- The Strange Career of Judge LynchWhy the Study of Lynching Needs to Be Refocused on the Mid-Nineteenth Century
The systematic reporting and analysis of lynching began as a way to shock ordinary white Americans, both northern and southern, to reconsider the system of racial oppression and segregation that dominated the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The impact of such antilynching work on the lives of African Americans in the South is open for debate, but there is no doubt that the efforts of early lynching specialists shaped the scholarly study of lynching all the way to the turn of the twenty-first century. While applauding this foundational work, this essay nevertheless argues for a broadening of lynching as a field of study. The history of mob violence in the United States is for not only those interested in race relations in the postbellum South but all historians interested in the evolution and transformation of ordinary people's attitudes toward crime, punishment, the law, and the state over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The role of discrimination and racial prejudice remains central to any understanding of this history, but there is much to be gained from disentangling the history of lynching from the relatively narrow framework that gave birth to the field.
In 1955, in the introduction to his iconic The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward wrote that southerners should understand more than all other Americans that social institutions are not fixed and immutable. In echoing Woodward's title, I hope to underline an irony at the heart of the study of lynching in the United States. Historians of the nineteenth-century United States should be the ones leading the exploration of the subject, because the mid-nineteenth century was the key period in the history of mob violence in the United States, the period that proved pivotal in creating a culture that nourished extralegal violence and defined racial minorities as perpetrators of violent crimes. Yet, relatively few historians [End Page 293] of nineteenth-century America have published monographs on the history of lynching and mob violence; instead, they have largely left the field to historians of the early twentieth century.
This essay has two goals. First, I argue that the history of lynching should occupy a greater space within the larger body of work on the history of violence and crime in the United States. In particular, I suggest that the study of lynching in the mid-nineteenth century holds great promise for historians interested not just in American race relations but in fundamental issues such as the history of law, crime, and the development of the state. Second, I want to try to explain why the literature itself has been part of the problem, one of the reasons the study of lynching was for so long the domain of journalists, sociologists, and historians of the early twentieth century. Understanding how the field developed should give clarity as to why there are still many opportunities for historians to study mob violence as a means for understanding the nineteenth-century United States.
Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the value of the study of lynching for a longer history of violence is that of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, a topic I know well from years of research with my co-author Clive Webb. Historians of the border have long known about violence against Mexicans in the Southwest, and they have made this violence an important element of their history of the Mexican experience in the Southwest. Yet, these historians did not make connections to existing scholarship on lynching, while historians of lynching paid scant attention to extralegal violence in the Southwest. Webb and I saw clear advantages to a comparative approach; from our research, we drew four conclusions that we think illuminate the history of racial violence across regions. First, we found evidence that the chronology of lynching varied greatly by ethnic group and followed no standard timeline. Second, murder remained the most frequent charge of lynch mobs across time and space, but secondary justifications varied greatly; Mexicans were rarely charged with...