Lethal Southern Justice: A Study of Executions and Lynchings in Dyer County, Tennessee

Margaret Vandiver, University of Memphis

In the early part of the twentieth century, Southern communities made use of both legal and extra-legal executions. The relationship between these two deadly social responses to perceived deviance remains unclear. Were these two forms of "lethal social control" (Beck, Massey and Tolnay, 1989, 317) different expressions of the same phenomenon, with executions ultimately substituting for lynchings? Or were they opposites, in that lynchings defied the law and executions carried out legal sentences? Did the use of one form of killing tend to incite or reduce the use of the other form?

This study examines cases from Dyer County in northwest Tennessee, where six extralegal and three legal executions occurred between 1900 and 1940. Several of the lynchings imitated legal proceedings, with the accused person "tried" inside the courthouse by a judge and jury that consisted of members of the mob. One legal death sentence resulted from a trial moved from the county because of the threat of mob violence. Information on the cases comes from contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries and local histories, court records, and correspondence files of the Tennessee governors.

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Updated 05/20/2006