Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lynch Law in the WIld West

FROM THE COWBOY - Phillip Rollins (1922):

"The vigilance committee of years ago was no hot-headed lynching party bound to claim a victim. It was the people acting directly instead of through their formally elected or appointed representatives. It gave due process of law commensurate with frontier conditions, and aimed to support, not to subvert, justice.

Tradition relates that on rare occasions men were lynched because they erroneously had been supposed to have been the perpetrators of a particular crime with which in fact they had had no connection, but tradition adds that each such victim was known to have performed at least one other act which by itself would have warranted the rope. Thus, while there may have occurred an error in judicial process, there had been none in moral result, even though some lowbrowed individual might seem merely to have been "hung on his merits."

The vigilance committee never advertised what it had done, or where or how "the event" had occurred, and ever sacredly guarded death-bed confessions of guilt. No non- attendant at the final scene would, if wise, question upon the subject any man who had been present there. This meant on the part of the committee's members no cowardly screening of themselves from the officers of statutory law. Merely, the West considered lynching, however necessary, to be a nasty job, and did not like to talk about it.

However, despite the ban of secrecy, history by chance has recorded the last words of a few lynched men. Some of these ante-mortem statements were picturesque and rather inducive to goose-flesh.

Boone Helm, about to be hung at Virginia City, Montana, and standing beside the gallows from which writhed the body of one of Boone's gang, made this peroration: '' Kick away, old fellow. I'll be in hell with you in a minute. Every man for his principles. Hurrah for Jeff Davis. Let her rip." At another time, George Shears more plaintively said: "Gentlemen, I am not used to this business, never having been hung before. Shall I jump off or slide off?"

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