Lynching and the Law

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Lynching and the Law


Lynching in America. By the 1880s nearly 90 percent of all lynchings in the United States occurred in the southern states; most of the victims were black. In the last decade of the nineteenth century an average of 187 black men, women, and children were lynched every year; in contrast, there were an average of 130 legal executions per year in this period. Lynch mobs were motivated by a variety of factors. Some defended their conduct by claiming that the executed individuals had raped white women (the perception of the African American male as a sexual predator was common during this era). Many times white crowds took the law into their own hands in order to keep African Americans in their place. F. B. Baker of Lake City, South Carolina, was lynched in the 1890s for accepting the office of town postmaster. Economic competition played a role in some incidents. For example, Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Wil Stewart opened a grocery store outside of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1891. Their store, the Peoples Grocery, was just across the street from a white-owned store. The white grocer did not like the competition, and one evening in March 1892 he went into the Peoples Grocery carrying a gun. McDowell disarmed the man and soundly thrashed him. The white grocer left the store vowing to clean them out and returned with twelve men identifying themselves as sheriffs deputies. A gun battle ensued before the defenders of the store fled. The authorities eventually arrested the three black owners and twenty-eight other people for resisting arrest and for wounding three officers. Two days after the attack, a mob stormed the jail, took McDowell, Stewart, and Moss out of their cells, and shot them to death.


In February 1892 Edward Coy of Texarkana, Arkansas, was accused of assaulting a white woman. A lynch mob tied him to a tree, cut flesh from his i body, and poured coal oil over him. The woman then applied a match as fifteen thousand people watched. According to writer and magasine publisher Albion W. Tourgée:

1. The woman who was paraded as victim of his violence was of bad character; her husband was a drunkard and a gambler,

2. She was publicly reported and generally known to have been criminally intimate with Coy for more than a year previous.

3. She was compelled by threats, if not by violence, to make the charge against the victim,

4. When she came to apply the match Coy asked her if she would burn him after they had been sweethearting so long.

5. A large majority of the superior white men prominent in the affair are the reputed fathers of mulatto children,

These are not pleasant facts, but they are illustrative of the vital phase of the so-called race question which should be properly designated an earnest inquiry as to the best methods by which religion, science, law and political power may be employed to excuse injustice, barbarity, and crime done to a people because of race and color. There can be no possible belief that these people were inspired by any consuming zeal to vindicate Gods law against miscegenationists of the most practical sort. The woman was a willing partner in the victims guilt, and being of the superior race must naturally have been more guilty.

Source: Ida B. Wells, A Red Record, in Southern Horrors and Other Writings; Toe Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900, edited by Jacqttelme Jones Royster (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996).

Lynching and the Law. African Americans were not the only victims of such violence. Native Americans as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Italian immigrants all suffered at the hands of angry white crowds. When the victim of a lynching was a newly arrived immigrant, the

federal government could only pay an indemnity to the victims country and issue an official apology because lynching was a crime that fell under the jurisdiction of the states. Some states tried to control lynching. A Georgia law in 1893 allowed a sheriff to form a posse to fight a lynch mob, and two years later the state made it a criminal offense to interfere with a law enforcement official trying to disperse such a gathering. North Carolina in 1893 passed a law against breaking into a prison and killing or injuring a prisoner, with a penalty of a $500 fine and fifteen years in jail. South Carolinas state constitution of 1895 forbade mobs to take prisoners from a sheriffs custody. In 1897 Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas passed laws against lynching, and Indiana and Michigan did so in 1899. Though the states passed laws, no one was indicted under any of these laws before the twentieth century, and no jury would convict accused members of a lynch mob. When members of one lynch mob were held in a Tennessee jail, another group stormed the jail and freed them.

What To Do About Lynching? In the 1890s Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire proposed that Congress investigate lynching, but the measure was blocked because Congress viewed that activity as a state matter. Unfortunately, state governments were firmly in the hands of white politicians who often used race to justify their hold on power. For example, Gov. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina was elected in 1890 by promising to see justice done to black criminals. During his tenure a white woman was raped, and John Peterson, a black man, was accused of the crime. He fled to Columbia where he put himself under Governor Tillmans protection. Peterson pleaded innocence and was able to produce witnesses to support his alibi. A white reporter confirmed Petersons story, but a white mob still demanded that the governor deliver Peterson. Tillman turned him over to the mob. Even though the white victim testified that Peterson was not the rapist, the mob decided that the crime had been committed and somebody had to hang for it, and if he, Peterson, was not guilty of that he was of some other crime. Peterson was then hung from a tree and one thousand bullets fired into his body.


i Texas114199
South Carolina8109
North Carolina1548
West Virginia1927

I Source: James Elbert Cutler, Lynch Law: An Investigation into the I History of Lynching in the United States, revised edition (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), p. 181.

McKinley. Governors did not always cave in to public pressure. In October 1894 a mob surrounded the Fayette County Courthouse in Ohio and demanded a prisoner. Instead of allowing the mob to administer its own form of justice, Gov. William McKinley sent the state militia to protect the prisoner. Five men were killed and twenty wounded in a battle which was fought, McKinley said, not to spare a prisoner but to maintain the principle that the law must be upheld. When McKinley became president of the United States in 1897, he said in his

inaugural address that Courts, not mobs, must execute the penalties of the laws. Despite McKinleys support, and the public campaign against lynching led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, lynching remained a brutal reminder that the laws cannot always restrain the tyranny of the majority.


James Elbert Cutler, Lynch Law: An Investigation into the History of Lynching in the United States, revised edition (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969).

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Lynching and the Law

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