Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carnival of Death: Lynching in America

The History of Lynching

Lynching differs from ordinary murder or assault because it is a killing that is committed outside the boundaries of due process by a mob who enacts revenge for an offense. During the late 19th century, lynching frequently enjoyed the approval of the public. It is a practice that was committed, ostensibly, in the name of justice. But the motivations for these killings were alien to the themes of justice and honor.

Lynching became almost a necessary practice "that served to give dramatic warning to all black inhabitants that the iron clad system of white supremacy was not to be challenged by deed, word or even thought" (Friedman, p. 191) For all their suffering though, it would be incorrect to say that lynching was only used against blacks. Whites, too, suffered the rope, at times in greater numbers than blacks. Who became a victim had a lot more to do with where the lynching took place than the victim's offense. In the Deep South[3], most often the victim was black. In the West, the victim was most often white. However, lynching, when used against African Americans, was utilized for reasons other than a form of substitute justice. That was just an excuse. As the noted psychologist William James (1842-1910) once wrote: "for all sorts of cruelty, piety is the mask" (Myers, p. 208).

Lynching is a derivative term that was taken from the name of Col. Charles Lynch who was a landowner in Virginia in 1790. Lynch had a habit of holding illegal trials of local lawbreakers in his front yard. Upon conviction of the accused, which was usually the case, Lynch took to whipping the suspects while they were tied to a tree in front of his house.

Cleveland Advocate, May 17, 1919
Cleveland Advocate, May 17, 1919

Over time, this practice became known as simply "lynching". Although mistreatment of slaves was common throughout the early part of the 19th century, lynching was a separate practice apart from slavery[4]. The term "lynching" refers only to the concept of vigilantism, in which citizens would assume the role of judge, jury and executioner. Vigilante groups were common during the last half of the 19th century and were fed by a strong notion that the existing laws were not functioning properly resulting in criminals, especially black criminals, being set free at the expense of the public.

Many newspaper editorials of the day echoed those sentiments and contributed to the passions aroused by the practice of lynching. Consider this editorial published on June 19, 1897: "The people of Ohio have seen murderers tried and convicted of murder in the 1st degree two or three times over and finally set free. They have known many desperate and dangerous criminals to be sent to the penitentiary for long terms and released soon enough to make the whole costly process of the courts seem little better than a farce...That is the real reason why, once in a while, the passion and indignation of the masses break through all restraints and some particularly wicked crime is avenged..." (The Cleveland Leader). This editorial was published after a black rape suspect was forcibly taken from a county jail and lynched in front of a crowd of 9,000 people.

The actual process of lynching was morbid and incredibly violent. Lynching does not necessarily mean hanging. It often included humiliation, torture, burning, dismemberment and castration. Victims were beaten and whipped, many times in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Coal tar was frequently used to douse the unfortunate victim prior to setting him afire.

Onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities. Pieces of the corpse were taken by onlookers as souvenirs of the event [5]. Such was the case when James Irwin was lynched on January 31, 1930. Irwin was accused of the murder of a white girl in the town of Ocilla, Georgia. Taken into custody by a rampaging mob, his fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. It still wasn't enough. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers (Brundage, p. 42). No one was ever punished for this barbaric killing. Black victims were hacked to death, dragged behind cars [6], burned, beaten, whipped, sometimes shot thousands of times, mutilated; the savagery was astonishing. How could ordinary people participate in such brutality?

The answer lies in the psychological processes of persuasion and propaganda. For generations, whites in the South regarded blacks as inferiors, both intellectually and biologically. Of course, this may have been a necessary process in order for whites to justify the enslavement of others. These imbedded feelings were visible on every level of society, even in the most trivial circumstances. In the South, a black man was expected to remove his hat when speaking with a white. A black was always addressed by his first name or some derogatory term and he had almost no legal rights. States like Mississippi and Tennessee effected legislation that specifically omitted or targeted African Americans, depending on their purpose. All this had a demoralizing effect on blacks and made them seem less than human to white society. And worse, this condescension seemed to be officially endorsed by the state. It was easy to mistreat blacks if it could be agreed upon that African Americans were vastly different than whites and not deserving of the same respect. This was a result of a disorganized, yet powerful, campaign of propaganda carried on by white plantation owners and others who had an economic stake in the retention of cheap black labor. It was to their advantage to keep African Americans in their "place". In many photos of lynchings at the turn of the century, onlookers and members of the mob can be seen smiling and grinning for the camera. They demonstrate no fear of prosecution or reprisal. They had none. For no white man was ever punished for a lynching until 1915. By then, there had been thousands of lynchings in the South alone with certainly hundreds of thousands of spectators. Some lynchings were even announced in the newspapers beforehand, indicating a strong and undeniable alliance with local law enforcement

Statistics compiled by the N.A.A.C.P. in 1921 tell the gruesome toll of murder committed in the name of justice. Between the years 1889 through 1918, at least 3,224 people were lynched in America. Of that number 2,522 were black. The figures vary depending on the source. The Cleveland Gazette reported in 1903 that "There were 3,233 lynchings, in one form or another, in this country in the twenty-one years ending January 1, 1903" (May 16, 1903). The Tuskegee Institute chronicled over 4,000 lynchings during a similar period. In any account though, African Americans suffered the brunt of mob violence. The driving force for this unprecedented level of mob violence was mostly racism.

The atmosphere of a racist caste system, perpetrated by the traditions and culture of the South, provided the background for lynch mobs. Although slaves were freed in 1863 by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, white domination of blacks, on every social, economic and legal level, continued. Undoubtedly, the battles of the Civil War still burned in the hearts of many people in the late 19th century. Confederate veterans of that war were still alive and their children, tutored well in the ways of racism and entitlement, continued the prejudices of that era. Lynching became a vital tactic that was utilized by whites to intimidate and control African Americans. In order to justify the practice, justice was used as an excuse for vigilantism. The mythology at that time was that blacks were lynched for the crime of raping white women. Although this was the case at times, there was a wide variety of other offenses for a which a black man could be lynched. And rape was not the most frequent excuse. Some of these reasons were petty, insignificant and seem incredible to us today. People were lynched for "crimes" such as registering to vote, arguing with a white man, disrespect to a white woman, shoplifting, drunkenness, elopement, insults and refusing to give evidence. Authors Tolnay and Beck list 75 recorded reasons why blacks were lynched in the years 1882-1930 including "being obnoxious, disorderly conduct, indolence, suing white man, trying to vote, vagrancy and unpopularity" (p. 47).

In 1930, Dennis Hubert, the son of a minister and a student at Morehouse College, was leaving Sunday school when seven angry white men falsely accused him of insulting two white women the day before. They claimed that Hubert was in an Atlanta, Georgia, park, when he saw two white women who had been drinking, accompanied by two white men. When one of the women fell, Hubert allegedly remarked: "You better take the drunk lady home." They shot and killed Hubert for the crime of "insulting a white woman." Typically any reason, no matter how trivial, would be treated as valid if the target of the mob was black and the victim of the perceived offense was white. Newspapers of the day sometimes echoed those sentiments with editorials that, stopped short of actually supporting the violence, but appeased the mob mentality by suggesting that lynching was somewhat understandable. The Hubert murder case became a media circus. Surprisingly, all seven men were quickly arrested and convicted of the murder by a jury. The shooter received a 12-year sentence.

Cleveland Advocate, September 13, 1919
Cleveland Advocate, September 13, 1919

The press usually added to the sense of lawlessness by suggesting that all things considered, most civilized men recognized that the races are divided as this Mobile Register editorial did on June 19, 1897: "There is a feeling in the white man's mind that whoever of the race not his own who attempts to defy this race instinct, and violently upset the physical line which nature has established, does by that act take his life in hand". Of course, the editorial neglected to mention that African Americans were being murdered by blood thirsty mobs who killed for transgressions like "demanding respect" (Tolnay and Beck, p. 47) and in doing so, share at least part of the blame for the frenzy of lynching that took place in the South during those decades.


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