indians targeted by racist, greedy whites—who directly experienced the suffering, not another tale about brave white outsiders coming to the rescue of innocent people of color.

I wish this book had done the same.

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Not a fun history to read, but necessary to truly understand the United States. So many people forget that the 1920s saw the resurgence of the KKK, and this book tells of one set of consequences of the virulent racism that the country chose to ignore or even celebrate.

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