‘‘Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body— it is heritage.’’ –Ta-Nehisi Coates

The rise of Lynching

Lynching means more than homicide: it is condemning someone to death by the whims of a mob or entire community — no judge. Over time, it became racist, common, and brutal.

However, the word lynching has evolved in meaning over time, and the methods looked different in distinct regions of the US. In the original 13 colonies, lynching referred to punishing someone in public (such as tar and feathers) outside of the official law.

By 1835, this public punishment was becoming lethal more often, and the group of people who did it still expected impunity. The perpetrators felt no one should ever question the ‘justice’ being served by murdering their suspect. In the 1830s, remember, the United States was still in the times of slavery and expanding to the Far West.

In the middle of the century, lynching could be found as a crude form of frontier justice done by vigilantes "keeping the peace"— about 40% of all the recorded lynchings by this time were done to white men (there is one case recorded of a white woman as well). Yet studies have discovered lynching was used more often in towns that had a functioning courthouse. This seems to contradict the idea that it was just a time of lawlessness. Lynching became a tool that people engaged in hatred: it was applied viciously as Anglos clashed in tensions with Mexican-Americans on the southwest border. It was an ultimatum leveled against Chinese families who were living alongside white settlers in the middle of California, Oregon, and Washington.

1880 — Fifteen years after the Civil War, black men had created social progress with the new right to vote (but still no women in the US were allowed to vote). Black Americans were successfully becoming businessmen, property owners, and electing their own state legislators. Then the defenders of a whites-only South (Dixie) escalated lynching to a scale it had never been used before. After 1886, the proportion of times it was used against white suspects in the South was strikingly small. But entire white communities would gather in the streets to seize and kill black people outside the law. In the South, nearly 80% of such mob murders would be attacks against black Americans specifically: mostly men, sometimes women, even sometimes teenagers.

Activists in the 1890s struggled to define the word lynching to try to capture this rise in terror.

The 1880s were not like today, when TV and internet has the power to spread a terrible event to the public and start a national debate. In 1886 perhaps only the local county gazette might report on the brutal hanging or torture of another "Negro" after pulling him out of jail. And often, the newspaper showed a tone of pride about the deed. (Only sometimes, the Editor would scold the sheriff for not maintaining order from the unruly mob.) These old news articles have become the footprints that researchers are still tracking down today. By 1890 there were hundreds upon hundreds of black people being killed publicly at the slightest accusation, yet only tiny stories in the local paper. If you lived 80 miles away, you might possibly not even hear about these actions of other citizens in your state.

Around this year, a young writer by the name of Ida Wells living in Memphis, Tennessee, experienced the terrible murder of three friends who were dragged out of jail. They had not done anything wrong: a mob of white men had picked a fight because their store was competing economically. Ms. Wells put pen to paper and published one of the first pamphlets against lynching in 1892: Southern Horrors.

As the horror of these gruesome killings was surging, only one paper, the Chicago Tribune, was regularly collecting a tally of lynchings across the country. Monroe Work was aware of Ida Wells’ work to document lynchings, and saw year after year of counts in the Tribune. He thought none of these facts were receiving much attention, since no other newspaper wanted to re-report the statistics that came from a news competitor.

So as early as 1910, Work began systematically compiling his own independent lynching reports and sending the statistics to Tuskegee Institute's principal. But he also sent them to the Chicago Herald, in the hopes that they would gladly accept it as a way to get reliable statistics from any source besides the Tribune. He was right that the Herald was willing to publish his reports. Then in 1912, the tally was included in his own Negro Year Book which reached a national distribution. In a matter of only two years, his lynching reports were being sent to 300 daily newspapers, the Associated Press, and all leading black newspapers in the US.

Now, Mr. Work's tally of deaths became the most trusted number — even more than the Tribune, because his reports came from the South and could not be accused of having a biased Northern agenda. Also, he usually counted a slightly lower number than reports from other activist organizations, because he held himself to an extremely high standard of being certain about the facts of the event. By being more conservative in his work, he established credibility with leaders who otherwise wanted to ignore the problem. His documentation, being read everywhere, was now the conscience of the entire nation.

History class taught you the tip of the iceberg

1. Lynching does not always mean hanged from a tree.

There were many ways that a mob could take the life of a victim they were after. Yes, many people died by hanging, but others were killed from a hail of gunshots, dragged to death behind a vehicle, and some were burned alive. Sometimes, the mob would do all of these things to a single person.

2. Lynching could be different in different regions.

There is no single way to describe all lynchings. Often a mob in western states (like California) staged a mock trial at the gallows, in order to pronounce the person ‘guilty’ before hanging. The spectacles of public mutilation happened most often in the South, but sometimes in West Virginia, Delaware and Maryland too. People in Northern states perpetrated lynchings as well: sometimes as a brutal killing, and sometimes more swiftly. Finally, the accusations levelled against Mexican- or dark skinned Sicilian-Americans to justify their murder were typically different than the charges made against black Americans. (On the map, explore places like California, Texas and New Orleans to investigate on your own.)

3. A victim was usually accused of "something."

Lynching was not a random attack: sometimes the mob grabbed a man suspected (but unproven) of a major crime like murder. Many times it was utterly trivial and not a crime at all, like:

  • talking back to a white person
  • daring to file a lawsuit
  • fear that they might testify
  • refusing information, or refusing to cooperate.

In addition, certain cases that claimed to be defending white women seem to be covering up forbidden relationships— where newspaper details reveal the flimsy reason was a black man found "hiding under the bed."

Whatever the charge, it was never allowed to take its course in court. An angry group broke into the jail, pulled the person out and executed him or her outside the law. It was rare that law enforcement tried to stop them when the officers supported the mob's beliefs. Then later (despite all the potential witnesses), again and again the judges concluded that this act was done "at the hands of parties unknown to this court."

4. A victim was sometimes tortured for the crowd's amusement.

Some lynchings went far beyond a mere murder. They included dark and brutal tortures to a person's eyes, fingernails, genitals, orifices. People were set afire, or bones were crushed, bodies mutilated and sometimes cut into pieces. The person died in agony, to say the least. This kind of cruelty served as a lesson of terror to everyone else who might challenge the status quo.

5. The onlookers showed no signs of guilt for participating.

Many lynchings gathered a large crowd of spectators, like a carnival, and the lynching might be prolonged until more spectators could arrive. For example, the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899 in Georgia caused the railroad to run extra trains to let more people come right after Sunday church. Many photographs exist today because they were taken as proud souvenirs and postcards.

A famous study by S. Tolnay & E.M. Beck called this phenomenon "a festival of violence."

6. White society tried to justify that this was right.

In the South, a mythology arose that lynching was the only way to protect their "gentle women" against a crime wave of rapes. [See quote] Similarly in 1933, the Governor of California publicly praised the lynching of one kidnapper by people on the street. He promised to pardon anyone who might be prosecuted for it.

At the same time Monroe was working in Tuskegee, Alabama, he had many contemporaries fighting to stop the lynchings being wielded as terror. Meet a few others working in the years prior to 1916 and onward:

The tallies made by Monroe Work have been carefully referenced against modern research, and corrected where necessary. Explore the history in an interactive map, starting with your home state:

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The citation of ‘40% of the lynchings by this time’ is calculated from the MonroeWorkToday Dataset Compilation (v. 1) using a total of 1,297 deaths in the 48 United States prior to the year 1872 that have a race identified. 508 of these are recorded as white victims in the dataset. For context, the composition of the US general population was recorded as 87% white persons in the 1870 US Census.

The citation of ‘nearly 80% of such mob murders’ is calculated from the MonroeWorkToday Dataset Compilation using a total of 3,517 deaths in twelve Southern states after the year 1886, of which 345 are recorded as white and 2,796 as black victims in the dataset. For context, the composition of these twelve Southern states was 64% white population and 36% ‘Negro’, as recorded in the 1890 US Census.


Photo of the lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 is from the Allen/Littlefield Collection, published in Without Sanctuary © 2000 Twin Palms Press.

Photo of Rebecca Latimer Felton is in the public domain from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-F8- 21359 [P&P].

Image of iceberg is licensed from iStockphoto LP [pated].

Census data is from Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS): Version 11.0 [Database], Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 2016. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V11.0

Music licensed from Envato Marketplaces [martinsound].

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