Lynchings & Hangings of America

Chinese immigrants at the San Francisco custom-house. P. Frenzeny 1877

The “ethnic cleansing” of Chinese from the American West was another dark chapter in our nation’s history. Writes John Higham in Strangers in the Land, “No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s.” Many of the estimated 200 American lynchings victimizing people of Asian descent occurred during this time.

In 1880, many Chinese lived in Hop Alley, Denver, Colorado’s Chinatown. In October of that year, an anti-Chinese riot resulted in the lynching of a Chinese man and the injuring of many others. A mob of approximately 3000 people had gathered in Hop Alley, consisting of “illegal voters, Irishmen and some Negroes.” Only 8 Policemen were on duty at the outbreak of the riot. Firemen, brought in to disperse the crowd, hosed them with water but this only made them angrier. The mob began to destroy Chinese businesses, looted their homes, and injure many of them. According to the Rocky Mountain News, the Chinese quarter was “gutted as completely as though a cyclone had come in one door and passed out the rear. There was nothing left…whole.”

It is difficult to identify the youngest person legally executed in American history, but records indicate that a ten-year-old Cherokee Indian boy was hanged for murder in 1885.

On October 28, 1889, Katsu Goto was a merchant, interpreter and lynching victim. He spoke fluent English and was a contract laborer who took over a store in Hanokaa, Hawaii, a plantation village. His customers not only were Japanese, as he was but also Hawaiian and Haole (white). White plantation owners disliked him, and his popularity with the community created competition with shopkeepers loyal to the white Protestant overseers.

Nine days before he was lynched, on October 19th, a fire broke out at the nearby Overend Camp and Goto and seven other workers were accused of arson. Though he never had a trial, Goto was ambushed and killed by four men. His body was found swinging from a telephone pole the next day. After a lengthy investigation, the perpetrators were arrested, tried, and sentenced to O’ahu Prison.

After a black rape suspect was forcibly taken from a county jail and lynched in front of a crowd of 9,000 people in Ohio, The Cleveland Leader published this editorial on June 19, 1897, that echoed the sentiments of many of the American people.

“The people of Ohio have seen murderers tried and convicted of murder in the 1st degree two or three times over and finally set free. They have known many desperate and dangerous criminals to be sent to the penitentiary for long terms and released soon enough to make the whole costly process of the courts seem little better than a farce . . . That is the real reason why, once in a while, the passion and indignation of the masses break through all restraints and some particularly wicked crime is avenged . . . “

In 1891, a number of Italian Americans were accused and arrested for the murder of the local police chief. At the news of the not guilty verdict, hysteria took hold of a crowd of several thousand citizens, who stormed the jail where the former suspects were held. On March 14, 1891, eleven Italian Americans were dragged into the streets, beaten and hanged. “Public opinion around America generally endorsed the action of the mob, applauding the citizens’ efforts to stop the mafia. As a result, President Benjamin Harrison was the first resident to request a federal law against Lynching later that year. The incident in New Orleans and the recurring violence against African-Americans was becoming an international human rights embarrassment.

Despite its reputation for violence, TombstoneArizona saw only one lynching during its history and that was conducted by miners from nearby Bisbee, Arizona. When six men held up the Goldwater and Castenada Store in Bisbee in December 1883, three men and a pregnant woman were shot and killed. While five of the robbers were sentenced to be hanged, one by the name of John Heath was found guilty of second-degree murder and given life imprisonment.

This so enraged the people of Bisbee that a group went to Tombstone on February 22, 1884, removed Heath from the custody of the sheriff and lynched him from a telegraph pole at the corner of First and Toughnut Streets. The other five men were legally hanged at Tombstone, March 6, 1884.”

Back in the south, Ida Wells, an editor for a small newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee called the Free Speech, carried out an investigation into the many lynchings in 1884. In just a short period, she discovered that 728 black men and women had been hanged by white mobs. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offenses such as public drunkenness and shoplifting.

Ellen Watson, aka "Cattle Kate"

Ellen Watson, aka “Cattle Kate”

There were occasions when people were lynched for political reasons or greed. For example, on July 20, 1889, James Averell and Kate Watson, a/k/a “Cattle Kate,” were lynched on the orders of Albert J. Bothwell, a powerful cattleman in Wyoming.  Unfortunately for Averell and Watson and Watson, they had become involved in a dispute with Bothwell during the Wyoming range wars. Bothwell responded by organizing a vigilante mob, perpetuating a story of how the pair had been involved in cattle rustling, and they were lynched.

A couple of days later on July 23, 1989, in Fayette, Missouri, nineteen-year-old Frank Embree was accused of raping a fourteen-year-old white girl. Embree maintained his innocence but confessed after having been whipped over 100 times, crying “he would ‘own-up’ if they would ‘hang me or shoot me, instead of torturing me.”‘ Frank Embree died at the end of a rope, without a trial.

By the 1890s lynchers had become particularly sadistic when blacks were the prime targets. Increasingly burning, torture, and dismemberment were used to prolong the suffering. Sadly, these tactics were also utilized to create a more “festive atmosphere” among the onlookers. Public spectacles became more common as newspapers carried advance notices and railroad agents sold excursion tickets announcing lynching sites. As families brought their children to these “recreational” events, executioners cut off black victims’ fingers, toes, ears, and genitalia as souvenirs. Often these racially motivated lynchings were not spontaneous mob reactions, but instead, were carried out with the assistance of law enforcement.

Though many at the time were under the false impression that these multiple lynchings were taking place for violations against women and were rightly justified, this was rarely the case. More often their alleged crimes included such offenses as using offensive language; having a bad reputation; refusal to give up a farm; throwing stones; unpopularity; slapping a child; and stealing hogs, to name a few. In East Texas a black man and his three sons were lynched for the grand crime of “harvesting the first cotton of the season.” Only 19% of those lynched were ever charged with rape. Fewer were ever proven.

On March 9, 1892, a cold-blooded lynching took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Three young colored men, in an altercation at their place of business, fired on white men in self-defense. They were imprisoned for three days, then taken out by a mob, shot and lynched. Thomas Moss, William Stewart, and Calvin McDowell were energetic business men who had built up a flourishing grocery business.

Their business had prospered and that of a rival white grocer named Barrett had declined. Barrett led the attack on their grocery which resulted in the wounding of three white men. No effort whatever was made to punish the murderers of these three men.

Ida B. Wells Barnett

Ida Wells was exiled from her home in 1892 under penalty of death for writing articles about lynching in her small newspaper.

When Ida Wells, editor of Free Speech, wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch her but, fortunately, she was visiting Philadelphia at the time. This only led Ida to write more on the topic and to begin the Anti-lynching Campaign, a movement to end mob violence against African-Americans, that would last through the 1940s.

However, her property was soon destroyed and she was exiled from her home under the penalty of death for writing the following editorial which was printed in her paper.

The Free Speech, in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 21, 1892:

“Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the ‘Free Speech’ one at Little Rock, Ark., last Saturday morning where the citizens broke (?) into the penitentiary and got their man; three near Anniston, Ala., one near New Orleans; and three at Clarksville, Ga., the last three for killing a white man, and five on the same old racket—the new alarm about raping white women. The same program of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies were carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

The Memphis Daily Commercial Appeal called her a “Black scoundrel,” White businessmen threatened to lynch the owners of her newspaper, and creditors commandeered the newspaper’s offices and sold the equipment.

1892 ended up being the worst year for lynchings in America, with 69 whites hanged, and 161 blacks put to death at the hands of lynch mobs.

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