Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South

Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South

Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South

Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South


Why did some offenses in the South end in mob lynchings while similar crimes led to legal executions? Why did still other cases have nonlethal outcomes? In this well-researched and timely book, Margaret Vandiver explores the complex relationship between these two forms of lethal punishment, challenging the assumption that executions consistently grew out of-and replaced-lynchings.

Vandiver begins by examining the incidence of these practices in three culturally and geographically distinct southern regions. In rural northwest Tennessee, lynchings outnumbered legal executions by eleven to one and many African Americans were lynched for racial caste offenses rather than for actual crimes. In contrast, in Shelby County, which included the growing city of Memphis, more men were legally executed than lynched. Marion County, Florida, demonstrated a firmly entrenched tradition of lynching for sexual assault that ended in the early 1930s with three legal death sentences in quick succession.

With a critical eye to issues of location, circumstance, history, and race, Vandiver considers the ways that legal and extralegal processes imitated, influenced, and differed from each other. A series of case studies demonstrates a parallel between mock trials that were held by lynch mobs and legal trials that were rushed through the courts and followed by quick executions.

Tying her research to contemporary debates over the death penalty, Vandiver argues that modern death sentences, like lynchings of the past, continue to be influenced by factors of race and place, and sentencing is comparably erratic.


Dyer County, Tennessee, had a wellestablished tradition of lynching by 1915. At least eight men had been hanged in the small rural county for offenses ranging from horse theft to murder. When Robert Davis was arrested for murdering a young white woman by beheading her, there was every reason to expect a lynching, but the sheriff of Dyer County quickly moved Davis to the relative safety of the Memphis jail. There Davis’s luck continued. At a time when indigent African American defendants could expect the barest minimum of legal assistance, Davis’s lawyer spent his own funds to investigate the case. He found compelling evidence that the woman had been murdered by her husband, not by Davis. At the request of the prosecutor, the judge entered a verdict of directed acquittal and Davis was freed.

Two years later, Julius Morgan, a black man, was accused of raping a white woman in Dyer County. Morgan narrowly escaped being lynched. The sheriff went to great lengths to protect Morgan from the mob, moving him to jails in Jackson, Union City, and finally Nashville. Morgan was represented by several attorneys who secured a change of venue to Memphis, where he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. After his appeal was rejected, Morgan was electrocuted at the state prison in Nashville; he was the first person to die in Tennessee’s electric chair.

Just seventeen months after Morgan’s legal execution, Lation Scott became the suspect in the rape of a white woman in rural Dyer County. He was captured outside the county and brought back to Dyersburg by law enforcement officers who did not resist when a mob demanded their prisoner. The mob brought Scott to downtown Dyersburg on the morning of December 2, 1917. It was Sunday and church services had just ended. Thousands of people assembled to watch as the leaders of the mob tortured and burned Lation Scott alive a few blocks from the courthouse. Scott was the last person to be lynched in Dyer County.

These three cases, occurring in one county within a three-year period, illustrate some of the complexities of “lethal social control” in the American . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.