As Galway has been Ireland’s Capital of Culture for decades it’s only fitting that it becomes Europe’s official capital of Culture for 2020 this week. One wonders though if the year-long celebration will encompass the enduring myth (or even history) of a former mayor of the city James Lynch Fitzstephen, who, according to local legend, in 1493, invoking his magisterial powers, condemned his own son to death for the murder of a Spanish visitor who was a rival for the affections of a local woman. Legend has it that when no one could be found to execute his son Fitzstephen performed the sorry task himself by hanging the young lad from a window in Market Street.
It may be history, it may simply be legend but one thing is certain, it has given rise to an enduring parallel mythology that credits James Lynch Fitzstephen with inadvertently originating the term ‘lynching’, as in an extra-judicial hanging. The Fitzstephen story doesn’t even have to be true for the alleged incident to have become the basis of the coinage of that ugliest of words. Neither does it really matter that the execution of the young Fitzstephen was not an illegal act—he had actually been condemned to death— nor that, logically, if the word followed the deed we should be talking about the unfortunate victims of ‘Fitzstephening’ rather than ‘lynching’.
However, we need to visit the more natural habitat of this barbaric practice, the American South, to establish whether a late fifteenth century Mayor of Galway’s name has been gruesomely immortalised or not.
The word itself may well have had a relatively benign genesis. American sources claim that it comes, not from fifteenth century Galway, but from the American revolution of the late eighteenth century. It appears that a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch took it upon himself during the US War of Independence, to incarcerate loyalist supporters of British rule without the proper authority. When the British abandoned their unruly colony, Lynch sought retrospective legal jurisdiction just in case he was sued by any of his former prisoners. The resulting legislation became known as ‘Lynch’s Law’, which morphed into ‘Lynch Law’ and gradually began to mean the assumption of extra-judicial authority.
It became a verb in the aftermath of the American Civil War as white southerners fought to reassert some of their authority over millions of freed slaves who now, perish the thought, even had the right to vote.
One of the great heroes of nineteenth century American journalism, Ida B. Wells, born into slavery herself in 1862, just before emancipation, became editor of a newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. That same year a friend of hers, who had set up a business competing with white-owned concerns in Memphis, Tennessee was lynched by a white mob. That set Ida Wells on the journey for which she is most celebrated, documenting the incidences and the rationale behind the evil practice of lynching in the post-Civil War South
She exposed the lie that most black men were lynched for sexual assaults on white women – instead she found that most black men were targeted for challenging southern white supremacy in the economic or political field. Lynching, far from being a response to inter-racial rape, was a form of social control. The worst example of the practice was the so-called Great Hanging of Gainesville, Texas in October 1862 where forty-one black men were hanged by a white mob. Ida Wells published her findings in Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all its Phases in 1892. In the book she was unequivocal in her advocacy of self-defensive measures
‘A Winchester rifle,’ she wrote, ‘should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. ‘
After the book appeared the offices of her newspaper were torched and she was forced to flee to New York which hadn’t lynched too many African-Americans since the 1863 Draft Riots.
In 1915 the epic silent movie, Birth of a Nation, highlighted the gruesome practice, except that the director, D.W. Griffith, seemed to think it was a good idea. Between 1880 and 1951 independent research has recorded almost five thousand lynchings in the USA. Most took place in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana and around 70% of the victims were African-American men and women.
So, when it comes to the dispute over where the word lynching comes from, fifteenth century Galway, or revolutionary America … does it really matter?