Public Spectacle Lynchings


Howard University students wear nooses to protest lynching outside the National Crime Conference in Washington, DC, 1934. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

More than 4000 African Americans were killed in racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Many of these extrajudicial murders were celebratory public spectacles, where thousands of white people, including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness victims being gruesomely tortured and mutilated. White newspapers advertised these carnival-like events; vendors sold food, photographers printed postcards, and victims’ clothing and body parts were given out as souvenirs.

In Newnan, Georgia, in 1899, at least 2000 whites watched as a white mob mutilated and burned alive a Black man named Sam Hose, and then sold pieces of his organs and bones. In 1916, a white mob in Waco, Texas, tortured and lynched a mentallydisabled 17-year-old Black boy named Jesse Washington in front of city hall, stripping, stabbing, beating, and mutilating him before burning him alive in front of 15,000 white spectators. Charred pieces of his body were dragged through town, and his fingers and fingernails were taken as keepsakes.

Public spectacle lynchings were most frequent in the South, but also occurred in Northern and Midwestern states as Black Americans migrated during the 20th century. In 1920, 10,000 whites attended the lynchings of three Black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota. In Springfield, Missouri, in 1906, two Black men, Horace Dunn and Fred Coker, were hanged and shot to death for a crowd of 5000 whites. White lynch mobs and spectators rarely faced consequences. Although these killings were widely attended and photographed, whites committed public spectacle lynchings with impunity.

Many lynchings were public spectacles, where thousands of white people gathered to witness victims being gruesomely tortured.