The most notorious lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1890 and 1940 involved publicity, crowds, ritual, and abnormal cruelty. Several hundred of these “public torture lynchings” took place, most of them in the Deep South. The author develops an interpretation that takes seriously the specific forms and discourses that lynchers and their supporters used to describe and justify these events—characterizing them as criminal punishments, albeit summary, informal ones that were shaped by a white supremacist culture and a politics of racial domination. An interpretation of the penal context and meanings of these public torture lynchings helps us understand their specific forms and their claims to legitimacy. The penal character of these lynchings increased the probability that they would be tolerated by local (and even national) audiences and thus made them a strategic form of violence in struggles to maintain racial supremacy. The author argues that a consideration of these events should lead us to revise our standard narratives about the evolution of modern punishments.