Why Lynch Mob is Overused … and Underused

Content note for All The Racism, including graphic photos; witch hunt links contain All The Sexism.

A while back I wrote on Pharyngula about losing my patience with the phrase “witch hunt”. Witch hunts were real things, actively targeting real people for death. They weren’t “partisan”. They didn’t seek actual lawbreakers out in both Massachusetts and the Carolinas, but more aggressively sought out Republican lawbreakers in Massachusetts and more aggressively sought out Democratic lawbreakers in South Carolina. They didn’t take actual evidence and hype it more than it deserved: actual evidence did not exist. What was used as evidence came solely from the prosecutorial imagination.

Worse, witch hunts still take place today, and Christian denominations still encourage them.*1 While I don’t know of any recent witch hunts in the US or Canada, I’m more than happy to condemn this trivializing use of “witch hunt”.

All of which to say that I have been even more offended for even longer at hearing the misuse of “lynch,” “lynching” and “lynch mob”.

I am assured by no less an august and authoritative source than Wikipedia itself that one of the earliest (if not the earliest) surviving written uses of “Lynch’s Law” to describe extra-judicial punishment, especially mob execution, actually referenced killing Brits in the 1780s. While that may surprise some who see lynching as inextricably bound up with anti-Black racism, please take note of why the document says these Brits were killed: “for Dealing with negroes, &c.” Well. Phew! And here I thought lynching had always been about perpetuating racism!

More familiar forms of lynching were being carried out at least by 1835, according to a 19th century Encyclopedia of the History of Saint Louis*2 edited by historians William Hyde and Howard Conrad.  In a section titled “Riots and Mobs” that asserts the first such public disturbance in Saint Louis was an election riot in 1817, we  find this delightful passage:

The first case of lynch law in Saint Louis occurred in 1835, when a negro named McIntosh, who killed Deputy Sheriff Hammond while being taken to jail, was captured, chained to a tree and burned to death. The burning took place on what is now the Southwest corner of Seventh and Chestnut Streets in the presence of an approving assemblage of over one thousand persons. The event made a vivid impression, and for many years afterward the “year the nigger was burned” was a date in popular reckoning.

There was a time period when lynchings appear to have been more common in free states than slave states. It is unclear (at least to me) why this is so, but one hypothesis is that the whites had more to gain by keeping slaves alive to perform work for white profits. But for whatever reason, lynching became vastly more common in the South after the Civil War.

Although burning victims to death was apparently common enough, the iconic imagery of a lynching is that of hanging, and especially from a tree, not a gallows. This is, not least, because of surviving photographs. The Atlanta Black Star’s article on the relative prevalence of lynchings from state to state includes this photo:

A number of Black persons - probably all men - hang from stout limbs on the same tree while whites appear to walk by or hold conversations only a few feet away.

Mass Lynching by Hanging in Georgia

The date and location are not clearly specified in the article, but it is used to illustrate the portion of the article dealing with lynchings in Georgia. It may be from the period 1890 to 1900 as the article states “there was at least one mob killing of a Black person every month in Georgia between 1890 and 1900”.

There are, of course, photographs of lynching victims executed by other methods. Recalling Saint Louis’ precocious race murder of 1835, this photo shows a man who may have been burned to death, though it is also possible he was murdered before thrown on the fire:

Dozens of white men pose for a photo behind a bonfire on which the body of a Black murder victim still burns.

Trees were used for restraint even when death was caused by white men’s burning or beating of their victims. Though the 1835 burning has no photos associated with it that I could find, this next photo is of a Black victim of white murderers. Death may have been by beating, strangulation, exposure, or another method, but by whatever method, he was left chained to the tree where he died:

This next photo is similar, save for two things. The first is that it is better sourced: we know that it documents a particular killing in Royston, Georgia during the Great Depression. Secondly, differently from the previous photo but as in the burning photo, the white murderers pose proudly to record their participation in a crime for which they would never be punished:

Nonetheless, the most murderous imagery most closely associated with lynching is that of a Black person hanging by a noose from a tree. So many pictures of this type exist that it’s hard to escape them. They record the murder of groups and of individuals. Often they record the murders of Black men, but other times they record the murders of Black women or even Black families.

Murder after murder after murder. And if you can’t close your eyes and see the images that fill my memory, then likely you still hold this close association between nooses, trees, and the Black bodies of white murderers’ victims swaying gently in the breeze. Billie Holliday preserved both the tendency to burn Black people to death as well as the tendency to murder Black people by hanging. But in naming her song Strange Fruit, I believe she helped cement the already clear connection between the noose and our historical pattern of racist lynching:

These images do not survive by accident. White racists wanted this imagery to survive. They wanted to preserve undeserved white power. A single murder of a single person would not achieve their goals. While the murder victim would be as dead when killed by a single person in private or a vast crowd in public, the targets of these lynchings included far more than the people who ended up dead. The crowds served a purpose. Bringing white children to the lynchings served a purpose. Whites wanted to impress the power and fury of racism upon both each other and on Black citizens.

The control granted by racism was the goal, not merely the killing of one or another Black person who may-or-may-not have committed an act tending to break down white control of Black people. The overt acts of lynching were overt because it was only in communicating their racism as far as possible that these white murderers could get the most out of their acts of terrorism. We sometimes marvel at how overt these lynchings were, but their publicity and their memory were a necessary part of the lynching. Today we find horrifying the Freedom Summer murders of James Chaney and the two men traveling with him to help register Black voters in Chaney’s home state of Mississippi. Yet this was not a classic lynching: the murder of Chaney and his friends was conducted in relative secrecy, their bodies buried in a dam project.

The murderers may have been successful in preventing specific acts tending to break down white control of Black people, and they may even have been relatively numerous, what with the number of people necessary to kill those three men, hide their car, and bury their bodies. But the real success of this lynching is in the publicity. It is when our ongoing horror at the act prevents us from discussing or challenging racism that the white racist murderers find their victories. Make no mistake: they intended people to be afraid. They intended people to shrink from taking action to challenge racism. And yet, as readily as the Freedom Summer murders might come to mind for some of us, they were far from the most successful at spreading terror.

Consider this newspaper’s front page:

The Equal Justice Initiative provides us this photo from the Jackson Mississippi Daily News, June 26, 1919. Three separate headlines, all above the fold, celebrate the impending lynching of John Hartfield by a crowd they anticipated would be three thousand strong. Though Hartfield was murdered that day in Ellisville, Mississippi as anticipated, they may have been wrong about one thing: some subsequent reports put the crowd at roughly 10,000. They also named only one victim, Hartfield, when in fact there were many. EJI’s story focuses on one victim of that lynching, Mamie Lang Kirkland. Born in 1907, Kirkland had to wait until 2015 for her memories to be recorded. And yet, throughout that time her life was affected, in ongoing ways, by this incident of white terrorism.

She had actually left Ellisville four years before Hartfield’s murder. Hartfield was targeted by white racists in Ellisville because he and a white woman (unnamed in EJI’s piece) had been dating each other. Though this likely began in secret, by 1915 the secret was out. Kirkland was not related to Hartfield, but her family faced the murderous wrath of racist whites anyway. As an eight year old child, she witnessed her father flee Ellisville because he was a friend of Hartfield and apparently had known about the relationship, possibly also being a friend of Hartfield’s dating partner. Kirkland, her mother, and the rest of her family were in danger as potential leverage against Kirkland’s father, and in any case would face tremendous economic hardship without what income her father could provide. The family rushed to gather their things and follow as quickly as they could.

In Saint Louis they reunited with her father and with Hartfield as well. For a time, they escaped the Ellisville mob. Eventually, however, the mass killings of Black people in post-war Saint Louis caused Hartfield to return home to Ellisville. Kirkland believes it was a combination of fatigue from running and the sense that racist threat was inescapable that Hartfield must have felt after his new home became the scene of so many racist murders.

She told her children about these times. Her only son to survive to 2015, Tarabu Kirkland, even tried to find records of the lynching, but was frustrated by Kirkland’s imperfect memory. Though the lynching had obviously been in Ellisville, and she perfectly remembered the first name of her father’s friend, she had told her children John’s last name was “Harvey”. But when Tarabu Kirkland found the newspaper image included above, he showed it to his mother and she confirmed that this was the lynching that had caused her to flee her home.

There are, undoubtedly, other survivors of lynching living in the United States today; lynching is not a historical event. We do tend to wish these traumas into the past: even I tend to think of the Holocaust as historical, and yet even today survivors of the Holocaust live in the US, and I have shared a congregation with some whose parents survived the Holocaust. We might like to believe that there are no longer any active effects of these horrifying campaigns of murder. This, however, is plainly not true. Just two years ago Kirkland visited Ellisville for the first time in a hundred years. She had sworn she would never go back. She was denied any opportunity to revisit her childhood for one hundred years. It was 2015 when she returned. 2015.

Lynchings are still powerful today. They still serve their purpose today. We are still afraid to speak about them, to look at the images, to listen to the survivors, to challenge the legacy.

And yet, white racists know the legacy. They embrace the legacy. The white racists want lynchings to be remembered as much or more as anti-racists do. They continue to display the icons of lynching even when others pull away. Consider this image:


This use of a noose dangling from a car window in the midst of a KKK parade is not something detached from the terrorism that denied Kirkland her childhood home. This IS the terrorism that denied Kirkland her childhood home. Remember that Kirkland was not present when Hartfield was murdered: she did not need to be in order to feel the fear intended by Hartfield’s racist murderers. The noose was used as a symbol to instill fear and to gain and maintain control through fear of that symbol. But the noose-as-symbol soaked up its power as the physical nooses absorbed blood seeping through the abrasions on the necks of the victims of white racist murders.

Timeline.com has a story by Megan Day about the noose, its symbolic power, and the terrorism that imbued it with that power. But the story doesn’t stop there. It goes on to describe the use of the noose as part and parcel of lynching.

Disturbingly, noose intimidation reached the height of its popularity not in the 20th century but in the 21st. In 2006, nooses were hung from a tree on a high school campus in Jena, Louisiana, intensifying pre-existing racial animus among local youth. Six black students assaulted a white student shortly thereafter, and were harshly penalized. The case’s national publicity led to a resurgence of noose intimidation — in short, the noose vent viral. Nooses started appearing outside black public figures’ doors, in their mailboxes, even in their fax machine trays. Many of these post-Jena noose incidents appeared on Southern campuses, including Duke and the University of Mississippi.

Lynching would only be murder without the integration of racist murder into a public campaign of publicity. Even this combination of murder with advertising one’s willingness to injure or kill does not make up the whole of lynching. Integral to lynching is the use of the resulting fear, the fear that white racists intended to inflict, to exercise political control over Black persons and Black communities.

There are killings that fit the pattern of lynchings save for the white-on-Black racism. You may have read in the news recently that one college student in Pakistan was publicly killed and thrown off a rooftop. It is likely but not certain that the student was dead before being thrown from the roof. The BBC reports on aspects of the case, saying that rumors of blasphemy were the motive. It seems very likely that this is not merely a mob murder, but that the murder was intended to frighten and control atheists and other non-muslims in the country. I might be willing to overlook the expansion of the definition of lynching to include such acts.

One Trump supporter recently was criticized in the press for wearing a shirt that said “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Given the lack of systematized killings of journalists in this country in order to politically control where and how they live, with whom they can have contact, and where they can receive their educations (among other things), I am much less comfortable with media descriptions of this shirt as advocating lynching.

Then we get to Curt Schilling’s description of that same t-shirt as “so. much. awesome.” in a tweet. Properly excoriating Schilling for his advocacy of murder-jokes-that-maybe-are-murder-advocacy-but-let’s-keep-up-the-plausible-deniability-shall-we, the media continued to misuse lynching to describe what the shirt was advocating. But at least the shirt seems to carry implications of using murder to control journalists, even if the shirt has not actually been given power by anti-journalist murders here in the United States.*3 This is an example of the media going too far, actually equating this threat with lynching when at most it alludes to a future in which journalist lynching might occur.

Oh, but that’s not the real frosting on this cake. No. In the face of the widespread criticism he so richly deserved, Schilling then said this to TMZ (according to Mediaite, I can’t stand to watch video of the interview):

[The people who vote on nominees to the baseball Hall of Fame] are not hiding the fact that they’ve stopped voting for me because of the things I’ve said on social media. That’s their prerogative as voters.

… I promise you, If I had said ‘Lynch Trump,’ I’d be getting in with about 90% of the vote.

I might be willing to grant the use of lynch for the public campaigns of terror against religious minorities in places like Pakistan. I strongly disagree with, but at least understand the feelings of, the journalists who use the word lynch in stories about that Trump supporter, and later Curt Schilling, who expressed support for the killing of journalists for what, presumably, would be the purpose of controlling what journalists can say and when they can say it.

But lynching Trump? In what possible world is there an ongoing campaign of murder combined with public advertisement of the willingness to kill even more people to gain and maintain control of Trump through fear? Would this be a lynching campaign against whites or maybe white men that would sweep up Trump in its net? Would it be a campaign of terrorist murders against television personalities? Real estate developers? In what possible world is Trump caught up in a lynching campaign as anything but a white racist murderer?

It is uses like that which make me mistrust the use of lynch mob and lynching in the media today. It is uses like this that cause me to believe they are overused. That we must cut them out of the vocabulary of popular writers.

But then I think about what lynching is, the use of murder to empower symbols to create fear to gain political and social control. If the murders themselves have slowed down, the lynching campaign has not. The noose is still gaining in popularity, and its use is not limited to schools.

Lawyer and Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala recently received this all-caps message at her office:


Orlando Weekly’s blog reported that while she didn’t personally open the envelope with the message, she was told of the contents. Moreover, this was not a one-off. In addition to other hate mail, she received one more envelope that appears to have come from the same source. Writes Monivette Cordeiro:

The [first] envelope also contained three white business cards with the words “You are an Honorary Member of S.P.O.N.G.E.” on one side and “Society for the Prevention of Niggers Getting Everything” on the other side. The second envelope, received on March 28, contained an index card with a noose made of green twine taped to the card, according to the report.

Why would someone send these to Ayala? In addition to being a Black woman, Ayala is a highly placed prosecutor, with broad discretion on (among other things) when to seek the death penalty and when not to do so when a defendant is accused of a potentially capital crime. Recently Ayala announced that she would not approve or oversee any efforts to seek the death penalty for capital crimes committed within her jurisdiction. These mailings are just two of many, many hateful and threatening messages coming from people who do not wish her to exercise the power and discretion granted by her position if she is not willing to continue the pattern of state killing which these critics so warmly embrace.

In short, the noose is being used to control – or at least to attempt to do so – Ayala. Whoever mailed this to Ayala is acting in the same way as other white racists: they have used public threats of future murder and/or public symbols of past murders to create public fear that can then be used to prevent Black people from exercising their due share of power in US government and US society.

The noose sent to Ayala is not separate from lynching. It is not a mere symbol of lynching. It is not even a threat of lynching. The noose sent to Ayala is an indispensable link in the chain from murder to control, and it is the whole of that chain that makes a lynching.

This noose is part of a lynching. Ayala is a victim of lynching in Florida today. And yet not one single media outlet I’ve seen has come out and said this. Newspapers, websites, tv shows will use the language of lynching to describe all too many things, and yet when actual lynching is unfolding before journalists’ eyes, they refuse to call it what it is.

And this is why I’m uncomfortable with the use of lynching even for events like those last week in Pakistan. This is why I’m absolutely outraged by the media reporting on Schilling’s use of “lynch” in reference to Trump without bothering to point out that Trump could not possibly be the victim of a lynching. This is why I don’t trust how lynch is used publicly today.

I’ll support greater use of the word lynching, of the phrase lynch mob, only when those things that are already lynching can be publicly named the same way.


*1: Unsurprisingly, the areas in which Christian congregations are doing or directly encouraging the witch-hunting are more likely to be areas where Christianity is particularly influential, which, in turn, is likely because of disproportionate wealth in poor regions. That wealth can be well-intentioned donations from WEIRD Christians. So, yes, though witch-finding and witch-killing is primarily a non-WEIRD thing, attaching poverty relief to religion gives power to those who engage in witch hunting. Additionally, though the Catholic church is not particularly implicated in witch-hunting in African any more than any other Christian denomination, their ongoing support of exorcism and exorcists among their WEIRD congregants makes me think that there may exist as-yet-unpublicized evidence that the Catholic church is disproportionately responsible. Have I said that I don’t trust the Catholic church?

For those not in the know, WEIRD stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” where “democratic” properly describes not the individual, but rather the government under which that individual lives.

*2: Saint Louis, Missouri, if any clarification was needed.

*3: Yes, murder has been used in conjunction with the public promotion of those murders in order to instill fear in order to control journalists and journalism in many places and times. There is no history of that in the US, however, that would be remotely comparable to lynching.


  1. cartomancer says

    There is an historical difference here between “lynching” and “witch hunt”. “Lynching” refers to a very specific pattern of extra-judicial racist violence and intimidation from one context – the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries (and the legacy thereof). “Witch hunt”, however, is much less culturally specific and encompasses a myriad of different phenomena only loosely connected. There was no one definitive narrative for witch hunting (although the cartoon version most of us imagine when we think of the term is pretty standardised), and it varied in nature, severity and its key features across time and space.

    Sometimes it was spontaneous and extra-judicial (Matthew Hopkins’ activities in East Anglia were only really permitted because the judicial system had pretty much broken down in that part of the world thanks to the Civil War), sometimes it was conducted with full judicial authority or even Royal backing (e.g. Berwick, Pendle). Sometimes it was hard to tell which of these was the case – a lot of German witch hunting was conducted by local magistrates of tiny jurisdictions caught up in local fervour. Not all dealing with witchcraft took the form of histrionic mass pogroms either, which swept up communities. The majority were isolated one-off incidents which did not turn into attempts to purge a whole society – those tended to occur when there was widespread belief that witches were satanic conspiracy or a local prince wanted to demonstrate his piety and strong arm tactics to his rivals. Where it was a legal matter the legal systems involved affected the outcomes significantly. Under the Caroline Code used in the Holy Roman Empire witchcraft was a Crimen Exceptum – proving it did not require adherence to usual standards of evidence, so hearsay and confession were enough. In Spain, however, the inquisitions of the Catholic Church were sticklers for due legal process, and most accused witches were acquitted. So the modern association of “witch hunt” with “stitch-up that denies the accused due legal process” is far from universally accurate. Even the well-worn “Burn the Witch!” trope was not exactly universal. Most condemned witches were not burned (only in places where witchcraft was seen as a form of heresy was that punishment used), they were hanged. Which is to say nothing of the differences between Early Modern Europe and modern Africa.

    So when someone uses “witch hunt” as an insult in modern political discourse, there is no specific ongoing referent for comparison. It is lazy and ahistorical to talk that way, so it has very little meaning. Your “lynching” example is far more pernicious because it has a specific referent to get the implications of wrong and the intimidation aspect is still going on today among the same groups of people who were originally affected. I suspect talk of “witch hunts” in politics is very different in countries where actual witch hunts are taking place today.

  2. Siobhan says

    As profoundly disturbing as this vein of work is, I do appreciate it–the fact-checking on actions with loaded histories which are often leveraged by a besieged individual to position themselves as a victim.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    Yeah, it was no fun to write, either. But lynching is a thing, and having people like Schilling out there talking about “lynching” Trump is disturbing on so many levels.

    I think we agree. I wasn’t trying to equate lynching and witch hunting – I do think that they are very substantially different, not least in that lynching is a word which describes a particular historical series of murders and their terroristic use to control Black people in the United States. Witch hunting, as you say, is a phenomenon which has many cultural antecedents.

    I still think witch hunting is overused, and the use of it in many contexts still raises my hackles. For me what’s important to establish reasonable use are the following:

    1. the person targeted by the thing they’re trying to say is a witch hunt must be one in a long series accused of the same behavior/crime
    2. the injury is not merely to one’s reputation: there are physical attacks.
    3. It is literally not possible to commit the crime in question
    4. evidence is simply invented (often after a ritual) when there is no logical or empirical connection between what the ritual is able to establish (she managed to float) and the behavior/crime in question (she’s a witch).

    We laugh at the Monty Python sketch about “she weighs the same as a duck, therefor she’s a witch” but to actual witch hunts are characterized by just this disconnect between evidence//test and conclusion.

    When someone is accused of behavior that takes place largely in private – sexual harassment, for example – it may be that we take what we know of a person’s publicly available patterns of behavior to evaluate if that claim is reasonable. And in that case we certainly can’t use those other behaviors to prove, as if in a criminal court, that a specific instance of sexual harassment occurred. But saying, “He demeans women on his television show, and given this public lack of respect for women I have no trouble believing that he might behave even worse when the camera is off,” is not a logical non-sequitur. Public respect for women is logically related to private respect for women. It’s fine to say a particular burden of proof isn’t met. It’s not fine to call pursuing such a line of thought a “witch hunt”.

    But, again, I think we’re on the same page.

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