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The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916.

The Making of a Lynching Culture: Violence and Vigilantism in Central Texas, 1836-1916. By William D. Carrigan (Champaign, II: University of Illinois Press, 2004. xi plus 308 pp. $35.00).

With The Making of a Lynching Culture, William D. Carrigan makes important contribution to our knowledge of Southern violence in addressing the controversial question of the character and the role of the lynch mob between 1836 and 1916 in Central Texas. In the process, he provides a comprehensive account of the evolution of the culture of lynching at the local level. He shows how local mobs acted as a quasi legitimate agency of local communities and local insitutions. The most innovative aspect of the book is the inclusion of large blocks of material that show how local memory, constantly shaped and reshaped by specific events and particular groups, played a major role in forming a lynching culture. Finally, he demonstrates the importance of studying this social phenomenon at the local level, since vigilantism and lynching could vary tremendously from one place to another and from time to time even in regions dominated by similar ethnic groups that shared common cultural backgrounds.

The author divides his study in seven chapters which follow a chronological order, three dealing with the antebellum period and four with the post Civil War period and the early 20th century. The study is enriched by the fact that each chapter largely stands on its own since each chapter examines a particular theme. In so far as there is a connecting argument, it has to do with the local development of lynching culture as a local response to alleged social and political threat. However, partly because this book is so tighly constructed, the tension between thematic diversity and overall coherence is sometimes strained.

Still, the study can be divided, although the author fails to do so, into two large parts. The three chapters dealing mainly with the antebellum period form part one, underlined by the molding of the mob violence as a lynching culture. The first chapter shows how the lynching culture was first rooted in the mentality forged by the frontier experience. The formation of the Texas Rangers is seen, less as a frontier defence force, than as ordinary farmers and stock raisers banding together in time of need. As a result, lynching of Mexicans became closely linked to the development of a racist stereotyping of that ethnic group. In the second chapter, the author examines how Native Indians in Central Texas were a primary target of mob violence. Indeed, he describes in a vivid manner how the fight with Indians reinforced and molded mob violence, providing in the process a justification for future mob action against other groups. The third chapter fixes the origins of the panic of 1860 in the ambivalent context of slavery, underlined by planters' paternalistic attitude and slave resistance.

In the second part of Professor Carrigan's book, chapters four to seven cover the years 1860 to 1916. Except for a chapter on white on white mob violence, this section centers mainly on how lynching evolved as a means of control of Afro-Americans. In Chapter Four, the author emphasizes how white on white violence during and after the civil war was not simply motivated by politics but was also rooted in fighting criminality. Chapter Five centres mainly on Post-Civil War racial violence, while Chapter Six examines the changing character of mob violence during the late part of the 19th century. Finally, the author examines, in Chapter Seven, the close interlinkage existing between lynching and the white supremacy ideology during the early 20th century.

In the process, Professor Carrigan convincly demonstrates that the development of a lynching culture in Central Texas was dominated by four major factors: first, the frontier experience; second, racial slavery; third the resistance to lynching by racial, ethnic and political minorities; and the fourth and most important factor was the way the courts fluctuated between fighting or tolerating mob violence. Indeed, the frequent failure of the local authorities to prosecute mob leaders not only gave an implicit approval to lynching, but had also a lasting effect on that phenomenon.

Writing in a crisp, clear style and demonstrating an impressive mastery of a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Carrigan raises several important questions about the evolution of the lynching culture in the South. The presence of a complete appendix on the victims of mob violence between 1860 and 1922 makes the book a useful tool of reference for those seeking information. It is to Carrigan's credit that he does not oversimplify all the underlying vigilantism revealed by his research. The quality of the research makes this study a detailed and judicious work that opens new paths for further work and enhances our global comprehension of this tragic phenomenon.

The main quality of the present study restes on the author's ability to examine not only how the lynching phenomenon represented a cultural response in times of crisis but also how the role of the lynch mob fluctuated from one set of polarities to any other. In the process, the study shows the effects on a community of surrounding circumstances, such as frontier insecurity, slave control, racist mentality, war, reconstruction, and the general dependence of a community on forces beyond its control. While the entire book is of interest to the general reader, Carrigan's examnination of the formulation and influence of the lynching culture will be particularly interesting for professional historians.

Gilles Vandal

University of Sherbrooke
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:Vandal, Gilles
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2005
Words:915
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