“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 originated in Persia (now Iran) about 2,500 years ago. Hanging soon became the method of choice for most countries, as it produced an obvious deterrent by a simple method. It also made a good public spectacle, considered necessary during those times, as viewers looked above them to the gallows or trees 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 not considered crimes 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. Before that, most were hanged from a tree branch, turned off the back of a cart, or from a horse.
Hangings began in the U.S. when settlements started to be formed in the “New World.” One of the first was John Billington, who arrived with the original band of pilgrims at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower in 1620. Allegedly, Billington was prone to profane language. 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; instead, it was but an unpleasant experience for the blasphemer. However, ten years later, Billington became the prime suspect in the murder of another settler named John Newcomen. Soon, the man was summarily hanged by an angry mob of pilgrims in 1630.
The earliest recorded female hanged in America was 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 humble 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 four-year-old Dorcas Good, who was convicted of witchcraft and sent to prison in 1692. She was the daughter of Sarah Good, 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. Her mother certainly told her to do that 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.
During the American Revolution, 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 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 several dozens to several hundred men, formed quickly and summarily decided to execute 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 were 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, Washington, 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.”
In June 1851, an Australian with a bad reputation became the first victim of San Francisco’s vigilance committee. Caught in stealing a safe, Jenkins, along with three other Australians from Sydney, were subjected to a mock trial, then marched to San Francisco’s Custom House, where they all had nooses put around their necks and were hanged on the spot. A second San Francisco “vigilance” committee was formed in 1856 and lynched two men, James P. Casey and Charles Cora. Casey had shot and killed a newspaper editor named James King, who had been bolding assaulting evildoers in his newspaper. Charles Cora, an Italian gambler, had shot and killed a U.S. marshal named Richardson in November 1855.
A mob of about 6,000 persons either helped to perpetrate or witnessed the lynching of the two men. Casey and Cora were seized and hanged from projecting beams rigged on the roof of a building on Sacramento Street. Before the mob dissipated, two more unidentified men were hung from the beams for unknown reasons.
Other non-vigilante lynchings were also occurring with regularity, such as the hanging of two slaves on July 11, 1856, in South Carolina for aiding a runaway slave, and the hanging of four black male slaves on December 5th of the same year, allegedly for “revolting” against the state of Tennessee.
Though lynchings were always more prone to blacks, two white criminals were in Iowa in 1857, one for murder and the other for counterfeiting and theft.
April 9, 1859, saw Colorado’s first execution in the settlement of Denver. John Stoefel was hanged for shooting his brother-in-law. Both men were gold prospectors, and Stoefel wanted his brother-in-law’s gold dust. Because the nearest official court was in Leavenworth, Kansas, a “people’s court” was assembled, where Stoefel was convicted and hanged within 48 hours of the murder. Though Denver consisted of only 150 buildings at the time, about 1,000 spectators attended the Stoefel hanging.
Meanwhile, trouble has been brewing along the Kansas/Missouri border over the issue of slavery for several years. The fanatical activist John Brown had been a primary participant in what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, at Charles Town, West Virginia. Just two weeks later, on December 16, Shields Green and John Anthony Copeland, two of five African-American conspirators, were hanged for their participation in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Copeland was led to the gallows shouting, “I am dying for freedom. I could not die for a better cause. I had rather die than be a slave.”
In the Antebellum days of Texas between 1846 and 1861, vigilantes instigated most of the lynchings. Often these vigilantes imitated legal court procedure, trying the offender before a vigilante judge and jury.
Though convictions most often resulted in whipping, 140 offenders were lynched during this time frame. Vigilante groups increased in frequency with the approach of the Civil War when mobs frequently sought out suspected slave rebels and white abolitionists.
The tension came to a head on September 13, 1860, when abolitionist Methodist minister Anthony Bewley was lynched in Fort Worth, Texas. Bewley, born in Tennessee in 1804, had established a mission 16 miles south of Fort Worth by 1858. When vigilance committees alleged in the summer of 1860 that there was a widespread abolitionist plot to burn Texas towns and murder their citizens, suspicion immediately fell upon Bewley and other outspoken critics of slavery.
Recognizing the danger, Bewley left for Kansas in mid-July with part of his family. A Texas posse caught up with him near Cassville, Missouri, and returned him to Fort Worth on September 13. Late that night, vigilantes seized Bewley and delivered him into the hands of a waiting lynch mob. His body was allowed to hang until the next day when he was buried in a shallow grave. Three weeks later, his bones were unearthed, stripped of their remaining flesh, and placed on top of Ephraim Daggett’s storehouse, where children made a habit of playing with them.
But the violence in Texas did not end with Bewley. As rumors continued of a slave insurrection, it led to the lynching of an estimated 30 to 50 slaves and possibly more than 20 whites over the next two years. The entire affair culminated in the greatest mass lynching in the state’s history, in what is now called “The Great Hanging at Gainesville.” During a 13-day period in October 1862, vigilantes hanged 41 suspected Unionists.
During the same year, the Sioux Uprising in Minnesota resulted in more than 500 dead white settlers on August 17th. Reacting to broken government promises and corrupt Indian agents and going hungry when promised food was not distributed, the uprising began when four young Sioux murdered five white settlers in Acton, Minnesota. A military court sentenced 303 Santee Sioux to die, but President Abraham Lincoln reduced the list to 38. Outraged, several hundred white civilians tried to lynch the 303 Santee Sioux on December 4, 1862. The soldiers, protecting the prisoners at a camp on the Minnesota River, were able to stop the angry crowd. However, on December 16, 1862, the 38 condemned Indian prisoners were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, an event known as the largest mass hanging in United States history. Afterward, the government nullified the 1951 treaty with the Santee Sioux.
Active Civil War tensions were brewing everywhere, and on January 23, 1863, Confederate soldiers hanged a Fort Smith, Arkansas attorney. Martin Hart had previously served in the Texas legislature, where he spoke out against succession. However, when Texas became a part of the Confederacy, Martin resigned from his government post. Soon, he organized the Greenville Guards, pledging the company’s services “in defense of Texas” against invasion. Though he was under a Confederate commission, he spied against the Confederacy. In Arkansas, he led a series of rear-guard actions against Confederate forces and is alleged to have murdered at least two prominent secessionists. He was captured on January 18 by Confederate forces and hanged five days later.
More tension was brewing in New York City when its male population was called to war. On July 13, 1863, three days of massive anti-draft protests began. In the nation’s bloodiest riot in history, 50,000 Civil War draft protesters burned buildings, stores, and draft offices and actively attacked the police. Protestors clubbed, lynched, and shot large numbers of blacks, who they blamed for the government’s position. When troops returning from Gettysburg finally restored order, 1,200 were dead.
While the rest of the nation was busy fighting the Civil War, the deadliest campaign of vigilante justice in American history was erupting in the Rocky Mountains.
Fighting violent crime in a remote corner beyond the reach of the government were the Montana Vigilantes. Sweeping through the gold-mining towns of southwest Montana, the armed horseman hanged 21 troublemakers in the first two months of 1864 alone. One of these so-called troublemakers was elected Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was said to be the leader of a band of Road Agents called the Innocents.
After hanging Plummer, his two main deputies were also hanged on January 10, 1864. The Vigilantes hung more bandits in Sellgate (Missoula), Cottonwood (Deer Lodge), Fort Owen, and Virginia City. Though some of these Montana Vigilantes are still revered in Montana as founding fathers, historians have provided evidence that the whole thing regarding Sheriff Plummer and his Road Agents may very well have been a fraud.
Evidence suggests that many of the early stories on which the outlaw tales were based were written by the editor of the Virginia City Newspaper, who was a member of the vigilantes, and the story was fabricated to cover up the real lawlessness in the Montana Territory – the vigilantes themselves. Furthermore, the robberies in Montana did not cease after the twenty-one men were hanged in January and February of 1864. In fact, after the “Plummer Gang” hangings, the robberies showed more evidence of organized criminal activity, and the number of thefts increased.
Random lynchings continued in Montana Territory throughout the 1860s even though territorial courts were in place. Over a six-year period, they lynched more than 50 men without trials until a backlash against extralegal justice finally took hold around 1870. However, by the end of the decade, Montana was again stirring with new settlements as railroad construction pushed westward. The vigilantes once again became active by making threats for “undesirables” to leave the territory. Reliance on mob rule in Montana became so ingrained that in 1883, a Helena newspaper editor advocated a return to “decent, orderly lynching” as a legitimate tool of social control.
Meanwhile, back on the Civil War battlegrounds, soldiers were being hanged by the dozens for crimes such as guerrilla activity, espionage, and treason, but most often for desertion. One such major spectacle was between February 5th and February 22nd, 1864, when 22 deserters were executed by hanging at Kinston, North Carolina.
Legal hangings were performed regularly, the most public of which was the execution of the conspirators who were found guilty of killing Abraham Lincoln in 1865, just days after the close of the long and bloody Civil War. Mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth’s bullet, Booth escaped but was shot down 12 days later in his hiding place.
Mourning the loss of Lincoln, the government began a full-scale investigation, identifying eight members of a conspiracy team, including one woman by the name of Mary Surratt. Four of these conspirators were hanged before hundreds of spectators on July 7, 1865, in the courtyard of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington, D.C. Mary Surratt was the first woman ever legally executed by the federal government of the United States.
These public spectacles of death for legal hangings and lynchings often took on a festival-type atmosphere. Families attended with picnic baskets in hand, vendors sold souvenirs, and photographers took multiple photographs of the event, many of which wound up on penny postcards. It wasn’t to be until many decades later that public executions in the U.S. ceased in 1936.
From the ashes of the ruthless and costly Civil War, a violent stage was set for outlaws, vigilante justice, and mob violence that killed thousands of men, women, and children, most of them black. Upon founding the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee, the lynching of African Americans grew to epidemic proportions. “Lynching” took on a new meaning as illegal hangings were soon attributed primarily to racist activities. From this time onward, mob violence was increasingly reflected in America’s contempt for racial, ethnic, and cultural groups – especially those of the black population.
But, it didn’t stop there. These racial prejudices also extended to Native Americans, Mexicans, Asian immigrants, and European newcomers.
Youth was no bar to execution by these vicious people, as on February 7, 1868, a 13-year-old African-American girl named Susan was hanged in Henry County, Kentucky, for murder. Susan, a babysitter, was accused of killing one of her charges.
The newspapers helped to make these hanging more public by reporting items such as this one that appeared: “she writhed and twisted and jerked many times.” After her death, many purportedly “solid citizens” asked for a piece of her hanging rope as a souvenir.
Lynchings during this time also targeted white men and women who were known to interfere with “Judge Lynch justice” against the blacks, those who had aided runaways, Union activists, and abolitionists.
Lynching in the Wild West also increased after the Civil War as it experienced its most brazen period of extralegal hangings. Though most often focused as either a deterrent to crime or a resolution in political disputes, waves of indiscriminate terror waged against Mexicans, Chinese immigrants, and Native Americans. In many western territories, no legal authority existed, so the vigilantes took it upon themselves to dispense justice. In others, these Old West pioneers were simply too enraged or impatient to await the legal decisions.
However, not all of the hangings in the Wild West were performed by vigilantes. One such instance was the hanging of John Millan in Virginia City, Nevada, on April 24, 1868. Millan was accused of killing a popular prostitute named Julia Bulette. Bulette, who began her one-woman operation in 1861, was so popular among the locals that she rode in the Fourth of July Parade and was made an honorary member of the local fire department. On January 20, 1867, Julia was found strangled in her home with her jewels and furs missing. On the day of her funeral, every mine in the area shut down, and 16 carriages filled with the town’s leading men followed the hearse to the cemetery. Several weeks later, John Millan was arrested for her murder. While awaiting trial, Virginia City’s wives treated him like a hero, bringing him cakes and wine in jail. Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang. On April 24, 1868, crowds gathered from all over the state to watch Millan die on the gallows constructed one mile outside town.
Back in the turbulent South, Wyatt Outlaw, a town commissioner in Graham, North Carolina, was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan on February 26, 1870. Outlaw, the president of the Alamance County Union League of America (an anti-Ku Klux Klan group), helped establish the Republican party in North Carolina and advocated establishing a school for African Americans. The Klan hanged him from an oak tree near the Alamance County Courthouse. Dozens of Klansmen were arrested for the murders of Outlaw and other African Americans in Alamance and Caswell Counties. Many of the arrested men confessed, but, despite protests by Governor William W. Holden, a federal judge in Salisbury ordered them released.
Later the same year, on the raw frontier of the West, gunfighter Clay Allison sat brooding about a locally convicted murderer by the name of Charles Kennedy. While drinking in an Elizabethtown, New Mexico saloon on October 7th, he soon stirred up sentiment against Kennedy. He led a lynch mob across the street to the jail in no time, where they dragged Kennedy screaming from his cell. He was then taken to a local slaughterhouse where he was hanged, and his body was mutilated with huge knives used for butchering cattle. Allison cut the body down, and using an ax, chopped Kennedy’s head off and jammed it onto a pole. Allison then rode his horse all the way to Cimarron, New Mexico, where he put the head on display on the bar of Henry Lambert’s saloon. Later, someone stuck it on the corral fence at the St. James Hotel, where it remained for months and eventually mummified.
During this time, former slaves and free black men continued to be executed, such as 10 black men on October 19, 1870, in Clinton, South Carolina. In November, four black men were lynched in Coosa County, Alabama; four were lynched in Noxubee County, Mississippi, and a federal revenue agent was hanged in White County, Georgia.
Lynchings continued in earnest in the South and the Old West over the next couple of years. In 1873, Klansman laid siege to the small town of Colfax, Louisiana, which black veterans of the Union army defended. On Easter Sunday, April 13, armed with a small cannon, the whites overpowered the defenders and slaughtered 50 blacks and two whites after they had surrendered under a white flag.
While hangings were taking place all over the South and the Wild West, one of the most famous was that of Jack “Broken Nose” McCall on March 1, 1877. Having gone to Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876, using the name of Bill Sutherland, he sat in on a poker game with Wild Bill Hickok. Losing all his money, Wild Bill generously gave him back enough to buy breakfast but advised him not to play again until he could cover his losses. Humiliated, McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head the very next day. He left Deadwood after killing Hickok, but was later arrested in Laramie, Wyoming, brought back to Yankton, and put on trial for Hickok’s death. Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang. On March 1, 1877, he stood trembling on the scaffold, begging for someone to save him. He was buried in Yankton in an unmarked grave with the rope still around his neck.
James Miller, a 23-year-old man, described as a “mulatto,” was the first man to be sent to the gallows after Colorado achieved statehood in 1876. Miller, a former soldier, was convicted of shooting and killing a man who had earlier forced him, at gunpoint, to leave a dance hall reserved for whites. When Miller was hanged in West Las Animas on February 2, 1877, the trap door would not open at first.
When it eventually fell, the trap door detached and came to rest on the ground. Miller dropped, but the hanging rope was too long, and Miller’s feet came to rest on the trap door below. The trap door was then removed so that Miller could swing freely. He then strangled for 25 minutes before expiring. The local sheriff, reportedly distraught over the botched execution, resigned and left town.
Back in the East, in what has become known as “Pennsylvania’s Day With the Rope,” eleven “Molly Maguire” coal miners were hanged by the state for murder and conspiracy. Their real crime was attempting to organize the mine workers. On June 21, 1877, all of them were hanged for their “obstinacy.”