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The Origin and Evolution of the Term ‘Lynching’ – The Fortnightly Word

One of the things that keeps us from easily accessing primary sources is their language. Though documents from our past are in English, it’s often a very different form than we’re used to reading. I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. From time to time, I’ll share one of these new old words that I come across. By learning about such words, we can better understand the past.

The word today is “lynching.” Or rather, it’s “Lynch Law” or “Lynch’s Law” or “Judge Lynch.” We’ve gone through quite a few iterations, but even more than that, we’ve had quite a few definitions for it.

In this piece, we’ll look at not only those various definitions, but also the origins of the word.

The Story Behind the Word

Thomas Jefferson and Charles Lynch

“The method of seizing them at once which you have adopted is much the best,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in August of 1780.

Mobbing the tories during the Revolutionary War.
Mobbing the tories during the Revolutionary War.

Then the Governor of Virginia, Jefferson was writing in reply to Col. Charles Lynch of the Bedford County Militia. Col. Lynch, along with his entire regiment, were in the business of uncovering Tories, suspected of loyalty to the British crown.

That July, they had discovered three such men. The Patriots whipped two and hanged the third.

“You have only to take care that they be regularly tried afterwards,” warned Jefferson. He insisted upon speedy trial as “the sooner those found guilty can be sent down the better.” Jefferson otherwise praised Col. Lynch’s methods.

Jefferson understood that a military commander deciding the guilt and sentence of a suspect was acting outside the law. This extra-judicial decision, had it not been for the time of war, would typically have been considered murder. 1Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Charles Lynch, August 1, 1780. Here.

Judge Charles Lynch and the Revolution

As a young adult, Charles Lynch took to the pacifistic Quaker religion. He even married a Quaker girl when he was nineteen. He took to the religion well, opening one of the earliest meeting houses in Virginia. Though a Quaker, he became a wealthy landowner and enslaver. The Quakers ousted him from their number when he became Bedford County’s Justice of the Peace.

This excommunication, coupled with his seat in the House of Burgesses, allowed him to take part in the militia. With the coming of the American Revolution, Lynch raised his own regiment and by 1780 was acting as sort of a home guard.

All through the county, Lynch and his band kept their ears to the ground for rumors of North Carolinian tories crossing the border to make raids against the county’s lead mines.

Before even Col. Lynch acted upon this, another Patriot officer, William Campbell, began to hang those he captured. This was, of course, against all laws of war. In the autumn of 1779, his actions allowed the Virginia House to absolve Campbell of any wrong doing, despite their admission that such killings “may not be strictly warranted by law.” Governor Jefferson suggested that the loyalists be tried for treason or some lesser crime, rather than killed.

Col. Lynch and Lynch Law

That next summer, Col. Lynch appeared on the scene. Rumors that the tories were about to raid again drew various militias from around the countryside.

As the tories filtered into Bedford County, various Patriot commanders rounded them up. Most, as per Jefferson’s orders, sent them to Richmond for their treason trials. The prisoners captured by Col. Lynch, however, did not always make the journey.

Tarring and Feathering, 1774.
Tarring and Feathering, 1774.

Col. Lynch’s conduct was erratic and almost always against the requests of Jefferson. He was acting not as an agent of Virginia, but as a sort of king of Bedford County. It was lynch who interviewed the prisoners. If he felt that they were not tories, he simply let them go. Some, he kept for their trials in Richmond, but others he kept around for use as witnesses. Then there were the few he kept separate, hoping to make examples of them.

Through this summer, Lynch had gathered for himself a reputation of extra-judicial punishment. He had no desire whatsoever to deliver the prisoners to Richmond. Instead, being Justice of the Peace, he held the trials in his own home.

If the suspect was found by Col. Lynch to be guilty of treason, he was strung up by the thumbs and flogged. There the victime would hang until he shouted out “Liberty!” Despite being against orders, Lynch knew that he, like Campbell before him, would be exonerated. 2Fralin, Gordon Godfrey, “Charles Lynch, originator of the term Lynch law” (1955). Master’s Theses. Paper 102. Pages 52-60. Here.

This campaign, which continued on and off for at least two years, became known as “Lynch’s Law” or simply “Lynch Law.”

The Evolving Definitions

Lynch’s Law – First Usages

There is very little, if any, contemporary evidence to prove beyond a doubt that Col. Charles Lynch was the originator of the term “Lynch Law.” Of course, Lynch was hardly the only person involved in outrages against tories. The argument could be made that Campbell performed such acts first, but the term “Campbell’s Law” never caught on. 3In fact, this argument is made in “The Term Lynch Law” by Albert Matthews, published in 1904. It’s a wildly disjointed piece that honestly doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, it’s worth a read and can be found here.

Nevertheless, we see “Lynch’s Law” first used by Charles Lynch himself in 1782. Writing in a letter dating to May 11, 1782, Lynch explained that there was a band of tories in the county. He sent Captain Sanders of his command to deal with them.

“I am convinc’d a Party there is who by Lying has Deceiv’d some good men to Listen to them – they are mostly Torys & such as Sanders has given Lynchs Law too for Dealing with the negroes &c.” 4Letter from Charles Lynch to William Hay in the spring of 1782. As printed in Christopher Waldrep, ed Lynching in America; A History in Documents (New York University Press, 2006) 36-37. Trying to fully suss out what Lynch was trying to convey is somewhat maddening, but I believe that he’s convinced that tories lied to some people and convinced them to become tories too. Captain Sanders lynched a few of them, who were also trying to convince the black population to side with the British. I’ve seen references to this being written on May 11 and June 11, 1782.

A decade or so later, the term seemed to have caught on. A Georgia newspaper lamented that “Lynch’s Law, ought still to be in vogue.” 5“A Hint for Attention to Be Paid to Lynch’s Law,” Augusta Chronicle, June 14, 1794. As quoted in Ashraf H.A. Rushdy American Lynching (Yale University Press, 2012) 24.

Over two decades would pass before a trace of the term could be once more found in print – a curious fact, but not a deal-breaker. In 1819, diarist William Faux recorded an entry about a robbery in Illinois. Though they had no hard evidence of his guilt, they sent “four persons to inform him, that unless he quitted the town and state immediately, he should receive Lynch’s law, that is, a whipping in the woods.” He left on their warning, but was soon tracked down and whipped anyway. 6William Faux Faux’s Memorable Days in America (1823) Here.

"Judge Lynch" California Vigilants, 1848
“Judge Lynch” California Vigilants, 1848

That same year, it was used in a biography of Patrick Henry: “About the year 1792 there were many suits on the south of the James River for inflicting Lynch law.” 7William Wirt Henry Patrick Henry, Vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891) 482. Here. Originally published in 1819.

The next known usage of the term was in the June 13, 1826 issue of the Western Carolinian. There, twenty dollars was offered for the return of the “negro man Aaron” who had run away from his master. One of the suspected accomplices was “the notorious Jonathan Rector.” According to the paper, Rector was caught “and had Lynch’s law inflicted upon him.” This was the third time that Rector had been subject to such a punishment. 8Western Carolinian; Salisbury, North Carolina; Tue, Jun 13, 1826 – Page 4. Here.

In December of that same year, a white newspaper editor from near Baton Rouge, Louisiana had “Lynch’s Law” inflicted upon him. He was horse whipped and the editor died of his wounds, though he was already ill. 9The Evening Post; New York, New York; Fri, Dec 1, 1826 – Page 2. Here.

Two years later, the term appears again in a story out of Arkansas. A man named Johnson was accused of murdering a man named Davidson. Everybody, it was said, believed he was guilty, but none could prove it. The paper took “pleasure” in learning that he had been roughly punished by “Indians” who stripped him naked, shaved half his head – including an ear, and put him in a canoe without a paddle. Johnson lived, it seems, but the paper concluded that “a fitter subject than Johnson” could not have been found “for the operation of ‘Lynch’s Law.” 10The Hillsborough Recorder; Hillsborough, North Carolina; Wed, Jul 9, 1828 – Page 4. Here.

By the 1830s, the term saw wide use. Most often it was “Lynch’s Law,” but “Lynch Law” was certainly acceptable.

Lynching as a Verb

The shift from “Lynch’s Law” to “Lynch Law” was almost natural, but for this noun to morph into a verb took a few more years. By 1835, however, it was in wide circulation.

This was fortuitous as there was a sharp rise in extra-judicial mob violence. It was in this era when the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy met his end. 11More here.

Though the term was not specifically racial in context, William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator used it quite a bit starting in 1835. Garrison himself used it in a letter to George Benson that same year, employing the term “Judge Lynch” as well as the verb.

“The slave States continue to be excessively agitated. They appear to have organized Vigilance Committee and Lynch Clubs in various places. The most daring propositions are made in the open face of heaven for the abduction of Arthur Tappan, George Thompson and myself.” 12Letter. William Lloyd Garrison to George Benson, September 17, 1835. Letters, 1822-1835 (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971) 529.

Similar forms of the word, such as “lynching,” “lyncher,” etc. came into parlance at the same time. 13This is shown in Albert Matthews’ piece, referenced above.

Defining and Re-defining the Term

In almost all of the examples above, wounding and not killing fit the definition of “Lynch Law.” A “lynching” did not usually end in death.

An 1835 article in The Liberator describes “The Horrors of Lynching” as “a citizen seized by a furious mob, stripped and flogged as a criminal.” 14The Liberator; Boston, Massachusetts; Sat, Sep 5, 1835 – Page 3. Here.

The term was wholly absent in the write ups of Elijah Lovejoy’s 1837 murder. Though used broadly in writings about the incidents leading up to the murder, it was never specifically in reference to the death itself. Even The Liberator did not connect lynching and death. 15The Liberator; Boston, Massachusetts; Fri, Dec 15, 1837 – Page 2. Here.

Not long after the capitulation of Reconstruction, all understood that lynching meant killing and only killing. By that time, if the victim was not dead, it was simply not a lynching. According to Robert W. Thurston, author of Lynching: American Mob Murder in Global Perspective, the term “lynching” was not exclusive to murders until 1882, the year that the Chicago Tribune began to print their annual list of lynchings. 16Robert W. Thurston,Lynching: American Mob Murder in Global Perspective (Routledge, 2011) 25.

Of course, this is not to suggest that mob violence did not turn deadly until 1882. It was only then that the term “lynching” was applied to such murders. Prior to that, such killings were merely “deaths” or “murders”. The term was shifted to exclude those not killed, but to include those who lost their lives. No longer did “lynching” refer to a flogging or a tar-and-feathering. Now it was death and all the events that led up to the death.

The Governmental Definitions

In 1896 the State of Ohio, became the first government body to define “lynching” in legal terms. They ruled that “any act of violence exercised by them [a mob] upon the body of any person shall constitute a ‘lynching.'” Though the first, they seemed to lag behind the more popular definition requiring a death. 17James Elbert Cutler Lynch-Law (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905) 235. Here.

As time went on, individual states defined lynching is various ways, most eventually coming to the conclusion that in order for it to be a lynching, a death had to occur at the hands of an extra-judicial mob. Often, even the number of people gathered together was important. 18For a break down of these laws, see James Harmon Chadbourn Lynching and the Law (The Lawbook Exchange, 2008).

A Rhetorical Dagger

Despite the legal definitions, some argue that the word “lynching” cannot be defined. “That is its most important characteristic,” writes Christopher Waldrep in the prologue of Lynching in America: A History in Documents, “it is a rhetorical dagger ready to be picked up and deployed by a host of actors in a variety of circumstances.” 19Christopher Waldrep, Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York University Press, 2006) xvii.

Unidentified lynching victim in Missouri.
Unidentified lynching victim in Missouri.

Some, such as the author of American Lynching, Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, wax almost philosophical about the definition. Rushdy himself spends much of his introduction discussing the various ways in which lynching might be defined, as well as the problems associated with such definitions.

In the end, he, along with most historians of lynchings, agree with the Tuskegee University and NAACP’s definition: “There must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” 20Rushdy, 20. Curiously, the NAACP eventually disagreed with that definition as it wasn’t inclusive enough.

This definition is the one that’s stuck around the longest. Finally solidified in 1940, the NAACP had been using the same basic definition since at least 1918. 21This conference is detailed in C. Waldrep’s The Many Faces of Judge Lynch (St. Martin’s Press, 2002) 148.

Equal Justice

More recently, the Equal Justice Initiative released a report claiming to have documented some 800 more lynchings than previously calculated. Though the EJI doubtlessly uncovered many previously-unknown lynchings, they also expanded their definition. This expansion allowed them to include certain violent acts in their count, where others before them could not.

Unfortunately, the EJI does not explicitly define “lynching” in their report. They offer hints, such as describing lynchings as “violent public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country.” Elsewhere, they specify that a murder had to occur for it to count. 22Equal Justice Initiative Lynching in America, Second Edition (2015) 4, 5. Equal Justice Initiative.

While this might seem vague, it’s only natural that the definition of lynching changes from time to time. This is not only how language works, but it’s how we can grow to understand our history.

For instance, an act that we would call lynching that took place in 1788 was not called a lynching then. What was called a lynching in 1835 would not be called a lynching now.

This naturally leaves room for the definition to grow. Most organizations, the EJI included, stop counting lynchings in 1950. This, despite the fact that lynchings continued well through the Civil Rights era and still continue today. Now, nearly seventy years since we stopped counting lynchings, we may have to look back and redefine “lynching” once again.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.