lynching, unlawfully hanging or otherwise killing a person by mob action. The term is derived from the older term lynch law, which is most likely named after either Capt. William Lynch (1742–1820), of Pittsylvania co., Va., or Col. Charles Lynch (1736–96), of neighboring Bedford (later Campbell) co., both of whom used extralegal proceedings to punish Loyalists during the American Revolution. Historically, the term lynching is most commonly applied to racist violence in the post–Civil War American South.
Lynching was common among North American pioneers on the frontier, where legal institutions were not yet established. Lesser crimes might be punished by exile, while crimes that seemed to them capital, such as rape, horse stealing, and cattle rustling, were punished by lynching. Pioneers formed vigilance committees to repress crime (see vigilantes). When legal institutions had been duly established, such vigilance committees normally tended to disappear. Measures by such committees had the intrinsic danger of resorting to violence and hasty injustice, and posed a tangible threat to the basis of the law.
Between 1882, when reliable data was first collected, and 1968, when the crime had largely disappeared, there were at least 4,730 lynchings in the United States, including some 3,440 black men and women. Most of these were in the post-Reconstruction South between 1882 and 1944, where southern whites used lynching and other terror tactics to intimidate blacks into political, social, and economic submission. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only about a quarter of lynch victims were accused of rape or attempted rape. Most blacks were lynched for outspokenness or other presumed offenses against whites, or in the aftermath of race riots. In many cases lynchings were not spontaneous mob violence but involved a degree of planning and law-enforcement cooperation. Racially motivated lynchings, which often involved the mutilation and immolation of the victim, might be witnessed by an entire local community as a diverting spectacle.
State and local governments in the South did little to curtail lynchings; various laws against mob violence were seldom enforced. Three times (1922, 1937, 1940) antilynching legislation passed the House of Representatives, only to be defeated in the Senate. Although the term has fallen into disuse since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, similar practices still occur, often classified today as "bias crimes."
See R. L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909–1950 (1980); P. Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown (2002).