Western Lynchings

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.

97 comments on this post.
  1. SpeakTruth:

    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…

    Truth…twisted…

  2. Tnap01:

    Waffles…syruped

  3. Matt McKeon:

    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.

  4. Matt McKeon:

    I emphasis I talking about myth, not actual practice.

  5. greylocks:

    …by other whites.

    ~100% of lynchings were done by whites.

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

  6. Bill Murray:

    yes he did twist that maple tree of truth to make a great pancake topping.

    I’m eating good tonight

  7. Bill Murray:

    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 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html and Tuskegee counted Chinese, Native American and Mexicans as white for their analysis.

  8. arguingwithsignposts:

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

  9. Nathan of Perth:

    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!

  10. The Dark Avenger:

    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.

  11. The Dark Avenger:

    By “victim” I mean Hart, of course.

  12. Manju:

    They’re selling postcards of the hanging

  13. Sly:

    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.

  14. Sly:

    People would also collect the remains of the victim for sale. Hair clippings, teeth, bones. Even genitalia in at least one case.

  15. Sly:

    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.

  16. Vance Maverick:

    I believe Manju was quoting “Desolation Row”.

  17. Tucker:

    And painting the passports brown
    The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
    The circus is in town…

  18. john:

    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.

  19. J. Otto Pohl:

    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?

  20. bradP:

    Those craggy and twisted trees are horrifying in context.

  21. bradP:

    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.

  22. Malaclypse:

    Look, I watched the movie Maverick

    I am so very, very sorry.

  23. J. Otto Pohl:

    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.

  24. rea:

    Young DA by the name of Earl Warren tried to prosecute some of the lynchers, but unsuccessful.

  25. Barry:

    He’s probably the ‘unskewed polls’ guy.

  26. SpeakTruth:

    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.

  27. bradP:

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

    Just for my own edification, can you please point out where white people as a race have been demonized?

    I would like to know what exactly is setting off your paranoia.

  28. Lee:

    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%.

  29. Anonymous:

    I’m not white

    Cracker, please.

  30. Malaclypse:

    I blame the demonization of JenBob for logging me out. Cookies, crackers, all the same damn thing.

  31. Lee:

    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.

  32. Lee:

    If we’re having crackers, can we have wheat thins? I haven’t had any in years.

  33. Erik Loomis:

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

  34. Erik Loomis:

    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.

  35. Lee:

    I imagine its the paranoia that a lot of other white people have about people of color. They fear that if you give people of color economic, cultural, or politcal power than they are going to extract revenge against white people for the centuries of past atrocities and America would end up as Zimbabwe. This hasn’t happened but a lot of white peope still fear it.

    A lot of men having similar feelings towards feminism, they fear that women are going to want revenge for thousands of years of persecution. This hasn’t happened but a lot of men still fear it.

    Its the paranoia that comes with fear of loosing everything you have.

  36. Erik Loomis:

    Now I have the song in my head damn it.

  37. Malaclypse:

    They had Wheat Thins at the company Solstice Party last night, with nice cheeses.

    Axial Tilt – It’s The Reason For The Season!

  38. Anonymous:

    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.

  39. njorl:

    …above was me

  40. Scott S.:

    JenBob’s mad that he never had a chance to lynch a brown person.

  41. mark f:

    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.

  42. mark f:

    The first scene of the first episode of Deadwood features the white lawman lynching a white guy . . . in order to save him from a white lynchmob.

  43. Halloween Jack:

    Strange waffles, hanging from a Southern tree.

  44. Cody:

    Isn’t the solstice the 21st?

  45. Halloween Jack:

    Spinach-artichoke dip FTW.

  46. Hogan:

    Agreed. I’m happy to knock J. Otto when I think he’s wrong, so it’s only fair to acknowledge the good work he’s doing here.

  47. mark f:

    He’s got his quirks, but I think he adds a lot of value when he sets them aside.

  48. Malaclypse:

    Yes, but that date is so commercialized now…

  49. J. Otto Pohl:

    This was certainly true in South Africa. A lot White South Africans feared that the indigenous African population would treat them as badly as they had been treated or even worse. But, there has not been much empirical evidence for such a pattern. White settlers in places like Kenya have historically gotten very good deals from the newly independent states. This was even true for a long time in Zimbabwe. The only real case of violent revenge against colonial populations in Africa has been Algeria. But, there the French war to prevent the indigenous population from getting independence was extremely brutal even by colonial standards. I have seen estimates that as many as 1 million Algerians out of 7 million died in the independence struggle.

  50. MAJeff:

    or bacon jam.

  51. cpinva:

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

  52. Lee:

    I prefer the term yuletide.

  53. cpinva:

    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.

  54. cpinva:

    i don’t give him/her that much credit.

    I would like to know what exactly is setting off your paranoia.

    just another jerk troll, that thinks they’ll roil the waters, by presenting what is, by historic definition, hogwash.

    i’d like another stack of pancakes please, whole wheat, with some butter, and more of that lovely blueberry syrup.

  55. The Dark Avenger:

    This is a good fictional example of what you’re talking about, cpinva

  56. Uncle Ebeneezer:

    Truffle brie!!

  57. The Dark Avenger:

    My grandfather knew some of the people involved in the lynching. It was an open secret that some of them were Hart’s former classmates from Santa Clara University.

  58. Eric:

    there’s also a couple of attempted lynchings of black people by whites later in the series.

  59. cpinva:

    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.

  60. John (not McCain):

    How do you know what he’s got in that special room in his basement?

  61. njorl:

    That was actually my point.

    These are not people born with some defect. They were not people subject to unusually depraved circumstances which made them pariahs. They were the product of a society capable of churning out a large number of people who viewed extra judicial murder as family entertainment.

  62. Jameson Quinn:

    Cody, it’s the pre-sidereal or “silent” solstice. You’ve probably never heard of it.

  63. Jameson Quinn:

    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.

  64. John Emerson:

    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.

  65. Major Kong:

    Your neighborhood sounds a little more, ahem, exciting than I care for.

  66. rm:

    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).

  67. rm:

    A South African I met said “they’re just waiting for Mandela to die.” People have their irrational fears, that’s why we can’t pass a treaty to help the disabled or pass a law to criminalize abuse of Native American women.

  68. I live for exclamation points:

    Seeing as you find frozen pizza “pretty great”, I’ll bet you use the abomination otherwise known as truffle oil? No accounting for taste, I guess :(

  69. Anna in PDX:

    Friday executions were still a public event that was quite popular after mosque attendance when I lived in Riyadh in the mid-90s. Probably it’s that way still.

  70. Anna in PDX:

    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.

  71. Jameson Quinn:

    It’s really quite amazing what one can get used to.

  72. ed:

    Try reading the last sentence of Erik’s post.

  73. Substance McGravitas:

    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.

    Okay, am I just thick-skinned?

  74. Speak Truth:

    I’m sure there were plenty of lynchings which weren’t primarily about racial or sexual politics.

    No…no…NO!!

    You just don’t understand how the game is played here.

    You need to get on board with the ‘blame living people for what dead people did 150 years ago’ game.

    They gotta PAY! Tha’s what it’s really all about.

  75. Jameson Quinn:

    What part of “no pancakes for me thanks” don’t you understand?

  76. Jameson Quinn:

    (stopping the death squad was actually more my wife than me, so I really should say “we”. But stopping the beating was me.)

  77. The Dark Avenger:

    Yes, obviously this is about reparations that innocent people like Talk Lies will have to pay for what dead guilty people did in the past.

  78. Jameson Quinn:

    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.

  79. Jameson Quinn:

    Zapatista territory, of course, implies Chiapas not Guatemala.

  80. Jameson Quinn:

    And yes, there was a clear racial angle to that one, though it was further from actual lynching than the one I stopped in Guatemala.

  81. Hogan:

    You’re violating my white privilege by talking about my white privilege!

  82. Truth Speak:

    Grouse…complain…bitch…hate

    ….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.

  83. Truth Speak:

    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?

  84. The Dark Avenger:

    The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

    William Faulkner.

  85. Manju:

    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

  86. Speak Truth:

    “The one charm of the past is that it is the past.”
    ~Oscar Wilde

  87. Karate Bearfighter:

    How ’bout a tubesteak…smothered in underwear

  88. Speak Truth:

    Just for my own edification, can you please point out where white people as a race have been demonized?

    Hi Brad,

    Well, for starters, just click on the field above that shows Erik Loomis’ posts and then use the “find” function of your browser to find the word “white” and you’ll see a large percentage of his posts are about race and white people. And none of them are complementary. In fact, most are terribly demonizing. It’s like he’s self-loathing or something….obsessed.
    He ain’t all there

  89. The Dark Avenger:

    Do you have any quotes in particular, or is your smear designed to be as non-specific as possible?

  90. The Dark Avenger:

    Faulkner was talking about the Deep South, which he knew a lot better than Oscar Wilde did.

    But, if you want to pretend that racism isn’t present in this country anymore, knock yourself out, tiger.

  91. marijane:

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

    Yes! Let’s just pretend everyone is white and we’ll all get along smashingly. Recognizing our differences is evil.

  92. Speak Truth:

    Got black president.
    Got black SC justice
    Got black congressmen
    Got black leaders.
    Got black middle class
    Got black TV anchors
    Got black everything

    Its’ not like they are politically powerless anymore…cuz they ain’t.

    So, give it a rest, Sparky.

  93. Speak Truth:

    You’r not Brad.

    Get lost, Sparky

  94. Speak Truth:

    Martin Luthor King, Jr. had a dream.

    You’ve turned it into a nightmare

  95. MAJeff:

    Cracker, please

  96. marijane:

    no, white people flogging colorblind racism did that, DUH. as a speaker of truth, you should know that already.

  97. The Dark Avenger:

    That doesn’t mean racism is dead, it is attenuated but in the hearts of many White-Americans it lives on, if we are to believe the polling results about interracial marriage in MS.

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