One of the ugliest aspects of an ugly time in American history was the upsurge in violence by whites against blacks in the Southern States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A particularly unpleasant custom was lynching – a black victim would be accused of an offence, dragged from their home by a group of white men, tried by a kangaroo court and executed in public, usually by hanging. Records show that more than 2,800 deaths could be attributed to the activities of lynch mobs between 1880 and 1930.
The custom of mob violence leading to summary execution has by no means been limited to the Deep South or the era of “white supremacy”, and the terms lynch mob and lynching can be applied far more widely than to that context. But where does the word “lynch” come from?
There seems no doubt that it derives from a person’s name but which Lynch can take the credit, if that is the right word to use? On the one hand is Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter (born in 1736, died in 1796) who was a revolutionary during the War of Independence who punished suspected loyalists in his own irregular court, thus dispensing “Lynch law”.
However, there was an unrelated Lynch, Captain William Lynch (1742-1820), who claimed that he was the originator of the term.
William Lynch came from Pittsylvania County, Virginia. In 1780 he made a formal agreement with a group of his neighbours to deal with local troublemakers by taking the law into their own hands and inflicting whatever punishment they saw fit on any miscreants that they captured, although they did not go as far as actually executing anyone – a severe thrashing was as far as they went in terms of chastisement.
It does seem strange that two Virginians named Lynch, who were probably unknown to each other, were doing something similar at roughly the same time that could easily have led to a new word entering the language. It sounds like a remarkable coincidence, but could this be an example of a double attribution – Lynch law and Lynch mob deriving from different Lynches?
Whatever one might think of the rightness or otherwise of their actions, they cannot be blamed for the utterly despicable deeds carried out more than a century later to which their name was attached.