Reading W.J. Cash is like watching a country club social group learn how to buckdance. The Mind of the South, while earnest and thoughtful, leaves one with the aftertaste of fried chicken wings from a fancy restaurant. A certain type of awkwardness or unfamiliarity with the subject leads to the plague of verbosity– the good fish splash away in the next terrific wave of words. In sum, the author’s discomfort becomes one’s own, and the book’s argument takes backseat to the author’s theatrics.
Cash, with his wife of five months, Mary Ross Northrop, also a writer and contributor to The News, embarked on the trip to Mexico in late May, 1941. Having been invited by University of Texas president Homer Rainey to provide the main commencement address to the 1941 graduating class on June 2 in Austin, Cash accepted and addressed some 1,500 graduates from the steps of the Main Building, focusing on the main developmental socio-psychological themes of the South through history into the modern era, titled “The South in a Changing World”; (a recording of this half hour speech still survives and is available for listening at the University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection in Chapel Hill, as well as online).
On July 1, 1941, after complaining to Mary during the previous 24 hours of being followed by Nazi spies, Cash was found hanging by his necktie from a bathroom door hook in the Reforma Hotel in Mexico City. Though there was no note of suicide and no physical evidence other than the fact of his being hanged, the Mexico City authorities concluded his death to be suicide. Cash’s remains were cremated under rushed circumstances, and against his parents’ telegraphed wishes. Thus, no examination of his remains was ever conducted in the United States.
At the time, Mexico City had a large contingent of Nazi spies, the largest in North America outside of the New York City area. The largest single spy arrest in United States history, netting 32 spies in and around New York City, occurred during the weekend of June 28-29, 1941, becoming national headline news on June 30, the same day Cash began complaining to his wife of being followed by Nazi spies.
Since 1933, the Ambassador to Mexico had been Josephus Daniels, a genial and popular elder statesman, former newspaper editor for The Raleigh News & Observer, former Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, and good friend to President Roosevelt, who had his first government job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Daniels. Although the Ambassador’s son Jonathan Daniels, had co-sponsored Cash for the grant which took him to Mexico, the elder Daniels did not know Cash and had only met with him briefly during the month prior to his death.
For reasons which were not stated, on July 12, 1941, Daniels asked Mexico’s foreign minister to arrest three particular German nationals, suspected of being principals of the Nazi spy ring in Mexico. Daniels had never made such a request in the whole of his previous eight-year tenure as Ambassador. Those arrests did not occur, though 240 Nazi spies were arrested and deported from Mexico after Pearl Harbor, in February, 1942.