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Formal executions aside, much of the violence against African Americans was inflicted not by the state but by private citizens. Masters enjoyed absolute power over their slaves, such that in the General Assembly ordered that the killing of slaves during punishment should not be charged as murder.
Non-slaveholding whites were also often obliged to participate in this system of violence toward African Americans, enticed or forced into joining patrols that searched for fugitive slaves. According to the historian Manfred Berg, these practices helped lead to latter-day lynching by making African Americans the legitimate targets of violence, by implicating large numbers of whites in that violence, and by legalizing violence outside of the government. During the nineteenth century, court-imposed executions became less frequent, reserved only for the most heinous crimes, and were often carried out in private.
At the same time, American politics, under the influence of President Andrew Jackson, became more associated with the "common man" and anti-authoritarianism. Mobs, a regular feature of the American Revolution, became more common than ever, often seeking to replace the ritual of public executions. There were mob-related incidents across the country in alone, resulting in seventy-one deaths.
About 40 percent of those mobs were responding to tensions over slavery, which in Virginia heightened after Nat Turner's slave revolt in Just two weeks after the uprising, a man named Robinson was stripped and whipped nearly to death outside Petersburg for saying privately that slavery was wrong. In , an Englishman with a similar name, Robertson, was accused of abolitionism and nearly lynched , perhaps having been confused with the earlier man.
Other violence could be traced to the increase in immigration and the resulting disputes over religion. Historians have pointed to one event in particular as being a turning point in the history of mob violence, in terms of both its death toll and how it seemed to resemble lynchings that would become relatively common sixty years later. In July , after several gamblers disrupted a Fourth of July celebration, a group of citizens in Vicksburg, Mississippi, unilaterally ordered all gamblers to leave town, despite the fact that gambling was legal in the state.
When a member of a large mob enforcing the edict was killed, five gamblers were summarily hanged. The local newspaper justified the action by complaining that the courts were too weak and suggesting that "society … can sometimes be purified only by a storm. The next year, however, a mob burned to death a free black man in Saint Louis after he killed a white law enforcement officer.
Legal History Blog: More on Lynching: Campney reviews Harper, "White Man's Heaven"
In a speech delivered in Springfield, Illinois, in , Abraham Lincoln referenced both events in bemoaning "this mobocratic spirit which all must admit is now abroad in the land. This particular violence notwithstanding, most lynchings prior to the Civil War did not result in death. The term itself was new enough in that the Vicksburg newspaper was forced to define it, and did so without reference to killing. Underwood out of the state. In a letter to the New York Times , Underwood described Virginia as "ready to burst" with violence—the result of proslavery mobs whipping up rumors of slave insurrections and creating scapegoats out of abolitionists like himself.
Mob justice remained a part of American life during the Civil War and took on an increasingly political role, most notably during the New York City draft riots in July Earlier in the year, a group of hungry women marched on the governor's mansion in Richmond , chanting "Bread or blood!
Violence against African Americans, meanwhile, continued apace. Benjamin Summers, a free black living in Portsmouth , was kidnapped by Confederate authorities and impressed into service digging ditches. He later recalled that when he tried to escape, "I was given lashes and then rubbed down with salt brine. A newspaper report described them as docile and even "cheerful," showing "respect and reverence for the occasion. With less legal authority to control blacks since the end of slavery, whites sought new methods to maintain racial hierarchy, such as the Vagrancy Act of White communities also increasingly turned to mob violence throughout the South.
Federal intervention provided some controls to the charged atmosphere in the years following emancipation, but after federal forces left Virginia in , violence escalated. By the early s, with the rise of the biracial Readjuster Party , the white backlash was unfettered by federal protections for African Americans. In Danville , where four African Americans sat on the twelve-member city council, white merchants complained bitterly of "Negro domination. Lynching, or "lynch law" as it was sometimes called, began in earnest in Virginia in at a time when white Virginians were attempting to reassert their control over the African American population.
Lynchings often involved rituals and torture, and they occurred as a result of a crime, a perceived crime, or any racially charged incident in a region. They regularly involved the complicity of local governments, and sometimes drew the condemnation of state officials. Lynchings were almost never prosecuted. He would not be alone. In the historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage estimated that 86 people were fatally lynched in Virginia between and , 71 of them African Americans. The Tuskegee Institute has estimated 4, lynchings nationwide between and , but historians have begun to revise that number for various, often methodological reasons.
In , the Equal Justice Initiative, of Montgomery, Alabama, counted 3, lynchings of African Americans in twelve southern states between and , including 76 in Virginia. At the same time, historians are often only aware of lynchings that were reported, especially in the press; they assume that unreported lynchings also occurred. In other words, as the historian Michael Ayers Trotti has suggested, any exact number of lynchings ought to be treated with skepticism. The murder of Wallace, meanwhile, was emblematic of many lynchings in Virginia at the end of the nineteenth century.
The mob that kidnapped him numbered about masked men and in its large size resembled about 40 percent of all lynch mobs in Virginia between and And like nearly all recorded mobs in Virginia, this one took its victim from legal custody, boarding a train to do it. Like many lynchings, it was conducted at a symbolic spot: the site where the alleged crime had occurred.
There, according to the newspaper report, after Wallace had been hung, the alleged victim "was accorded the privilege of firing the first shot at his swinging and almost lifeless body. This she did with a good aim. About thirty-four of the eighty-six lynchings Brundage counted between and involved, like Wallace's, accusations of rape or attempted rape against white women, a crime to which whites believed African Americans were particularly prone. Such attitudes were borne from two longstanding white southern traditions—demonizing blacks and defending white womanly honor—and they often led directly to lynchings.
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In the post-emancipation South, black men were often caricatured as subhuman, ruled by their appetites, and disposed to commit violent crime. The definition of rape was broad, with the mere presence of a black man with a solitary white woman generating an accusation and possible punishment. The repeated suggestion that, given the opportunity, black men were likely to rape white women has been described, by Michael Ayers Trotti, as a "fixation" and by numerous other historians as a myth, one that dates back to slavery and, in particular, a romanticizing of white womanhood and a paranoid distrust of enslaved African Americans.
Only during Reconstruction , he argued, did they become infected with the idea of equality.
While some lynching victims may have been guilty of crimes, it's clear that many were not. On October 30, , in Loudoun County , Orion sometimes Owen Anderson put a sack on his head and scared a fifteen-year-old white girl on her way to school. According to the Richmond Dispatch , the "negro scoundrel," probably also a teenager, was later taken from jail by a mob and hanged. In February , the Roanoke Times reported that a white girl had been assaulted and described the suspect only as a black man with a light gray suit and rubber boots.
The next day, amidst criticism of the police for not acting quickly enough, a suspect was publicly named , only to have still another African American man, Will Lavender, lynched the day after that. Without mentioning the first suspect, the Roanoke Times described how Lavender, with a noose around his neck, uttered "an almost incoherent jumble of denial" until a half-hanging brought on "a rambling confession.
As was the case with Page Wallace, white-owned newspapers often cheered on lynchings. When Joseph McCoy was accused of raping a white girl in Alexandria and lynched, the Alexandria Gazette implausibly suggested that no members of a mob of could be identified, then justified the murder and subsequent mutilation by arguing that McCoy's actions "naturally aroused the righteous indignation of the community, and while all believe in law and order, the general sentiment has been that the fiend has met his just reward. According to the paper, "The fact that no one was seriously hurt save McCoy was fortunate.
Local police played several common roles in lynchings, from passively allowing mobs to take victims from custody and attack them, to active participation by officials themselves. State officials sometimes sent troops to protect prisoners in high-profile cases that were known lynching risks.
Local officials faced several conflicts of interest as members of the communities themselves, often having personal relationships with people in the mobs, and sometimes facing retaliation for sending a mob away. In those circumstances, local authorities often quelled a lynching by publicly promising the mob that the prisoner would receive a quick trial and hanging. After a lynching, members of lynch mobs were seldom investigated by local or state officials and they were not prosecuted. Although by early in the twentieth century lynching was popularly understood as a white supremacist tool for suppressing African Americans, there were rare instances in which blacks lynched whites.
On November 1, , a mob that lynched Abe Redmond, a white farmer in Charlotte County , included some blacks. And on March 24, , after a mob lynched Walter Cotton, an African American accused of murder, a black mob formed and lynched his white partner, Brandt O'Grady. Southern whites often used the fact that lynchings had roots in communal justice in the western frontier, and the fact that some whites were lynched, too, to defend lynching and mob violence against blacks.
They pointed to the awfulness of certain alleged crimes and inadequacies in the justice system as reasons for taking the law into their own hands. According to Brundage, efforts by Progressive reformers to highlight problems with law enforcement only served to encourage and justify lynchers. According to Brundage's numbers, sixteen of the eighty-six men lynched in Virginia between and were white, perhaps the highest percentage of white victims The lynchings of whites tended to be different from those of blacks, however.
Fewer crimes warranted mob violence against whites, with two-thirds of white lynching victims, like Jim Rhodes , of Albemarle County , being accused of murder. Such mobs also tended to be smaller, suggesting less community involvement and less of a need to send a broad message about community standards. Victims were rarely tortured or mutilated, and the perpetrators were more often the subjects of community condemnation and legal punishment.
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On July 12, , a mob in Patrick County lynched Lee Puckett, a white man and discharged mental patient accused of rape. Six white men later were convicted of second-degree murder for their participation in that lynching. Major newspapers or metropolitan dailies sometimes described lynchings that occurred outside their geographical area.
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Readers learned that Smith was placed on a 10 feet-high scaffold and was tortured for 50 minutes by red-hot irons thrust against his body, after which he was set on fire and transformed from a human being to charred human remains. It is next to impossible to locate a newspaper article that does not identify the victim as a Negro or that refrains from suggesting that the accused was guilty of the crime and therefore deserving of punishment. Yet, for all the negative portraits that appeared in the late nineteenth century press, there were hopeful signs.
Some newspapers and magazines denounced the practice of lynching Black Americans. The Chicago Tribune was a pioneer in the anti-lynching effort. Beginning in , The Tribune published a list of lynchings, showing the number of people killed by lynch mobs in a given year and the reasons for the deaths. The New York Times was without question the harshest critic of lynching and provided some of the earliest denunciations. The Times was long "an outspoken foe of lynchings," Wright observes.
Yet it had numerous blind spots.