Ida B. Wells, Lynching, and the Burning of Black Bodies

My Women’s History course is progressing nicely.  We are currently exploring the experiences of women in the post-Civil War era with much of our attention focused on the split over the wording of the 15th Amendment between the National Women’s Suffrage Association and American Women’s Suffrage Association.  We looked at Susan B. Anthony’s famous New York trial over her decision to vote in the 1872 presidential election based on the "New Departure" theory along with the 1876 Supreme Court case of Minor v. Happersett

Today we examined the experiences of black women during Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era with a focus on the exposes written by Ida B. Wells on lynchings in the South.  We read a short selection from her autobiography which describes her introduction to the horrors of lynchings and the realization that many of these cases involved accusations of black men raping white women.  Wells found it ironic that white men were so concerned about interracial sexual conflict given the history of sexual relations between the slave owner and female slave.  We discussed the difficulty, which Wells references, for white men to acknowledge that white women may have been sexually attracted to black men and what that meant in a Jim Crow society.  It was a very interesting discussion and one that I hope we can continue tomorrow.  What prompted this post, however, is a question that one of my students asked which I could not answer satisfactorily.  She asked why so many lynchings ended with the burning of the body.  Can anyone help?  I’ve looked through a few sources, including Fitz Brundage’s study, but I am not having any luck. 

[I should note that the above image was taken in Omaha, Nebraska.]

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15 comments… add one
  • jagib` Aug 23, 2008 @ 14:04

    to put this level of violence in perspective, we must look at the beginning of violence in america. upon the creation of this country-america, violence of a depraved nature was used on the indigenous people. it was thought to be clearing the way for civilization. actually, it was very uncivil, and lacked all humanity that makes one separate from beast. take for example- one henry lareby of ohio in the 1850’s. he came west to northern calif. to humbolt county. he boasted of hacking 60 Indian children to death with an ax. or another example – the wyhot island massecre in the 1850’s, where an entire village was hacked by whitemen & little babies thrown into raging fires.
    the crimes against humanity continued with the enslavement of African americans. 200 million where destroyed by slavery. was the civil war the end of this human tally?… no, it was not. post emancipation brought lychings, jim crow, race riots and another tally of human suffering that is hard to quantify. america has commited so many crimes agains humanity that it has opposed the heavens where God sits. i refer to the holy bible for a final statement – ‘nation that is founded in blood can not stand.’

  • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2008 @ 6:52

    Thanks guys for the comments and reference.

  • Tim Abbott Feb 10, 2008 @ 22:47

    It turns out, Kevin, that fire was used with judicial sanction in the 1700s to execute blacks implicted in feared or actual slave uprisings. In 1741, two or three blacks were burned before the courthouse in Elizabethtown, New Jersey in response to the Great Negro Plot across the river in New York. The presiding Justices, Robert Ogden and Matthias Hatfield, were direct ancestors of mine.,M1

  • Woodrowfan Feb 10, 2008 @ 21:24

    Not all fire is warm and inviting, but not all communal experiences have to be warm and inviting. They can also be exciting and represent shared danger, even if the danger is at a distance. Your comment reminded me of grad school, when not once, not twice, but three times in four years there was a bad nighttime fire in the small college town where I was living. Twice I was a witness along with the crowd that gathered to watch. It was not inviting, but it was exciting and pulled students out of dorms, frats and the library to watch.* It definitely counted as a communal experience, but one where we all shared in watching a dangerous experience.

    I wonder if watching a lynching had the same effect, a vicarious “thrill” from danger for the white witnesses. For the black witnesses it no doubt had a different effect, perhaps a communal huddling against an outside danger.

    I sense a library trip to do some reading…

    *There were no injuries; one fire was electrical, one was arson (the person confessed) and I forget the cause of the third.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2008 @ 5:59

    Craig, — Thanks for the reference. I will definitely check it out.

  • Craig A. Warren Feb 9, 2008 @ 2:49


    I don’t know if you’re aware of the short story, but you might have a look at Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square.” I’m not aware of a more haunting literary representation of a lynching and burning.

  • Tim Lacy Feb 8, 2008 @ 16:47

    As with others above, I don’t know the exact answer to this question. I would also speculate, however, with Tim Abbott above, that the pure intimidation of it was supremely important. Can you imagine a more gruesome deterrent? – TL

  • Executed Today Feb 7, 2008 @ 18:13

    What about the flip side of matthew’s point — the “positive” side? Fire is a communal experience, for a community that’s just deeply immersed itself in the bonding power of collective violence. It’s warm and inviting if you’re within its radius. Does a bonfire offer a ceremonial process for transitioning between the community’s martial and exclusionary mode to its fraternal and affirming mode?

    /rank speculation still beats working.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2008 @ 17:07

    Woodrowfan, — Thanks for the analysis.

    Matthew, — Thanks for the reference.

  • matthew mckeon Feb 7, 2008 @ 16:44

    Mark Twain did an essay on lynching in the latter part of the 19th century, with some speculation into the psychology of the mob. I am recalling it dimly, but it might be useful as a contemporary account by a Southerner.

  • Woodrowfan Feb 7, 2008 @ 10:53

    Fire has often been seen as a cleansing device so it has often been seen as a fitting way to eliminate those seen as a threat to establish society. Heretics were burned, witches, and early Christians by the Romans. Buildings and entire neighborhoods were burned to clean out disease in much the same way. Burning a lynching victim or their body afterwards would have been a way not only to terrorize, but the “clean” the community of the “disease” represented by the victim.

  • Tim Abbott Feb 7, 2008 @ 9:58

    There are news articles that describe the rescue of lynched corpses from crowds that threatened to burn them. This one in the NY Times archives pertains to a Jewish victim, Leo Frank:

  • Kevin Levin Feb 7, 2008 @ 6:44

    Thanks for the suggestions. I assumed it had something to do with the process of dehumanization along with signaling control. It seems, however, that execution or hanging would be sufficient. There must be some symbolism at work here that has a historical root. Thanks.

  • Matt Feb 7, 2008 @ 1:11

    I doubt this is the only answer, and it’s a fairly obvious one, but it’s important for students to realize that many of these victims were burned alive. Gruesome as it may be, that provided the crowd with more “entertainment” than simply hanging and/or shooting them. (Note the smiling faces.)

    Incidentally, I just recently realized that Without Sanctuary ( re-added the photos to the site. Of course, it had been a couple of years since I last visited, so this may not be much of a newsflash.

  • Tim Abbott Feb 7, 2008 @ 0:02

    I don’t know the historical reasons for burning lynching victims, but imagine the effect on people of color must have been to further dehumanize, intimitate and terrorize. You cannot lay out and properly mourn a burned, mutilated corpse.

    There were many lynchings, as you know, that featured participants emptying their weapons into the charred remains as well. Those better versed in mob psychology than I might be able to provide documented explanations for this behavior. To me, it seems to reenforce the solidarity of the mob by making accomplices of all: terror weapon and bonding ritual both.

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