Word Origins: Charles Lynch and Lynchings Part 3

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.

There we have the 1st lynch law, down to its exact date. William Lynch's identity was further verified by Richard Venables, an old resident of the county, in the May, 1859, issue of Harper's Magazine. But without evidence of any actual hanging there was still room for doubt. Finally, additional proof was found in the diary of the famous surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who visited Captain Lynch in 1811 and gained his friendship. William Lynch was then living in a sparsely settled area of South Carolina called Ooleony Creek, having moved there about 10 years after he disbanded his vigilantes in 1788. Ellicott found that Lynch "possessed a strong but uncultivated mind," was "hospitable and generous to an extreme" and "a great stickler for equality and the rights of man as established by law!" The father of 12 described to him how he organized a band for the purpose of punishing crimes without the technical processes of court and police action. The same problems existed in Pittsylvania as confronted Judge Charles Lynch in Bedford County: The proper courts in the Tidewater area were too far away, too difficult to reach, and crimes of violence by both Loyalists and patriots had multiplied during the Revolution. William Lynch related how his "lynch-men," as they were called, were sworn to secrecy and loyalty to the band. On receiving information accusing someone of a crime, the accused was seized and questioned before a court of sorts. If he did not confess immediately, he was horse-whipped until he did, and efforts were made to make him involve others, who were all given the same treatment. No legal means were ever used by the lynch-men to establish guilt or innocence. Ellicott also mentioned the hangings that had been questioned so long. "These punishments were sometimes severe and not infrequently inflicted upon the innocent," he wrote. "Mr. Lynch informed me that he had never in any case given a note for the punishment of death; some however he acknowledged had been actually hanged." But not in the ordinary way: ". . . a horse in part became the executioner . . . the person who it was supposed ought to suffer death was placed on a horse with his hands tied behind him and a rope about his neck which was fastened to the limb of a tree over his head. In this situation the person was left and when the horse in pursuit of food or any other cause moved from his position the unfortunate person was left suspended by the neck--this was called 'aiding the civil authority.'"

At last the mystery was solved, although several major dictionaries still discredit the wrong Judge Lynch. It was not long after William Lynch and his band before vigilantes all over the country were enforcing lynch-laws and being described as lynchers. From the time when records were 1st kept in 1885 to the present there have been 4,500 to 5,000 lynchings in the U.S., though the practice is fortunately very rare today. All named after a man who did not invent the process by any means, but tried to justify it. In fact, the inscription on William Lynch's grave reads: "He followed virtue as his truest guide . . . "

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