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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography

Lynching has shaped U.S. history and identity from the colonial era to the present. Recent scholarship has expanded the periodization and geographical definition of lynching to encompass not only the South from 1880 to 1930, but also acts of vigilante violence in the West that span a much longer history. New scholarship treats the terrorizing and regulatory functions of lynching, but also the work that such violence does in creating and upholding different kinds of power. Such attention to the constitutive power of violence signals a momentous turn in the historiography, one that promises to connect histories of vigilantism with those of empire, torture, war, rape, and other kinds of violence.

Vigilante violence has shaped the history and identity of the United States since the era of British colonization. Lynching emerged at the same moment as the nation itself, concurrently with its founding documents. Writing on the eve of the 1976 bicentennial, historian of vigilantism Richard Maxwell Brown declared, “Our nation was conceived and born in violence.” More recently, historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage called the act of lynching “peculiarly American.” Although new transnational scholarship reveals that both lynching and vigilantism occur in countries around the world, lynching remains as intrinsic to the American nation as the ideas of democracy, popular sovereignty, and freedom.1

Historians have documented incidences of vigilante violence from the late colonial period through the twentieth century. Commonly referenced examples range from the violence of state and state-sanctioned forces to those of private citizens. They include violence against outlaws and criminals, social outcasts, and entire racial groups. They appear over large regions of the United States.2 Brundage estimated that some 4,000–5,000 people have been lynched over the course of United States history, but this number does not fully measure lynching's impact.3 It does not include those cases that escaped historical documentation. Neither does it tally the victims who survived nor the communities and populations terrorized through the lynching of particular individuals.4

Despite its reoccurrence in U.S. history, the historiography of lynching has only recently come into full fruition. In 1993, Brundage described the historiography of lynching in the United States as having “only recently moved beyond its infancy.” This lapse extended far beyond the discipline of history.5 Sociologists Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, authors of an award-winning 1995 work on lynching, quoted historian Edward Ayers to express their dismay at the dearth of scholarship: “the triggers of lynching, for all the attention devoted to it by contemporaries, sociologists, and historians, are still not known.”6

The remarkable delay in fully theorized work about lynching results, in large part, from disagreement over its definition. Until recently, the historiography focused almost entirely on the “epidemic” of lynching that swept the South between 1880 and 1930.7 The spectacle lynchings of this period, in which black victims were most commonly tortured and hanged before large crowds, continue to define the act in the American imagination. Nevertheless, the chronological and geographic story of lynching far extends far beyond the Jim Crow South. Not only did the triggers and histories of lynching evade thorough study for the better part of the twentieth century, but the very definition of the act also remained contested. Recently, however, a new generation of scholars has expanded their scale of analysis to build upon early foundational works of lynching and vigilantism.

The Challenges of Defining Lynching

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography

Historian Christopher Waldrep has argued, “Imagining the beginnings of lynching is a political act,” one with direct repercussions for the national narrative of the United States.8 Activists and scholars have struggled to define what acts of violence constitute lynching and in what regional contexts lynching is best understood.

The problem of defining lynching arises even in histories of its origins. The most cohesive long-view work on lynching in particular, Waldrep's The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Punishment and Extralegal Violence in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), presents an overview of how people used the word from early America until 1991, when black Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas described his contentious confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” Waldrep explores a longer periodization of lynching by examining two possible origin stories. In the first, Colonel Charles Lynch used whipping, violent interrogation, and other forceful tactics to break miners' strikes between 1776 and 1782. Waldrep describes Colonel Lynch's activities as “establishment violence” carried out directly by the governing elite to protect the wealth of Virginia. In the second, Virginia farmer William Lynch responded to a string of crimes carried out by an aptly named outlaw and Tory ringleader, Benjamin Lawless, for some three years in the early 1780s. Lynch had a personal stake in Lawless's prosecution, and testified against him frequently over these years, but the local court failed to deliver a conviction. William Lynch held no position of power and was not part of the militia that eventually arose to put down the insurrection of Lawless and “the lower rank of people.” Nevertheless, he became a character in popular culture, which ascribed torture of prisoners, mock courts, and execution to his history.9 As evident in these twin origin myths, the definition of lynching has always been slippery. The term has referred to the anti-labor violence of wealthy elites, the righteous revenge of the common man, and the efforts of ordinary frontier dwellers to assert the rule of law.

The challenge of definition troubled early scholarship on vigilantism. Richard Maxwell Brown established the field with his foundational Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), a synthesis that presented vigilantism as “native to America.” Brown argued that a shift occurred during the Civil War: lynching ceased to signify simply “the infliction of corporal punishment” and became “synonymous, mainly, with hanging or killing by illegal group action.”10 Brown – who pointed out that lynching occurred in all parts of the country – located this deadly shift in the transition of the United States from a rural, agrarian nation to an urban, industrial one. He also noted that after the Civil War, lynch mobs, which had formerly targeted petty criminals and outlaws, began to assail a new and larger variety of victims.11

However, Brown excluded most lynchings from his definition of vigilantism. Vigilantes, he explained, were “organized in command” and often bound by a constitution or manifesto. Lynch mobs, by contrast, he characterized as “unorganized” and “ephemeral.” Whereas vigilantes subjected a criminal or other social outcast to what was “by their lights, a fair but speedy trial,” lynch mobs simply tortured and killed their victims with little gesture toward due process or law. Brown aligned vigilante violence, then, not with the lynch mob but rather with a romantic ideal of frontier justice in which American men took the law into their own hands only in places where the law and the courts could guarantee neither justice nor safety. The flaws in Brown's analysis become evident in the often-blurred distinction between organized and unorganized mobs, and in their easy substitution of social outcasts and racial others for criminals. The lynch mobs Brown designated as ephemeral frequently staged sham trials before carrying out executions, demonstrating adherence to a cultural idea of lynching.12 More recent works have criticized Brown's false distinction and have instead treated lynching as a subcategory of vigilantism.

Southern, Western, and National Lynching

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography

SOUTH

In addition to disputing which acts constitute lynching, historians have also grappled with what geographical and chronological boundaries best define the phenomenon. To confine the definition of lynching to the 1880–1930s South serves not only to stereotype that region as backward and corrupt, but also to romanticize Western violence and cloak the suffering of its victims. Likewise, to begin the story in the 1880s – or even in the 1840s – is to elide a longer history of violence as a constitutive power in the American nation.

The modern study of lynching emerged from contemporary activism – works penned by anti-lynching crusaders such as Ida B. Wells and Walter white and by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Indeed, the very act of telling stories about lynching led first to organized black anti-lynching activism, and then, through pan-generational organizing, to the long civil rights movement, as Kidada E. Williams has recently demonstrated.13 Both Wells and white made early claims linking lynching with power. Wells established that criminal behavior had very little correlation with the mob's choice of targets: the mob regularly lynched the falsely accused but only occasionally offered an alleged crime as rationale for lynching. Both Wells and white noted the relationship between outbursts of mob violence and economic competition, documented through the volatile rise and fall of cotton prices from the 1890s to the 1920s.14 Activist accounts continued into the post-World War II period, most particularly with William L. Patterson's edited volume We Charge Genocide: The Crimes of the Government Against the Negro People (New York: International Publishers, 1951). Patterson invoked an emergent human rights discourse following World War II to establish the humanity of black lynching victims and condemned the state for failing to prevent their torture and death.

While activists analyzed relations of power, the first professional historians to study lynching dismissed such broad perspectives in favor of narrow, regional explanations. In The Tragedy of Lynching (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), Arthur Raper leaned heavily on bias against the South rather than offering historical argumentation. Raper attributed Southern mob violence to backwards poor whites and blamed white elites for failing to stop the rabble. He ignored the fact that elite whites often actively participated in lynching. At times, he also blamed black lynching victims for their own deaths by alleging their involvement in criminality and vice. Contrary to Wells's careful documentation, Raper essentially attributed lynching to black crime and lax regulation of poor whites. C. Vann Woodward began to unravel these arguments with his pivotal work The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), which linked populism, racism, and the idea of the South as a colony in order to explore a long period of Southern disempowerment and its relationship to violence.

Beginning in the early 1970s, historians of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Jim Crow South advanced a still more nuanced set of arguments about Southern mob violence than Raper had presented. In his 1984 book Vengeance and Justice, Ayers traced the sweep of Southern lynching as it emerged from existing regional traditions of Regulator vigilantism and problematized its periodization by studying it in tandem with other forms of Southern violence such as dueling and whitecapping, which is to say, vigilantism ordinarily carried out to maintain existing power structures in remote farming communities.15 Ayers described the South as uniquely, inherently violent even as he challenged prevailing ideas about the periodization of lynching. “Everyone today agrees on the obvious, even banal, ‘causes’ of lynching: racism, frustration, poverty, submerged political conflict, irrational white fears, and a weak state,” Ayers observed.

These forces, though, were constants in the postwar South. They surely existed during Reconstruction, and yet lynching did not sweep through the region; they did not end in 1900, yet lynching declined throughout the early twentieth century.16

Ayers contended that lynching began as a symptom of widespread Southern crisis in the 1880s and 1890s, a period marked not only by the implementation of the new Jim Crow racial order but also by multiple economic depressions, entry into an international market economy, and a crime wave. Ayers identified several characteristics that had long defined Southern society: moralism, racism, sexual tension, honor, rurality, and localistic republicanism. After the Civil War, these traditional elements of Southern culture coupled with a declining faith in legal systems and antagonism toward a new racial order. The result was a spree of lynching that contributed to and exacerbated social instability in the South.

Ayers singled out the South's entry into an international market economy, specifically the large-scale movement of white labor into cash-crop agriculture (especially cotton); the need for large, docile labor pools for many of the South's new industries; the emergence of sharecropping; and the volatile rise and fall of cotton prices as contributors to the lynching epidemic. In this way, Ayers reprised analyses about the cotton market and economic competition first offered by anti-lynching activists, and also retained the idea of the South as a singular case from early historiographies of lynching.17 However, as Brundage notes, Ayers's “frustration-aggression” model elided specific local contexts: some Southern lynchings occurred when cotton prices were good or in communities that did not produce cotton. Ayers's model also failed to illuminate the history of U.S. lynching outside of the South or within Southern locales that did not rely upon cotton and other cash crops.

In the late 1970s, several Southern historians began to focus on the gendered nature of lynching. A new model influenced by the women's rights movement and by psychoanalytic theory located the roots of lynching more fully in white anxiety about gender and sexuality, most particularly in the perceived threat of the archetypal black rapist to the pure white female body. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall's Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) opened this discussion, and she soon followed with the influential article “ ‘The Mind that Burns in Each Body:’ Women, Rape and Racial Violence” in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, 1983. Hall compared lynching with rape, noting that neither act of violence has “yet been given its history” and arguing that each has functioned to subjugate particular groups of people. Hall contended that both lynching and rape have worked as instruments of racial subordination: both became institutionalized under slavery and both found new life as political weapons following the Civil War. She further established that the lynching wave in the South, marked by “tacit official consent,” corresponded to social uncertainty: “Once a new system of disenfranchisement, debt peonage, and segregation was firmly in place, mob violence gradually declined.”18

Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race: black/white Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) extended this gender analysis, tracing tension about race and sexuality from 1880 to 1915. He noted that lynching most often occurred in areas where it had happened before, in districts undergoing rapid economic change, and in places with frequent and unpunished murders.19 Like Ayers, he connected lynching with other kinds of vigilantism, particularly white riots that targeted black victims in Wilmington (1898), New Orleans (1900), and Atlanta (1906). Excellent recent accounts have built on Williamson's work by more closely examining gender and class in relationship to lynching. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore's cornerstone article “Murder, Memory, and the Flight of the Incubus” (1998) examined the specific case of the Wilmington riot, demonstrating how the fear of the archetypal black rapist ignited white male vigilantism. Crystal Feimster's Southern Horrors focused on women's roles in anti-lynching activism, particularly in the life work of Ida B. Wells. Elsa Barkley Brown's landmark “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: black Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom” (Public Culture, 1994) made strikingly plain that black women, too, found themselves victims of lynch mobs and other sorts of oppressive violence.20

Although this brief overview essay cannot outline all of the scholarship on gender and its relationship to vigilante violence, such work is extensive. As Mia Bay and Lisa Arellano have argued, Ida B. Wells's anti-lynching activism succeeded precisely because of her gender; she purposefully used her womanhood to dismantle the lynching narrative.21 Other works on gender explore the fraternalism of lynch mobs' much-invoked chastity of white women as justification for violence and, most recently, the participation of women in lynching and vigilantism.22

As the scholarship on gender developed, a new generation of revisionist historians began to challenge the older paradigms by which Ayers and others had explained the prevalence of Southern vigilantism between 1880 and 1930, drawing provocative new conclusions about its causes and consequences. Their first innovation was to recognize the disparate and uneven nature of lynching, an act that often differed profoundly among local iterations. Brundage's Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993) attended closely both to the particularities of specific lynchings and to the power relationships that linked and defined all such acts. Brundage, focusing on Georgia and Virginia with admirable detail, nevertheless offered a widely applicable explanation: lynching, he argued, was designed to preserve the status quo but varied widely from place to place. It did not always enact a community consensus. “As long as lynchings are interpreted as a ritualized expression of the values of united white communities,” Brundage noted, “the task of explaining both the great variations in the form and the ebb and flow of lynchings across space and time will remain incomplete.”23 For Brundage, then, Southern lynching hewed closely to articulations of local, rather than state, power. It ended, he argued, when the Great Depression radically changed Southern agricultural systems, upending local power structures and ushering in big government, massive labor migration, and the mechanization of cash-crop farming.

Jacqueline Goldsby's A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) further advances the study of lynching by incorporating cultural history. Goldsby uses literature and photography – because, as she notes, lynching is “both act and sign” – to examine Southern lynchings, pushing much further than had earlier scholars in her consideration of culture and technology.24 While her study remains situated in the familiar Jim Crow era, Goldsby upends the historiography with three new contributions. First, she describes lynching as intrinsically linked to technologies of circulation and spectacle – particularly photography, which became popularized around World War I, at the same moment that photographic images of lynching were widely circulated.25 Lynching, she further argues, should not be conceptualized as “extralegal” violence, but was rather tied closely to state power over life and death, and particularly to the state's denial of black citizenship.26 “By nullifying African Americans' rights of citizenship and, with them, the affirmative duty to protect black people from unjust harm,” Goldsby explains, “the federal government effectively granted mobs a license to kill.”27 Finally, she cast lynching as part of the United States' transition into modernity, locating it within “the economic system that launched America's emancipation in the twentieth century: corporate-commodity capitalism.” Modernity, Goldsby asserts, demanded violence: lynching worked to codify particular labor and racial orders that signified progress.28 Rather than reading lynching as a rural, backwater, or reactionary phenomenon, as had many other scholars, Goldsby positions it as an instrument of state modernization.

In other words, Goldsby's interdisciplinary method rendered legible several ways in which people who held state, racial, and economic power directly benefitted from spectacle lynchings in the 1880–1930 South. Not only did Southern whites benefit from the racial order created by lynching: but the act also worked to nullify black claims to citizenship, and both the state and capitalism benefitted from the lynchings that maintained cheap and docile black labor. Rebecca N. Hill's Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) created a comparative and rich history of the interplay between vigilantism and resistance, examining anti-lynching and labor defense violence in concert throughout American history. These revisions of Southern exceptionalism set the stage for an even wider approach to lynching, one that would yield rich new analyses.

WEST

A definition of lynching that includes Western vigilante violence has proven indispensable to a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon and a full accounting of its victims. As historians began to dismantle Richard Maxwell Brown's early division of organized vigilantism and lynching, noticing the overlap between both categories, they also began to study lynching outside of the 1880–1930 South. This shift most impacts Western historiography, which until recently defined vigilantism as a sort of noble rough justice that was part and parcel of settlement on the frontier. Instead, recent scholarship and photographic and documentary collections reveal both organized and impromptu lynching in the West. These accounts do include lynchings used to enforce law and morality, especially on the frontier, where the state failed to deliver justice. However, they also show the repeated use of Western lynching to police social outsiders along the lines of race, class, and gender.

By tracing the use of the word lynching itself, Waldrep delivers a particularly strong study of lynching in California in the mid-1800s. Waldrep uses the word as it was used in that moment, to mean an act of violence legitimate only when it “represented the will of ‘the whole country’ ” – implicitly, that is, the white male community.29 He focuses on the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, which purportedly endeavored to enforce the law but which often targeted Chinese, Mexican, and other immigrant scapegoats. This committee eventually included such numbers, and established such local power, that the governor of California attempted to put it down as an armed revolt. After local militias added their strength to the Committee, however, and after its members won several offices, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee became synonymous with local political power. By 1850, Waldrep writes, the Western vigilante had already emerged as a “stock character” in fiction, well on his way to becoming a national icon. According to popular rhetoric, lynch mobs only targeted “unprincipled and vile” men who mocked the law. No courts existed that could properly convict these irredeemable persons, the logic went, so the burden fell on the public to exercise its popular sovereignty through lynching.30

Waldrep's characterization of vigilantism indirectly confronts Brundage's notion that lynching did not always represent the will of a cohesive community. In California, Waldrep claims, in the turmoil of economic competition and frontier lawlessness that surrounded the Gold Rush, lynching frequently did find this kind of broad community support. Indeed, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee eventually counted more than 10,000 members, and it created an extensive organization of the kind used by Brown to distinguish it from Southern lynch mobs.31 Nevertheless, Waldrep defines its activities as lynching by analyzing contemporary language. While Southern and Western lynching might vary, as Arellano adds, they should still be understood as “two qualitatively different versions of the same act” (emphasis added).32

Waldrep argues that Western vigilante violence preceded Southern violence and that Southern lynch mobs consciously followed its form. This argument problematically obscures the early Southern history of vigilantism.33 For instance, in Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.), Stock argues that in 1767, South Carolina Regulators committed violence against Native Americans, religious minorities, rapists, gamblers, and domestic abusers, other social outcasts in order to create and sustain power within their own communities. These episodes occurred long before the example of Western vigilantism could shape them.34

Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) attempted to draw connections between Southern and Western lynching, focusing closely on violence motivated by race and labor animosities. Gordon defined lynching as a subsection of vigilantism that served to punish and terrorize labor in order to keep it cheap and pliant. In this way, lynching functioned either to defend systems of power, or, especially on the frontier, to implement them. Gordon also argued that the line between state power and vigilante violence frequently blurred, particularly during the Indian wars, in which there was “no way to distinguish military from vigilante actions.”35

NATIONWIDE

New historical works have moved beyond differentiating Southern and Western vigilantism and have begun instead to conceptualize a broad, national history of lynching as concurrent with the formation and expansion of the United States. In Rural Radicals, Stock examines vigilantism as “a … tradition of rural life in the United States.” She divides vigilantism into three broad, overlapping categories. First, Americans on the frontier attacked “deviants, criminals, poor people, and others whose behaviors or beliefs threatened the physical safety and/or economic stability” of the community. Second, “settlers and other rural Americans” targeted “people whose racial heritage they deemed intolerable.” Third, communities turned violent against those they saw as “un-American” because of “religious or ethnic heritage or political beliefs.”36

Stock's central argument – that vigilantism is an inherently rural phenomenon tied to the “isolation and deprivation of the frontier, the enforced homogeneity of the small town, and the wide availability [of] and reverence for guns” – runs counter to Goldsby's argument about the simultaneous development of lynching, modernism, and technology between 1890 and 1915. It also clashes with the assertions of Southern historians that the 1880–1930 lynching peak coincided with dramatic decreases in both isolation and deprivation, especially in the South. By 1890, 90% of Southerners lived in counties with railroads, signaling an unprecedented level of connection.37 Furthermore, as Ayers noted, lynching victims were usually traveling laborers or transients: their lynching resulted in part from the circulation of strangers created by technologies like the railroad rather than from isolation.38

Stock not only contradicts Ayers's and Goldsby's notions about lynching as a consequence of modernity and Southern transformation, but also disputes Brundage's assertion that lynching did not signify community consensus. Stock asserts that lynching was

supported and sustained over many years by most or all members of the white community, including women. Lynch mobs were not sudden, irrational actions provoked by years of frontier assault and revenge, nor were they organizations that took on an immediate problem and then (sometimes at least) disbanded.

Stock describes all vigilante violence as a product of the community, but lynching as a coherent form of crowd violence that included members of the elite. Lynching, she argues, served to shore up local structures of power over the span of several years. Like Goldsby, she emphasizes the spectacular nature of such events in creating fear among victimized populations.39

New periodizations of lynching have led to new ideas about why lynching occurred. Michael J. Pfeifer's Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society: 1874–1947 (University of Illinois, 2004) utilizes a slightly condensed version of Waldrep's timeline but offers a statistical analysis of vigilantism. Like Waldrep, Pfeifer draws hard lines between Southern and Western episodes, or in Pfeifer's terms, between Southern lynching and Western mob violence. He argues that both resulted from a nationwide transition from rural “rough justice” to urban- and middle-class due process, a movement that incorporated regions sporadically: first the West and then the South lagging behind. While his data are impressive, his analysis is necessarily limited by his case studies. Louisiana, for instance, stands in for the entire South. His decision to include only lethal lynchings regrettably foreshortens discussions of a complex form of crowd violence: as other scholars have documented, lynching did not always prove fatal. Like Waldrep, Pfeifer gestures to the present moment by arguing that the death penalty is now disproportionately employed in the same communities that most recently used lynching to “preserve the order of dominant power systems.” Capital punishment, Pfeifer provocatively concludes, has signaled a bureaucratization, rather than tempering, of American violence.40

While early works on Western lynching worked on a regional model, demarcating the border between Western and Southern mob violence, Lisa Arellano advances a much broader argument about geography. In Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs: Narratives of Community and Nation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), she argues that scholars have until recently drawn a false distinction between Western and Southern lynching. In so doing, they have remained complicit in the veneration of “potentially legitimate” and “order-making” extralegal violence in its Western shape, even while decrying the same phenomenon in the South. For Arellano, Brown's early distinction between vigilantism and lynching thus created ethical concerns. Arellano also demonstrates that academic historians were only a few of the many voices that informed popular understandings of lynching over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perpetrators of mob violence, who justified their actions in written accounts, shaped this discourse as well.

Arellano's book is the most notable example of a new turn in the historiography of lynching, one that seeks to more thoroughly interrogate power within the act itself. She sees lynching as “a set of violent practices made recognizable by a constellation of formulaic narrative practices.” Arellano argues that a lynching is discernable by the claims of its perpetrators, who allege that their acts served to punish criminals. She identifies five narrative attributes that distinguish lyncher's accounts of their deeds: overwhelming crime, failure of the state, valorous action, pursuit of orderliness, and public popularity.41 Lynching, Arellano argues, was the same in the nineteenth century as in the twentieth and more similar than different in the South and in the West. Rather than trying to formulate distinctions between mob violence in various regions – or even within these regions, as did Brundage – Arellano advances a broader definition and periodization of lynching. In so doing, she enables new consideration of the relationship between vigilantism and power.

Accounts of lynching that follow a broader definition and periodization have opened rich terrain for further study. The popular photography exhibit and eponymous folio book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000) displays images of lynchings conducted in the South's iconic 1890–1930 period alongside those from other times and places. Waldrep's edited collection Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006) follows suit by presenting documents that span the new periodization and broader map of U.S. lynching. In both collections, striking resemblances between Southern and Western lynching, and between pre- and post-Reconstruction lynching, work to create a longer and fuller perspective on the act.42

Vigilantism and Power

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography

Collectively, these and other works document a fuller history of lynching and its many perpetrators, victims, and consequences. They also raise challenging questions about the complicated relationship between vigilante violence and several forms of power. The question of how to describe this relationship resonates throughout the historiography. Perhaps vigilantism can be most clearly understood as group violence that serves systemic power. I borrow “systemic” from George Lipsitz, who uses the term to identify not only overt power wielded by the state but also subtle power exerted by the many informal structures that uphold it.43 When the state is weak, sytemic power – often patriarchal, racial, or religious – commonly prevails. Historically, systemic power in the United States has tended to privilege white men with property. Only persons who claim systemic power, I argue, can carry out vigilante violence such as lynching. Extralegal political violence carried out by persons who do not possess systemic power is not properly understood as vigilantism because it typically seeks to negate, undermine, or overthrow the power of the state. The violence of systematically disempowered persons is frequently better understood as resistance, self-defense, or revolution.44 Similarly, extralegal personal violence – vengeance – can function without relation to power, often under its own set of governing principles. While vengeance is frequently invoked to justify vigilantism, the latter is distinguished by its effect: shoring up or constituting systemic power.

Several recent works on lynching have also illuminated the constitutive power of vigilante violence – that is, the way that lynching works to create power rather than merely uphold it. In “The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America” (The Journal of American History, March 2002, 1354–1382), Christopher Capozzola argues that vigilantism, rather than being an exercise of violent power, is instead about law. In his study of popular mobilization for World War I, he demonstrates that vigilantism functioned to establish social order. During that war, the U.S. government brought “citizen policing” under state authority and in line with state objectives, thereby transforming the nature of vigilantism during and after war.45 Because the historical record offers myriad examples of vigilantism that benefitted the state both in times of war and during long periods of peace, Capozzola's argument might be fruitfully expanded: there is space at this juncture for further scholarship. Capozzola nonetheless makes the case that the U.S. government has used vigilantism to regulate its populace during wartime, turning lynching into one element of state power.

Likewise, Goldsby elucidates the difference between lynching as mere social regulation and lynching as the systematic terrorization of a particular racialized subject, meant to stand in for state oppression of an entire racial group. She sees Reconstruction, rather than the 1890s, as the crucible in which lynching turned deadly. She argues,

By the end of Reconstruction, the nature and aim of lynching had changed perceptibly. What had once been an exacting and painful measure of social regulation became a mortal tactic of political terrorism, targeted to reverse the gains won by blacks because of emancipation.46

In other words, Goldsby identifies a shift from the use of lynching to police criminals and social outcasts to the use of lynching to designate entire racial groups as vulnerable to violence. Goldsby argues that lynching worked both to establish and to maintain a racial hierarchy – understood here as inexorably tied to state power.

Here, the historiography of lynching dovetails with excellent emerging work in Latina/o studies, history, and anthropology about the U.S.–Mexico border, most particularly on the violent project of subjugating Mexicans and Mexican Americans – in Texas, together referred to as Tejanos – following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. New histories of vigilantism in South Texas bridge the geographical divide between Southern and Western studies of lynching. These accounts reveal a blurry line between state-sanctioned and extralegal violence, recognizing a long continuum between the actions of private citizens and those of the Texas Rangers and other public authorities. Benjamin Heber Johnson's pivotal work Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) details the attempted 1915–16 revolution by ethnic Mexicans in South Texas under the Plan de San Diego, and the far bloodier counterinsurgency carried out by Texas Rangers, law and order leagues, and private mobs that killed between 300 and 5,000 Tejanos in the same period. During World War I, this violence rose to such a nationalistic fervor that the military intervened to reclaim the rule of law from lynch mobs and posses. After the war, in the 1920s, the anti-Mexican Ku Klux Klan revived local vigilantism.47

Johnson's argument, in fact, identifies many of the same factors that contributed to Southern lynching. For instance, when South Texas shifted from cattle ranching to cotton production in the years just before its vigilante period, many Tejanos became field laborers. The region therefore shared a similarly volatile commercial agriculture system with the South. And as in the South, vigilantism worked to install a system of harsh racial segregation and to deliver a “massive and tightly managed labor force.”48

Claiming that existing legal systems could not stop Mexican bandits or revolutionaries, white South Texans justified their lynchings much as Western vigilantes did. Texas lynch mobs made lists targeting not only rebels and bandits but also all Tejanos of “bad character,” including unruly women and other social outcasts.49 By intimidating voters and breaking strikes, Texas vigilantes – helmed in large part by the Texas Rangers – delivered full political power and racial privilege to Anglo residents.50

William D. Carrigan's The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916 (University of Illinois Press, 2004) more directly takes Texas as a case study of the intersection of Southern and Western histories. He analyzes a regional tolerance of mob violence, tailoring his account around four major developments: the rhetoric of self-defense along the expanding frontier; the day-to-day violence of slavery; the resistance and suppression of ethnic, political, and racial minorities; and the tacit consent of the courts. All of these factors, Carrigan shows, contributed to the culture of mob violence in Central Texas. Carrigan's work expands ideas of lynching from those used to structure Southern history, calling early attention to the lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans and Indians and social outcasts.

Carrigan and Clive Webb's new Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) widens its scope of analysis beyond Texas to the larger borderlands region. Carrigan and Webb create a new list of documented lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, filling in the archival gaps left by the absence of such activist organizations, in the West, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Tuskegee University that collected data on black lynching victims in the South. They also focus on attempts at transnational justice for lynching. They draw on previously un- and under-used sources, including oral histories, photography, and Mexican diplomatic records, to reconfigure the periodization of lynching: most Mexican and Mexican American victims were lynched prior to the beginning of the Southern epidemic.

New work by Monica Muñoz Martinez deepens the study of Mexican American lynching by revealing the spectacle of dead and mutilated bodies on the South Texas physical and cultural landscape. She discovers that postcards depicting the lynchings of Tejanos circulated through the region, mirroring the phenomenon Goldsby documented in the South. Muñoz Martinez also examines the lived memory of lynching in South Texas – for instance, the display, to the present day, of lynching photographs in local restaurants – and asks how such images continue to shape race and gender relations. Finally, as do Carrigan and Webb, Muñoz Martinez examines transnational attempts to secure justice for the victims of vigilante violence, particularly in the case of Tejano families who crossed the border to seek advocacy from the Mexican government, and sometimes won damages from the United States government for the lynching of their loved ones. She therefore extends our understanding of both the people impacted by lynching and the actors responsible, revealing how vigilante violence stretches across generations and continues to shape local and national histories.51

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography

Lynching, its definitions, and its periodization remain pressing problems both for historians of the United States and for those who hope to understand the current political moment. Clarifying lynching as an act intrinsically tied to the creation and maintenance of power has opened broad spaces for new scholarship. Expanding chronological and geographical definitions – made possible by the use of interdisciplinary methods and the advent of new fields such as cultural history, performance studies, and postcolonial studies – has revealed the constitutive, regulatory, and terrorizing capacity of lynching violence not only in the Jim Crow South but also in the West and on the U.S.–Mexico border. Viewed historically, lynching may be understood as a national form of violence that has shaped the United States from colonization through the twentieth century. Hill and Pfeifer both connect lynching to the death penalty; the burgeoning field of carceral studies calls for the continued examination of violence and systemic power. Further work might problematize relationships of power within acts of vigilantism and more fully explore the interplay between lynching and American identity. Recent transnational studies continue to belie the notion that lynching is “peculiarly American,” but its peculiar place in American history is now well documented.

The study of lynching is as important to an understanding of the workings of the state as is scholarship on empire, war, torture, and other forms of state violence. Indeed, understanding vigilante violence as a state-sanctioned activity shows how power has constituted and regulated particular communities and how it has subjugated and terrorized specific peoples. Such an understanding brings violence committed by the United States against foreign peoples – in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam, for instance – into conversation with the subjugation of black, Mexican American, Chinese, female, and queer bodies by domestic vigilantes. Properly understood, vigilante violence serves as a nexus connecting histories of race, empire, gender, class, and sexuality.

Even now, lynching and the confusion around its definition continue to shape politics. In the heady early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and 2012, police officers arrested two protesters, one in Los Angeles and another in Oakland, and charged them with lynching. Section 405(a) of the California penal code defined lynching as “the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer.” Police officers alleged that Sergio Ballasteros had interfered in the arrest of a third party and that Tiffany Tran, upon her arrest, had cried for help. As California police interpreted the law, Ballasteros and Tran had lynched; Tran had lynched herself. While these felony charges were quickly dropped, their use to suppress democratic protest shows a continued intertwinement of lynching and power. The charges wholly obscured the legislative history of Section 405(a) and the broader history of lynching violence in the state. Whereas in the 1850s, private California citizens purportedly used lynching to enforce the law, and in the 1930s, Section 405(a) attempted to stop mobs from taking suspects from police custody in order to lynch them, in the 2010s, California law enforcement officials charged private citizens with lynching in order to suppress civil disobedience carried out in legal political protests.52 The long entanglement between state power and vigilantism continues, demanding further scholarly attention.

Notes
  1. 1

    Special thanks to Simeon Man, Beth Lew-Williams, Geraldo Cadava, Kate Masur, Dylan Penningroth, Benjamin Heber Johnson, and especially Bejamin H. Irvin for their generous feedback on this essay.

    Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 10, 21; Brown, Strain of Violence, vii, 5; Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 3. On a transnational approach to lynching scholarship, see, for instance, Godoy, “Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala: Implications for Human Rights,” 640–661.

  2. 2

    Stock, Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain; Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction; Brown, Strain of Violence; Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch. Adding other massacres to this list, see also blackhawk, Violence over the Land; Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn.

    Table of commonly referenced incidents of vigilante violence in U.S. history

    TimePlacePerpetratorsVictims
    1676ColoniesSettlers (Bacon's Rebellion)Native Americans
    1763PennsylvaniaPaxton BoysNative Americans
    1767–1769CarolinasThe RegulatorsOutlaws, social outcasts
    1776–1780Virginia piedmontColonel Lynch and mobStriking coal miners
    1820–twentieth centuryTexasTexas RangersMexicans, Mexican Americans, and Indians
    1832MissouriState militias, townspeopleMormons
    1835Vicksburg, MississippiTownspeopleGamblers
    1854–1861“Bleeding Kansas”Supporters of slaveryAbolitionists
    1856CaliforniaSan Francisco Vigilance CommitteeMexicans, Chinese, social outcasts
    1863MontanaMasonsOutlaws
    1864ColoradoMob and military men (Sand Creek Massacre)Indians
    1866–presentSouth, then nationwideKu Klux Klanblacks, foreigners, deviants, social outcasts, Jews, scapegoats
    1887Indianawhite CapsSocial outcasts
    1915–1920sNationwideWWI Vigilance CommitteesImmigrants and communists
    1904–1917Arizona and ColoradoMining companiesNon-whites, labor activists, striking workers
  3. 3

    Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 259.

  4. 4

    Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 187.

  5. 5

    Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 8.

  6. 6

    Tolnay and Beck, A Festival of Violence, 246, quoting Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 238.

  7. 7

    Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 8.

  8. 8

    Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 13.

  9. 9

    Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 19–23.

  10. 10

    Brown, Strain of Violence, 21.

  11. 11

    Brown also included explicit links between vigilantism and state power, noting Andrew Jackson's condonement of vigilantism in Iowa and Teddy Roosevelt's unsuccessful attempt to join a vigilante group in North Dakota Strain of Violence, 23.

  12. 12

    Brown, 109–110.

  13. 13

    Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me.

  14. 14

    Wells, Southern Horrors and Other Writings; white, Rope and Faggot; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 90. On the economic volatility of this period, see also Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues, Chapter 1.

  15. 15

    Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 164.

  16. 16

    Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 238.

  17. 17

    Ayers, Vengeance and Justice, 250–252, 4, 158–9, 225.

  18. 18

    Hall, “ ‘The Mind that Burns in Each Body’: Women, Rape and Racial Violence,” 328–349. Here, too, historians built on earlier works by activists, particularly the body of writings produced by Lillian Smith in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hall also notes that the study of lynching was immediately familiar to feminists who worked in the anti-rape movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

  19. 19

    Williamson, The Crucible of Race, Chapter 6.

  20. 20

    Gilmore, “Murder, Memory and the Flight of the Incubus,” 73–93; Feimster, Southern Horrors; Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere.”

  21. 21

    Arellano, Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs; Bay, To Tell the Truth Freely.

  22. 22

    On the participation of women in vigilante violence, see Irvin, “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776;” Waldrep, Lynching in America: A History in Documents; Gordon, Great Arizona Orphan Abduction; McLure, “I Suppose You Think Strange the Murder of Women and Children:” The American Culture of Collective Violence, 1652–1930. On the defense of white female bodies as justification for racial violence, see also Pascoe, What Comes Naturally.

  23. 23

    Brundage, Lynching in the New South, 13, 19.

  24. 24

    Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 42.

  25. 25

    Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 5, 218.

  26. 26

    Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 283.

  27. 27

    Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 17.

  28. 28

    Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret, 216.

  29. 29

    Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch.

  30. 30

    Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 24, 50.

  31. 31

    Waldrep, Many Faces of Judge Lynch, 55.

  32. 32

    Arellano, Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs, 120.

  33. 33

    Arellano, Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs 72–3; see, for instance, Brown, The South Carolina Regulators.

  34. 34

    Stock, Rural Radicals, 93–95.

  35. 35

    Gordon, Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, 261–2.

  36. 36

    Stock, Rural Radicals, 89.

  37. 37

    Ayers, Southern Crossings, Chapter 1.

  38. 38

    Stock, Rural Radicals; Ayers, Southern Crossings.

  39. 39

    Stock, Rural Radicals, 126.

  40. 40

    Pfeifer, Rough Justice, 3, 10, 149–50.

  41. 41

    Arellano, Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs, 24–25.

  42. 42

    See also Apel, “On Looking: Lynching Photographs and Legacies of Lynching after 9/11,” American Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3 (September 2003) pp. 457–478.

  43. 43

    Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in whiteness, 381.

  44. 44

    There are some exceptions, such as black lynch mobs, see Hill, “black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of black Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883–1923.” Further, one disempowered group could lynch someone from another, if it were still in the service of systemic power. The difference is the relationship to power rather than the positionality of the actor.

    On revolutionary violence, see Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, Chapter 1; Benjamin, “Critique of Violence.” On armed self-defense, see also Tyson, Radio Free Dixie.

  45. 45

    Capozzola, “The Only Badge Needed Is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America,” 1361–1379.

  46. 46

    Goldsby, Spectacular Secret, 230.

  47. 47

    The historiography of the Ku Klux Klan as a particular vigilante group falls out of the scope of this brief essay. See, for instance, Wade, The Fiery Cross, 219; Schlatter, Aryan Cowboys, 64; Woodward, Origins of the New South, 110; Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of white Supremacy; MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry, xii, 184, 188.

  48. 48

    Johnson, Revolution in Texas, 15, 3, 33–5, 40, 163–4.

  49. 49

    On unruly women as targets of lynch mobs, see also Gordan, Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, 263.

  50. 50

    Johnson, Revolution in Texas, 108–9, 115, 86, 178, 173. See also Gordon, Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, 271.

  51. 51

    Martinez, Inherited Loss: Tejanas and Tejanos Contesting State Violence and Revising Public Memory, 1910-Present.

  52. 52

    Albrecht, “Lynching Not Always about Racial Violence;” Mikultran, “Occupier Charged with Lynching Herself;” Huus, “Prosecutors Aim New Weapon at Occupy Activists: Lynching Allegation;” California Penal Code Section 405(a); jpmassar, “Occupied Oakland: Now Come the Low-tech Lynchings.”

Bibliography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography
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  • Ayers, Edward L., Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
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  • Bay, Mia, To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010).
  • Benjamin, Walter, ‘Critique of Violence’, Selected Writings Volume 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  • Blackhawk, Ned, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
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  • Brown, Richard Maxwell, The South Carolina Regulators (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963).
  • Brundage, W. Fitzhugh, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880–1930 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
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  • Carrigan, William D., and Webb, Clive, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Carrigan, William D., The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836–1916 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
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  • Godoy, Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, ‘Lynchings and the Democratization of Terror in Postwar Guatemala: Implications for Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, 24(3) (2002): 640661.
  • Goldsby, Jacqueline, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  • Gordon, Linda, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Hall, Jacqueline Dowd, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
  • Hall, Jacqueline Dowd, ‘ “The Mind that Burns in Each Body”: Women, Rape and Racial Violence’, in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (eds.), Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), 328349.
  • Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
  • Hill, Karlos K., “Black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of black Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1883–1923,” The Journal of African American History, 95(1) (Winter 2010): 2643.
  • Hill, Rebecca N, Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).
  • Huus, Kari, ‘Prosecutors Aim New Weapon at Occupy Activists: Lynching Allegation,’ MSNBC, 17 January, 2012. Retrieved on 9 July 2012 from: http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2009/04/02/775031/lynching-not-always-about-racial.html#storylink=cpy
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  • Johnson, Benjamin Heber, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Challenges of Defining Lynching
  4. Southern, Western, and National Lynching
  5. Vigilantism and Power
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography
  8. Biography
  • Kathleen Belew (PhD in American Studies, Yale University, 2011) specializes in the history of the United States after the Vietnam War, examining the war's long aftermath on the American home front. As a postdoctoral fellow in History at Northwestern University, she teaches courses on the American Vigilante, Histories of Violence in the United States, the Vietnam War, Twentieth Century U.S. History, and Comparative Race and Racism. Her work has received the support of the Andrew W. Mellon and Jacob K. Javits Foundations and Albert J. Beveridge and John F. Enders support for her transnational research in Mexico and Nicaragua. Her first book, Bring the War Home: Vietnam Veterans Ignite the Radical Right (under contract, Harvard University Press), traces the circulation of violence from the Vietnam War, to Central America, to the United States, following a small but influential group of veterans who became mercenary soldiers and then joined racist right groups at home. Their white power movement united Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, proponents of Christian Identity, and more declared war on the government in 1983 and reshaped itself as the purportedly nonracist militia movement in the 1990s. Belew examines the relationship between veterans and vigilante movements throughout the twentieth century, circulations of military weapons and technology, and connections between seemingly disparate racist groups. Originally from Colorado, Belew earned her BA in Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington in 2005, where she was named Dean's Medalist in the Humanities. She has also taught at Yale University, Rutgers University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her second project, a long cultural history of the American vigilante from early America to the present, emphasizes the constitutive power of violence in nation-building.