The Psychic Toll of Night Rides

How survivors of Klan violence described the long-term injury wrought by white terror.

Mississippi Ku Klux Klan members in the disguises in which they were captured.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Harper’s Weekly January 27, 1872/Wikipedia.

This article supplements Reconstruction, a Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit

Adapted from “Never Get Over It: Night-Riding’s Imprint on African American Victims” by Kidada Williams, in Julian Maxwell Hayter and George R. Goethals’ Reconstruction and the Arc of Racial (In)Justice, published by Edward Elgar.

“What they did is hurting my family,” Patrick W. Tanner testified to members of Congress on the Joint Select Committee Inquiring Into the Affairs of the Late Insurrectionary States on July 7, 1871.1 A gang of armed and masked white men had attacked the Tanner family several weeks earlier and Patrick was there to report what transpired. Congressional investigators at the Ku Klux Klan hearings interviewing Tanner used the past tense to describe the violence done to him as an individual. In so doing, they indicated a belief that “nightriding” was a discrete event with no further consequences for victims, which invalidated Patrick’s ongoing and potential long-term suffering. In using both the present tense and collective language, Tanner wanted to communicate the full nature of the horrors his family endured.

A wave of terror had swept across many former slaveholding states after Congress passed the 1867 Second Reconstruction Act, requiring the former rebel states to write new constitutions recognizing black American men’s right to vote. Armed white supremacists organized themselves into posses bent on curbing the possibilities of black liberation. Rather than reigniting the war and fighting the politicians or soldiers who made legal freedom and resulting civil and political rights for blacks possible, these men operated as racial vigilantes, waging organized assaults on civilians.

Contemporaries often described this violence colloquially as visits, suggesting harmless social calls, language that masked the atrocities nightriders typically committed. Vigilantes attacked families in their homes in the middle of the night and often without warning. Some men simply fired inside their targets’ homes but others invaded these spaces, holding entire families hostage. Most people visited were not prepared for raids, even if they had learned of them happening to someone else or were threatened with a visit.

Patrick and Missouri Tanner lived in Glenn Springs Township, South Carolina, in the spring of 1871. Their household included several children: 23-year-old Adrianna, 1-year-old Vitoria, and a young boy they hired. Missouri was in the final days of her pregnancy with the next addition to their family.2 The family had been living in their home and on their land for about four years, plenty of time for them to get settled in to make a real go at achieving their freedom dreams.

By the time spring peaked, this started changing. On May 1, 1871, a gang of 10–12 masked white men snatched Patrick’s son-in-law William Moss from his home in nearby Spartanburg. The men blindfolded William and escorted him from his home, but before they could punish him for an unspecified transgression, he got free and ran. Moss reported the attack to authorities, which only antagonized his attackers. Rather than stay home and risk reprisal, William, his wife Adrianna, and their two children sought sanctuary, moving in with Adrianna’s parents, Patrick and Missouri. In the meantime, Missouri’s pregnancy had come to term and she was confined to the home.

Sometime after the attack on Moss, masked white men visited the Tanners and demanded Patrick’s Enfield rifle and the pistol carried by the young man the Tanners hired. Insisting that bans on enslaved and free blacks owning guns or having ammunition stay in place—despite the war and emancipation—white men routinely swept communities, robbing black Americans of means to hunt for large game or defend their homes from intruders.

Having disarmed the Tanners, white men in the community probably felt it was easier to strike them again. In June, armed men painted with black and red faces and wearing gowns and hoods with horns approached the house while Missouri and Adrianna were up talking and Patrick and other family members were asleep. Adrianna answered the door, assuming the visitors were people the family knew, but when she saw who they were, Adrianna cried out to Patrick. Before she could fully awaken her father, the men barged in and made their way to his bed. They threw a pillowcase over Patrick’s head and took him outside, demanding to know his son-in-law’s whereabouts. Patrick informed the men that William was sleeping in bed and they pushed him aside to pursue his son-in-law, enabling Patrick to slip away. When the men discovered Patrick’s escape, they told Missouri and Adrianna they would kill them all if they did not reveal his location, which they claimed they did not know. William probably heard the fracas and fled, prompting the men to fire on the running man, who escaped physical harm for the second time.

When Patrick Tanner testified at the hearings, he attempted to convey the many layers of his family’s victimization. Investigators had other agendas. Examiners wanted to know the details of the attack—who attacked the family, when and why—especially information relating to Patrick’s political activity.

Patrick provided answers to most of their questions without protest, except when it came to revealing the perpetrators’ identities. Part of Patrick’s reluctance to name his attackers came from his understanding of his family’s continued vulnerability to reprisal. “I am afraid,” Patrick explained, “somebody will know [I told], and, perhaps, him or his friends will injure me for this again.”

Patrick and the examiners volleyed back-and-forth over this issue. U.S. congressman Philadelph Van Trump pressed, indicating his belief that if the men had not hurt Tanner’s family before, they would not hurt them in the future, even if Tanner disclosed their identities. This is when Patrick insisted, “What they did is hurting my family.”3 The investigators’ comments reflected a common belief that because the men did not whip or kill anyone, as had happened in other attacks, the visit upon the Tanners was a harmless, onetime event. But Tanner’s pointed use of the present tense underscored his appreciation for the strike’s many aftershocks. Although many of the physical dimensions of the violence had ended when the men left, Patrick’s testimony suggests that he and his family were all still wrestling with the aftermath of the raid.

Patrick’s anxiety following the attack was driven in part by the belief that they had done nothing to induce a visit. White men had just started killing innocent men, he explained, which “made us all dubious to stay on the place where they had abused these men that hadn’t done any harm.”4 If the family could be attacked after having done nothing to provoke white men, then they could be struck any time and for no reason.

Reconstruction and the Arc of Racial (In)justice

In responding to questions about his potential culpability for the visit, Patrick insisted, “All the neighbors will give it in that I had been a peaceable man and have attended to my own business and worked hard.” Tanner’s statement reveals his misunderstanding of his social position within the context of white Southern redemption.5 What the Tanners did not know is that the seemingly mundane activities of black people’s post-emancipation lives—working for their own families instead of someone else’s, voting or serving in political office, and moving into a place where displaced whites had lived as the Tanners had done—threatened white power and required a reckoning.

Another concern for Patrick was that his attackers were people he knew, having lived in the area for 40 of his 60-odd years. That people who knew him would attack his family and might attack them again and that no one would do anything to help them added to Patrick’s suffering. Sometime during the raid, the men told Patrick “if I didn’t leave there pretty shortly they would kill the last one of us; that we should not stay there.”6 The family was now living with the fear of being visited again, but if they fled Glenn Springs, they would do so sparing their lives but at great financial cost. Leaving would mean abandoning the family home as well as land and the good crop it supported, erasing the progress he and his family had made since slavery ended.

As pressing as Patrick’s concerns about being attacked or displaced were, he agonized over Missouri’s suffering. He testified, “They have injured my wife so that I believe she will never get over it.”7 Missouri had been confined after delivery (the records do not indicate the outcome of her pregnancy) when the men struck. Afterward, she started sleeping outside after dark to avoid being trapped inside again. “She catched cold and can’t help herself now,” Patrick explained. But Patrick’s concern suggests his wife’s suffering went beyond the common cold, indicating other problems or conditions. The outcome of the birth could have left Missouri especially vulnerable during the strike. Whether she was recovering physically from a difficult birth or grieving from a stillbirth, sleeping outside out of fear would have exposed Missouri to the elements and set her back physically or emotionally.

Like many families visited by nightriders, Patrick and Missouri—and by extension Adrianna and William—had few good options. They had come close to fulfilling their visions of freedom only to lose them as the result of a strike. In losing even a part of this vision, witnesses like Patrick lost not only property or wealth; Patrick’s despair and concern for what might become of them also indicate they might have lost what psychotherapist Jeffrey Kauffman calls the assumptive world. Kauffman writes that our worlds are made up of “assumptions or beliefs that ground, secure, or orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life.”8 The strikes altered the Tanners’ and Mosses’ assumptions about the world beyond slavery.

Nightriding’s archive reveals a matrix of black Americans’ suffering. Some consequences were physical—the result of whippings or beatings. Others were economic—linked to the loss of precious land or livelihood after sustaining disabling injuries. Still others were psychological—tied to having a very close encounter with annihilation, losing a loved one, or living in fear of being attacked again.9 The most unfortunate accounts had evidence of all of these. Whatever victims endured, there are clear indications the damage did not even stop there. Seeing their disposability in the eyes of others altered black Americans’ understandings of the world in which they lived.

Adapted from Kidada E. Williams (2018), “Never Get Over It: Night-Riding’s Imprint on African American Victims,” in Julian Maxwell Hayter and George R. Goethals’ Reconstruction and the Arc of Racial (In)Justice, Chapter 4, Cheltenham, U.K. and Northampton, Massachusetts, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 59–83.

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1. Testimony of Patrick W. Tanner, July 7, 1871, Before Joint Select Committee Inquiring into the Condition of Affairs of the Late Insurrectionary States, South Carolina, 408. Hereafter SCKH. The emphasis here is mine but even with only the transcript of Tanner’s testimony, the moment of this utterance in the larger arc of his testimony, I do not think that I am making too much of a stretch by assuming he might have stated this point emphatically.

2. Tanner; U.S. Census, Patrick W. and Missouri Tanner, 1870 U.S. Census, Spartanburg County, South Carolina, population schedule. Digital Image. 1 April 2015.

3. Patrick Tanner, SCKH, 408.

4. Patrick Tanner, SCKH, 408.

5. Patrick Tanner, SCKH, 408. For more on Redemption, see George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984); Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

6. Patrick Tanner, SCKH, 407.

7. Patrick Tanner, SCKH, 407.

8. Jeffrey Kauffman, Loss of the Assumptive World: A Theory of Traumatic Loss (New York: Routledge, 2013), 1.

9. I conduct a brief accounting of different types of injuries in earlier work. See Kidada E. Williams, “The Wounds That Cried Out: Reckoning with African Americans’ Testimonies of Trauma and Suffering,” in The World the Civil War Made, eds, Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 159–82.