There was a time when I figured that lynchings where things that happened more or less in secret. A bunch of good old boys would be out drinking and start talking about all the things wrong with the world and how those uppity n****** (yep, I'm Old School on THAT word) need to be put in their place. One of them would remember that his cousin was on guard at the jail that night and maybe he'd let them get one of the prisoners so they could string him up. Before you knew it, the sun would rise and there'd be a body hanging from a tree down by the creek where the old swimming hole was.
As I said, that's what I thought. Until I decided to do a little research. What I discovered laid that illusion to rest.
I suppose some lynchings were like that. But there were also lynchings that were much more like the electrocution of Topsy, the elephant who was executed in public at Coney Island in 1903 while Thomas Edison filmed the event (which I discuss here). Here's a little bit of what I discovered. It's from a book project that never got off the ground. If you want to do a little research yourself, try this link; it's a Google search on "lynching postcards."
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In one of the songs most closely identified with her, “Strange Fruit,” Billy Holiday sings of “black bodies swinging from the cottonwood trees.” With over three-thousand black (and seven-hundred white) victims, lynchings plagued this country for a fifty-year period straddling the turn of the century and are a telling example and symbol of racist violence. One doesn’t have to examine them too closely to suspect more than we are even yet prepared to acknowledge about the cultural psychodynamics of racism.
We must be quite clear on this point: as horrible as the beating of Rodney King was, the lynchings were much worse. The national outrage which followed the broadcast of that beating is a sign of how far we have advanced in the last sixty or seventy years. One way to appreciate that advance is to confront the enormous pain, horror, and evil of those lynchings.
Consider the case of Henry Smith as described by Joel Williamson in The Crucible of Race. In 1893 Smith was alleged to have raped and murdered three-and-a-half year old Myrtle Vance in Paris, Texas. As there was no trial, kangaroo or otherwise; there was no legal judgment of guilt, but Williamson says nothing to suggest that Smith was innocent of the crime.
While two-thousand men spent four days hunting their prey, special trains brought people to Paris so they could take part in the grand ritual. Smith was finally tracked down and brought back to Paris. Thousands cheered as he was taken from the train, tied to a chair on the bed of a large wagon designed to haul cotton, paraded through town, and then taken to a ten-foot platform where 10,000 people, men, women, and children, had gathered to witness final retribution. Smith was tied to a stake thrust up through the platform and then tortured by the girl’s father and male relatives. A photographer took pictures and it has been said that someone made a gramophone recording of Smith’s cries. At the end, Smith, stake, and platform were piled with fuel, soaked with oil, and burned. When the ashes had cooled a day later, people raked through them looking for teeth, bones, and buttons, not exactly pieces of the true cross, but relics of a similar ritual.
The torture and death of Henry Smith was a very grisly business, but not wildly atypical. Torture was common and so were mass mobs were common, though this one was unusually large. As in the case of Henry Smith, most of the lynching victims were black men and many were accused of some sexual offense against a white woman; in some cases the offense was real, in many it was not. Many lynchings were extravagant public exhibitions, having about them the extravagance of the Inquisition’s autos-de-fé (acts of faith) where penitents would confess their sins, profess their faith, and be immolated to purify their bodies; or one of those old Roman entertainments involving Christians and lions or; a bit closer to home, a New England witch burning.
In a detailed study of lynchings occurring between 1880 and 1930 (Lynching in the New South, 1993) in Georgia, representing the deep South, and Virginia, representing the borderline South, W. Fitzhugh Brundage shows that lynchings were committed by several types of group, the terrorist mob, the private mob, the posse, and the mass mob. Terrorist mobs were relatively small, generally less than fifty people, and consisted of members of groups organized to maintain white supremacy through intimidation and violence; the Ku Klux Klan is the best-known of these groups. Private mobs were also relatively small, but were convened only to avenge or punish specific alleged offenses, and then dispersed. Posses were quasi-legal bodies constituted to capture criminals. However, they frequently overstepped their charge and lynched the criminal.
Mass mobs, such as the one that executed Henry Smith, were responsible for the largest number of lynchings, 34% in Georgia and 40% in Virginia. These were also the most spectacular lynchings and involved hundreds or even thousands of people from all strata of Southern society, from top to bottom. These were the most highly ritualized lynchings, a matter emphasized by both Brundage and Williamson, who talk as though these mobs did their work according to written standards and practices.
When the victim had been captured, he (or, in some cases, she) would be given an opportunity to confess and to pray. Then he was hung, sometimes with a drop so as to break the neck, other times there was no drop and the victim just strangled, or died from gunshots. For particularly heinous offenses the victim was tortured prior to hanging—something mass mobs were more likely to do than posses, terrorist mobs, or private mobs. Once the victim was hung tradition often dictated that all present should shoot a bullet into the dead or dying body. All those shooting, in effect, took responsibility for the death, thereby making the community responsible, not just a few individuals. In some cases the firing was done with military precision, with rank upon rank firing in turn. Thus a hundred, two hundred, or more men would have the opportunity to register their anger and hatred, disguised as justice, on the bodies of black men. It is as though these bullets had some cleansing magic, transferring mental pain from angry whites to the bodies of helpless blacks.
When the victim was well and thoroughly dead, and perhaps mutilated as well, a sign might be hung on the body—Brundage notes a sign that requested “Please do not wake him.” The body often remained on display for hours or even days and people would often take relics, pieces of rope and chain, or even fragments of the victim’s body. Finally, a coronor’s jury would be convened to determine the cause of death, often set down to death by “unknown parties.” In fact, nothing was unknown. Everyone in the community knew who did what, and there were often photographs to prove it. According to Brundage:
What is paradoxical is that coroners’ juries would adhere to the process of the law when they carried out bogus investigations of violence which, however much it violated the rule of law with impunity, they had no intention of condemning. In reports typically written out in crude longhand on any convenient piece of paper the most horrifying details of mass lynchings were recorded. The juries had little difficulty in finding witnesses who could describe events in detail. But even when the witnesses mentioned specific names, juries, which in many instances included men who had participated in the lynching, either exonerated the community of all involvement in the lynching or else openly applauded the mob violence. . . However token the process, in the eyes of white southerners the investigations by coroners’ juries and grand juries were testimonials to the rule of law.
And that, presumably, was the function of the coronor’s jury in these cases—to exonerate the community of any wrong-doing. Mass mob lynchings didn’t represent violations of community standards. Rather, they expressed those standards.
However savage the violence in a mass mob lynching, the ritualized nature of that violence means that the lynchings were not simply wild outpourings of anger and hatred. Rather, they represent culturally sanctioned and rehearsed expressions of attitudes. This ritualized violence is one way that people were able to affirm their communal life.
Many lynchings were occasioned, if not by rape, then by allegations of rape, but not the majority of lynchings. According to Brundage, murder was the offense alleged in 46 % of Georgia lynchings and 44% of Virginia lynchings while sexual offenses were alleged in 28% of Georgia lynchings and 46% of Virginia lynchings. The remaining lynchings, 25% in Georgia and 10% in Virginia, were for a variety of offenses, such as theft, arson, or insulting a white person in any of the numerous ways whites perceived insults from blacks. In contradiction of these facts, the general perception of lynchings in the South was that they were occasioned by rape. Sex is what was on people’s minds.