Why Lynching?

August 31, 2009 at 6:52 am Leave a comment

I often talk about my studies of American lynching memorials with people from various walks of life: students, professors, museum curators, artists, administrative assistants, bus drivers, and hairdressers.

I’m often asked why I chose to study this topic and what does this have to do with art history.  Many people are shocked to learn that lynching scenes were once featured on postcards.  Many of these people were unaware of the existence of present day lynching memorials.  They ask me about the imagery used on the structures.  And they sometimes question why communities chose to highlight this type of history.

People frequently quickly associate lynching with terms such as “frontier justice” and link it with popular culture references such as films like Hang ‘Em High.

And a few folks admit that they aren’t certain as to exactly what lynching is.

While these types of responses encourage me to clarify my focus and advance my efforts to share my work with the public, I have been most affected by the lack of knowledge concerning the meaning of lynching.  I’ve found that this confusion surrounding the topic is central to the contemporary creation of lynching memorials.

Before I began my scholarly studies of the material culture of American lynchings, my understanding of the subject was shaped by my readings of African American literature, watching films, and the stories my grandmother shared about her life as a young girl in Mississippi.  I didn’t learn about lynching in my high school history classes.  I grew up thinking of lynching as a particularly racialized practice that occurred in the South during the late 19th and early 20th century.


Various scholars such as William D. Carrigan, author of The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916 and Jacqueline Goldsby, author of A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, start their books by defining lynching.  And yet even these experts have noted that it is difficult to succinctly delineate lynching.  Moreover, scholars usually highlight that the term lynching meant different things at different times.

Lynchings were not unique to the United States.  People throughout the world in various time periods resorted to mob action.  The characteristics of the violence vary immensely from place to place and time to time.  Thus it is important to consider lynching history carefully and specifically in terms of region and era.

Since the founding of the U.S., lynching was a form of social control used against people of various ethnic groups accused of criminal offenses.  Most lynchings involved some form of hanging the accused person(s) from trees, streetlamps, or bridges.  Some of these incidents included torture, burning, and mutilation of the corpse.  Between the 1880s to the late 1960s racism was a dominant factor in lynchings throughout the U.S.  During this time about 4700 people were lynched.  Most of these people were black men killed by white mobs.

For my research, I have found the work of sociologist Roberta Senechal de la Roche particularly useful because she describes how lynching is similar and dissimilar to the other forms of collective violence: vigilantism, rioting, and terrorism.
Senechal de la Roche, Roberta, “Collective Violence as Social Control,” Sociological Forum, 11, 1 (March 1996): 97-128. Available on JSTOR.
Senechal de la Roche, Roberta, “Why is Collective Violence Collective?,” Sociological Theory, 19, 2 (July 2001): 126-144.  Available on JSTOR.

Senechal de la Roche argues that lynch mobs were often made up of various individuals who were not part of an organized group as in the case of vigilante posses.

Moreover, she focuses on how social factors such as relational distance, cultural distance, functional independence, and inequality correlate with forms of collective violence.  She notes that lynchings became more prevalent as segregation became rampant after the Reconstruction era.


One friend remarked that this topic must be hard to work on because of its very emotional nature.

Indeed lynching is a challenging subject to study.  I spend a lot of time reading horrific accounts and examining ghastly images.  But this isn’t the most disquieting aspect of my research.  I find the contemporary misunderstandings about lynching and vigilantism to be particularly troublesome.  Conflating these forms of mob violence collapses all lynchings with the myths surrounding frontier history.  The idea of western vigilantes has become a romanticized trope that seems to discourage rather than encourage serious study of lynching history.  Moreover, this tendency ignores the particularly racist and gendered practices associated with lynching.


Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003
Duluth, Minnesota

Closeup of Scultures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, photo by author, 7-09

Closeup of Sculptures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003, photo by author, 7-09

Interestingly the historical text on the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minnesota does not include the term lynching.

Detail of the historical text near the figures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, photo by author, 7-09.

Detail of the historical text near the figures, Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, 2003, photo by author, 7-09.

On June 15, 1920, following the alleged rape of a young woman, Duluth police locked up a number of men who worked for a traveling circus.  That evening, thousands of Duluthians gathered outside the city jail. The police were under orders not to shoot, and they obeyed.
With Timbers and rails as battering rams, the mob broke down the doors of the jail and staged a trial of six of the men. They convicted Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, who had been held as a witness. The crowd dragged the young men about a block, beat them as viciously as you may imagine, and hanged them from a light pole that stood diagonally across the street from where you are now.  Some brave people spoke out in protest, but they were few against thousands. One man took a photograph that was later distributed as postcards. This memorial is dedicated to the memories of the murdered here and everywhere.

The word lynching is also not included in the various quotes listed on the walls.

The killing of the men is classified under the broader term- murder rather than lynching.

This memorial is dedicated to the memories of the murdered here and everywhere.

Additionally, the race of the lynched men and the mob members is not mentioned. Although the memorial website and the various newspaper articles about the memorial explicitly demarcate this incident as a lynching based on racism, the monument suggests that race was not a primary factor in the killing of these men.

As I continue my studies of these memorials I will delve deeper into the significance of the presence and absence of the word lynching.

Entry filed under: Lynching, Memorials/Monuments, Public Space. Tags: , , , .

Lynching Memorials: Overview of Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Where’s lynching?

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