T.J. Ray’s story of the hanging of Mathis and Lester is one of those books you read and come away thinking, “Wow, that would make a damn good movie.” And it would. Death as the circumscription of all human activity is also the Great Equalizer, uniting men of all stripes, but the hanging of Will and Orlando brought fate and justice together in a jagged gray crescendo. Fashioning a screenplay for Side by Side would be aided and enhanced by Dr. Ray’s meticulous research, his informative narration that moves us through the court speeches with appropriate dispatch, his accounts of media coverage that enhance the drama now as it did then and his descriptions of Lafayette and Pontotoc Counties that set a sordid Yoknapatawphan stage for what ultimately is a squalid incidence of multiple murder.
At the turn of the last century, north Mississippi was still for the most part a wilderness, little more than a network of villages and towns strung together along dirt and gravel roads, traveled by or with a horse, united only in proximity. The scars of the Civil War ran deep, and the adjusted system of laws in the newly-Reconstructed state were little more than the legal ramifications of military defeat. Yet the state was growing, law had to be enforced and the cases of Will Mathis and Orlando Lester, grisly in detail, profound in ramifications, proved in to be a public circus ending in a lethal trapeze. Side by Side is as much about race than it is of the reestablishment of justice in the South, an ongoing trial if there ever was one.