1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lynch Law

LYNCH LAW, a term loosely applied to various forms of executing rough popular justice, or what is thought to be justice, for the punishment of offenders by a summary procedure, ignoring, or even contrary to, the strict forms of law. The word lynching “originally signified a whipping for reformatory purposes with more or less disregard for its legality” (Cutler), or the infliction of minor punishments without recourse to law; but during and after the Reconstruction Period in the United States, it came to mean, generally, the summary infliction of capital punishment. Lynch law is frequently prevalent in sparsely settled or frontier districts where government is weak and officers of the law too few and too powerless to enforce law and preserve order. The practice has been common in all countries when unsettled frontier conditions existed, or in periods of threatened anarchy. In what are considered civilized countries it is now found mainly in Russia, south-eastern Europe and in America, but it is essentially and almost peculiarly an American institution. The origin of the name is obscure; different writers have attempted to trace it to Ireland, to England, to South Carolina, to Pennsylvania and to Virginia. It is certain that the name was first used in America, but it is not certain whether it came from Lynch’s Creek, South Carolina, where summary justice was administered to outlaws, or from Virginia and Pennsylvania, where men named Lynch were noted for dealing out summary punishment to offenders.[1] In Europe early examples of a similar phenomenon are found in the proceedings of the Vehmgerichte in medieval Germany, and of Lydford law, gibbet law or Halifax law, Cowper justice and Jeddart justice in the thinly settled and border districts of Great Britain; and since the term “lynch law” came into colloquial use, it is loosely employed to cover any case in which a portion of the community takes the execution of its ideas of justice into its own hands, irrespective of the legal authorities.

In America during the 18th and 19th centuries the population expanded westward faster than well-developed civil institutions could follow, and on the western frontier were always desperadoes who lived by preying on the better classes. To suppress these desperadoes, in the absence of strong legal institutions, resort was continually made to lynch law. There was little necessity for it until the settlement crossed the Alleghany Mountains, but the following instances of lynching in the East may be mentioned: (1) the mistreatment of Indians in New England and the Middle Colonies in disregard of laws protecting them; (2) the custom found in various colonies of administering summary justice to wife-beaters, idlers and other obnoxious persons; (3) the acts of the Regulators of North Carolina, 1767–1771; (4) the popular tribunals of the Revolutionary period, when the disaffection toward Great Britain weakened the authority of the civil governments and the war replaced them by popular governments, at a time when the hostilities between “Patriots” and “Tories” were an incentive to extra-legal violence. In the South, lynching methods were long employed in dealing with agitators, white and black, who were charged with endeavouring to excite the slaves to insurrection or to crime against their masters, and in dealing with anti-slavery agitators generally.

In the West, from the Alleghanies to the Golden Gate, the pioneer settlers resorted to popular justice to get rid of bands of outlaws, and to regulate society during that period when laws were weak or confused, when the laws made in the East did not suit western conditions, and when courts and officials were scarce and distant. The Watauga settlements and the “State” of Franklin furnished examples of lynch law procedure almost reduced to organization. Men trained in the rough school of the wilderness came to have more regard for quick, ready-made, personal justice than for abstract justice and statutes; they were educated to defend themselves, to look to no law for protection or regulation; consequently they became impatient of legal forms and lawyers’ technicalities; an appeal to statute law was looked upon with suspicion, and, if some personal matter was involved, was likely to result in deadly private feuds. Thus were formed the habits of thought and action of the western pioneers. Lynch law, not civil law, cleared the western forests, valleys and mountain passes of horse and cattle thieves, and other robbers and outlaws, gamblers and murderers. This was especially true of California and the states of the far West. H. H. Bancroft, the historian of Popular Tribunals, wrote in 1887 that “thus far in the history of these Pacific States far more has been done toward righting wrongs and administering justice outside the pale of law than within it.” However, the lack of regard for law fostered by the conditions described led to a survival of the lynching habit after the necessity for it passed away. In parts of the Southern states, where the whites are few and greatly outnumbered by the blacks, certain of the conditions of the West have prevailed, and since emancipation released the blacks from restraint many of the latter have been lawless and turbulent. The Reconstruction, by giving to the blacks temporary political supremacy, increased the friction between the races, and greatly deepened prejudice. The numerous protective societies of whites, 1865–1876, culminating in the Ku Klux movement, may be described as an application of lynch law. With the increase of negro crimes came an increase of lynchings, due to prejudice, to the fact that for some time after Reconstruction the governments were relatively weak, especially in the districts where the blacks outnumber the whites, to the fact that negroes nearly always shield criminals of their own race against the whites, and to the frequent occurrence of the crime of rape by negro men upon white women.

Since 1882 the Chicago Tribune has collected statistics of lynching, and some interesting facts may be deduced from these tables.[2] During the twenty-two years from 1882 to 1903 inclusive, the total number of persons lynched in the United States was 3337, the number decreasing during the last decade; of these 2385 were in the South and 752 in the North; of those lynched in the East and West 602 were white and 75 black, and of those in the South 567 were white and 1985 black.[3] Lynchings occur mostly during periods of idleness of the lower classes; in the summer more are lynched for crimes against the person and in the winter (in the West) for crimes against property; the principal causes of lynching in the South are murder and rape, in the North and West, murder and offences against property; more blacks than whites were lynched between 1882 and 1903, the numbers being 2060 negroes, of whom 40 were women, and 1169 whites, of whom 23 were women; of the 707 blacks lynched for rape 675 were in the South; 783 blacks were lynched for murder, and 753 of these were in the South; most of the lynchings of whites were in the West; the lynching of negroes increased somewhat outside of the South and decreased somewhat in the South. Lynching decreases and disappears in a community as the population grows denser and civil institutions grow stronger; as better communications and good police make it harder to commit crime; and as public sentiment is educated to demand legal rather than illegal and irregular infliction of punishment for even the most horrible of crimes.

See James E. Cutler, Lynch Law (New York, 1905), an admirable and unbiased discussion of the subject; H. H. Bancroft, Popular Tribunals (2 vols., San Francisco, 1887); C. H. Shinn, Mining Camps: A Study in American Frontier Government (New York, 1885); and J. C. Lester and D. L. Wilson, Ku Klux Klan (New York, 1905). (W. L. F.) 

  1. The usual explanation is that the name was derived from Charles Lynch (1736–1796), a justice of the peace in Virginia after 1774, who in 1780, toward the close of the War of Independence, greatly exceeded his powers in the punishment of Tories or Loyalists detected in a conspiracy in the neighbourhood of his home in Bedford county, Va. Lynch was a man of influence in his community, was for many years a member of the Virginia legislature, was a member of the famous Virginia Convention of 1776 and was later (in 1781) an officer in the American army. See an article, “The Real Judge Lynch,” in the Atlantic Monthly, vol. lxxxviii. (Boston, 1901).
  2. They have been corrected and somewhat modified by Dr. J. E. Cutler, from whose book the figures above have been taken. Lynching as used in this connexion applies exclusively to the illegal infliction of capital punishment.
  3. For present purposes the former slave states (of 1860) constitute the South; the West is composed of the territory west of the Mississippi river, excluding Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma; the East includes those states east of the Mississippi river not included in the Southern group; the East and the West make up the North as here used—that is, the former free states of 1860.