Irishman whose name, Lynch, went down in American infamy

Charles Lynch certainly left his mark because over 200 years after his death, we’re still talking about him, says Trevor Laffan
Irishman whose name, Lynch, went down in American infamy

A sculpture in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people and those terrorised by lynching

THE president of the United States, Joe Biden, recently signed a law approved by Congress that makes lynching a hate crime.

Lynchings were murders carried out by mobs, which in the U.S were linked to hatred of African-Americans.

Racist executions of black people were common in the south of the country during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

It was murder without due process or rule of law and thousands of African-Americans were killed. Justice was administered without trial, and offenders were hanged, often after suffering torture and mutilation.

They say at least 4,742 people were reported to have been lynched by 1950, but it’s impossible to know the exact number.

Very few of the perpetrators were ever convicted, but this new law punishes those involved in lynchings with up to 30 years in prison.

My knowledge of lynching was mostly limited to what I had seen in the movies as a youngster, but after hearing of Biden’s new law, I was curious to know where the term came from, and I discovered that it got its name from a guy called Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter and justice of the peace who was born in 1736 and whose father came from Galway.

According to Avoca Museum and Historical Society in Virginia, USA, Colonel Charles Lynch was an American whose father was an Irish immigrant named Charles Lynch the Elder.

Charles the Elder lived in Galway and when he was 16, he rebelled against a harsh schoolmaster and a stern grandmother and ran away from home.

He headed for the docks and stowed away on a ship that he thought was going to Europe but shortly after boarding, he overheard a conversation among the sailors and discovered they were actually headed for America.

After realising his mistake, Charles came out of hiding and asked the crew to return him to Ireland. They refused of course.

He quickly decided he couldn’t stay on the ship, so he jumped overboard with the intention of swimming back to Ireland. The ship’s crew plucked him from the water and placed him in chains and he spent the remainder of the journey in the ship’s hold.

When Charles arrived in Virginia, he entered into an indentured servitude contract with a successful Quaker named Christopher Clark. In the 18th century British-controlled American colonies, indentured servitude was an arrangement in which a person unable to pay for his passage across the Atlantic would agree to work a period of time - usually five to seven years - to pay back the cost of the fare. A kind of temporary slavery.

It worked out fine for our man, though, because he was treated very well by his new master. Clark must have taken a shine to the young lad because he treated Lynch as a son. He set him up with an apprenticeship to a lawyer, and even released Lynch from his indenture early.

By the time he left his former master’s farm, Charles had a significant number of livestock, some equipment, and money.

He did well for himself, became wealthy and bought land in several counties. By then he had married and had a family of his own and, after his sudden and untimely death, one of his sons, Charles Jr., inherited a handsome share.

Charles Lynch Jr. took an active interest in local and colonial politics and as a prominent local figure and planter, he made a significant impact on local politics. He was appointed as a Justice of the Peace in 1770.

Lynch established himself as a significant lawmaker and community leader and he proved himself to be a man with whom one should not trifle.

Legend has it that on one occasion during his tenure as a frontier Justice of the Peace, he was called upon to referee a disagreement over a contest in which two men had forced captive black bears to fight one another. They weren’t happy with Lynch’s ruling and both turned their anger on the Judge. Lynch reacted by grabbing the men and he forced their faces into the earth until they accepted his decision.

As a colonel in the militia, Lynch mobilised his troops during the war with the British. While defending Virginia against invasion by the British troops, his outfit captured 75 prisoners.

An account written in 1787 by a Bedford County jailer claimed that Colonel Lynch’s deposit overcrowded his gaol and forced him into the hardship that comes with providing food and care for such a large group of prisoners. The poor jailer couldn’t cope and wanted the prisoners sent somewhere else.

Governor Thomas Jefferson told Lynch that if he seized anyone he thought was guilty, he should try them immediately and, if found guilty, they should be sent to a larger prison in Richmond for further trial.

This didn’t sit well with Lynch though and he decided to defy the Governors directive instead. He had his reasons.

Firstly, the distance to Richmond was 200 miles, a long and time-consuming trek. Not only would the journey be a tedious one, but it would also incur a significant expense, both in terms of finances and time.

Also, they could encounter many dangers on the way from marauding bands, ready to overwhelm the Judge’s escort.

So, instead of holding trials in two venues, Lynch decided to try the accused locally instead.

Lynch acquitted some of them and issued prison sentences ranging from one to five years.

Still others were subjected to the most well-known and dreaded aspect of what came to be known as ‘Lynch’s Law’ and this gave rise to the term lynching.

Charles Lynch died in 1796, land rich but cash poor. He certainly left his mark though because over 200 years later we’re still talking about him.

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