Word Origins: Charles Lynch and Lynchings Part 2

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.

Up until fairly recently most historians gave Virginia planter and judge Charles Lynch (1736-1796) the doubtful honor of being the 1st "lyncher," or rather the 1st person to be called a "lyncher." Colonel Lynch, a militia officer who served under General Greene during the Revolution, was a leading citizen of Bedford County and his older brother John founded Lynchburg, Va. (Brother John, incidentally, has also been cited as the eponymous Lynch, complicating matters more.) It seems that the colonel had been a justice of the peace since 1766, and had taken the law into his own hands on a number of occasions. These cases usually involved Tories charged with treason, which, like all felonies, could be tried only at the courts in Williamsburg during the Revolution. Since Williamsburg was some 200 mi. away and the rude roads leading to the capital were controlled by Loyalists, Judge Lynch and 3 fellow magistrates set up a court, proper in all respects but its jurisdiction, to try treason cases. Judge Lynch became particularly famous in 1780 when he prevented local Tories from seizing ammunition stores for Cornwallis and subsequently tried them as traitors, but neither he nor the other justices ever ordered anyone hanged for the crime of treason. In fact, only in one instance--a case of proven manslaughter--was their sentence ever greater than a fine or flogging. Somehow Lynch's associate justices--James Callaway, William Preston, and Robert Adams--were never remembered for their part in the extralegal court. The colonel himself--a Quaker who had established the 1st public church in Virginia, a former member of the House of Burgesses, and a delegate to Virginia's constitutional convention in 1776--was brought before the Virginia legislature by Tory sympathizers after the war. The assembly, however, exonerated him of any wrongdoing, terming his actions "justifiable from the imminence of the danger."

Colonel Charles Lynch's name was long accepted as the most likely source for "lynch law" and "lynch" because it was the most obvious one around. But historians began to wonder why someone who had nothing to do with extralegal hanging or mob action should be held accountable for the word. Then a Capt. William Lynch (1742-1820) was discovered. Like Charles Lynch, he was a Virginian, a militiaman, and the magistrate of an impromptu court, but his story is far more convincing. Capt. William Lynch was brought to light by Edgar Allan Poe in an editorial on "lynching" that he wrote in 1836 when he edited the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe claimed that the lynch law originated in 1780 when Captain Lynch and his followers organized to rid Pittsylvania County of a band of ruffians threatening the neighborhood. Poe even affixed a compact drawn up by Lynch and his men to the editorial: "Whereas, many of the inhabitants of Pittsylvania. . . have sustained great and intolerable losses by a set of lawless men . . . that . . . have hitherto escaped the civil power with impunity . . . we, the subscribers, being determined to put a stop to the uniquitous practices of those unlawful and abandoned wretches, do enter into the following association . . . upon hearing or having sufficient reason to believe, that any . . . species of villainy (has) been committed within our neighborhood, we will forthwith . . . repair immediately to the person or persons suspected . . . and if they will not desist from their evil practices, we will inflict such corporeal punishment on him or them, as to us shall seem adequate to the crime committed or the damage sustained . . . In witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands, this 22nd day of September, 1780."

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