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Q From Michael Gould: According to Peter McCarthy in his hugely entertaining travel book McCarthy’s Bar, the word lynch may be derived from an event in 1493 when James Lynch FitzStephen, the mayor of Galway, strung up his own son from an upstairs window of his house for murdering a young Spanish house guest, who the young Lynch FitzStephen feared might become a rival for the attention of his girlfriend. Should we give any credence to this story?

A At the risk of offending the citizens of Galway, I have to say the tradition is quite certainly false. Though the window still exists and has a plaque that commemorates the event, linguistic evidence alone is enough to scupper it. The tale seems to have been invented by an enterprising local with an eye to the tourist trade sometime in the nineteenth century, after the word had become widely known.

Lynch is short for lynch law, the punishment of a person for some supposed crime without bothering with the niceties of a legal trial. All the evidence points to its being an archetypal American expression. For its origin we must look to Virginia in the 1780s, during the American Revolution. There has been some doubt about which Lynch gave his name to the expression, since there were two men of that name associated with the practice: Captain William Lynch of Pittsylvania County and Colonel Charles Lynch of Bedford County. Both have been said to be the origin.

William Lynch’s claim of priority largely rests on a compact supposedly drawn up with his neighbours in 1780. However, it didn’t become known until much later. In May 1836, Edgar Allan Poe claimed to have discovered it, writing in the newspaper he was editing, the Southern Literary Messenger, but Poe had a reputation for literary hoaxes and the supposed text mustn’t be taken at face value. Colonel Charles Lynch, the justice who tried offenders, first referred to the process as Lynch’s Law in a letter to William Hay dated 11 May 1782. This is reproduced in Lynching in America, a 2006 book by Christopher Waldrep.

Confusion and misinformation continues about the punishments inflicted by these early extra-legal groups. It has long been denied that anybody was killed in the 1780s, pointing to evidence of imprisonment or fines as being the usual outcomes. William Lynch’s wording in his supposed compact about “corporal punishment” has long been taken as evidence of retribution that was less than capital. On the other hand, letters from the principal characters reproduced in Christopher Waldrep’s book do record shootings and hangings from 1780 on.

Lynch law became a widely understood term after 1810. It’s not always clear from the records what was meant by it; though some were hangings, physical punishment short of death, such as beating or whipping, are often described. The first appearance in print of the verb I know of is in a humorous article in The New-England Magazine of October 1835, The Inconveniences of Being Lynched; the storyteller suffers being tarred and feathered on suspicion of being an abolitionist.

It was only later, principally after the Civil War, that the term invariably came to mean hanging as the result of mob action, principally of blacks by whites.

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Page created 29 Mar 2003; Last updated 20 Dec 2008