Lynching is often described as a form of extralegal, vigilante violence or justice; however, its meaning has evolved over time—from the tarring and feathering of individuals in the Colonial period to the lethal, racial violence that proliferated in the South. According to Digital History, “Lynching received its name from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia farmer who punished outlaws and Tories with “rough” justice during the American Revolution.”
The United States has a long history of vigilance committees whose purposes were to protect the community. According to Linda Gordon, “vigilantism generally means bypassing the legal procedures of the state and substituting direct, usually punitive and coercive action by self-appointed groups of citizens.” In some instances, vigilantism is romanticized—like in the west—as a form of outspoken, American democracy. While lynching has existed, historically, in many forms, it is most commonly associated with the form it took in the South in the late 19th century.
According to the group Monroe Work Today, by 1835, lynchings were more common and more leathal. In the middle of the 19th century lynchings were “a crude form of frontier justice done by vigilantes ‘keeping the peace,’” and approximately 40% of lynchings in this period were done to white men. Contrary to popular belief, lynchings frequently occurred in places where there were courthouses. Lynchings were not a symptom of lawlessness.
Rather, as lynchings began to occur more frequently in the west, they were tools of violence used against non-white groups to challenge the slow pace of the legal system, in favor of immediate action. Before 1877 (the end of Reconstruction), most lynchings happened in the West. Lynching victims also varied by region. Those that occurred in the North typically targeted Italians, Jews, or other immigrants, while those in the west targeted Mexicans or Chinese. Nevertheless, beginning in the 1880s, approximately 90% of lynchings occurred in the South and happened to black men.