Word Origins: Charles Lynch and Lynchings Part 1

About the history and biography of Charles Lynch the man whose origin the word Lynchings comes from.

LYNCH ('linch) v. t. To put to death by mob action without legal sanction.

Our word for extralegal hanging definitely comes from the name of a man, but just who was the real Judge Lynch? At least a dozen men have been suggested as candidates for the dubious distinction. Scholarly opinion leans toward Virginia's William Lynch, with Virginia magistrate Charles Lynch a strong contender, but the other defendants deserve their day in court.

The earliest challenger for the title is a certain Mayor Lynch of Glasgow; according to a story from the Pall Mall Gazette quoted in the New York Tribune of January 27, 1881, Mayor Lynch flourished toward the end of the 15th century and hanged a criminal with his own hands on one occasion. Another Mayor Lynch, of England, is vaguely mentioned, and then there is Mayor James Fitzstephens Lynch of Galway, Ireland. This last Lynch is said to have sent his son to Spain about 1492 to purchase a cargo of wine. But the young man gambled away all his father's money and bought on credit, the Spanish merchant sending a representative back with him to Ireland so that he'd be sure to collect. While at sea, young Lynch killed and threw the Spaniard overboard. The elder Lynch soon discovered this crime and as town mayor sat in judgment and pronounced the death sentence on his own son. Mayor Lynch must have been insane for "justice," because when his family interceded to save the boy from hanging, he proceeded to hang him from a window of their home.

None of these accounts, if they are true, bothers to explain why the term "lynch" did not come into use until 2 centuries later, nor do the stories depict "lynchings" as we know them today. A better choice might be the American John Lynch, a South Carolinian who followed Daniel Boone to Kentucky and was hanged as a horse thief without benefit of trial, or the Judge James Lynch who is said to have imposed brutal sentences in about 1687. But too little is known about these men. The same applies for the theory that "lynch" comes from a Lynch's Creek in South Carolina, where about 1779 a band of "Regulators" met to mete out their particular brand of "justice." One English account even makes the place Lynch Creek in North Carolina, moves the date to the Revolution, and says that here "a form of court-martial and execution was carried out on the corpse of a Tory who had already been hanged to prevent rescue."

It would be fruitless to mention all the Lynches in history who are merely alluded to as the originators of a practice that is unfortunately not yet purely historical. There are almost endless variations on tales like that of the Irishman hanged by irate neighbors or the American outlaw strung up on a tree somewhere. Either etymologists are very imaginative or the Lynches of this world have had more than their fair share of men on one or another end of a rope.

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