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The Rope

A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP

About The Book

From New York Times bestselling author Alex Tresniowski comes a page-turning, remarkable true-crime thriller recounting the 1910 murder of ten-year-old Marie Smith, the dawn of modern criminal detection, and the launch of the NAACP.

In the tranquil seaside town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, ten-year-old schoolgirl Marie Smith is brutally murdered. Small town officials, unable to find the culprit, call upon the young manager of a New York detective agency for help. It is the detective’s first murder case, and now, the specifics of the investigation and daring sting operation that caught the killer is captured in all its rich detail for the first time.

Occurring exactly halfway between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the formal beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954, the brutal murder and its highly-covered investigation sits at the historic intersection of sweeping national forces—religious extremism, class struggle, the infancy of criminal forensics, and America’s Jim Crow racial violence.

History and true crime collide in this sensational murder mystery featuring characters as complex and colorful as those found in the best psychological thrillers—the unconventional truth-seeking detective Ray Schindler; the sinister pedophile Frank Heidemann; the ambitious Asbury Park Sheriff Clarence Hetrick; the mysterious “sting artist,” Carl Neumeister; the indomitable crusader Ida Wells; and the victim, Marie Smith, who represented all the innocent and vulnerable children living in turn-of-the-century America.

Gripping and powerful, The Rope is an important piece of history that gives a voice to the voiceless and resurrects a long-forgotten true crime story that speaks to the very divisions tearing at the nation’s fabric today.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Black Diamond CHAPTER 1 Black Diamond


November 1910

Asbury Park, New Jersey

For Thomas Williams, it was better to be no one than someone in Asbury Park.

Williams lived in a city that was not meant for him. It was designed as a haven for godly and wealthy white people. The purest air in the bluest sky, the gentlest spray from a perfect ocean, wide boulevards and candy-colored homes—the very best America. Williams lived there, but only in the shadows of other people’s lives, a peripheral figure, a black man for hire, no one of note. This was how both he and the city wanted it. Williams took all kinds of jobs—chopping wood, painting houses, corralling hogs and cows for widows. He did these jobs and then he was gone, to somewhere on the edges of town. He was forty years old and complained of lumbago—chronic back pain—but there wasn’t any kind of work Tom Williams wouldn’t do, if it meant a few dollars for him.

He was not from Asbury Park, or even New Jersey. He came from Lynchburg, Virginia, where he’d been an amateur prizefighter and went by his ring nickname, Black Diamond. He had a boxer’s build—six feet tall, broad shoulders, hard hands—and he wore a sweater coat that was dark with grime and pants held up by suspenders. He liked his liquor—gin and whiskey—and many mornings he could be found in the barroom at Griffin’s Wanamassa Hotel, out past Wickapecko Drive, eating his breakfast and taking his drinks as early as 8:00 a.m.

In New Jersey, the record of Williams’s life was a crime sheet, though not a violent one. In 1907, a state prison supervisor riding a train spotted a six-shooter sticking out of Williams’s coat. He had him searched and turned up several gold watches and $375 in cash. Williams confessed to larceny and served eighteen months in state prison. He served a separate, shorter stretch for being drunk and disorderly.

For the fourteen months he’d been in Asbury Park, though, he’d had no trouble with the law.

That is, until an unspeakable crime happened in the fall of 1910, and Tom Williams became someone in Asbury Park.

Wherever he went, Williams carried with him the long, heavy history of racism in America, and in 1910 no part of his life would have been unaffected by it.

Education, land ownership, voting rights, due process, equality, self-determination—Williams would have been guaranteed none of these. By 1910, black people had been free from bondage for forty-five years, but the dark-hearted mentality behind slavery remained in place, not in the corners and fringes of the country but on its main streets and in its town halls and courtrooms. One race fought steadily and openly to keep another race as near to a state of subjugation as possible. The weapons used—black codes, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, segregation, lynching—were insidious, suppressive, and terrorizing.

Williams lived in a time the historian Rayford Logan called “the nadir of American race relations”—a period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s that saw a violent, bloody backlash against any gains made by black Americans after the Civil War. During this half century some states identified crimes and passed laws “specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity, or loud talk, with white women,” wrote Douglas A. Blackmon in his Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the era, Slavery by Another Name. Black landowners lost billions in wealth as white mobs drove them from their homes and stole their land from beneath them. Many thousands of black men were lynched, many tens of thousands of families displaced, black neighborhoods purged or burned down, death sentences passed for stealing bread or “acting too white.”

A voice in the world, dominion over his body, the barest of dignities—people like Tom Williams were denied these things, and had to fight for them every day.

They were often alone in this fight, but not always.

The story of Tom Williams is also the story of two individuals, a man and a woman, one white, one black, born at different times in different parts of the country, fated never to meet but linked by a passion for justice, and by a single legal case in a town called Asbury Park.

One of them, Raymond C. Schindler, was a cerebral private detective who never once shot a gun or even carried one, the son of a preacher and a prison librarian, a believer in redemption but relentless in pursuit of the criminals who needed it—a gentleman bloodhound.

The other was Ida B. Wells, a black woman born a slave and driven by personal tragedy, a crusader against racism and a champion of her race, barely five feet tall but towering in her righteousness and influence—the most famous black woman of her time.

Schindler was a raw-boned rookie only a few years out of high school when he crossed paths with Tom Williams; by then, Wells had been an activist and reformer for decades. Schindler came to know the dark corners of Asbury Park; Wells never set foot there. They were unaware of each other’s efforts, and neither foresaw the full impact of the case that united them. Today, they are not linked in any textbooks, or in any telling of the crime and its aftermath.

Yet both Ray Schindler and Ida B. Wells, in their resolute pursuit of equal justice for all, emphatically answered the question posed to every citizen, every day—what kind of America do we wish to live in?

Their efforts demonstrated the power of an individual—a single, steadfast warrior—to collide with history and meaningfully shift its course. Their separate heroism, in the form of small, principled decisions and actions, day after day, against all odds and resistance, in service to the unheralded and the vulnerable, had a clear impact on one specific case, but also helped give shape to an ongoing struggle that was bigger than any one man or crime. They were part of a chain of unlikely events in 1910 and 1911 that galvanized the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and set it on its way to becoming the most powerful force in America’s long battle for civil rights.

Those events—and the moral audacity and persistence of Raymond Schindler and Ida B. Wells—are the story of this book.

“In small towns, such crimes are not soon forgotten,” declared the sheriff of Asbury Park, in the days after the terrible crime. “There must be punishment. The man must be made to pay.”

So it was that they came looking for Black Diamond.

When they found him and brought him in, some people had bad things to say about him. One woman told a reporter she always locked her doors when Williams was around; she didn’t like him because “he was so black and dirty.” Others said he was shifty, lazy, a drunk. The Asbury Park Press called him “a bad man generally.”

Most people had no opinion of him at all.

Emma Davison, a key witness in the sensational case that was to come, could recall only a single prior incident involving Tom Williams—an innocuous encounter relayed to her by her young son.

According to the boy, he was playing with a little hop toad on a dirt path in the Wanamassa woods, on the northern edge of Asbury Park, when Williams walked by. The boy announced he planned to kill the toad.

“Don’t do it,” Williams told him.

“Why not?”

“Because it would be cruel.”

The boy considered his choice, and opened his hand and let the toad go, and watched it spring and scoot away, into the indifferent woods.

About The Author

Photograph by Lorraine Stundis

Alex Tresniowski is a writer who lives and works in New York. He was a writer for both Time and People magazines, handling mostly human-interest stories. He is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books.  For more about this story and the author, please visit AlexTres.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: 37 Ink (February 9, 2021)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982114022

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Raves and Reviews

"Brisk and cinematic writing...the stories are so vividly told, so filled with velocity."Wall Street Journal

"[A] riveting read" – New York Times Book Review

"Compelling and inspirational... This outstanding, meticulously researched book will serve to commemorate [Marie Smith's] stolen life, as well as the countless Black lives stolen by lynch mobs." – Washington Post

"Compelling" – The Guardian

“This thrilling true crime story documents a critical chapter in the crusade against racial violence in America.” – Publisher’s Weekly

"Gripping and powerful, The Rope is an important piece of history that gives a voice to the voiceless and resurrects a long-forgotten true crime story that speaks to the very divisions tearing at the nation’s fabric today." — Book Reporter

"This suspenseful, well-written true-crime tale will be an eye-opener for anyone who assumes that after Reconstruction, lynching remained a serious threat only in the South. High-velocity historical true crime." — Kirkus Reviews

"Journalist and author Tresniowski details[s] the life and career of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, and her work with the newly formed NAACP as they launched their first legal battles to defend wrongly-accused victims... The parallel stories are engrossing, and the action continues apace as the two strands come together. The satisfying conclusion describes the trial and its aftermath, and fills in the later lives of Williams, Tarbell, and Schindler. An indictment of lynching on a stark, personal level." — Booklist

“Tresniowski breathes life into a largely forgotten murder mystery in this gripping true crime story… An important reminder of the many layers of injustice still present in the United States… Timely, relevant.”—Library Journal

"In this riveting true story, Alex Tresniowski tells the intertwined stories of a crusading reporter, an innovative detective, and a man unjustly imprisoned... You’ll read this in a night, I promise!" —Crime Reads, 2021 Most Anticipated Books of the Year

"There are some parts here that’ll make you gasp with cliff-hanging movie-worthiness, and reach for more.. Why you’ll devour The Rope should be no mystery." The Philadelphia Tribune

“Fascinating, important and colorfully reported. When  a white detective and a former slave work separately but toward the same goal in an unspeakable murder case in 1910– justice is served.  Their moral audacity and persistence highlight  a question relevant to today: what kind of America do we want to live in?” - Walter Isaacson, author of New York Times bestsellers Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci 

"In Alex Tresniowski’s brilliant and kaleidoscopic retelling of the infamous Marie Smith murder investigation, we see crack detectives, the bravery of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, and a civil rights organization gaining its footing, all linked in an effort to bend justice unto a white child - and a black man. Asbury Park is riveting and quite relevant for the society which we inhabit today." - Wil Haygood, author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America
 

“Alex Tresniowski has breathed new and incredibly relevant life into an obscure and largely forgotten murder mystery with The Rope, a page-turner of historical true-crime that transports readers to the turn of the century in a legendary New Jersey shore town. The shoe-leather detective work at the center of the narrative is gripping on its own, but what makes this story all the more compelling and timely is the backdrop of civil rights and racial justice, carried along by none other than Ida B. Wells. It's a book to make Bruce Springsteen proud.” – Joe Pompeo, journalist, Vanity Fair

“This book is a timely and powerful history lesson wrapped inside a compelling true crime thriller. It examines the persistent and devastating inequalities between races in America, but also highlights the heroism of activists who fought to bend the country away from hate and toward justice. It takes a unique look at the early days of the NAACP by drilling into the courageous and often unheralded efforts of Ida B. Wells, a writer turned revolutionary who believed mere protests were not enough to challenge entrenched racist practices like Jim Crow, Black Codes and lynching, and whose bold actions laid the groundwork for a century of black American activism. Vividly and dramatically told, this story of two ordinary citizens who refused to buckle under the weight of systemic racism and instead struggled mightily to spare a single black life, is especially relevant and powerful in today’s regressive political times.” – Ben Jealous, former NAACP President

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