- Lynching in the West: 1850-1935
In this intriguing new study, Ken Gonzales-Day attempts to demonstrate that scholars of lynching have focused too narrowly on African American victims in the South. His book shows that lynching accounted for the deaths of more than 350 people in California between 1850 and 1935. The author accounts for this phenomenon by placing his emphasis on the primacy of racism. Most of those who died as a result of hanging or summary execution were members of racial minorities including African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese, and, above all, persons of Mexican origin or descent. The strength of this argument is underlined through the inclusion of an inventory of lynching victims at the end of the book.
Ken Gonzales-Day is a practicing artist who currently serves as Chair of the Department of Studio Art at Scripps College. His disciplinary training is reflected in a particular emphasis on visual records including illustrations, paintings, and souvenir postcards. The author insists that the lynching of racial minorities in the West has been all but erased from the historical memory. To illustrate this point, he has included some of his own artwork. The book features old images of lynchings from which Gonzales-Day has removed the figure of the victim in order to symbolize their absence from public memory of the West's past. He also presents his own photographs of otherwise unmarked hanging trees in an effort to reclaim their historical significance. The images have an unsettling impact that admirably serves the purpose of the author.
The book also makes an important contribution in emphasizing the influence of physiognomy in fomenting racial violence. Gonzales-Day shows how pseudoscientific theory promoted the notion that it was possible to infer the inner character of human beings from their outer appearance. According to such theory, the low forehead, treacherous eyes, and swarthy skin of the Mexican all alluded to his innate criminality. This, in turn, acted as a pretext for indiscriminate acts of violence against Mexicans who were accused by Anglos of threatening law and order.
This is a fascinating but flawed book. The problems start with the title. Contrary to the claims of the front cover, Gonzales-Day does not evaluate mob violence throughout the American West but concentrates on one state, California. Nor does he attempt to situate California within the broader context of the West, which would have allowed him to demonstrate points of continuity and contrast with other states in the region. Since Gonzales-Day is an artist, not an historian, it may seem harsh to criticize him for not handling his material with sufficient methodological rigor. The author draws on an eclectic range of scientists, philosophers, and novelists—ranging from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin—to ground his arguments. However, he neither applies a clear framework within which to situate these intellectuals nor at times demonstrates their [End Page 445] direct relevance to racial discourse in California during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some more pertinent work on the subject is absent from his bibliography. Had he consulted the recent scholarship of Benjamin Johnson, Stephen Leonard, or Michael Pfeifer, Gonzales-Day may have tempered his claim that no historian has recognized the impact of racial violence in the American West.
The book also suffers from some problems in terms of both its content and structure. Despite its title, much of the evidence used by Gonzales-Day to document the impact of racial violence relates not to lynchings but rather to public executions. Lynching in the West would also have benefited from a clearer chronological narrative, which would have allowed Gonzales-Day to trace more clearly how the dynamics of mob violence in California changed over the course of time. Ken Gonzales-Day has produced an innovative cross-disciplinary study that complements other recent scholarship reconceptualizing our understanding of lynching. Despite his contribution to the field, further research still needs to be done in order to understand fully the dynamics of mob...