This US slang term meaning to summarily execute someone by hanging comes from a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia. In 1780, Lynch led a group of vigilantes, combating crime in the Pittsylvania region. Lynch’s preferred punishment was flogging, and the early uses of the term lynch law did not imply hanging. Lynch law first appears in the writings of an Andrew Ellicott from 1811:
Captain Lynch just mentioned was the author of the Lynch laws so well known and so frequently carried into effect some years ago in the southern States in violation of every principle of justice and jurisprudence.
The verb to lynch dates to at least 1835, when it appears in the St. Louis Bulletin of 21 October:
They were soundly flogged, or in other words, Lynched, and set on the opposite side of the river, with the positive assurance that, if they were again found with the limits of the state of Missouri, their fate would be, death by hanging.
There are many different tales of the origin, each promulgating a different Lynch as the genesis of the word. But it is clear from the evidence that William Lynch is the origin. Some of the others are worth mentioning though.
There was a Judge Charles Lynch (1736-96) who presided over a court in Pittsylvania, Virginia (again) that held trials of Tory sympathizers during the American Revolution. But his was a formally constituted court and not mob justice. It is not known whether he is related to William Lynch, although it seems likely that he was.
Some contend that the word is a reference to an incident in Galway, Ireland in 1493. According to local lore, the mayor of Galway, James Lynch FitzStephen, hanged his own son for murder in that year. Whether or not the incident actually took place is a matter of debate, but what is not in question is that this incident is not the origin of the word. There is no evidence linking the word lynch to this Galway incident.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton