Public opinion can be a dangerous thing. This is especially true in the case of mob lynching, something we associate with the “wild west” and the lack of a civilized judicial system. However, in an article in the Fall 2012 issue of Nebraska History, Jim Potter shows there was more to vigilante hangings than that. Potter focuses on the stories and methods of lynchings in Nebraska, as well as the motives behind them.
Throughout history, as the public perception of mob justice has changed, so have the methods of lynching. Many early lynchings were conducted in full daylight, with a semblance of order and a strong sense of justice. One example of an “orderly” lynching was in 1866, in the case of an alleged murder. Citizens gathered in a local park, appointed lawyers, a jury and called witnesses. After declaring the defendant Casper Dircks guilty, he was given time to write his will and hanged the same day.
While these types of lynchings had a high level of community involvement, from the mid 1870s through the 1890s lynchings were more likely to be the work of “private mobs.” These groups worked at night, and often hid their identity. Potter states that “the adoption of such procedures suggests that the lynchers feared they could no longer count on the endorsement of their actions by the community as a whole.” However, while community leaders may not have openly approved of the nighttime action, they were conveniently able to name the lynchers as “parties unknown,” and mob members were rarely prosecuted.
Both these types of killings involved an air of righteousness on the part of the killers. They felt that they were doing the community a service by removing evildoers that the law either could not or would not punish. However, there were other kinds of lynchings that had little or nothing to do with justice. These were the result of racism, provocative media, and a mob mentality that resulted in lynchings as a way of enforcing “social, class, or racial prerogatives.” In 1878 Henry Jackson and Henry Martin, both African American, were charged with killing an elderly man and beating his wife. After a hasty trial, they were sentenced to life in prison, which was not enough for the public that had been riled up by the media. The same night, the two men were taken from the courthouse and hanged. The Omaha Republican considered the incident “A Little Wholesome Lynching,” describing Jackson and Martin as “murderous and raping beasts and monsters.”
By following the documented lynchings of Nebraska, Potter explores the way that perceptions of justice have changed, and what we can learn from a gruesome part of our history. Influences such as the NAACP, a wider public awareness, a growing middle class, and a desire to be orderly have altered our opinions about capital punishment, and who it is that should do the punishing.
- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant