This Day (Lynch Law & Barbarism Edition)

Published:August 3, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe


On this day in 1893, the Richmond Dispatch published a short note called “Lynch Law and Barbarism.” Please don’t assume, though, that just because the paper linked those two things in a headline that its editors opposed the murder-for-sport of African Americans.

Unquestionably the outside world regards lynchings as barbarous. They cause our section [i.e., the South] to be much misunderstood by the world—by a world that knows not our provocation, a world which if infested by similar beasts would adopt similar means of extirpating them.

The language there is just too vile to continue, but you get the idea. We are at work on an entry on lynching in Virginia and this Dispatch article will be included an example of one way in which white Virginians justified events such as what happened just a few weeks later to Thomas Smith, an African American man in Roanoke. From the current draft of our entry:

After Smith was arrested and charged with beating and robbing a white woman, Mayor Henry S. Trout ordered the entire police force and members of the local militia to protect the jail. A mob formed and was initially rebuffed. During a second attack on the jail, however, the authorities opened fire, killing seven and injuring a few dozen others, including the mayor, who was shot in the foot. The mob, which numbered between 1,500 and 4,000, still managed to capture its man, lynching Smith and affixing to him a sign that read, “Mayor Trout’s Friend.” The mob later burned his body. According to a newspaper report, “Smith’s sister, a girl of 15 years of age, stood by and witnessed the terrible fate of her brother’s remains.”

It’s not easy to reconcile a press that as often as not cheered on such acts of horrific violence with the image—given to us by that same press—of a sister watching the immolation of her brother. And it’s no less difficult to think in these kinds of animalized terms—beastsextirpating—while in the presence of an innocent fifteen-year-old girl. But such terms are crucial in understanding lynching and before it, slavery.

I’ve been reading The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis. It’s the third book of his trilogy, which he’s been working on since the 1960s, and one of Davis’s contributions has been an emphasis on how slavery depended on the animalizing of people. Enslaved African Americans were treated as livestock in the eyes of the law but also in the eyes of their masters. That they were supposedly less than human justified slavery while also raising concerns, even among those who were antislavery, about the consequences of emancipation.

After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, Virginians debated the possibility of emancipation, and even those who supported such a radical move hoped that it would be followed by the removal of all African Americans from the state. Regardless of whether you believed African Americans were degraded by nature or by the experience of slavery, they were (in white eyes, and even in some black) degraded. And they needed to go.

Except that thirty years later, the Civil War came and unexpectedly freed all the slaves. They had not left, but neither had the longstanding view that they were not quite fully human. They were, as the Richmond Dispatch declared, beasts.

And we still carry this legacy around with us. Back in 1992, a student caught up in the LA riots told the Los Angeles Times, “The [looters], they are like beasts. They are not men.”

Or take this tweet from last year; it’s hardly lonely in its sentiments:


We know what “by any means necessary” meant in 1893. We struggle to understand what it means today.

IMAGES: from the white-owned Richmond Dispatch, August 3, 1893, page 2; the Richmond Planet, a black-owned newspaper (Duke University Libraries)


3 Comments on “This Day (Lynch Law & Barbarism Edition)”

  1. Robert Moore

    Good read, Brendan. Unplesant, but a good read, nonetheless. I started off with a comment, and decided to post on my own blog. Kind of grew from there. Nothing directed negatively at what you say in this post. Consider it more… inspired in an aspect of it. Thanks.

  2. Robert Moore

    As ever, enjoy the posts.

    On a related note, I have a relative (brother to my gg grandfather) who was a conductor on the Cumberland Valley RR, out of Martinsburg, who witnessed a hanging, in February, 1886. The headline read: “A lady’s honor avenged. Joe Barnes Taken From the Martinsburg Jail and Hanged to a Tree.”

    “Martinsburg, W.Va., Feb. 19. – On Sunday February 7, Miss Mollie Henry, a respectable white girl, of Baltimore, got from a train at a station near this place, and started to a friends’s house, a short distance away from town, walking on the railroad track. She had proceeded but a short distance when she met Joe Burns, a negro. He told her to come to the side of the track toward him, as a train was coming. The girl unsuspectingly did as directed, when he seized her, and, dragging her down an embankment, outraged her person and robbed her. She gave the alarm immediately upon escaping from the villain’s clutches. Joe Burns was arrested and placed in jail here on suspicion. The jail was guarded for some days, but there not appearing to be any excitement, the precaution was abandoned. Last night at 12 o’clock a body of perhaps 150 or 200 men, all masked and armed, appeared at the jail on horseback and demanded the prisoner, Joe Burns. They were told by Jailor Dumfrey that he was not there. He, however, opened all the cell doors and they examined the whole jail but were not successful. They then went into the dwelling part of the jail building, and opening the door under some steps saw the negro sitting on a chair in the cellar guarded by two men. The guards resisted somewhat but nothing worse was done than the exchange of some threatening words. After leaving the jail the lynching party proceeded to a point about two and a half miles south of Martinsburg to the Big Spring on the turnpike, and there to a tree he was hanged. He was given time to make a confession. He said he deserved his fate, asked the assembled crowd to pray for him, and as he said ‘good bye,’ was jerked 6 feet into the air. His body was then riddled with bullets and left hanging. Burns has just returned home from the Penitentiary, having served a second term. Miss Henry was to have been married within two weeks. The maskers asted with great coolness and determination. They were regularly organized and each man answered to a number. Every one carried a revolver or a sabre, and curious citizens who happened to be on the street were compelled to stand back by the determined avengers. At the place for execution the leader commanded all No. 2’s to advance and prepare the rope.

    So quietly did the lynchers proceed in carrying out their purpose that but few knew of the proceedings until this morning. Mr. Hanlen, of Market street, this city, was in Martinsburg Thursday night, and stopped within 100 yards of the jail. His slumbers were not disturbed in the least, and he knew nothing of the affair until he was told of it yesterday morning. Conductor Fries and J.D. Moore, of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, it is said, witnessed the execution.”

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