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Lynching and Spectacle

Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940

Amy Louise Wood

Publication Year: 2009

Lynch mobs in late 19th- and early 20th-century America often exacted horrifying public torture and mutilation on their victims. Amy Wood explains what it meant for white Americans to perform and witness these sadistic spectacles and what they derived from them. Lynching, Wood argues, overlapped with a wide range of cultural practices and performances, both traditional and modern, including public executions, religious rituals, photography, and cinema. The connections between lynching and these practices encouraged the horrific violence committed and gave it social acceptability.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: New Directions in Southern Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. xi-xvi

I am indebted to many people who have contributed to this project in immeasurable ways. I first want to thank the many librarians and archivists across the country who helped me patiently and graciously, even if, at times, I was digging up the grimmest memories of their communities. I also want...

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pp. 1-15

Compared to other forms of terror and intimidation that African Americans were subject to under Jim Crow, lynching was an infrequent and extraordinary occurrence. Black men and women were much more likely to become victims of personal assault, murder, or rape than lynching, and, as...


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1. They Want to See the Thing Done: Public Executions

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pp. 19-44

On the evening of 27 July 1904, Hodges, a yeoman farmer of modest means whose wife had recently inherited a small amount of money, was knocked down and robbed in his yard. The culprits proceeded to murder each member of the family with an axe. They then piled the bodies in one...

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2. A Hell of Fire upon Earth: Religion

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pp. 45-68

On a bright Sunday morning in July 1885, a white mob lynched Harris Tunstal behind the Methodist Episcopal church in Oxford, Mississippi. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Tunstal, a black man, was hanged for a “diabolical” sexual assault on one of Oxford’s “most highly respected...


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3. The Spectator Has a Picture in His Mind to Remember for a Long Time: Photography

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pp. 71-111

When Henry Smith fled Paris, Texas, after being accused of sexually assaulting and murdering Myrtle Vance, the three-year-old daughter of a former police officer, the city came to a standstill as a posse sought his capture. As one local man, P. L. James, reported with melodramatic embellishment...

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4. They Never Witnessed Such a Melodrama: Early Moving Pictures

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pp. 113-145

On a spring evening in 1911, a mob of about fifty white men in the small city of Livermore, Kentucky, lynched Will Potter on the stage of the local opera house. Potter was the black manager of a segregated poolroom where Clarence Mitchell, a young white liveryman, and a friend had come to play. When they...

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5. With the Roar of Thunder: The Birth of a Nation

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pp. 147-176

When the birth of a nation opened in Atlanta on 6 December 1915, it caused a sensation throughout the city. Long lines at the Atlanta Theater were continuous from morning to evening, as crowds swelled to view the production, some coming back three or four times. Response was so great that the...


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6. We Wanted to Be Boosters and Not Knockers: Photography and Antilynching Activism

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pp. 179-221

The 1916 Lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, stands as one of the most widely known and scrutinized lynchings because it, in many ways, typified the grotesque excess of spectacle lynching. Just over two months after The Birth of a Nation played in Waco, an estimated 10,000 people watched...

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7. Bring Home to America What Mob Violence Really Means: Hollywood's Spectacular Indictment

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pp. 223-260

In the early summer of 1936, in the midst of the NAACP’s arduous campaign to pass both a resolution calling for a Senate investigation of recent lynchings and the Costigan-Wagner antilynching bill through Congress, executive secretary Walter White attempted to arrange a White House screening for the...

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pp. 261-269

By World War II, the NAACP and other antilynching activists and sympathizers had created a national perception that lynching was a brutal and degenerate practice at odds with modern civilized ideals. The spectacles surrounding lynching—the crowds of spectators, the tortures, and the...


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pp. 271-317


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pp. 319-338


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pp. 339-349

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603568
E-ISBN-10: 146960356X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832547
Print-ISBN-10: 0807832545

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: New Directions in Southern Studies