By Stephen Neukam, Emmett Gartner and Énoa Gibson
The long, gruesome history of lynchings in the U.S. is usually understood through the deaths of Black Americans, who for centuries fell victim to extralegal violence.
But the murders did not stop with them. There remains a dark legacy of lynchings of people of Mexican, Asian and Native American descent, which unfolded alongside the lynchings of Black Americans.
Between 1865 and 1965, there were approximately 200 lynchings of Mexicans, Asians and Native Americans in the U.S., according to an analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism of the Beck-Tolnay inventory of Southern Lynch Victims and the Seguin-Rigby National Data Set of Lynchings in the United States. Other researchers say this may represent a significant undercount of lynchings of Mexicans.
This work is a collaboration of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of Arkansas.
The newspaper coverage of the lynchings and massacres for all these groups shared the same framing. Newspapers frequently described the lynched as criminals or as dangerous — language designed to justify the violence to the community and the outside world and create a tolerant environment for mob action, according to researcher Christopher Waldrep, a historian of American lynchings, in his book “The Many Faces of Judge Lynch.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newspapers held a central role in local communities and were a critical part of an emerging national culture, according to researcher William D. Carrigan in an interview with the Howard Center. That allowed editors and writers to shape attitudes toward lynchings.
While many newspapers used racism and xenophobia to justify mob violence, the words differed depending on which group was being described.
According to Carrigan, Black Americans were often characterized as sexual predators, an assumption that was rare in the coverage of Mexican lynchings. Instead, he said, Mexicans were typically portrayed in the white media as thieves and bandits.
“There’s all these prejudices they had of Mexicans that will seep into the coverage and how they will interpret and present the evidence of whatever episode is happening,” Carrigan said.
The lynchings of Mexicans, Native Americans and Asians were not confined to the South, where the blood of Black Americans soaked the ground. They were spread across the West, in states such as California, Idaho and North and South Dakota.
The violence toward Asians was due in part to “yellow peril” campaigns “popularized by politicians, preachers and the press,” particularly in the West, according to researcher Kara O’Keefe Fos in her 2011 dissertation at the University of California, Irvine.
Anti-immigrant campaigns led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers.
Of the 11 lynchings of Asians in the Howard Center analysis, 10 of the killings occurred in states west of the Mississippi River, including California, Nevada, Utah and Idaho.
“Negative stereotypes of Chinese fueled not only the lynching but also the justifications that followed,” wrote Fos. “Decades of vicious propaganda against the Chinese had legitimated repeated attacks on Chinese laborers and communities throughout the West.”
Chinese immigrants, according to Fos’s research, were thought of as people who would “‘swarm’ the country and form a dictatorship – of greedy, dirty, dishonest, and fertile yellow men.”
The origins of Native American lynchings have a more deep-seated history in the continental U.S.
Violence toward Native Americans became commonplace when European explorers traveled inland in North America in 1539 and the decades that followed. By the 1870s — around the beginning of the Howard Center’s database on American lynchings — U.S. attitudes toward Native Americans brought about a phase of “war and open extermination,” according to University of Mary professor Carole Barrett in her 2003 book “American Indian History.”
The adversarial policy continued until the end of the 19th century during the U.S. military-led “Indian Wars,” and contention between tribes and their Euro-American neighbors was exhibited by lynchings carried out by white settlers. Between 1870 and 1900, Howard Center data shows that 35 Native Americans were lynched in the U.S. Afterward, from 1900 onward, eight lynchings of Native Americans occurred, and the U.S. entered a period of seeking citizenship for Native Americans and reversing scattered policies.
“Often the language and framing (of Native American lynchings) is overtly biased, using derogatory terms like ‘half-breed,’ citing Native alcohol use, often suggesting that the lives of Natives were far less valuable than those of White settlers,” said Michael J. Pfeifer, professor and history chair at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, over email.
The Howard Center reviewed more than 30 archival stories covering lynchings of people of Mexican, Asian and Native American descent. The reports were chilling and disturbing but crucial to understanding the broad reach of extrajudicial killings throughout U.S. history and beyond the American South. The stories below typify the trends in the coverage of the groups, are well-researched by historians and academics and demonstrate the changing attitudes toward lynching in the early-to-mid 1900s.
Asian lynchings and violence across the West
When Ah Quong Tai was accused of murder in 1891, he looked to the local legal system for protection from mob threats. Tai was dead a short time later, pulled from a makeshift court appearance in a local saloon.
Tai was a wealthy Chinese merchant in Bridgeport, California, in the late 1800s. Accused of killing Poker Tom, a member of the Paiutes Indigenous population, he was the focus of mounting pressure from the Native Americans to carry out “justice.”
Almost immediately, the local Bridgeport Chronicle-Union assumed the guilt of Tai and also framed his lynching as a foregone conclusion:
“… these developments, coupled with Tia’s [sic] actions during the past few weeks, have satisfied the Indians that Tom was murdered in Tia’s store by Tia … and in this opinion most of our citizens coincide,” reported the paper on June 6, 1891.
In the same article, the paper grimly predicted the man’s death, writing, “Tia is a doomed man, and the red man will get away with him, sooner or later, and when least expected.”
Tai was found guilty of murder by a jury on June 7, 1891. Two men testified that he had confessed to the crime.
However, after the verdict was handed down, the judge held an additional examination. A doctor testified that the remains could not be identified as Poker Tom or anyone else, for that matter. Tai’s lawyers moved to have him cleared of the charges.
The judge freed Tai for lack of sufficient evidence. But Tai asked to be held in jail for protection from the Native Americans waiting outside of the hearing.
Instead, he was dragged from the room and murdered by the crowd.
In “The Many Faces of Judge Lynch,’’ Waldrep wrote that people did not have faith in the legal system to hold people accountable, so rationalized mob violence as a way to guarantee that justice was done.
The Bridgeport community followed that formula closely. As Fos argued, the Bridgeport Chronicle-Union’s justifications “relied on community approval and the need to take justice into the community’s hands.”
In the days following Tai’s death, the paper ran stories that argued his killing was “an unfortunate affair that could not be prevented” and claimed he was “a blackhearted murderer.”
But the violence toward Asians did not have blanket acceptance in the region.
A week after Tai’s lynching, The Examiner in San Francisco ran a front-page story with the headline “Massacred By Indians.” It criticized Bridgeport, highlighted that Tai was acquitted and described his lynching as “an act of vengeance.”
“The Chinese legation will investigate and take action,” said the story.
The report of the lynching reached the Chinese Consulate in a letter from a white resident in Bridgeport, who called the lynching a “conspiracy,” according to The Examiner.
“‘All good people hope that you will cause the county to pay the heaviest indemnity,’” said the letter, according to The Examiner.
Fos argued that publications farther north, like The Examiner, were more concerned with the white Bridgeport community’s inability to control the violence of the Paiutes.
“A concerted effort was made by these newspapers outside Bridgeport to distance themselves from an association with lynching,” she wrote. “They wrote of Bridgeport’s actions in a fashion similar to that of papers outside the South which reported on Southern lynchings at the time: distanced remorse for the victim after the fact and the need to separate from those involved as having been culturally backward.”
There were never any arrests made for the killing of Ah Tai, according to Fos.
Lynchings of Native Americans
On February 18, 1897, six members of the Spicer extended family were found murdered inside their ranch house in Emmons County, North Dakota. The Bismarck Daily Tribune pointed the finger at Native Americans from the neighboring Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“It is impossible to believe that such cruel and inhuman butchery of women and children could have been perpetrated by other than Indians,” the Tribune reported.
The Spicers were a family of white settlers who lived across the Missouri River from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, near the since-vanished town of Winona, North Dakota.
Their deaths were violent and grisly, and local North Dakota newspapers fixated on this violence, sometimes in hyperbolic terms.
“From the latest reports received, and further information of the finding and condition of the bodies, it was by far the most sickening and brutal crime in the whole history of atrocities. Six persons, representing four generations of human beings, ruthlessly slaughtered in cold blood,” the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported two days after the crime.
By March 5, 1897, two Native Americans, Alec Coudotte and Frank Black Hawk of the Standing Rock Reservation, had been arrested for the Spicer killings. Fearing they would be lynched, T.J. Reedy, the chief of Indian police at Standing Rock, refused to release the prisoners to Emmons County authorities.
Two months later, three additional Standing Rock Sioux residents, Paul Holy Track, Philip Ireland and George Defender, were arrested and imprisoned.
Holy Track, Ireland and Black Hawk were never tried. The trials for Coudotte and Defender, who both pleaded not guilty, were long and confusing, with multiple accounts of the killings described in various, and sometimes contradictory, confessions from the accused.
Defender’s trial ended in a hung jury. Coudotte was convicted, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.
On November 14, 1897, a mob of 25 to 30 men decided to dispatch their version of justice when they stormed the Emmons County prison and threatened the lone sheriff guarding the prisoners. After he quickly stepped aside, the mob dragged three of the accused out of their cells to be lynched, as reported in the November 15, 1897, edition of the Bismarck Daily Tribune:
“Paul Holy Track, Philip Ireland, and Alec Coudot [sic], the first two the confessed murderers of the Spicer family, and the latter the first of the men to be tried and convicted and to whom a new trial had just been granted by the supreme court, were lynched by a mob of twenty-five or thirty men at Williamsport at 2 o’clock Sunday morning.”
The other two men, Black Hawk and Defender, were held in a separate prison in Bismarck. Their isolation from Emmons County spared them. They were later released.
Later in the report, the Tribune added:
“[T]he feeling against the prisoners had been intense ever since the murder, and especially since the news that [Coudotte] had been granted a new trial. No doubt, the fear that the men would escape punishment for their awful crime led to the tragedy of Sunday morning.”
Even in describing the lynching as a “tragedy,” the Tribune appeared sympathetic to the mob’s action. “There is often the suggestion in white newspapers that the lynching of Natives served a salutary purpose, that the alleged crime justified the lynching, etc. And sometimes the alleged offense was greatly distorted, even fabricated, to justify the lynching,” explained Pfeifer.
News of the Emmons County lynching spread across the country. Two reports later appeared in The New York Times, with a different characterization than the local press of North Dakota. The second article went as far to defend Coudotte’s innocence.
“The lynching apparently had been planned carefully, and was carried out without a break in the programme,” The Times reported. Two days later, The Times reported, “‘An innocent man was hanged by lynchers at Williamsport,’ Chief Justice Corliss of the State Supreme Court said yesterday. ‘I have ample documentary proof of this,’ Corliss added.’”
Pfeifer said this local-national divergence often occurred in lynching reports.
“The local press often lauded and completely justified the lynching or simply ignored it while the national press sometimes deplored it,” Pfeifer said over email.
However, The New York Times included other Native American reporting tropes in its stories.
“Alexander Coudot [sic], an Indian half-breed, and Paul Holytrack and Philip Ireland, full-blooded Indians,” wrote a reporter for The Times, following these identifiers with a summary of their accused crimes.
According to historian Peter Beidler, author of “Murdering Indians,” a book that investigated the Spicer murders and ensuing lynchings, there was no indication that members of the mob that lynched Holy Track, Coudotte and Ireland were ever arrested. After the lynching, speculation of retaliation from the Standing Rock Sioux community was spread by the Mandan Pioneer, but no violent acts were ever carried out.
“A story is in circulation that Indians have declared that ‘some morning the white man will wake up and find no Winona.’ Whether the Indians have any blood-thirsty intentions, or the statement is without foundation, your correspondent is unable to determine. It is quite evident, however, that Indians have been purchasing firearms,” wrote a Pioneer correspondent.
The Bismarck Tribune, formerly the Bismarck Daily Tribune, did not respond to requests by phone or email for comments about the paper’s reporting on the lynching.
Southern lynchings of Mexicans and a changing tide
Rafael Benavides, a Mexican sheepherder living in New Mexico, was abducted from his hospital bed by masked men and hanged from a tree in 1928.
A day earlier, he was seriously wounded by a gunshot from the local police, who were pursuing him for the alleged assault of a local farmer’s wife.
Benavides’ guilt was assumed in the local media, with the Farmington Times Hustler reporting on the day of his death:
“The most brutal assault that has ever been perpetrated in the county occurred Tuesday night … by a sheepherder named Rapheal Venavedes [sic],” wrote the publication. “The Mexican … had already served one term in the penitentiary for raping a ten year old girl.”
The Farmington Daily Times, the current iteration of the Times Hustler, did not respond to requests by phone or email for comments about the paper’s reporting on the lynching.
Benavides’ case is the last documented public lynching of a Mexican in the U.S., according to research by Carrigan and co-author Clive Webb. The tide, Carrigan said, was changing as some of the popular arguments for mob violence — that the legal system was unable to deal with suspected criminals — fell apart.
“It was [often] a flawed defense of lynching,” said Carrigan. “But the ability to convince themselves or others that this was true had disappeared by 1890.”
As communities became more aware of the Mexican government’s concern, lynchings may have been curtailed, according to Carrigan..
A week after the killing, the Times Hustler reported that the Mexican government had asked its ambassador to investigate the lynching, and speculated whether Benevides was a native Mexican or not.
The community was aware that the killing had garnered national attention. In the same article, the Times Hustler reported that “this mob, like most others, acted hastily without knowing all the facts and adds to the evidence that mobs, however well-intentioned, are dangerous means for dispensing justice…”
Between 1865 and 1915, there were 110 lynchings of Mexicans in the U.S., according to the Howard Center analysis. The number dropped over the next 50 years, with 29 lynchings between 1916 and 1965.
Pressure from the Mexican government also played a role in the investigation and coverage of a massacre in the state a decade earlier.
Early on a Monday morning in 1918, Texas Rangers and white vigilantes rousted a group of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from their beds in the tiny border town of Porvenir, marched them to a bluff nearby, and opened fire. The next day, villagers found 15 bodies, ages 16 to 72. None of the dead had been arrested, charged, tried or convicted for crimes they were assumed to have committed.
Texas officials would say later that the Rangers had gone to the village on the suspicion that the Mexicans had taken part in a robbery a month before at a store 40 miles away. The lawmen claimed they were fired upon in the dark and shot back in self-defense.
A Mexican government official said, however, that the dead were not robbers but workers “taken from their homes and shot by men claiming to be state rangers,” The El Paso Herald reported.
The reporting from local papers at the time was strikingly different from the example of Benavides. Instead of presuming the guilt of the killed or using rhetoric that justified mob violence, the Herald’s coverage considered the possibility that the killings were unjustified and pushed back against the claims of the Rangers.
It wrote that the Mexicans were killed “by a posse of armed and mounted men” and that the assertion from the Rangers that the Mexicans were wearing clothes from the robbery “was not verified.”
The Mexican government pressed for an investigation of the murders. The Herald reported that “formal protest has been made to the American state department through [Mexican] ambassador Ygnacio Bonillas because of the killing. …”
The Mexican government’s initiative to highlight the killings helped inform what the Herald was reporting, with the newspaper stating that the first time it had heard of the events was from the Mexican general consulate in Texas.
In 2018, 100 years after the massacre, the El Paso Times, which is not affiliated with the Herald, ran a story that recounted the lynchings and spoke with the descendants of the victims.
“The perpetrators never faced criminal charges, but their actions still are felt 100 years later by the descendants of those who were killed,” wrote Madlin Mekelburg for the El Paso Times. “These same descendants refuse to let the massacre fade from Texas’ collective memory, inspiring historians to unearth new details about Porvenir and what happened there.”
(The El Paso Herald merged in 1931 with the El Paso Post, which was owned by Scripps-Howard. The company shut down the Herald-Post in 1997. The Scripps Howard Foundation provides financial support for the Howard Center.)