In extending [Cesare] Beccaria‘s views on capital punishment to the history of lynching in the West, one begins to see that the “violent passions” of the mob were regularly invoked to justify their actions, but as Beccaria predicted, these passions were often little more than a ruse to justify the cold-blooded — and often premeditated — lynching of an accused criminal. Taken as a whole, the case list demonstrates that by and large, lynching had as much to do with vengeance as with the pursuit of justice.
The frequent invocation of San Francisco’s vigilance committees in many of the case records is clearly intended to link extrajudicial execution to “tradition,” an essential element found in the Tuskegee definition of lynching.* On a formal level, well over 50 percent of lynching cases that give a time, record that the lynching took place between midnight and 2 a.m. when the accused was usually encouraged to confess his or her crimes before being strung up. Sometimes they were allowed to make a statement, to smoke a cigarette, or confess to a priest, and after it was over, the bodies would usually be left to hang through the night. This public display of the body can be found in every case, with the shortest times usually lasting around thirty minutes, and the longest, until the bodies decayed.
In one instance, in the small village of Newtown, an African American man known only as “Brown” was apprehended for stealing money. The evidence was completely circumstantial but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung by the mob on March 4, 1852. Unfortunately for Brown, the rope was a little too long, and once he was hanged to the tree, the branch slowly gave way — until his legs dangled to the ground. Struggilng in agony, the poor man was cut down in order to be properly hanged. Once he was fully revived, he was tied to a higher branch and the whole process was repeated. When he was finally cut down, a physician was asked to examine the body, at which point he annunced that if Brown’s body was left above ground for five minutes that he would regain consciousness. As a result, “he was therefore hastily dumped into a grave that had been dug and was half full of water, and quickly covered from sight.” Whether completely true or not, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could argue that this killing really served the greatest good.
* The Tuskegee lynching definition: “there must be legal evidence that a person has been killed, and that he met his death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition,” where “a group” connotes three or more persons.