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restricted access The Mode of Lynching: One Method of Vigilante Justice
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The Mode of Lynching: One Method of Vigilante Justice Erik Mortensen Abstract: This article examines the act of lynching as a method of vigilante justice, and how the slippery nature of this term is best understood first and foremost as such. It is the fact that lynching is a method of vigilante justice that has allowed it to be justified across different regions, and for differing contexts to gain support and positive portrayal in the American imaginary through an analysis of lynching narratives across time, space, and forms. Keywords: lynching, violence, popular culture, history, literature, narrative Résumé : Cet article aborde le lynchage comme une méthode de justiciers, et montre que cette façon de comprendre le terme est celle qui permet le mieux d’appréhender sa nature fuyante. C’est le fait que le lynchage est une méthode adoptée par ceux qui se posent en vengeurs qui a permis sa légitimation dans certaines régions et certains contextes, et lui a permis de gagner des appuis et une image favorable dans l’imaginaire étatsunien. L’article en arrive à cette conclusion au moyen d’une analyse de récits de lynchage parus en différents lieux, à différents moments et sous différentes formes. Mots clés : lynchage, violence, culture populaire, histoire, littérature, récit Christopher Waldrep argues that ‘‘lynching’’ is a slippery and loaded term. It has taken on a number of meanings in American culture over time, and ‘‘imagining the beginnings of lynching is a political act’’ (Waldrep, The Many Faces 13). In many cases, seeking the origin point of lynching, or lynch law, is a way to justify lynching as a positive act; it is the quest for a precedent to the excessive spectacle of violence that is lynching. It seems clear that the motivations behind lynching have shifted through historical and regional contexts within America: it was a method of keeping down Tory sentiment 6 Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines ahead of print article doi: 10.3138/cras.2017.014 This ahead of print version may differ slightly from the final published version. in the revolutionary era; it was a way to dispense with cattle thieves and other criminals on the frontier; and it later shifted into a form of racially motivated murder in the South. However, what links all of these actions of lynching is that in all cases, they were acts of extra-legal violence in pursuit of the view of justice held by the perpetrators. In short, all lynching is a mode of vigilante justice. Waldrep states that not all murders can be considered lynching (The Many Faces 7). In the same way, not all vigilante action engages in lynching to achieve its goal; however, all lynching is a form of vigilante action. This is the position that this article sets out to demonstrate by examining the motivations and functions of lynching offered in a series of historical and fictional narratives. It will reveal that lynching finds justification not through the act of lynching but because it is an act of vigilantism, and vigilantism is romanticized within American culture. This romanticizing of the vigilante, and in turn lynching, is perpetuated and reinforced by narratives featuring the vigilante. This will be demonstrated through the careful analysis of these narratives, revealing the political positions at stake in them, and how the same vigilante tactic— lynching—is romanticized from oppositional political perspectives. Before any analysis of particular narratives can begin, vigilantism must be clearly defined, as well as lynching, as a mode or method of vigilantism. First, a more critical definition of the vigilante is needed. D.J. Mulloy, a scholar of American extremism and militia movements, defines vigilantism as ‘‘the process by which people take the law into their own hands with the paradoxical aim of upholding the law. Vigilantism can be undertaken by individuals or groups’’(143). Mulloy’s definition of vigilantism builds upon the work of Richard Maxwell Brown, whom Mulloy recognizes as the most eminent historian to study vigilantism in America. Brown states that vigilantes, knowing full well that their...