In November 1933, two men who had just confessed to the kidnapping and murder of a young department store heir were dragged from a county jail and hanged until dead from tree limbs in a nearby city park. Local newspaper coverage detailing the kidnapping victim's death had inflamed angry citizens, who battered down the jail door, beat the sheriff and several deputies and dragged the two men to the park, where their deaths were witnessed by a crowd of thousands. "Like angry dogs, men of the mob leaped up and tore off the trousers" from one of the two corpses, while others used a burning newspaper to set fire to the dead man's coat and shirt.
The next day, the state's governor praised the mob's handiwork as "a fine lesson for the whole nation" and promised that "if any one is arrested for the good job I'll pardon them all." He welcomed the two deaths as a stark warning to other criminals -- "They'll learn they can't kidnap in this state" -- and said he was tempted to release other convicted kidnappers into the hands of "those fine, patriotic San Jose citizens who know how to handle such a situation."
That's right, San Jose, and the enthusiastic governor was California's James Rolph Jr., not some Deep South monarch from Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia. And the two dead men, like their victim, were white.
That deadly mob attack on the Santa Clara County Jail helps illuminate exactly how surprising and complicated America's history of lynching actually is. "The Many Faces of Judge Lynch," an insightful and impressive new study by San Francisco State University historian Christopher Waldrep, traces the phenomenon back to its earliest American roots. "The word lynching," he explains, "entered the national lexicon after an 1835 Vicksburg, Mississippi riot" in which both the victims and the perpetrators were white. But the state where lynching was most popular in pre-Civil War America was not Mississippi but California, where the word took on the meaning of "an act of violence sanctioned, endorsed, or carried out by the neighborhood or community outside the law." As Waldrep stresses repeatedly, "community approval" was "the essence of lynching" as 19th century Americans understood the word, and most of them -- like Rolph decades later -- welcomed such extra-legal punishment as an expression of popular sovereignty when law enforcement seemed delinquent or the criminal courts deficient.
San Francisco was the lynching capital of America prior to the Civil War, as vigilante action against suspected criminals created a "pervasive and long lasting" public acceptance. After the Civil War, Waldrep surprisingly reports, "the word lynching appears only rarely in the extensive record of Reconstruction violence" that Southern whites utilized against the region's newly freed slaves. Waldrep notes that the tumultuous character of Southern life between 1865 and the late 1870s, when no real sense of "community" existed, explains "why racial violence in the Reconstruction era was not called lynching" in contemporaneous accounts.
What's more, Waldrep adds, during the 1870s "few of the killings contemporaneously called lynchings" in Southern newspapers featured African American victims. Only in the early and mid-1880s, as segregationist white dominance firmly took hold, did "lynchings" increasingly and then predominantly target black male victims.
From the mid-1880s up through the 1910s, lynchings that attracted huge crowds became an almost common feature of Southern life. As Waldrep carefully explains, "only in the 1890s did black opponents of lynching succeed in making the practice seem almost exclusively racial," a success that transformed the word itself into "a synonym for racially motivated killing."
Philip Dray's compendious "At the Hands of Persons Unknown" begins its account in the 1880s, but Dray's approach explicitly contradicts Waldrep's argument that "it is a mistake to conceive of lynching as only racial." In contrast, Dray contends that lynching was "but a symptom of a much larger malady. Lynching was simply the most sensational manifestation of an animosity for black people."
Dray emphasizes what he terms "Southern spectacle lynchings," where crowds of thousands witnessed the torture, hanging and burning of black victims and then sought souvenirs as remembrances of the event. Such souvenirs often took the form of postcard photographs of the corpses hanging from a tree while a convivial crowd posed for the photo shoot. Other, more highly prized souvenirs were far more grotesque, as crowd members competed for swaths of clothing, pieces of rope and bones or other parts of the victim's very body. After one such lynching in Georgia in 1899, the Atlanta Constitution reported how "persons were seen walking through the streets carrying bones in their hands."