The ultimate origin of the verb lynch is reasonably well established. The term is American in origin, dating to shortly after the American Revolution. The term lynch law dates to 1811, first appearing in the writings of Andrew Ellicott: “Captain Lynch just mentioned was the author of the Lynch laws so well known and so frequently carried into effect some years ago in the southern States in violation of every principle of justice and jurisprudence.” Ellicott is referring to a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia. Lynch led a self-created judicial tribunal during the American Revolution.
~ David Wilton, Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
There is a culturally-based legend that lynch is of Irish origin, dating back to 1493 in Galway, Ireland. The legend, as retold by David Wilton in his book Word Myths, is that a mayor of the city hanged his own son for murder. This supposed origin assumes that the verb developed from the mayor’s name, James Lynch Fitz Stephen, but there is no evidence that the verb to lynch was used before 1836 in America. Wilton finds that the lynch laws of Captain William Lynch of Pittsylvania, VA, which clearly operated outside of jurisprudence under Lynch’s tribunal, to be the most likely origin. Other stories have suggested another Virginian, Judge Charles Lynch, who presided over trials of Tory sympathizers, but Wilton argues that these have every appearance of being legitimate legal proceedings. Another possibility is Lynches Creek in South Carolina, where vigilantes met, ca. 1768–Wilton does not elaborate what type of vigilantes they were. (115-6, Word Myths)
During the period of the Reconstruction’s demise, as southern states and border states successfully disenfranchised the bulk of their “negro” populations, lynching black men or women, even children, became an acceptable activity for many southerners. The proof of this is revealed in the confidence Klan members and other citizens had in their actions, as they removed their hoods to be photographed with the trees from which their victims hung. In his controversial, best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen points to this time period in particular as one of the lowest points in race relations in our country when lynching reached an all-time high. This period was traditionally glossed over in American history textbooks to promote the idea of sustained forward progression in American history, which deliberately neglected the initial successes for the former slave population following the Civil War, including the achievement in elected offices, business, academics, law and the arts. The following policy-driven period of regress, during which the federal government legalized the separation and segregation of black Americans from white, turned the verb lynch into a uniquely charged word in American race relations. (Images lynchings with fearless vigilantes are available online. The website, http://withoutsanctuary.org/, features photographs and postcards of lynchings–some of which include white immigrants, such as Italians.)
Aside from other lesser slang usages in the drug world, the term remains highly charged and is used to reference equally charged scenarios, often involving criminal accusations. It is particularly used during situations where public opinion seems strongly against a black American defendant often before trials have even commenced, let alone been concluded. In other cases, it has been used when the defendant has been sentenced to the death penalty, such as the recent case of Troy Davis because it was perceived to have followed with insufficient evidence. In this case it is typically referred to as legalized lynching. In other words, the term is deliberately invoked to recall the prior tradition of lawless violence and killing, which often occurred without a response from legal authorities, either out of sympathy to the lynching or out of helplessness to prevent it–or both.
It is also the case that lynching is used in reference to the media coverage. Ishmael Reed references “media stampedes” surrounding Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick which created virtual lynchings and assumed guilt before trial because of media fervor. (Ishmael Reed, Mixing it Up: Taking on the media bullies and other reflections) The most recent usage is by GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain in one of his political ads, claiming high tech lynching for media coverage of a sexual harassment charge and settlement in his past.
This is a perfect example of how history shapes our understanding of a word. In this case, the word’s origins are less important than the word’s use and development through America’s era of legalized prejudice and discrimination. In William Brennan’s Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, When word games take lives, he describes the verbal gymnastics by which one portion of the population dehumanizes another group in order to justify their mistreatment of that group. (For more from Brennan, see: Dehumanizing words and writing the “other”.) He does this by identifying the alternative categories in which the group is placed: Deficient Human, Nonhuman, Animal, Parasite, Disease, Inanimate Object, Waste Product, and Nonperson. There are countless examples of prominent Americans and legal courts using this tactic to justify various ill-treatments, the bulk of which are during the fights over the morality and legality of slavery and during the age when lynching was at its highest point. The correlation is not an accident. The word lynch is loaded with ideas such as: “The negro race is … a heritage of organic and psychic debris,” (Dr. William English, 1903) and “The negro is … one of the lower animals,” (Professor Charles Carroll, 1900) and “They [Negroes] are parasites,” (Dr. E. T. Brady, 1909). (6-7, Brennan) The historical scars from the word and action has informed, if not created, its rhetorical usage today.