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“The Greatest Thrill I Get is When I Hear a Criminal Say, ‘Yes, I Did it’”: Race and the Third Degree in New Orleans, 1920–1945


On May 11, 1938, two New Orleans policemen entered the Astoria Restaurant, marched to the kitchen, and approached Loyd D. T. Washington, a 41-year-old African American cook. They informed Washington that they would be taking him to the First Precinct station for questioning, although they assured the cook that he need not change his clothes and “should be right back” to the “Negro restaurant,” where he had worked for 3 years. Immediately after arriving at the station house, police officers “surrounded” Washington, showed him a photograph of a man, and announced that he had killed a white man in Yazoo City, Mississippi, 20 years earlier. When Washington insisted that he did not know the man in the photograph, that he had never been to (or even heard of) Yazoo City, and that he had been in the army at the time of the murder, the law enforcers confined him in a cell, although they had no warrant for his arrest and did not charge him with any crime. The following day, a detective brought him to the “show-up room” in the precinct house, where he continued the interrogation and, according to Washington, “tried to make me sign papers stating that I had killed a white man” in Mississippi. As every African American New Orleanian knew, the show-up (or line-up) room was the setting where detectives tortured suspects and extracted confessions. “You know you killed him, Nigger,” the detective roared. Washington, however, refused to confess, and the detective began punching him in the face, knocking out five of his teeth. After Washington crumbled to the floor, the detective repeatedly kicked him and broke one of his ribs. The beating continued for an hour, until other policemen restrained the detective, saying “give him a chance to confess and if he doesn't you may start again.” But Washington did not confess, and the violent interrogation began anew. A short time later, another police officer interrupted the detective, telling him “do not kill this man in here, after all he is wanted in Yazoo City.” Bloodied and writhing in pain, Washington asked to contact his family, but the request was ignored. Because he had not been formally charged with a crime, New Orleans law enforcers believed that Washington had no constitutional protection again self-incrimination or coercive interrogation and no right to an arraignment or bail, and they had no obligation to contact his relatives or to provide medical care for him.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Muhammad , “Where Did All the White Criminals Go?: Reconfiguring Race and Crime on the Road to Mass Incarceration,” Souls 13 (2011): 7290

Jeffrey S. Adler , “Less Crime, More Punishment: Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice in Early Twentieth-Century America,” Journal of American History 102 (2015): 4344

Edgar W. Camp , Andrew A. Bruce , and Oscar Hallam , “Report of Committee on Lawless Enforcement of Law” (made to the Section of Criminal Law and Criminology of the American Bar Association, Chicago, 1930), American Journal of Police Science 1 (1930): 581

Nachman Ben-Yehuda , “The Sociology of Moral Panics: Toward a New Synthesis,” Sociological Quarterly 27 (1986): 495513

Sam B. Warner and Henry B. Cabot , “Changes in the Administration of Criminal Justice During the Past Fifty Years,” Harvard Law Review 50 (1937): 594

Michael J. Klarman , “Is the Supreme Court Sometimes Irrelevant? Race and the Southern Criminal Justice System,” Journal of American History 89 (2002): 121

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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