Lynching redux

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Aug 8 19:12:14 UTC 2005

Here are extracts from the entry by Brent Tarter on Charles Lynch in
the American National Biography.

Lynch, Charles (1736-29 Oct. 1796), planter and the man whose name
probably gave rise to the phrase "lynch law," was born in Virginia
(town unknown), the son of Charles Lynch and Sarah Clark, Quakers who
had immigrated to Virginia from Ireland. The city of Lynchburg,
Virginia, which is located at the site of Lynch's ferry over the James
River, was named for a member of the family, probably his brother John
Lynch's greatest notoriety stems from his role in 1780 in helping put
down a threatened uprising in the area that is now southwestern
Virginia, where fears of cooperation among English agents, Loyalists,
slaves, and Indians kept the settlers in a more or less constant state
of fear. One of the proximate causes of the disorder was a strike by
some of the Welsh miners. In several separate incidents, Lynch and
other prominent men from the region, including Robert Adams, James
Callaway, and William Preston, all of whom were justices of the peace
and high-ranking militia officers, rounded up suspects and gave them
summary trials before informal courts. They punished some of the
leaders at the whipping post, forced some of their followers into the
army, extracted oaths of allegiance under duress, and in at least one
instance looked aside as a group of angry settlers plundered the
property of suspected Loyalists. On 24 December 1782 the general
assembly of Virginia passed a special act that specifically named Lynch
and the other three leading men and retroactively legitimized their
proceedings. It is generally thought that the organized but extralegal
punishment carried out by these men gave rise to the phrase "Lynch's
Law" and all the subsequent permutations of that into the
phrases "lynch law" and "judge lynch" and the verb "to lynch." The
phrases initially and generally signified only organized, unauthorized
punishment of reputed miscreants.

Lynch himself, so far as is known, never took credit for the term, but
two years later in describing the incident he used the phrase "Lynch.s
Law." It had clearly gained such currency by then that Lynch did not
think that he needed to explain it; nor, evidently, did one of the
state's purchasing agents when he later sent Lynch's letter to Governor
Benjamin Harrison. Within a generation or two the phrases derived
from "Lynch's Law" became universally known in the United States, and
during the 1850s they became standard entries in both British and
American dictionaries of the English language. There is, however, an
alternative story about the origin of the terms. In 1780 William Lynch
and several other men of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, are supposed to
have signed a pact by which they pledged themselves to track down and
punish a band of outlaws who were operating in that county and across
the border in North Carolina. William Lynch later moved to South
Carolina and in 1811 told a visitor that his participation in the
Pittsylvania group had provided the basis for the phrase, which by then
was famous (see Catherine Van Courtlandt Mathews, Andrew Ellicott, His
Life and Letters [1908], pp. 220-22). What was purported to be the text
of the Pittsylvania agreement was later printed in the Southern
Literary Messenger (2 [May 1836]: 389). However, the Pittsylvania
County alliance, if it was formed at all, was so obscure compared to
the well-known suppression of the uprising in southwestern Virginia
that Charles Lynch's use of the phrase makes it seem most probable that
it was derived from his actions, not from William Lynch's.
Reasonably accurate biographies of Lynch appear in Howell Colston
Featherston, "The Origin and History of Lynch Law," Green Bag 12
(1900): 150-58; Thomas Walker Page, "The Real Judge Lynch," Atlantic
Monthly, Dec. 1901, pp. 731-43; and Pauline Edwards, Lest It Be
Forgotten: A Scrapbook of Campbell County, Virginia (1976), pp. 124-27.
*** The events and context of the 1780 uprising are in Emory G.
Evans, "Trouble in the Backcountry: Disaffection in Southwest Virginia
during the American Revolution," in The Uncivil War: The Southern
Backcountry during the American Revolution, ed. Ronald Hoffman et al.
(1985), pp. 179-212, and Albert H. Tillson, Gentry and Common Folk:
Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789 (1991), pp. 101-16.
The 1782 act of indemnity is in William Waller Hening, ed., The
Statutes at Large of Virginia, vol. 11 (13 vols., 1809-1823), pp. 134-
35. Lynch's description of the strike at the lead mines and his use of
the phrase "Lynch.s Law" are in Lynch to David Ross, 11 May 1782, now
attached to William Hay to the governor, 10 June 1782, RG 3, Executive
Department, Letters Received, Library of Virginia; it is not included
in the microfilm edition. An abstract of the letter that does not
clearly indicate who used the phrase is in William P. Palmer and Henry
W. Flournoy, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other
Manuscripts, vol. 3 (11 vols., 1875-1893), pp. 189-90. A useful early
essay is Albert Matthews, "The Term Lynch Law," Modern Philology 2
(Oct. 1904): 173-95.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

----- Original Message -----
From: Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
Date: Friday, August 5, 2005 5:29 pm
Subject: Re: Lynching redux

> OED believes that an origin in reference Capt. W. Lynch has been
> "clearly establish[ed]."  His extrajudicial tribunal was evidently
> set up in Virginia in 1780.
> JL
> "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------
> ------------
> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: "Baker, John"
> Subject: Re: Lynching redux
> -------------------------------------------------------------------
> ------------
> Yes, it's definitely based on his surname. Whether it refers
> specifically to him, however, is a different matter.
> Lynchburg was founded by John Lynch. John Lynch was the brother
> of Col. Charles Lynch (1736 - 1796), a Virginia planter and vigilante
> who is a candidate referent for "Lynch law," according to the Century
> Dictionary. Most references favor a different Virginian, Capt. William
> Lynch (1742 - 1820).
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On
> BehalfOf Wilson Gray
> Sent: Thursday, August 04, 2005 8:56 PM
> Subject: Re: Lynching redux
> Okay. So, is it true that the term, "lynching," is based on the
> surnameof the brother of the man who founded Lynchburg, VA?
> -Wilson
> ---------------------------------
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