“Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.”
— H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)
Execution by hanging was the most popular legal and extralegal form of putting criminals to death in the United States from its beginning. Brought over to the states from our English ancestors, the method actually originated in Persia (now Iran) about 2,500 years ago. Hanging soon became the method of choice for most countries, as it produced a highly visible deterrent by a simple method. It also made a good public spectacle, considered important during those times, as viewers looked above them to the gallows or tree to watch the punishment. Legal hangings, practiced by the early American colonists, were readily accepted by the public as a proper form of punishment for serious crimes like theft, rape, and murder. It was also readily practiced for activities that are not considered crimes at all today, such as witchcraft, sodomy, and concealing a birth.
For centuries, most hangings were carried out by the sheriff or legal entity of the town or county where the death sentence had been passed. Prisoner’s deaths were usually painful as most executioners were not proficient enough to know how to calculate the correct “drop” of the hangman’s noose to ensure breaking the neck, thus the victim usually died by strangulation. The use of gallows with a trap door did not become common practice until the 1870s. Prior to that, most were hanged from the branch of a tree, being turned off the back of a cart, or from a horse.
Hangings began in the U.S. pretty much at the same time that settlements began to be formed in the “New World.” One of the first was a man by the name of John Billington who arrived with the original band of pilgrims at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower in 1620. Allegedly, Billington was prone to blasphemous language, and during the journey over the ocean, the ship’s captain, Miles Standish, had Billington’s feet and neck tied together as an example of a sin-struck man possessed of a Devil’s tongue. But, that’s not what got him hanged, rather, it was but an unpleasant experience for the blasphemer. However, ten years later, Billington became the prime suspect in the murder of another settler by the name of John Newcomen. Soon, the man was summarily hanged by an angry mob of pilgrims in 1630.
The earliest recorded female hanged in America was that of Jane Champion in 1632 in Virginia for an unknown offense. Up until the late 1640s hangings of men during these early pilgrim times were usually caused by sexual offenses such as sodomy or bestiality; and women were most often hanged for concealing a birth. However, this all began to change in 1647 when many began to be hanged for practicing witchcraft.
Guilty of “flapping his hands and arms” and “behaving in a peculiar manner,” Thomas Hellier, a 14-year-old white boy, became a suspect in a rash of thefts and was sentenced to a life of bondage on a Virginia plantation. Never agreeable to his servile status, Hellier was sold several years later to a harsh taskmaster named Cutbeard Williamson. After Williamson, Williamson’s wife, and a maid were murdered with an ax while they slept one night, Hellier was assumed to be the murderer and hanged by a mob on August 5, 1678. His body was lashed with chains to a tall tree overlooking the James River where it remained for several years until it rotted away.
Culminating in 1692, both men and women were hanged after the notorious witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts. One of these notorious cases was that of four-year-old Dorcas Goode who was convicted of witchcraft and sent to prison in 1692. She was the daughter of Sarah Goode, who was one of the first three people accused of witchcraft. Little Dorcas was taken to prison with her mother, and at one point she confessed to practicing witchcraft. It’s pretty certain that her mother told her to do that in an effort to save her life. As it turned out, Sarah Goode was hanged on July 19, 1692, and her little daughter stayed in prison for several more months. When she was finally released she had lost her mind. Later her father petitioned the authorities for help in taking care of her.
It was during the American Revolution that the term lynch law originated with Colonel Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and his associates, who began to make their own vigilante rules for confronting the British Tories, loyalists to England, and other criminal elements.
This type of rough justice was also used regularly by whites against their African American slaves. Those white men who protested were often in danger of being lynched themselves. One such man was Elijah Lovejoy, editor of the Alton [Illinois] Observer, who was shot by a white mob after publishing articles criticizing lynching and advocating the abolition of slavery.
After the revolution, the most common hangings of white men were due to war-related crimes such as spying espionage, treason or desertion. Blacks were summarily hanged, at the will of their owners, most often for the “official” reason of revolt. However, it could have been for any cause whatsoever and merely “labeled” as such. Whites who sympathized with the slaves were also often hanged.
It was also during this time that vigilantism arose in the absence of formal criminal justice systems. Most often called vigilance committees, these groups got together to blacklist, harass, banish, “tar and feather,” flog, mutilate, torture, or kill people who were perceived as threats to their communities or families. By the late 1700s, these committees became known as lynch mobs because almost all the time, the punishment handed out was a summary execution by hanging.
In the first part of the 19th century, opponents of slavery, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, gamblers and other “desperadoes” in the South and the Old West were the most common targets of those who were not of African American descent. Meanwhile, hangings, burnings, and whippings continued to kill slaves with common regularity.
The state of Montana holds the record for the bloodiest vigilante movement from 1863 to 1865 when hundreds of suspected horse thieves were rounded up and killed in massive mob actions. Texas, Montana, California, and the Deep South, especially the city of New Orleans, Louisiana were hotbeds of vigilante activity in American history.
“Lynching” found an easy acceptance as the nation expanded west to the frontier, where raw conditions encouraged swift punishment for real or imagined criminal behavior. Vigilance committees, consisting of anywhere from several dozens to several hundred men, formed quickly who summarily made the decision to execute in order to repress crime. Even where official law enforcement did exist, prisoners were sometimes dragged from jail by a lynch mob and executed.
One of the first recorded hangings in the West of a woman was during 1849 when miners pioneered the boomtowns of California where gambling, drinking, violence, and vigilante justice was common. One woman, known as “Pretty Juanita,” was convicted of murder after stabbing a man who had tried to rape her. Before she was hung, she gave a laugh and a salute as the rope pulled tight around her neck. She was the first person hanged in the California mining camps.
On June 2, 1850, five Cayuse Indians were hanged in Oregon City for the Whitman massacre. All five had turned themselves in to spare their people from persecution. Before the execution, one of the condemned by the name of Tiloukait said: “Did not your missionaries teach us that Christ died to save his people? So we die to save our people.”