Scholars of lynching debate its definition, some even concluding that it is impossible to define, reported the High Country News. One commonly used, but still contested, definition from 1940 listed several necessary conditions: “There must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” Because definitions are difficult and evidence elusive, the precise number of lynching victims remains unknown. But the death toll hovers somewhere around 5,000.
For many Westerners, the word “lynching” brings to mind the vigilantes and what came to be known as “frontier justice.” The terms play on the long-held mythologies of a violent frontier where the need for justice sometimes preceded an established legal system. In this telling, men banded together to fulfill community obligations, punishing those who transgressed the laws of property (e.g., they stole livestock) or person (e.g., they raped women). White men formed posses and delivered swift justice to the guilty. This storyline goes back to some of the earliest Western historians, such as Hubert Howe Bancroft, who found much to admire in these actions. In his two-volume “Popular Tribunals,” in 1887, Bancroft characterized the San Francisco Vigilance Committees as “virtuous, intelligent, and responsible citizens with coolness and deliberation arresting momentarily the operations of law for the salvation of society.” Lynchings were regarded as exercises of sovereignty, the will of the people — as American as the frontier from which the nation supposedly sprang. Not surprisingly, the reality was more complicated.
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