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Lynching is an extra-legal trial and punishment by an informal group. It is most often used to characterize informal public executions by a mob, often by hanging, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate a minority group. It is an extreme form of informal group social control such as charivari, Skimmington, riding the rail, and tarring and feathering, but with a drift toward the public spectacle. Lynchings have been more frequent in times of social and economic tension, and have often been a means for a dominant group to suppress challengers. However, it has also resulted from long-held prejudices and practices of discrimination that have conditioned societies to accept this type of violence as normal practices of popular justice. Though racial oppression and the frontier mentality in the United States have given lynching its current familiar face, execution by mob justice is not exclusive to North America, but it is also found around the world as vigilantes act to punish people behaving outside of commonly acceptable boundaries. Indeed, instances of it can be found in societies long antedating European settlement of North America.
The legal and cultural antecedents of American lynching were carried across the Atlantic by migrants from the British Isles to colonial North America. Collective violence was a familiar aspect of the early modern Anglo-American legal landscape. Group violence in the British Atlantic was usually nonlethal in intention and consequence but it occasionally shaded, particularly in the seventeenth century in the context of political turmoil in England and unsettled social and political conditions in the American colonies, into rebellions and riots that took multiple lives. During the Antebellum, assertive free-Blacks, Latinos in the South West and runaways were the object of racial lynching. But lynching attacks on U.S. blacks, especially in the South, increased dramatically in the aftermath of the Civil War, after slavery had been abolished and recently freed black men gained the right to vote. Violence rose even more at the end of the 19th century, after southern white Democrats regained their political power in the South in the 1870s. States passed new constitutions or legislation which effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, established segregation of public facilities by race, and separated blacks from common public life and facilities. Nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920.
Lynching during the 19th century in the British Empire coincided with a period of violence which denied people participation in white-dominated society on the basis of race after the Emancipation Act of 1833.
Today lynching is a felony in all states of the United States, defined by some codes of law as "any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of the person", with a "mob" being defined as "the assemblage of two or more persons, without color or authority of law, for the premeditated purpose and with the premeditated intent of committing an act of violence upon the person of another". Lynching in the second degree is defined as "any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person and from which death does not result". To sustain a conviction for lynching, at least some evidence of premeditation must be produced, but "the common intent to do violence" may be formed before or during the assemblage.
The origins of the word lynch are obscure, but likely originates during the American revolution. The term originates from the phrase "Lynch Law", a term for a punishment without trial. One of two Americans during this era are generally credited for the phrase: Charles Lynch and William Lynch, who both lived in Virginia in the 1780s. Charles Lynch has the better claim, as he was known to have used the term in 1782, while William Lynch isn't known to have used the term until much later. There is no evidence that death was imposed as a punishment by either of the two men.
In the United States, the state of origin of the terms lynching and lynch law is traditionally attributed to a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch. Charles Lynch (1736–1796) was a Virginia planter and American Revolutionary who headed a county court in Virginia which incarcerated Loyalist supporters of the British for up to one year during the war. While he lacked proper jurisdiction, he claimed this right by arguing wartime necessity. Subsequently, he prevailed upon his friends in the Congress of the Confederation to pass a law which specifically exonerated him and his associates from wrongdoing. He was concerned that he might face legal action from one or more of those so incarcerated, even though the American Colonies had won the war. This move by the Congress provoked controversy, and it was in connection with this that the term "Lynch law", meaning the assumption of extrajudicial authority, came into common parlance in the United States. Lynch was never accused of racist bias, and indeed acquitted blacks accused of murder on three separate occasions, as dictated by the facts brought before him.
William Lynch (1742–1820) from Virginia claimed that the phrase was first used for a 1780 compact signed by him and his neighbors in Pittsylvania County. While Edgar Allan Poe claimed that he found this document, this was likely a hoax.
In Ireland, it is often claimed to be named for James Lynch Fitzstephen from Galway, Ireland, was the Mayor of Galway when he hanged his own son from the balcony of his house after convicting him of the murder of a Spanish visitor in 1493. However, linguistic evidence is strongly against it, and the story was likely invented in the 19th century.
The archaic verb linch; to beat severely with a pliable instrument, to chastise or to maltreat. This is also considered implausible.
Lynching, as a form of punishment for presumed criminal offenses, performed by self-appointed commissions, mobs, or vigilantes without due process of law took place in the United States before the American Civil War and afterwards, from southern states to western frontier settlements. The term "Lynch's Law" (and subsequently "lynch law" and "lynching") apparently originated during the American Revolution when Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace, ordered extralegal punishment for Tory acts. In the South, members of the abolitionist movement or other people opposing slavery were usually targets of lynch mob violence before the Civil War. Employees of Morris L. Hallowell, the outspoken Philadelphia abolitionist, were threatened with lynching but escaped with their lives, i.e. Thomas W. Sweney visiting in Atlanta and T. Russel Dawson where he lived in Norfolk, Virginia. During the war, Southern Home Guard units sometimes lynched white Southerners whom they suspected of being Unionists or deserters; one example of this was the hanging of Methodist minister Bill Sketoe in the south Alabama town of Newton in December 1864.
After the war, southern whites struggled to maintain social dominance. Secret vigilante and insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) instigated extrajudicial assaults and killings to keep power and to discourage freedmen from voting, working and getting educated. They also sometimes attacked Northerners, teachers, and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. A study of the period of 1868 to 1871 estimates that the KKK was involved in more than 400 lynchings. The aftermath of the war was a period of upheaval and social turmoil, in which most of the white men had been war veterans. Mobs usually had alleged crimes for which they lynched blacks. In the late 19th century, however, journalist Ida B. Wells showed that many presumed crimes were exaggerated or did not occur.
Not all lynchings in the United States were targeted against African Americans. Between 1882 and 1968, the Tuskegee Institute recorded 1,297 lynchings of whites as well as the 3,446 lynchings of African Americans during that period. By the 1890s and after the start of the 20th century, the vast majority of those lynched were Black people, including at least 159 women. Lynchings of other minority members, such as Mexicans and Chinese, have been shown to have been undercounted in the Tuskegee Institute's records. One of the largest mass lynchings in American history involved eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891.
Mob violence arose as a means of enforcing white supremacy and verged on systematic political terrorism. "The Ku Klux Klan, paramilitary groups, and other whites united by frustration and anger ruthlessly defended the interests of white supremacy. The magnitude of extralegal violence during election campaigns reached epidemic proportions, leading the historian William Gillette to label it guerrilla warfare."
During Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and others used lynching as a means to control African Americans, forcing them to work for planters and preventing them from exercising their right to vote. Federal troops and courts enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1871 largely broke up the Reconstruction-era Klan.
By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, with fraud, intimidation and violence at the polls, white Democrats regained nearly total control of the state legislatures across the South. They passed laws to make voter registration more complicated, reducing black voters on the rolls. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from 1890 to 1908, ten of eleven Southern legislatures ratified new constitutions and amendments to effectively disfranchise most African Americans and many poor whites through devices such as poll taxes, property and residency requirements, and literacy tests. Although required of all voters, some provisions were selectively applied against African Americans. In addition, many states passed grandfather clauses to exempt white illiterates from literacy tests for a limited period. The result was that black voters were stripped from registration rolls and without political recourse. Since they could not vote, they could not serve on juries. They were without official political voice.
The ideology behind lynching, directly connected with denial of political and social equality, was stated forthrightly by Benjamin Tillman, governor of South Carolina and later a United States Senator:
We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
Lynchings declined briefly after the takeover in the 1870s. By the end of the 19th century, with struggles over labor and disfranchisement, and continuing agricultural depression, lynchings rose again. The number of lynchings peaked at the end of the 19th century, but these kinds of murders continued into the 20th century. Tuskegee Institute records of lynchings between the years 1880 and 1951 show 3,437 African-American victims, as well as 1,293 white victims. Lynchings were concentrated in the Cotton Belt: (Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana).
African Americans resisted through protests, marches, lobbying Congress, writing of articles, rebuttals of so-called justifications of lynching, organizing women's groups against lynching, and organizing integrated groups against lynching. African-American playwrights produced 14 anti-lynching plays between 1916 and 1935, ten of them by women.
After the 1915 release of the movie The Birth of a Nation, which glorified lynching and the Reconstruction-era Klan, the Klan re-formed. Unlike in its earlier form, it was heavily represented among urban populations, especially in the Midwest. In response to massive immigration of people from southern and eastern Europe, the Klan had an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish stance, in addition to exercising oppression of blacks.
Members of mobs that participated in lynchings often took photographs of what they had done to spread awareness and fear of their power. Some of those photographs were published and sold as postcards. In 2000, James Allen published a collection of 145 lynching photos in book form and online, with written words and video to accompany the images.
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was first introduced to United States Congress in 1918 by Republican Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri. The bill was passed by the United States House of Representatives in 1922 and in the same year given a favorable report by the United States Senate Committee. Passage was blocked by white Democratic senators from the Solid South, the only representatives elected since southern states disfranchised African Americans around the start of the 20th century. The Dyer Bill influenced later anti-lynching legislation, including the Costigan-Wagner Bill. The Dyer and Costigan Wagner Bills was blocked by Senator William Borah.
The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill as it appeared in 1922 stated: "To assure to persons within the jurisdiction of every State the equal protection of the laws, and to punish the crime of lynching.... Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the phrase 'mob or riotous assemblage,' when used in this act, shall mean an assemblage composed of three or more persons acting in concert for the purpose of depriving any person of his life without authority of law as a punishment for or to prevent the commission of some actual or supposed public offense."
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, both African Americans, were lynched on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. They had been arrested the night before on charges of robbing and murdering a white factory worker and raping his girlfriend. A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the men, and hanged them. Police officers in the crowd cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16-year-old James Cameron, escaped lynching due to the intervention of an unidentified member of the crowd who announced that Cameron had nothing to do with the rape or murder. A studio photographer, Lawrence Beitler, took a photograph of the dead bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a large crowd; thousands of copies of the photograph were sold. The event is notable as the last confirmed lynching of blacks in the Northern United States.
In 1937 Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a copy of the photograph of the Marion lynching. Meeropol later said that the photograph "haunted me for days" and inspired his writing the poem "Strange Fruit". It was published in the New York Teacher and later in the magazine New Masses, in both cases under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. This poem became the lyrics for the song of the same name, also written by Meeropol, performed and popularized by Billie Holiday. The song reached 16th place on the charts in July 1939.
Title 18, U.S.C., Section 241, is the civil rights conspiracy statute, which makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person of any state, territory, or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the United States (or because of his/her having exercised the same) and further makes it unlawful for two or more persons to go in disguise on the highway or premises of another person with intent to prevent or hinder his or her free exercise or enjoyment of such rights. Depending upon the circumstances of the crime, and any resulting injury, the offense is punishable by a range of fines and/or imprisonment for any term of years up to life, or the death penalty.
In Britain, a series of race riots broke out in several cities in 1919 between whites and black sailors. In Liverpool, after a black sailor had been stabbed by two whites in a pub, his friends attacked the pub in revenge. In response, the police raided lodging houses with black occupants, accompanied by an "enraged lynch mob". Charles Wootton, a young black seaman who had not been involved in the attacks, was chased into the river Mersey and drowned after being pelted with missiles thrown by the mob, who chanted "Let him drown!" The Charles Wootton College in Liverpool was named in his memory.
In 1944, Wolfgang Rosterg, a German prisoner of war known to be unsympathetic to the Nazi regime, was lynched by Nazis in POW Camp 21 in Comrie, Scotland. After the end of World War II five of the perpetrators were hanged at Pentonville Prison – the largest multiple execution in 20th-century Britain. There are also approximately 150 confirmed cases of surviving crew members of crashed allied aircraft (especially bombers) being lynched by German civilians, soldiers, policemen or paramilitaries in revenge for Allied terror bombing (Alliierter Bombenterror). This was further promoted by Nazi officials through secret orders that prohibited policemen and soldiers from interfering in favor of the enemy in conflicts between civilians and allies forces, or prosecuting civilians who engaged in such acts.
On November 23, 2004, in the Tlahuac lynching, three Mexican undercover federal agents investigating a narcotics-related crime were lynched in the town of San Juan Ixtayopan (Mexico City) by an angry crowd who saw them taking photographs and suspected they were trying to abduct children from a primary school. The agents identified themselves immediately but were held and beaten for several hours before two of them were killed and set on fire. The incident was covered by the media almost from the beginning, including their pleas for help and their murder.
By the time police rescue units arrived, two of the agents 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 that they would provoke a massacre if they tried to rescue them from the mob.
A young Guatemalan woman, Alejandra Maria Torres, was attacked by a mob in Guatemala City on December 15, 2009. The mob alleged that Torres had attempted to rob passengers on a bus. Torres was beaten, doused with gasoline, and set on fire, but was able to put the fire out before sustaining life-threatening burns. Police intervened and arrested Torres. Torres was forced to go topless throughout the ordeal and subsequent arrest, and many photographs were taken and published. Approximately 219 people were lynched in Guatemala in 2009, of whom 45 died.
After the 2010 earthquake slow distribution of relief supplies and the large number of affected people created concerns of civil unrest, marked by looting and mob justice against suspected looters. In a 2010 news story, CNN reported, "At least 45 people, most of them Vodou priests, have been lynched in Haiti since the beginning of the cholera epidemic by angry mobs blaming them for the spread of the disease, officials said.
The practice of whipping and necklacing offenders and political opponents evolved in the 1980s during the apartheid era in South Africa. Residents of black townships formed "people's courts" to terrorize fellow blacks who were seen as collaborators of the government using whip lashings and deaths by necklacing. Necklacing is the torture and execution of victims by igniting a kerosene-filled rubber tire that has been forced around the victim's chest and arms. Necklacing was used to punish victims who were alleged to be traitors to the black liberation movement and relatives and associates of the offenders. Sometimes the "people's courts" made mistakes, or used the system to punish those to whom leaders were opposed. There was tremendous controversy when the practice was endorsed by Winnie Mandela, then the wife of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela and a senior member of the African National Congress.
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 ... but so far in much fewer numbers.
In the 2000 Ramallah lynching, a Palestinian mob, assisted by Palestinian police, beat to death two Israeli reservists who had entered the city by mistake, as they made a wrong turn while driving to the base they served in.
In August 2012, seven Israeli youths were arrested in Jerusalem for what several witnesses described as an attempted lynching of several Palestinian teenagers. The Palestinians received medical treatment and judicial support from Israeli facilities.
In India, lynchings generally reflect internal tensions between numerous ethnic communities in the country. Recent examples include the Kherlanji massacre, where four members of the Bhotmange family belonging to the Dalit caste were slaughtered in Khairlanji, a small village in Bhandara district of Maharashtra, by members of another caste group, the Kunbi. Though this was reported as a stereotypical example of "upper" caste violence against "lower" caste, it was found to be communal violence. The incident occurred as a retaliation for opposing the Eminent Domain seizure of their family fields to build a road that would have been beneficial to the attacking group. The women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public, before being mutilated and murdered. Sociologists and social scientists reject the identification of caste with racial discrimination and attribute it to intra-racial ethno-cultural conflict.
Richardson,Dixie Kline,"1891 Lynching Remains a Mystery," Spencer Evening World, Spencer, Indiana, August 4, 2014.
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