1902 Encyclopedia > Lynch Law

Lynch Law




LYNCH LAW, a term used in the United States to characterize the action of private individuals, organized bodies of men, or disorderly mobs, who, without legal authority, proceed to punish by hanging or otherwise real or suspected criminals, without a trial according to the ordinary forms of law. The origin of the term is doubtful. American lexicographers generally refer it to the practice of a Virginia farmer of the 17th century, named Lynch, who, when he caught a wrongdoer, was wont to tie him to a tree and flog him, without waiting to summon the officers of the law. He is also said to have acted, by request of his neighbours, though without any legal authority, as a judge in the summary trial of persons accused of crime. Others trace the origin of the name to the act of James Fitzstephen Lynch, mayor and warden of Galway, Ireland, in 1493, who is said to have "hanged his own son out of the window for defrauding and killing strangers, without martial or common law, to show a good example to posterity." Others trace it still further to the old Anglo-Saxon verb linch, meaning to beat with a club, to chastise, &c, which they assert has survived in this cognate meaning in America, as have many other words and expressions long obsolete in Great Britain. While lynch law does not prevail in the old and well-settled States of the Union, and is almost universally deprecated, it is sometimes resorted to even in these States, in times of great popular excitement, or when the legal penalty seems disproportioned to the enormity of the offence. For example, the practice of lynching is said to have increased in Wisconsin since the abolition of the death penalty by law. Lynch law prevailed to a large extent in the early history of California, Oregon, Nevada, Kansas, Colorado, and other western States and Territories, and during the border troubles attending the outbreak of the civil war. Bodies of citizens, organized secretly or openly under the well-known names of " vigilance committees," " vigilantes," "regulators," "law-and-order-men," &c, punished with summary severity, and generally with wise discretion, horse thieves, highway robbers, burglars and swindlers, as well as murderers. Certain rude forms of trial were generally observed, but acquittals were rare, and the punishment was usually death by hanging. The practice, however barbarous under the conditions of well-settled government and society, has its justification in necessity in the newly-settled districts, frontier towns, and mining camps, where a rapid and extraordinary influx of population has preceded the establishment of civil government, or where the assembling of a large number of bold and hardened desperadoes has enabled them to defy the legally constituted authorities, and to commit crime at will, until suppressed by the voluntary and concerted action of the order-loving portion of the community.






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