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Tracing The Story Of 'Lynch Mob'

It's estimated that 4,743 Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A large majority of those victims were black.
Library of Congress
It's estimated that 4,743 Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968. A large majority of those victims were black.

Robert Benmosche, the CEO of insurance giant AIG, was widely criticized last week after comparing reactions to the bonuses his company's employees received in 2009 to a lynch mob.

While speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Benmosche said the reactions to the bonuses "[w]as intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."

Emphasis mine. Although Benmosche did not directly say the words "lynch mob," that's clearly what he was referring to. He's made the comparison before. In 2009, a year after AIG was bailed out by the government, Benmosche told Reuters that many employees were upset by the public's perception of the company. "A lot of them feel hurt, embarrassed, a lot of people have lived in fear because of what I call lynch mobs with pitchforks," he said.

Benmosche isn't the only public figure who has alluded to the violence of lynch mobs in an interview. Earlier this year, Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker accused the people who criticized his lavish wedding of forming a "digital lynch mob."

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the verb "to lynch" means "to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction." The historian Frank Shay wrote in 1969 that at one point, lynching was "as American as apple pie." Many lynchings occurred in public, in front of crowds that gathered to watch. Writer Ralph Ellison once described a lynching as "a ritual drama that was usually enacted ... in an atmosphere of high excitement."

The exact origins of the word "lynch" are a matter of dispute. In the widely cited 1905 book Lynch-Law, James E. Cutler traced the origins to Revolutionary War-era politician Charles Lynch of Virginia, who was a justice of the peace and landowner. Because the official court system was not yet well-established and there was a war going on, Lynch created a system of informal citizen juries to handle legal matters. It's important to note here that the punishments handed out by Lynch's court did not include the death by hanging that is associated with the modern-day definition of lynching. The most common sentence for those found guilty was 39 lashes with a whip.

The word "lynch" would take on its definition of death by public hanging over time. As the United States expanded westward, historians Eric Foner and John A. Garrity note in The Reader's Companion to American History, lynching became a common occurrence in reaction to criminal behavior. Foner and Garrity note that in the pre-Civil War era, the most common victims of lynching were gamblers, horse thieves and opponents of slavery.

In the 1880s, after the end of Reconstruction, the primary victims were Southern blacks (though Native Americans, Jews, Asians, and European immigrants have also been lynched).

One of the most brutal cases of lynching occurred in 1899, when Sam Hose was killed by hundreds of people in Coweta County, Ga. Hose, a 21-year-old farmhand, was accused of killing his employer and raping his employer's wife. An angry mob of hundreds of people chained Hose to a tree and cut off his ears, fingers and genitals while many others watched.

Southern elected officials openly spoke in support of this form of vigilante justice. Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman, who was elected in 1903, once said, "If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy."

In 1930, 11-year-old Willie Thomas narrowly escaped being lynched by a group of men who accused him of harassing a white woman. He recalled what happened next for Baylor University's Institute for Oral History:

"He put it around my neck, and it was a grass rope — you know how they scratch. I was in pain. He pulled it and said, 'Oh, it's going to work. ... You see that big tree down there in the hollow? That would be a good place to hang him.' "

Thomas was rescued when a passing driver stopped and recognized him, before scaring his attackers away with a shotgun.

Because lynchings were a regular part of American life, it's unsurprising that they were often depicted in literature. In Ralph Ellison's short story "A Party Down at the Square," posthumously published in 1997, a young white boy thinks he's going to a party in his town only to discover the entire community has shown up to witness a lynching. John Steinbeck also wrote about a lynching in Of Mice and Men, when his character George kills the mentally challenged Lennie rather than let him be caught and tortured by a lynch mob. Scout Finch, the young heroine of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, talks an angry mob out of lynching Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.

According to The Reader's Companion to American History, it is estimated that 4,743 Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and that a large majority of victims (3,446) were black. These numbers are merely conservative estimates, though, as many lynchings went unreported. While 16 states had anti-lynching laws, they were rarely enforced.

The 1947 article "Officials Doubt Negro Lynched" is in many ways emblematic of the treatment of this crime. Officials in Northampton, N.C., went out of their way to proclaim that they doubted a crime had occurred, despite the fact that a "masked, white band" had abducted the victim, Godwin Bush. The AP article, carried in the Eugene [Oregon] Register-Guard, notes that while all of the police officials questioned were convinced that Bush had not been lynched by his captors, "none of them would offer a theory as to what had happened to the suspect."

Along with the rise of lynching in the United States came a strong anti-lynching movement. Perhaps the most significant figure in the movement was social activist and writer Ida B. Wells. Wells became enraged after one of her friends and two others were lynched in 1892. She quickly raised $500 and began investigating lynching throughout the United States, writing in-depth articles for the African-American newspaper The New York Age. Wells wrote and lectured extensively on the issue of lynching, at great risk to her own life.

Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress. Only three of those bills managed to pass the House of Representatives. None were approved by the Senate. No anti-lynching laws were ever signed into law. In acknowledgment of its failure to pass anti-lynching legislation in the 1950s, the Senate formally apologized in 2005.

Last week, Benmosche issued an apology of his own after the uproar over his remarks.

"It was a poor choice of words," he said in a statement. "I never meant to offend anyone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lakshmi Gandhi