Posted on November 3, 2019

The History of Lynching in America

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, October 1995


Lynching — History and Analysis, Dwight Murphey, Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1995, 74 pp.

Lynching is generally thought to be one of the most shameful practices in all of American history, second only to slavery. It is now widely believed to have been an expression of white hatred for blacks that could be visited upon virtually any black for any reason. In this monograph, Professor Dwight Murphey of Wichita State University shows that this was by no means the case. He has set out to investigate the subject without, as he puts it, “animus against mainstream American society,” but the result is a portrayal of a system of justice that was not, in all respects, inferior to the one we have today.

There is uncertainty about the origin of the term “to lynch,” but Prof. Murphey suspects that it comes from a certain Col. Charles Lynch of Bedford County, Virginia, who administered local justice during the American Revolution. There were many British loyalists in the area who stole horses for the redcoats. The nearest court was 200 miles away in Williamsburg, so Col. Lynch undertook to punish offenders. After the Revolution, his actions were legalized by the state legislature, and his name became associated with ad hoc execution.

In recent decades, lynching has become such a powerful symbol of white racism, that it has been largely forgotten that whites were lynched, too. Statistics are not easy to gather, but Prof. Murphey offers a total figure of 3,337 lynchings during the 20-year heyday of the practice, from 1882 to 1903. Of this number, 1169 were white, 108 were “other,” and 2060 were black. Sixty-three women were lynched during this period: 40 blacks and 23 whites.

A different authority, who examines the period from 1882 up through 1968, proposes a figure of 4,742 lynchings, of which 1,297 were white and 3,445 were black. If anything, the figure for whites is likely to be an undercount, since unreported lynchings were common in the West, where most victims were white.

It is easy to lose sight of another important aspect of lynching — that it was not random killing but punishment for specific crimes. Many participants knew the accused and could determine his guilt. Even opponents of lynching rarely argued that the victims were innocent; only that courts rather than mobs should enforce the law and that lynch mobs could commit unspeakable cruelties.

Lynching also reflected the will of the community. Prof. Murphey writes of lynchings that were advertised in advance in the newspapers, that attracted thousands of people, and that were participated in by leading citizens. For example, in 1891 in Wyoming, Dr. John E. Osborne — a future governor of the state — helped lynch a notorious (white) bandit. Dr. Osborne himself skinned the corpse; the hide was tanned and made into a medical instrument bag, razor strops, a pair of lady’s shoes and a tobacco pouch. For many years, the lady’s shoes were displayed at the Rawlins National Bank — so far was summary justice from being thought a disgrace.

In the mid-19th century, a mayor of Los Angeles was so eager to join the action that he resigned his office — which he thought incompatible with lynching — in order to take part. He then helped spring a man from jail and hang him.

People often resorted to lynching because the competent authorities were a long ride away and justice would brook no delay. Prof. Murphey reminds us that President Andrew Jackson himself sanctioned the practice when he recommended to Iowa settlers that they lynch murderers. Likewise in Kansas, a New York Tribune correspondent reported in 1858 that “[t]here is a very general disposition to pass over the hopelessly useless forms of Territorial law and corrupt Federal courts, and try these parties (i.e. horse-thieves) by Lynch law.”

Prof. Murphey notes that contrary to current assumptions, blacks also formed lynch gangs, mostly to lynch blacks, but sometimes to lynch whites. In Clarksdale, Tennessee, blacks lynched a white in 1914 for raping a black woman. The authorities later ruled that this was justifiable homicide. In 1872 in Chicot County, Arkansas, armed blacks broke three whites out of jail and shot them to death.

Nor was lynching by any means a sport in which any black was fair game. In Tennessee in 1911, four white men hanged a black man and his two daughters but for no good reason. This outrage roused the ire of the community; the whites were tried and two were hanged.

It is true that blacks were lynched more often than whites, and undoubtedly some blacks were executed for crimes that might have earned a white a whipping. Moreover, blacks were more likely to be tortured, burned, or mutilated. Nevertheless, as is the case today, blacks were also more likely to commit violent crimes, so even if lynching had been scrupulously race-blind, the number of executions would still have been racially unbalanced. W.E.B. DuBois himself wrote disparagingly of “a class of black criminals, loafers, and ne’er-do-wells who are a menace to their fellows, both black and white.”

If race were the primary or even a significant factor in lynchings, we would expect blacks in the Old South to have been more likely to suffer from it than those who lived elsewhere. Prof. Murphey explains that on the contrary, during the 1890s blacks living in Mississippi were no more likely to be lynched than blacks living in Kansas.

Many people today believe that the civil rights movement finally stamped out lynching, but Prof. Murphey points out that it had virtually died out well before the Second World War. The liberal magazine, New Republic, used to publish an annual editorial detailing the year’s lynchings, but ended that tradition in the mid-1930s because there was so little to write about. The NAACP got as much fund-raising mileage as possible out of every isolated case of lynching, but the practice was essentially finished by the time blacks started organizing around it. Prof. Murphey argues that lynching died a natural death as the rule of law was extended into rural areas and people gained greater confidence in it.

The Nature of Justice

How did lynching compare to our current system of criminal justice? Obviously, the potential for sadism and error were grim defects. According to today’s orthodoxy, it was pure barbarism, if only because its only purpose was punishment — and, to some degree, deterrence by example. It did not pretend to be rehabilitation, whereas today we are supposed to seek regeneration.

On the other hand, as Prof. Murphey points out, something is lost in any system in which government, rather than the immediate community, punishes criminals. In lynching there was immediacy, finality, and in many cases direct participation: The victim or his bereaved could take personal vengeance. Primitive as this was, and subject to whim and cruelty, it answered a deeply-felt human need.

Prof. Murphey clearly prefers a system of due process over vigilantism. Nevertheless, the law must reflect the community’s sense of justice, and in this respect our current system often fails. Known criminals are released on technicalities. Executions are carried out so long after the crime that they often seem unrelated to it. Brutes receive absurdly short sentences. Prof. Murphey explains that by turning “justice” over to professionals, we have made it subject to different abuses:

[T]here are the vagueries of courthouse politics, of ego, of ideology and the part-truths of anyone’s conventional wisdom, of fads and fashions, of biases, of prejudices, often of corruption and venality, of personality . . . of budget constraints with their impact on staffing and plea bargaining and sentencing, etc. etc. These factors introduce . . . a cancer into the American legal system . . . .

Our due process system once administered what was seen to be justice but is now hamstrung with regulations and technicalities that sometimes make it impossible to punish in ways that satisfy society. It is all very well piously to claim that it is better to let 99 guilty men go free than to punish a single innocent, but such a system would leave 99 criminals unpunished and 99 victims unrequited. The trial of O.J. Simpson suggests, as Prof. Murphey puts it, that “popular justice must indeed be horrible to be worse.”

Innocent men have been lynched and this is a tragedy. However, are these deaths so much more tragic than today’s routine killings in a society that has probably been made more violent by an increasingly impotent legal system? It may not be such an awful thing for men — black or white — to know that if they commit an outrage there is a good chance they will be dead within a few hours.

Due process takes longer than a lynching, but, as Prof. Murphey writes, it must be “suffused with energy, with dispatch, with a full regard for the civilizational claims of the law-abiding citizen.” Due process has been perverted by judges who are happy to flout ancient and essential notions of fairness. Our current system suffers from decadence that sometimes makes it hard to condemn the simpler practices of the past.