Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carnival of Death: Lynching in America

Lynchings in America

"American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it"

James Baldwin.

His name was Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black youth who was born in rural Texas in 1897. He worked on a farm outside Waco which belonged to George and Lucy Fryer. In May, 1916, Washington was convicted in City Court of murdering Lucy Fryer. During the proceedings, he apologized and confessed to the crime. At the end of the trial, Washington was sentenced to death by hanging. Residents, however, were already in an uproar over the crime. A black man who attacked a white woman in any way whatsoever during that era in the South evoked little sympathy from the public. Within five minutes of the sentencing, dozens of court spectators jumped the railing, fought with officials and seized the terrified defendant. He was immediately set upon by a vicious gang using clubs, shovels and bricks. He was stripped naked and dragged kicking and screaming to the lawn directly in front of City Hall. Townspeople had already built a giant bonfire underneath a large tree. The crowd was later estimated to be as large as 15,000 people. Included in the cheering multitude was the Police Chief and the Mayor of Waco. Other police officers also stood by during the sickening ordeal which played out in the symbolic shadow of City Hall (Dallas Morning News, June 2, 1998). Washington was immersed in coal oil, hoisted up onto the tree and slowly lowered into the fire. Some of the spectators cut off fingers and toes from the corpse as souvenirs [1]. His remains were dumped into a burlap bag and hung from a pole while many in the crowd cheered [2]

The Waco lynching focused national attention, once again, in 1916 on the problem of lynching: a systemic, persistent and horrifying practice that was rampant throughout the South for decades. These killings were often committed with the full knowledge, and sometimes with the active assistance, of law enforcement people. Lynchings were also treated as entertainment events and like the Waco incident, often attended by thousands of onlookers. Most took place in the Deep South but lynchings were common and recorded in over 26 states, including Illinois and North Dakota (Cleveland Gazette, January 8, 1898, p. 2). The problem became so widespread that it was addressed by several Presidents and eventually the Supreme Court. However, rather than condemn lynch law, the Supreme Court seemed to effect rulings that reaffirmed a segregated America. Court decisions during this era perpetuated the atmosphere of violence, fostered the notion of white supremacy and cultivated mistrust of Washington. But the origins of lynching do not rest in federal court, nor can it be blamed, as Southern newspapers often reported, on government's failure to apply justice.

Lynching arose from the ashes of a ruthless and costly war that pitted brother against brother and father against son. The Civil War left a trail of blood and bitterness that twisted its way through successive generations and set the stage for a frenzy of so called mob justice that killed thousands of men, women and children, most of them black. And between the years 1880 and 1905, a period of twenty five years, not one person was ever convicted of any crime associated with these killings. Lynchings are, in effect, the most extensive series of unsolved murders in American history.



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