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Penal Excess and Surplus Meaning: Public Torture Lynchings in Twentieth-Century America


  • I would like to thank the following friends and colleagues for their help and advice: Edward Ayers, Woody Beck, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Jerome Bruner, Mitchell Duneier, Gretchen Feltes, Jeff Goodwin, Dirk Hartog, James B. Jacobs, Michael Klarman, Daryl Levinson, Michael Meranze, William I. Miller, Rick Pildes, John P. Reid, and Loic Wacquant. I am also grateful to several anonymous referees for LSR and to the participants in workshops at the NYU School of Law, Columbia Law School, New York Law School, Emory Law School, Princeton Sociology Department, Yale Sociology Department, and Green College, Vancouver. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Filomen D'Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund at NYU. Please address correspondence to David Garland, School of Law, New York University, New York, NY 10012; e-mail:


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.