Lynching and Lawlessness

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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
American Decades
From: American Decades(Vol. 1: 1900-1909. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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Nothing illustrates the failure of American justice better than the persistence of lynching and of race riots in the first decade of the twentieth century. More than twenty-five hundred people, most of them black men, had been lynched between 1886 and 1889; there were more than one hundred lynchings in 1900 and again in 1901. Between 1885 and 1905 there were more lynchings in the United States than there were legal executions. One proposed solution to this crisis was to make lynching a federal crime: at that time it was punishable only in state courts, where blacks were often excluded from juries and where few witnesses were willing to testify against leaders of mobs. Another solution, presented by defenders of "Southern justice," was to repeal the Constitution's Fifteenth Amendment. Some whites charged that the problem stemmed from blacks having the right to vote. Remove political equality, and whites would no longer feel threatened by blacks and perceive a need to kill them.

Patterns of Lynchings

All lynchings were different but followed certain patterns. For instance, in Missouri one Sunday afternoon in 1901 a white woman was found murdered. Within hours of her discovery a mob of whites seized three black men, two of them elderly, and tortured them to death before hanging them. The mob then burned five black families out of their homes. Thirty other families took to the woods until the mob's thirst for vengeance was abated. None of the victims, either the three murdered men or the homeless families, had any connection with the murdered woman. But the mob had decided to punish black people for an offense against a white woman, and the law could not stop them. None of the leaders of the lynch mob was punished, since no one would dare testify against them. Lynching was not confined to the South or to rural areas. In 1904 a white police officer in Springfield, Ohio, fought with a black man. During the struggle the black man killed the officer. He was arrested and put in jail. A mob gathered, broke into the jail, murdered the man, then hung his body from a telephone pole and shot bullets into it. The mob then ransacked the black section of town, as lynch mobs commonly turned on other blacks, even in a case like this one, which arose out of a specific incident.

Reasons for Lynching

Apologists for the lynch mob sometimes argued that mobs were swift to punish rapists and that lynching served as an extralegal way to protect white women from black men. Lynching, it was said, was "the only successful method of dealing with a certain class of crimes." But Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a black woman who had begun her career as a Memphis journalist and had become a crusader against lynching, showed that most lynchings were not in response to rapes. The Chicago Tribune published an annual report on lynchings, noting the alleged crime for which a victim was executed. Of more than 500 victims of lynching between 1896 and 1900, 96 had been accused of rape, 179 of murder. Nearly half the victims, 229, were lynched for "crimes" such as giving evidence in court, writing letters, registering to vote, making insulting statements, race prejudice, or simply "unknown crime."

Statesboro, Georgia, 1904

Apologists for the lynch mob argued that the law was not effective in punishing criminals, that only an enraged citizenry could preserve public order. Journalist Ray Stannard Baker's 1908 book, Following the Color Line, suggested that whites turned to lynching when they lost faith in the system of justice to punish crime. But often a lynch mob acted when the law was working to punish a convicted criminal. In 1904 two black men were arrested in Statesboro, Georgia, for a particularly gruesome mass murder of a white farmer, his wife, and their three children. The accused were kept in Savannah, about fifty miles away, to allow tempers to cool. After two weeks the accused were brought to Statesboro for trial and were found guilty. As the judge pronounced their sentence, death by hanging, a mob stormed into the courtroom, seized the men, dragged them outside, and burned them alive. As the convicted men were roasting alive, the mob turned on other blacks, singling out anyone perceived to be a threat to the white order. In this case, as in many lynchings, the punishment was not merely intended for the accused: the mob would use the lynching as the starting point for a general riot and attack on any black person it could find.

The Supreme Court and Lynching

Lynching was not a federal crime, but a Chattanooga case came before the Supreme Court in 1906. Ed Johnson, a black man, had been convicted of raping a white girl. A lower court refused to hear his appeal, but Justice John Marshall Harlan granted Johnson a stay of execution and allowed him to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On the night before his scheduled execution, before the justices could hear his appeal, Johnson was kidnapped from the jail, dragged six blocks by a mob, and hung from a bridge over the Tennessee River. The rope snapped, but the mob retrieved Johnson and hung him again, making sure he was dead by shooting at his body. The next day in Washington, Chief Justice Fuller called the justices to an emergency meeting. Johnson's lynching was an attack on the dignity and power of the Court. Two months later the Supreme Court charged Chattanooga sheriff John Shipp with contempt for failing to protect Johnson. Shipp responded that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction over his jail. This angered the justices, and Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote an opinion for the Court insisting that it did have jurisdiction to punish contempt against the judicial power of either the United States or the state of Tennessee. "The power and dignity of this court are paramount," Holmes said, and Johnson's lynching was "murder by a mob, and was an offense against the United States and this court." The Court appointed an investigator, who in 1909 reported that Shipp had not adequately defended the prisoner. Three years after Johnson's lynching, the Supreme Court sentenced Sheriff Shipp to ninety days in jail. This was a defense of judicial power, and though it was the strongest statement the Court would make against lynching, it was not going to stop the mobs.


Li va Baker, The Justice from Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991);

Jacqueline Jones Royster, The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Lynching and Lawlessness." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 1: 1900-1909, Gale, 2001. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468300151