Lynching laws across the country vary, but the one thing they all have in common is that most people believe the crime and its legal definition absolutely must involve a tree and a rope.
So here’s a shocker—contrary to popular belief, one does not need a rope to commit a lynching, nor does one need a tree or other sturdy platform from which to hang the rope. And, speaking of hanging, it’s not always necessary to “string-up” a human being to commit a lynching.
First, before explaining the laws, let’s explore a tiny bit of history regarding lynchings by rope and tree. Please bear with me because events like the following helped set the stage for modern lynching laws.
In Virginia, between 1880 and 1926, over 90 people—mostly African Americans—were lynched. The last lynching occurred in Wytheville, a small town situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Wytheville, you may remember, is the town where a man named Warren Taylor entered the post office pushing a wheelchair he said contained explosives. Taylor then took hostages and fired a few wild shots before police convinced him to surrender. The town was also the site of a large polio outbreak in the 1950’s. Seventeen people died and nearly two-hundred were hospitalized. Since there was no hospital in Wytheville, ambulances and even hearses from local funeral homes were used to transport the sick 80 miles to a hospital in Roanoke. Black townspeople, however, were denied care at the Roanoke hospital and were forced to travel to Richmond, some 300 miles further.
My only connection to Wytheville was becoming friends with a trooper from there during our time training at the Virginia State Police academy. He, too, was a canine handler and our two dogs quickly became best buddies.
But back to the Wytheville lynching. A black man named Raymond Bird was accused of having sex by force with a 19-year-old white woman, Minnie Grubb, the daughter of his employer.
Actually, Byrd and his quite willing white lover were having an affair (Bird was married), and she became pregnant with his child. Well, her parents were appalled at the notion and wanted their daughter to say Bird raped her. Long story short, she refused but others came forward to back the rape claim and Byrd was promptly arrested and jailed.
While sleeping in his jail cell, an angry mob of masked men stormed the jail, removed Bird and shot him. Then they tied him to a truck and dragged his body for nearly ten miles where they left him hanging from a tree. A local farmer was the only person charged and tried for the lynching. He was acquitted after a ten minute deliberation by the jury.
In 1928, Virginia Governor Harry Byrd, Jr. signed the first the Anti Lynching Law in the Commonwealth.
But not all lynchings/hangings were of African Americans. For example, in 1900, two men, Brandt O’Grady and Walter Cotton, were wanted for a string of brutal killings. O’Grady was white and Cotton was black. The two men, after escaping a Portsmouth jail, also killed Justice of the Peace John Saunders and Deputy Sheriff Joseph Welton who were part of the team of men out searching for the murderers. The two lawmen and a citizen tracked O’Grady and Cotton to a cabin near the North Carolina state line. Deputy Walton entered first and was immediately shot and killed. Saunders turned to retreat and was shot in the back of the head. The citizen managed to get away to seek help.
O’Grady and Cotton were eventually captured and subsequently held in the county jail. Citizens were angry over the murders of their local lawmen, and threats of lynchings grew louder by the day. So the Virginia State Militia was dispatched to protect the prisoners. However, the protection detail was withdrawn by order of the governor and, while awaiting trial, a group of those angry citizens stormed the jail and took the two men out to the front lawn of the courthouse where they hanged Cotton, the black man, from a cherry tree.
The mob was comprised of both blacks and whites, and the moment Cotton was put to his death the black citizens demanded equal justice for O’Grady. So they went back inside to pull O’Grady from his cell and then hung him next to his conspirator.
The cherry tree was eventually cut down sometime in the mid to late 1970s. Several county employees and townspeople took pieces of it as souvenirs. The old jail was later demolished and replaced by a newer facility.
Okay, with that bit of history under our belts, let’s explore lynching laws.
Of course, those laws do indeed include include murder by hanging, which is a topic of interest to many writers. But lynching laws are often broader in scope and don’t, as I stated earlier, necessarily include a rope and tree. For example, in Virginia (I often use Va. as my “go-to” since I’m most familiar with the laws there), the definition of the crime of lynching is:
§ 18.2-39. “Lynching” defined.
§ 18.2-40. Lynching deemed murder.
§ 18.2-43. Apprehension and prosecution of participants in lynching.
California omits “lynching” from law
Until 2015, California’s Lynching Law (California Penal Code 405a) defined “lynching” as the crime of removing someone from the lawful custody of a peace officer by means of a riot.
What constitutes a riot per this section of California law?
- Use force or violence;
- Disturb the public peace; or
- Threaten to use force or violence with immediate power to execute the threat.
Therefore, (per California law) – Lynching: “to take someone from lawful police custody by means of a riot means to engage in the use of force or violence, disturbing the public peace, or threatening to use force or violence with the immediate power to do so in order to free someone from the custody of a law enforcement agent.”
However, in 2015, then California Gov. Brown signed legislation removing the word “lynching” from the law after a member of the Black Lives Matter group was arrested for interfering with the arrest of a fellow activist during a rally against police brutality. Her arrest was for the crime of Lynching and had nothing to do ropes or trees or even murder.
Still, while having other meanings and legal implications, the term “lynching” is, and will likely always be most commonly associated with the brutal hangings of African Americans, especially those that occurred in the south. According to numbers from the Equal Justice Initiative, nearly 4,000 African Americans were lynched by racist mobs between 1877 and 1950.
Here’s Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a song that was closely aligned with the anti-lynching and American Civil rights movements. The song is definitely chilling and quite visual. It was originally written as a poem by Abel Metropol.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
scent of magnolia
sweet and fresh
then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit
for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop.
Here is a strange
and bitter crop.
*Please, this is not an article about race or politics. Please do not make it so. The information contained in this post is strictly that, information. It’s not an op ed piece nor is it an invitation to argue personal views about race, police, politics, gun control, the NRA, school shootings, etc. I’ve grown weary of the constant bickering so often seen on social media. But I do wholeheartedly welcome questions and comments.