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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 LynchLynch, Charles,
1736–96, American Revolutionary soldier, b. near the site of Lynchburg, Va. A member (1767–76) of the Virginia house of burgesses, he took a prominent part in the preparations for war. When a Tory conspiracy was discovered (1780) in Bedford co.
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 (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 vigilantesvigilantes
, members of a vigilance committee. Such committees were formed in U.S. frontier communities to enforce law and order before a regularly constituted government could be established or have real authority.
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). 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



summary reprisal against Negroes and progressive whites in the USA, imposed without trial or investigation.

As a rule, lynching is accompanied by torture, humiliation, and mockery of the victim; it usually leads to death. According to most accounts, the term came into use in the 18th century and derives from a racist American colonel named Lynch. During the War of Independence, Lynch commanded a battalion of riflemen in Virginia, where the existing courts of law virtually did not function. On his own authority, he set up a court where cruel methods were used against criminals, and especially against political opponents. A special law declaring Lynch’s actions illegal was passed in October 1782, but the procedure itself was not condemned.

In time the very practice of summary reprisals came to be called lynching. The unwritten code of lynching, called lynch law, became a tool for class reprisals by reactionaries against the most active figures in the trade-union, Negro, anti-imperialist, and Communist movements in the USA.

Lynching was most widespread from the end of the 19th century until the 1930’s. According to the data of one American author, Frank Shay (Judge Lynch, New York, 1969), 4,730 cases of lynching were officially recorded in the USA between 1882 and 1951. Of these, 3,657 involved Negroes. Moreover, the authorities were indifferent to lynching in practice. Federal law and the law of a number of states provide no criminal penalties for lynching.

Since the middle of the 20th century, lynching has acquired an openly class character and more frequently takes the form of direct murder of Negroes and progressive figures. Lynching is particularly provoked by such extreme rightist, profascist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.