Article Considers “Frontier Justice” and the West's Legacy of Lynching

In his recent article, Reckoning with History: The legacy of lynching in the West, historian Adam Sowards challenges the view romanticized in American popular mythology that “frontier justice” was a necessary community response in “a violent frontier where the need for justice sometimes preceded an established legal system.” In fact, he says, although Westerners created an elaborate rhetoric of a “Western vigilante tradition” to differentiate their posse killings from lynchings in the South, Western lynchings – like their Southern counterparts – were “racialized, gendered, brutal and lawless” and “disproportionately targeted people of color.” Reviewing the work of artist Ken Gonzales-Day, who catalogued more than 350 lynchings between California’s admission to the Union in 1850 and 1935, when the last known lynching occurred, Sowards notes that two-thirds of the victims of lynchings whose race is known were people of color, primarily Mexican. Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans have been documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states in the years after the Civil War, and historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920 by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. The notion that vigilante killings “simply fulfilled a criminal justice function at a time when the state’s courts failed to execute their duty” is false, Sowards writes. “All lynch mobs are lawless and unjust, and they point to white supremacy — no matter what earlier Westerners might have insisted.” Lynching declined across America, he says, “when states — whether Western, Midwestern or Southern — instituted capital punishment efficiently and racialized the criminal justice system.”

Studies have shown that lynchings in America are related to a modern-day racial bias in the application of the death penalty, and evidence of the racial legacy of Western lynchings persists in death-penalty practices across the West. A recent Oklahoma study showed that defendants of color were nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if convicted of killing a white victim than a victim of color and nearly twice as likely as a white defendant to be condemned for killing a white victim. Data from Arizona showed that “a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim.” A 2015 study in Colorado showed that, after controlling for other factors, non-white defendants were more likely to be capitally prosecuted than white defendants, while a 2014 study in Washington showed that, even though there was no evidence of race discrimination by prosecutors in charging practices, the state’s jurors were 4.5 times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. And studies in California found that defendants convicted of killing white victims are three times more likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than four times as likely as those convicted of killing Latinos, and that white jurors in Southern California were far more likely to recommend a death sentence for Latino defendants than for white defendants.

(Adam M. Sowards, Reckoning with History: The legacy of lynching in the West, High Country News, July 13, 2018; Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke University Press 2006.) See Race.