From Academic Kids

Missing image
Postcard depicting the lynching of Lige Daniels, Center, Texas, USA, August 3, 1920. The back reads, "This was made in the court yard in Center, Texas. He is a 16 year old Black boy. He killed Earl's grandma. She was Florence's mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle." As discussed in the article, lynchings were often motivated by economics, or were retaliations for violations of Jim Crow etiquette, with false accusations of murder made in order to justify them.

Lynching is murder (usually by hanging) conceived by its perpetrators as extra-legal execution. Victims of lynching have generally been members of groups marginalized by society.

Originally, lynching meant any extra-judicial punishment, including tarring and feathering and running out of town. During the 19th century in the United States, the meaning became more violent. More recently, lynching has come to have a contemporary informal use as a label for social vilification, particularly in the media, and particularly of African-Americans.


History of lynching in the United States


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Lynching victim, southern USA, 1889.

Lynching began with vigilance committees which formed to keep order during the Revolutionary War. Lynching was named either for Colonel Charles Lynch, who practiced lynching circa 1782 to deal with Tories and criminal elements, or more likely for Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, who practiced lynching circa 1780. The use of lynching as a method to maintain the social order was referred to as lynch law; at this time lynchings as executions were rare. After the war, as the nation expanded so did the practice of lynching, and lynching gradually became more brutal.

Before the US Civil War, lynching was used primarily on horse thieves, gamblers and various rogues. However by the 1880s, lynching expanded to low-status groups such as African-Americans, Jews, Native Americans, and Asian immigrants. In the 20th century lynching victims included high-status minorities and civil rights supporters.

Lynching as ad hoc law-enforcement spread west along with the American frontier. Particularly in unorganized territories or sparsely-settled states, security was often provided by a federal marshal who might, despite the appointment of deputies, be hours or even days away by horse. As the frontier closed, local law enforcement improved, and lynching of common criminals declined.

The practice then became particularly associated with the killing of African Americans in the southern United States in the period before the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. There, it can be seen as a latter-day expression of the slave patrols, the bands of poor whites who policed the slaves and pursued escapees. Many whites were devastated by the war, and as they saw the conditions of black people improving they joined the culture of anti-black violence in increasing numbers.

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A postcard showing the burned body of Jesse Washington, Waco, Texas, 1916. Washington was a 17-year-old retarded farmhand who had confessed to raping and killing a white woman. He was castrated, mutilated, and burned alive by a cheering mob that included the mayor and the chief of police. An observer wrote that "Washington was beaten with shovels and bricks. . .[he] was castrated, and his ears were cut off. A tree supported the iron chain that lifted him above the fire. . . Wailing, the boy attempted to climb up the skillet hot chain. For this, the men cut off his fingers." This image is from a postcard, which said on the back, "This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe."

Social characteristics

There were often two motives for lynchings in the United States. The first was the social aspect--righting some social wrong or perceived social wrong (such as a violation of Jim Crow etiquette). The second was the economic aspect. For example, upon successful lynching of a black farmer or immigrant merchant, the land would be available and the market opened for white Americans. A black journalist, Ida B. Wells, discovered in the 1890s that black lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape only about one-third of the time. The most prevalent accusation was murder or attempted murder, followed by a list of infractions that included verbal and physical aggression, spirited business competition and independence of mind.[1] (

Lynch mobs enforced the racist social order through beatings, cutting off fingers, burning down houses, and/or destroying the crops of African-Americans. Murder was a common form of lynch mob "justice", sometimes with the complicity of law-enforcement authorities who participated directly or held victims in jail until a mob formed to carry out the murder. Hanging was the most common form of lynching but some victims were beaten, burned, stabbed, shot, or slowly tortured to death.

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The circus-style lynching of Will James, Cairo, Illinois, 1909.

Most often, victims were lynched by a small group of white vigilantes late at night. Sometimes, however, lynchings became mass spectacles with a circus atmosphere. A large lynching might be announced beforehand in the newspaper, and there were cases in which a lynching was started early so that a newspaper reporter could make his deadline. It was common for postcards to be sold depicting lynchings, typically allowing a newpaper photographer to make some extra money. These postcards became popular enough to be an embarrassment to the government, and the postmaster officially banned them in 1908. However, the lynching postcards continued to exist through the 1930's.

Less than 1% of the lynch mob participants were ever convicted. Many lynchings were carried out with the tacit approval of the police, and even in the rare cases in which the murderers were tried, they were often acquitted by all-white juries in the southeastern United States. For example, the trial for the murder of Emmett Till resulted in an acquittal, with the jurors reporting than they had taken a "soda break" in order to stretch their deliberations to over an hour.

More than 85% of the estimated 5000 lynchings in the post-Civil War period occurred in the southern US states but the problem was nationwide, peaking in 1892 when 161 African-Americans were lynched.

Lynching in the Western United States

The widespread use of capital punishment by hanging gradually became associated with the word lynching (helped by the wordplay on linch). Lynching in the American Old West often referred to a legally-sanctioned hanging. Many of the other characteristics were also present, such as mob action in the sanctioned form of a posse, and public attendance.

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Three Ku Klux Klan members captured in Tishomingo County, Mississippi in September 1871.

Lynching in the Southern United States

There were two periods of heavy lynching in the southern United States. These took place between 1868 and 1871, and again in 1888 until the Second World War. The first major series of lynching was essentially a purge of black and white Republicans by white Democrats. Most whites had decided to prevent the ratification of new constitutions by preventing people from voting. Failed attempts at terrorization lead to a massacre during the 1868 elections, when the Ku Klux Klan systematically murdered around 1000 voters across various southern states ranging from South Carolina to Arkansas. After years of terror by the Klan, President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress passed the Anti KKK Act of 1871. This permitted authorities to use martial law in places like South Carolina, where the Klan was the strongest. At about this time the Klan dissipated, but the US would see a reemergence in the early 20th century.

The second major period of lynching in the South took place after 1888. Congress housed many southern Republicans who sought to protect black voting rights by using federal troops. Because of this, there was a rush of political power pushed to the racist members of government. This time instead of targeting both blacks and whites, it was strictly blacks who were targeted and the lynching became very public. This period drew to a close in the early 1940s with the rise of both black and white enlistment in the military and the early stages of the civil rights movement.

Cover of the Atlanta Constitution with Leo Frank
Cover of the Atlanta Constitution with Leo Frank

The 1915 murder of factory manager Leo Frank, an American Jew, was one of the more notorious lynchings of a non-African-American. Frank was convicted of murder after a questionable trial in Georgia (the judge asked that Frank and his counsel not be present when the verdict was announced due to the violent mob of people in the court house). His appeals failed (Supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented, condemning the intimidation of the jury as failing to provide due process of law). The governor then commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, and he was murdered. The incident focused attention on the problem of anti-semitism in the United States and reflected the Ku Klux Klan's revival with a pronounced anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant stance.

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The lynching of Michael Donald, 1981.

In 1964, three civil rights workers were lynched by white racists in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner (24), Andrew Goodman (20) of New York, and James Chaney (22) from Meridian, Mississippi, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination. They disappeared in June of that year while investigating the arson of a black church being used as a "Freedom School". Their bodies were found six weeks later in a partially constructed dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 2005, 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of federal manslaughter charges for the killings.

Although lynchings became much more rare in the era following the civil rights movement, they do still occur sometimes. In 1981, KKK members randomly picked out a nineteen-year-old black man, Michael Donald, and murdered him in retaliation for a jury's acquittal of a black man accused of murdering a police officer. The Klansmen were eventually caught, prosecuted, and convicted, and a seven million dollar judgment in a subsequent civil suit bankrupted a subgroup of the Klan, the United Klans of America.[2] (

Lynching elsewhere in the United States

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Postcard of the Duluth lynching.

Not all lynchings in the United States took place in the frontier or South. One such incident occurred in Duluth, Minnesota on June 15, 1920, when three young African-American travelers were dragged from their jail cells (where they were confined after being accused of raping a white woman) and lynched by a mob believed to number more than one thousand. The event became the subject of a non-fiction book, The Lynchings in Duluth, published in 2000, by Michael Fedo.

Anti-lynching movement

Ida B. Wells-Barnett led a crusade against lynching.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett led a crusade against lynching.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a black journalist, was shocked when three of her friends in Memphis, Tennessee were lynched for opening a grocery that competed with a white-owned store. Outraged, Wells-Barnett began a global anti-lynching campaign that raised awareness of the American injustice. By the 1930s, the rate of lynchings was reduced to ten per year in southern US states.

With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932, anti-lynching advocates such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter Francis White who had campaigned for Roosevelt were hoping for progress toward ending lynching. Senators Robert F. Wagner and Edward P. Costigan drafted a bill (the Costigan-Wagner bill) to require local authorities to protect prisoners from lynch mobs. A lynching in Miami, Florida affected the political atmosphere of the bill. On July 19, 1935, Rubin Stacy, a homeless African-American farmer, went knocking on doors begging for food. Frightened, Marion Jones complained to the authorities. Six Dade county deputies were bringing Stacy to jail when he was killed by a lynch mob. Because Stacy's original actions were so innocuous, lynching opponents considered Stacy's murder an egregious example. Nevertheless, Roosevelt did not support the bill, believing that it would cost him the votes of Southern whites, and thus the 1936 election.

By the Fifties, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. A case that sparked public outrage was that of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicagoan who was spending the summer with relatives in the South, and was mutilated and killed for allegedly having whistled at a white woman.

On June 13, 2005, the United States Senate formally apologized for its failure in previous decades to enact a federal anti-lynching law, all of which fell victim to filibusters by powerful Southern senators. Prior to the vote, Senator Mary Landrieu noted, "There may be no other injustince in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility." [3] ( The resolution was passed on a voice vote with 80 senators cosponsoring, causing some to point out that the remaining 20 did not have to take a position on the matter through either cosponsorship or a recorded vote in favor or against.

The resolution expresses "the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States."

Lynching outside the US

While lynching may be most strongly associated with the American South in the first part of the 20th century, it is also seen in other parts of the world.

World War II

In 1944, Wolfgang Rosterg, a German POW known to be unsympathetic to the Nazi regime in Germany, was lynched by Nazi fanatics in a prison camp in Comrie, Scotland. After the end of the war, five of the perpetrators were hanged at Pentonville Prison - the largest mass execution in 20th century Britain.


On March 31, 2004, Iraqi citizens killed four American Blackwater USA security guards operating in Fallujah, Iraq in support of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The car in which the four Americans were driving was attacked by guerillas. All four men were killed. After the car and people were burned, the bodies were mutilated and two of them were hanged from the main bridge over the Euphrates leading to the city.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip

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Ramallah lyncher waving blood-covered hands towards the crowd

Palestinian lynch mobs have executed Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel [4] ( According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2001:

During the first Intifada, before the PA was established, hundreds of alleged collaborators were lynched, tortured or killed, at times with the implied support of the PLO. Street killings of alleged collaborators continue in the current Intifada (see below) but so far in much fewer numbers. [5] (

Israelis have been lynched as well. On October 12, 2000, Israeli reservists Vadim Norzhich and Yosef Avrahami were beaten to death in a Ramallah police station in what was described as a "lynching" by Amnesty International [6] ($FILE/ch3.pdf) and the BBC [7] ( Their bodies were then thrown out of the window into the hands of a mob of Palestinians, who mutilated them. Some news reports said that they were suspected of being undercover agents or assassins [8] ( Since then, nineteen Israelis and dozens of Palestinians have been lynched by Palestinian gangs and militias [9] (, [10] (,2763,667591,00.html).

There have also been incidents of Israelis lynching or attempting to lynch Arabs suspected of terrorism, including the beating and killing of an Arab-American tourist after he accidentally skidded his car into a Jerusalem bus stop, killing two Israelis [11] (, and an attempt on an innocent Arab bystander after a Palestinian suicide bombing [12] (


On November 23 2004, three Mexican undercover federal agents doing a narcotics investigation were lynched in the town of San Juan Ixtayopan (Mexico City) by an angry crowd who saw them taking photographs and mistakenly suspected they were trying to abduct children from a primary school. The policemen identified themselves inmediately but were held and beaten for several hours before two of them were killed and set to fire. The whole incident was covered by the media almost from the beginning, including their pleas for help and murder. By the time police rescue units arrived, two of the policemen were reduced to charred corpses and the third was seriously injured. Authorities suspect the lynching was provoked by the persons being investigated. Both local and federal authorities abandoned them to their fate, saying the town was too far away to even try to arrive in time and some officials stating they would provoke a massacre if they tried to rescue them from the mob.

South Africa

The practice of whipping and necklacing offenders and political opponents evolved in the 1980s and 1990s under the apartheid regime in South Africa. Residents of black townships lost confidence in the apartheid judicial system and formed "people's courts" that authorized whip lashings and deaths by necklacing. Necklacing is a term used to describe the torture execution of victims by igniting a rubber, kerosene-filled, tire that has been forced around the victim's chest and arms. Necklacing was used to punish numerous victims, including children, who were alleged to be traitors to the black liberation movement as well as relatives and associates of the offenders. [13] (

Popular culture

Famous fictional treatments

In The Virginian, a seminal novel that helped helped to create the genre of Western novels in the U.S., the protagonist participates in the lynching of an admitted cattle thief, who had been his close friend, during the Johnson County War. The lynching is represented as a necessary response to the government's corruption and lack of action, but the protagonist feels it to be a horrible duty. He is especially stricken by the bravery with which the thief faces his fate, and the heavy burden it places on his heart forms the emotional core of the story.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of rape, narrowly escapes lynching because of his lawyer's bravery, and the disarmingly innocent behavior of the lawyer's daughter. The lawyer tells his daughter that he isn't angry at the mob, because once the feeling of mob violence gets into people, they don't act normally. Robinson is later killed trying escape from jail, after having been wrongfully convicted.

In Fury, German expatriate Fritz Lang depicts a lynch mob hanging innocent men, apparently modeled on a 1933 lynching in San Jose, California that was captured on newsreel footage and in which Governor of California James Rolph refused to intervene.

In The Ox-Bow Incident, two drifters are drawn into a posse formed to find the murderer of a local man, and suspicion centers on three innocent cattle rustlers who are then lynched, deeply affecting the drifters. The novel was filmed in 1943 as a wartime defense of American values versus the characterization of Nazi Germany as mob rule.

"Strange Fruit"

Among artistic works referring to lynching is the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit", written by Abel Meeropol in 1939:

Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the roots. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant south, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh. Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, here is a strange and bitter crop.

The stark, disturbing lyrics were rejected by Holiday's label, but she recorded it independently; the song became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement which joined the groundswell of the American civil rights movement. A documentary, also titled Strange Fruit (, has aired on U.S. television.

The song has been performed by other artists, including Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson. It was also remixed by the British artist Tricky.

Clarence Thomas

The word lynching returned to popular culture with the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas, an African-American government attorney nominated by the Republican President George H.W. Bush and supported by Republican Senators. His nomination received heavy criticism from Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee, and in particular allegations of sexual harassment of a female subordinate, Anita Hill, while he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Frustrated with the detailed and embarrassing questioning, Thomas appeared before the committee and shot back a prepared statement:

Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing. I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation.

The phrase was repeated later that same day:

There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

Democrats viewed this as a calculated tactic to make them appear racist for opposing him, but Republicans defended Thomas vigorously. Thomas went on to successful confirmation, and the phrase high-tech lynching is still heard in this context.

See also

Tarring and feathering

External links

Further reading

  • Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,

fr:Loi de Lynch ja:私刑 pt:Linchamento sv:Lynchning


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