Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Lethal Punishment

Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South

Margaret Vandiver
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Lethal Punishment
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4106-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    Dyer County, Tennessee, had a well-established 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....

  6. Chapter 1 Legal and Extralegal Executions in the American South
    (pp. 8-17)

    No single definition of lynching is universally accepted, and the history of competing definitions has been contentious.¹ Probably the most widely used is that adopted in 1940 at a meeting of antilynching activists. To establish that a lynching occurred, they concluded, “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group [three or more people] acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.”² I have used this definition in determining which of the many cases I examined for this study should be considered...

  7. Chapter 2 Lethal Punishment in Tennessee and Florida
    (pp. 18-27)

    Neither Tennessee nor Florida is a typical southern state, if indeed such a thing exists. As a border state including mountainous regions with few slaves and a Delta area of large-scale cotton plantations where slavery drove the economy and culture, Tennessee presented a complex and often contradictory picture. Florida, despite its Spanish heritage, was culturally part of the Deep South until the massive population influxes of the twentieth century. Both states made frequent use of lethal punishment. In this chapter, I review the history of executions and lynchings in both states and provide a brief overview of race relations in...

  8. Chapter 3 Eleven Lynchings for Every Execution: Lethal Punishment in Northwest Tennessee
    (pp. 28-49)

    Tennessee has three distinct regions, or grand divisions, East, Middle, and West. The part of the state known as West Tennessee lies between the Mississippi and the Tennessee rivers. West Tennessee was a hunting ground for the Chickasaw people and remained a frontier society longer than the rest of the state. Although Tennessee became a state in 1796, the area lying west of the Tennessee River was not opened for white settlement until 1818, when it was ceded by the Chickasaw nation for the price of $300,000. Settlement proceeded rapidly, with whites moving to the area from other southern states...

  9. Chapter 4 “There Can Be Nothing but Death”: Lethal Punishment for Rape in Shelby County, Tennessee
    (pp. 50-69)

    Memphis is the major city of the Midsouth region, which comprises West Tennessee, northwest Mississippi, and eastern Arkansas. The city was founded in 1819 and became a center of cotton and slave trading before the Civil War. The war did little damage to Memphis, which fell quickly to the federal forces and remained under occupation. The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 was more destructive to the city, killing five thousand residents and driving many thousands of others away. Because of the inability of the remaining population to pay the city’s debts after the epidemic, Memphis’s city charter was repealed and...

  10. Chapter 5 “The First Time a Charge Like This Has Ever Been Tried in the Courts”: The End of Lynching in Marion County, Florida
    (pp. 70-88)

    The patterns of lynchings and executions in the seven counties of northwest Tennessee and in Shelby County reveal no evidence that legal executions replaced mob lynchings. In Marion County, Florida, in contrast, officials ended a long and deeply rooted tradition of illegal hangings by rushing three black men accused of the rape of white women to trial. These trials were held under mob influence, after lynchings had been narrowly averted, and resulted in the quick imposition of legal death sentences. Correspondence between local and state officials indicates that the authorities deliberately substituted these trials for lynching.¹

    Between 1885 and 1930,...

  11. Chapter 6 The Mob and the Law: Mock Trials by Mobs and Sham Legal Trials
    (pp. 89-102)

    In 1899 theYale Law Journalpublished an essay on “Lynch Law and Its Remedy,” by Charles J. Bonaparte, a future attorney general of the United States. Bonaparte distinguished between the violence used by lynchers and vigilantes on the one hand and the violence of rioters and strikers on the other. Lynching, he claimed, was undertaken “not to violate, but to vindicate, the law; … the law is violated in form that it may be vindicated in substance.”¹

    Lynchers and their apologists often made the claim that they acted in service to justice and therefore to the law. Writing about...

  12. Chapter 7 “The First Duty of a Government”: Lynching and the Fear of Anarchy
    (pp. 103-118)

    In 1881, theMemphis Daily Appealwrote an editorial denouncing lynching as “anarchy.”¹ By taking this stand, the paper recognized an aspect of mob violence that greatly concerned whites—that is, the danger violent mobs presented to organized society. Much of white opposition to lynching, especially in earlier years, focused on this danger and not on lynching’s cruelty and brutal disregard for the human and legal rights of the victim.²

    Mob action always presented a challenge to legitimate authority, revealing it as weak and inept. Several governors of Tennessee recognized this destructive aspect of mob violence. In 1870, Gov. Dewitt...

  13. Chapter 8 When the Mob Ruled: The Lynching of Ell Persons
    (pp. 119-140)

    When Governor Patterson took action against mob violence in northwest Tennessee in 1908, he did so due to concern about the consequences of widespread lawlessness. The ongoing defiance of the night riders could not be tolerated because it threatened social order. Nine years later, a mob in Memphis defied the authorities, undermined order in the community, and briefly assumed the functions of law enforcement and government.¹ Forming an invisible government,² the mob held power in the county for a period of several weeks.³

    Such a breakdown of authority, culminating in a scheduled and announced murder committed before thousands of witnesses,...

  14. Chapter 9 Prevented Lynchings: White Intervention and Black Resistance
    (pp. 141-155)

    Far more lynchings were threatened and attempted than were carried out. Potential lynchings were prevented by law enforcement officers, through intervention by whites, and through black resistance.¹ Such cases occurred even in the 1890s, the height of the lynching era, and became more common as time passed. According to figures compiled by the Tuskegee Institute and published by Arthur Raper, the percent of threatened lynchings actually carried out decreased dramatically between 1914 and 1932. In 1931 and 1932, less than one-fourth of threatened lynchings were completed.² These numbers could be interpreted to mean that while the underlying causes of lynching...

  15. Chapter 10 “No Reason Why We Should Favor Lynching or Hanging”: Efforts to End Legal and Extralegal Executions in Tennessee
    (pp. 156-175)

    Tennessee was similar to other southern states in its record of executions and lynchings. Despite the state’s use of lethal punishment, there was outspoken opposition to lynching in Tennessee and substantial efforts to abolish the death penalty as well. Just as the relationship between legal and extralegal executions is complex and contingent on place, time, and circumstance, the relationship between efforts to abolish the practices is also complicated. The campaigns against lynching and the death penalty present striking parallels, but they were not always complementary; in fact, the one sometimes undercut the other. The effort to abolish the death penalty...

  16. Chapter 11 Conclusions
    (pp. 176-186)

    This book explored the relationship between legal and extralegal executions through close examination of both practices over several decades in three places. I found no consistent patterns across the three areas that would allow me to reach broad conclusions. Instead, I found that the function and meaning of lynchings and executions varied over time, by place, and by circumstance.

    The three areas I studied shared a history of slavery and a continuing commitment to white supremacy, but in other ways they were quite distinct and their patterns of use of lethal punishment were significantly different. The northwest counties of Tennessee...

  17. Appendix A: Sources and Methods
    (pp. 187-195)
  18. Appendix B: Inventory of Confirmed Lynchings and Legal Executions
    (pp. 196-202)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 203-260)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-274)
  21. Index
    (pp. 275-284)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)