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Western Lynchings

[ 97 ] December 6, 2012 |

This is a fascinating piece on Ken Gonzales-Day, the artist and author who explores the history of lynching in the American West. We usually think of lynching as something that had to black people in the South. But it was far more pervasive, especially in the American West, where non-whites of all varieties were lynched throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gonzales-Day has an exhibit of images where he has digitally erased the hanging bodies from old lynching photos, forcing our gaze to the people proudly posing next to their victims.

There’s also this:

As if to underscore this idea, Mr. Gonzales-Day has also produced a self-guided walking tour of lynching sites in downtown Los Angeles that allows participants “to revisit places and events made infamous” in the context of their present-day lives. The tour is an extension of the artist’s own six-year pilgrimage to nearly every county in California, culminating in another series, “Searching for California’s Hang Trees,” that features large-scale color photographs and billboards of lynching sites, particularly the trees that possibly served as hanging posts.

A self-guided walking tour of lynching sites? Wow. That actually sounds amazing and important. Forcing us to recognize the dark histories on the landscapes we take for granted has tremendous value in making us confront our national racist past and how whites benefit from that historical racism and white privilege today.


Comments (97)

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  1. SpeakTruth says:

    Hey Listen,

    I know this doesn’t help your constant blame White people for everything, but the truth is that Whites were lynched at a rate 35.5% higher than their proportion in the population…


    • Tnap01 says:


    • greylocks says:

      …by other whites.

      ~100% of lynchings were done by whites.

      So I’m inclined to keep blaming whites for lynching, and not their victims.

      • Bill Murray says:

        it’s not like his link actually supports his contention — the 35.5% is for Mississipi Delta (NW Mississippi between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers) in the late 1800s and early 1900s and mostly due to lynching for property crimes. To quote the same link and same book used for the 35.5% “In the twentieth century Delta vigilantism finally became predictably joined to white supremacy.”

        The total numbers from the most conservative estimate (Tuskegee) are here and Tuskegee counted Chinese, Native American and Mexicans as white for their analysis.

        • arguingwithsignposts says:

          You mean he was twisting stats to fit his narrative? The hell you say!?!

        • Nathan of Perth says:

          Look, I watched the movie Maverick and that was definitely a white guy they were trying to lynch so Waffles McSyrup up there might be onto something!

          • The Dark Avenger says:

            One of the last lynchings in California history was of a pair of white men, and it was in a public park in San Jose. Every few years the Mercury-Snooze runs an article about it. My grandfather was an acquaintance of the victim in the case, they were both at Santa Clara University at the same time:

            When Hart’s body was discovered in San Francisco Bay on the morning of November 26, 1933, word spread instantly throughout northern California. All day long, radio stations announced that a lynching would take place in St. James Park across from the Santa Clara County Courthouse at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 26, 1933, four days before Thanksgiving. The lynching was broadcast as a ‘live’ event by a Los Angeles radio station. Scores of reporters, photographers, and news camera operators had rushed in with an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 men, women, and children to witness the lynching. When newspaper published photos of the lynching, identifiable faces were deliberately smudged so that they remained anonymous. On Monday, November 27, 1933, the day after the lynchings, Northern California newspapers published 1.2 million copies, twice the normal daily production.

          • Malaclypse says:

            Look, I watched the movie Maverick

            I am so very, very sorry.

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          The Tuskegee numbers are cited in the linked Wikipedia article. They note roughly that about 75% (math not exact) of lynchings were of African-Americans. Which would make African Americans grossly disproportionate victims of lynchings numerically since they are a minority of the total population. It would be nice to have a total break down of Mexicans, Chinese, and other stigmatized minorities subjected to lynchings. Including them in the figure for Whites is obscuring the fact that American racism particularly in the West was more complex than just a White/Black dichotomy.

        • mark f says:

          The best kind of trolling is the trolling that leads to an edifying discussion that I have to expend zero effort on. Thanks Bill, J. Otto and Sly for providing some interesting information that I’d have never followed Peter Pancake’s link to discover.

    • Sly says:

      Mostly male immigrants from certain European countries whose people, at the time, were not considered white. Many of the cases involved miscegenation, wherein a Sicilian male immigrant, as an example, was lynched for the crime of sleeping with a white woman.

      The largest mass lynching in U.S. history (11 victims at a single event), for example, was performed against a group of Italian men who were acquitted of murdering the New Orleans Chief of Police in 1891.

      • John Emerson says:

        Esoterica: in northern Minnesota at least one Finn was lynched. A local court case had declared the Finns to be white rather than Asian, but the mob ignored the ruling.

        Finns were disproportionately IWW or Communist, so there’s that too.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      The Wikipedia article you cited notes the total number of recorded lynchings as 3,446 Blacks versus 1,297 Whites. How were Whites disproportionately lynched according to these numbers?

    • Lee says:

      SpeakTruth, stop apologizing and glancing over the long history of racism in this country. Race riots that were pretty much pogroms in all but name; lynchings of Blacks, Hispanics, and at times Eastern and Southern Europeans for nothing at all.

      Also, stop usurping liberal ideas like speaking truth to power for the spreading of your reactionary fantasies. Use your own memes like the 47%.

      • Truth Speak says:


        ….on RACE. You’re no better than the ones you rail against.

        So, what would you do about it now? This happened 100 years ago and in some cases 150 years.
        Anyone involved is long dead. Doesn’t happen anymore.

        • Truth Speak says:

          I might add…slavery is long gone. Done. Stick a fork in it.

          And yet…here we are…constantly bitching…complaining about long dead people and their terrible actions and wishing….just wishing you could get even with someone. So, you perpetrate racism and justify it because it’s NEW racism..and that seems to be….mmmmmm…just OK.

          Anything else from the long gone past you’d like to bring up that no one can change?

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Strange waffles, hanging from a Southern tree.

      • Manju says:

        Southern trees bear strange waffles
        Butter on the leaves and syrup on falafels
        White Eggos swinging in the southern breeze
        Strange waffles hanging from the popular trees

    • cpinva says:

      i would like two eggs, over easy, with my order of pancakes please. oh, and the blueberry syrup would be nice too.

  2. Matt McKeon says:

    Lynching is a minor motif of the western myth. “The Virginian” defends and excuses the practice, and it was filmed in “the Ox Box Incident,” more lately in “Lovesome Dove.” Wallace Stegner describes a lynching in “Angle of Repose” where a leading character says, “as long as we have lynch law, we won’t have real law.” But in fiction, its white men lynching other white men, often from very similar background.

  3. Manju says:

    They’re selling postcards of the hanging

  4. Sly says:

    Gonzales-Day has an exhibit of images where he has digitally erased the hanging bodies from old lynching photos, forcing our gaze to the people proudly posing next to their victims.

    There are college-level history courses that show lynching parties with the bodies first blacked or cropped out, and shown later. The purpose is to draw the viewer to the lynchers first and dissect the mood of the crowd before showing the bodies, because our eyes almost immediately are drawn to the latter when the image is shown unedited. Doing it this way accentuates the surreal evil of the event.

    I’ve always wanted to do this in a high school classroom, but never could muster the courage because it is extremely jarring.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      That’s not a bad idea. I should do something like that.

    • Anonymous says:

      It is a very effective technique. I had seen photos of lynchings with people celebrating and thought, “What a bunch of psychos”. When I saw the pictures as you describe, the first thought is that the people are just ordinary folks out for a good time – then you see the body.

      It makes you register that these are ordinary people turned into monsters, not congenital sociopaths. Whatever made them like they are could be done to anyone.

      • njorl says:

        …above was me

      • cpinva says:

        i’m not so sure i’d agree with that analysis:

        It makes you register that these are ordinary people turned into monsters, not congenital sociopaths.

        this, and other barbaric practices, were so common an event (though conveniently glossed over, in the texas version of US history), that you must consider the possibility that some, or most, of these “ordinary folks” were sociopaths. whether congenital or environmental (and i’d vote for environmental), the net effect is the same.

        perhaps, the argument can be made that, the environment in the early west was so harsh, and official law enforcement so lacking, that the only way to survive, psychologically, was to become a sociopath.

        as the environment became more civilized, and official law enforcement became the norm vs the exception, the need for this psychological defense mechanism decreased, kind of reverse evolution: dropping that which is no longer necessary for basic survival.

        as in the old country, executions, both judicial and extra-judicial, were seen more as entertainment, an event for the whole family, than as solemn occasions. they’d pack a picnic lunch, arrive early, socialize with the neighbors, etc. it became a circus-like atmosphere. this is one reason that states started moving them inside prisons, allowing only a select number of people in to witness them, as required by law.

      • rm says:

        When the primarily (but of course not only) Southern Marine corps led the occupations of Haiti, the DR, Nicaragua, and other Latin American places in the early 20th century, they spread lurid tales of the human sacrifice practiced by the native savages (especially regarding Haiti). They led human-hunting expeditions (journalists wrote bragging accounts of getting to bag a native or of hitting people with cars), took trophy photographs, established jim crow regimes, and treated prisoners as slaves. But all that is beside my point — the lurid tales were all without any evidence or real basis, but at the time the United States actually had a widespread practice of ritual human sacrifice. It was called lynching, but that just disguises the anthropological picture — what do you call it when a whole community turns out to torture and kill a random scapegoat so that their tribe can be purified?

        So regarding the debate over being sociopaths or monsters, I see it from this anthropological perspective. Americans practiced human sacrifice of individuals who were black, Asian, Hispanic, otherwise ethnic, poor, criminal, or mentally ill. They did this as a kind of magic ritual to cleanse the community and make it upright and pure. It was a big communal event. We don’t recognize it as what it was and we persist in demonizing “primitive” or “ancient” cultures that either did do this (like the Aztecs) or that we slander with myths (like Haitians).

        • Jameson Quinn says:

          This makes sense to me. But it doesn’t square with my first-hand* experience of a near-lynching in Guatemala (see other comment below), which was vigilanteism without a racial purity angle. Have there been studies looking into whether experience with “mere” vigilanteism fed into lynching culture?

          *”First-hand” of course does not mean “as a victim”. Although that does bring up another interesting story, where I was walking on the road through an Priista community in Zapatista territory at night, a drunk guy took the closed pocketknife in my hand for a gun, and the community came and tied me up, called the “authorities” (a municipal bricklayer) to judge me, and kept me in a cell for the night. There was a moment when I was thinking I might be lynched if the women turned as against me as the men were, but I was too busy maintaining eye contact to be scared.

  5. john says:

    About half the pictures on the site didn’t have crowds, so when you erase the victim, it’s just a picture of a tree. Kind of silly, really.

    • bradP says:

      I disagree. Most of those trees would be beautiful outside of this context. Now I can’t help but notice all of the thick, horizontal branches that could a body could be suspended from.

      I still find them to be powerful and sobering.

  6. bradP says:

    Those craggy and twisted trees are horrifying in context.

  7. SpeakTruth says:

    Well it’s been interesting to see the demonization of white people as a race (once again) here at LGM.

    I’m not white, but I understand that all those people are long dead and I don’t hold White people today responsible.

    I like all people…including White people. I would rather judge people by the character of their hearts and not their color.

    I wish you could do the same.

  8. Lee says:

    I’m not so sure whether self-guided tours of lynching sites is a good idea. I have some rather ambiguous feelings towards atrocity tourism. Its very important for people to learn about the non-glorious and dark side of history. Tours and museums are often more accesible to people than lectures and books because it engages them more emotionally.

    At the same time, I’m not really sure if people learn that right message. Sometimes people go to things like the Holocaust Museum, nod their head about how bad this incident was but don’t really learn anything. More often than it should be, people make light of the dark side of history and think that it might be kind of awesome to be a Plantation owner in the antebellum period. I’m a bit too much of a pessimist to think that a significant number of people will come away learning the correct lesson even if everything is done right.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I disagree on the grounds of your plantation owner. The problem there is pretty specific–Gone to the Wind is the dominant narrative. Even at many of these plantation houses today slavery is not discussed much. If it is, the owner was one of the good masters.

      No one is going to take a self-guided tour of lynching sites who is not going to seek that out and have some sense of the horrors of lynching already.

      • cpinva says:

        you hit that nail right on the head.

        Even at many of these plantation houses today slavery is not discussed much.

        the first time i went to nashville, i had occasion to visit the hermitage, andrew jackson’s home, just on the outskirts of town. as my friend and i were touring the grounds, we came upon some wooden shacks, labeled “servant’s quarters”. i was a bit confused, because i thought jackson owned slaves. having visited nearly every plantation in va, it was my experience that the shacks were always labeled “slave quarters”.

        later, i asked one of the nice, blue-haired docents about this. she confirmed that, yes, those were reconstructions of the type of housing that was commonly used by jackson’s slaves. i asked why they were labeled “servant’s quarters”, and not “slave’s quarters”, as they were on every plantation in va. my friend, a native of the area was aghast, that i would ask such an impertinent question, that kind of thing just wasn’t done! i finally agreed to leave, as the nice, blue-haired docent lady was still sputtering.

        labels mean something, and mis-labeling definitely means something. va has a lot of faults, but i give them credit for honesty in labeling. slavery was a horrible, horrible institution, and they make no effort to gloss over it. they call the “slave quarters” exactly what they were, and if that offends some people, oh well.

      • Anna in PDX says:

        Yeah, it’s like deciding to go to a holocaust museum. You want to know more about the atrocity, and think about it. You are to a certain extent mentally prepared for it. Though actually that type of museum is too much for me and I usually end up in tears. But so do lots of other people.

  9. Jameson Quinn says:

    I’ve interrupted a potential lynching in progress once. It probably wouldn’t have gone all the way, but (sorry this gets graphic) those neighborhood heavies were certainly not holding back any with their shovel handles until I stopped them. The victim had been caught robbing a school kid. (This was just around the corner from the place I stopped the death squad, and less than a block from my house).

    I’m sure there were plenty of lynchings which weren’t primarily about racial or sexual politics. The one I saw wasn’t. But still, no pancakes for me thanks.

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