Lynching in the West


Lynching in the West

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 332 Illustrations: 16 color photographs, 36 b&w photographs, 5 tables, 1 map Published: November 2006

American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Chicanx and Latinx Studies

Accounts of lynching in the United States have primarily focused on violence against African Americans in the South. Ken Gonzales-Day reveals racially motivated lynching as a more widespread practice. His research uncovered 350 instances of lynching that occurred in the state of California between 1850 and 1935. The majority were perpetrated against Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans; more Latinos were lynched in California than were persons of any other race or ethnicity.

An artist and writer, Gonzales-Day began this study by photographing lynching sites in order to document the absences and empty spaces that are emblematic of the forgotten history of lynching in the West. Drawing on newspaper articles, periodicals, court records, historical photographs, and souvenir postcards, he attempted to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding the lynchings that had occurred in the spaces he was photographing. The result is an unprecedented textual and visual record of a largely unacknowledged manifestation of racial violence in the United States. Including sixteen color illustrations, Lynching in the West juxtaposes Gonzales-Day’s evocative contemporary photographs of lynching sites with dozens of historical images.

Gonzales-Day examines California’s history of lynching in relation to the spectrum of extra-legal vigilantism common during the nineteenth century—from vigilante committees to lynch mobs—and in relation to race-based theories of criminality. He explores the role of visual culture as well, reflecting on lynching as spectacle and the development of lynching photography. Seeking to explain why the history of lynching in the West has been obscured until now, Gonzales-Day points to popular misconceptions of frontier justice as race-neutral and to the role of the anti-lynching movement in shaping the historical record of lynching in the United States.


Lynching in the West is an essential corrective to the ‘frontier justice’ myth of western history, [and] an important addition to the historiography of southern lynching. . . .” — Steve Estes, Journal of Southern History

Lynching in the West is a valuable addition to our growing knowledge of mob violence in the United States. Its analysis of visual images is fresh and thought provoking. The inventory alone justifies the book’s purchase by research libraries.” — William D. Carrigan, H-Law, H-Net Reviews

Lynching in the West uses myriad resources, both written and visual. As a result, the book is also a thought provoking example of methodology. . . . Lynching in the West is a valuable example of an approach to visual, as well as historical, research.” — Albert S. Fu, Visual Studies

“[A] grotesque, fascinating and informative study. . . .” — Tom Clagett, Santa Fe New Mexican

“[Gonzales-Day’s] close analyses of the visual culture he cites are thorough and insightful. . . . Gonzales-Day has collected a great amount of well-researched and important data about race relations, lynching, vigilantism, and legal history in California.” — Kymberly N. Pinder, Journal of American Studies

“[Gonzales-Day’s] remarkable book, filled with insight and intuition, shows us that the racial differences in the West are not determined by science, but by power. Lynching in the West, by uncovering and exposing the history of white-Mexican violence and brutality in California, should force a new generation of scholars to confront that history which can never again be erased.” — Kurt Hohenstein, Canadian Journal of History

“[I]ntriguing new study. . . . [A]n important contribution in emphasizing the influence of physiognomy in fomenting racial violence. . . . Ken Gonzales-Day has produced an innovative cross-disciplinary study that complements other recent scholarship reconceptualizing our understanding of lynching.” — Clive Webb, The Americas

“[T]his book should be read by those interested in the subject and in the impact of racial profiling.”
— Raymond Wilson, The Historian

“As an artist and art professor, Gonzales-Day culls material that will expand the study of lynching. The book’s fifty-four illustrations and photographs, some created by the author, challenge us to recognize that images featuring black victims of mobs have been the most widely circulated, but they do not represent the scope of the violence.” — Koritha Mitchell, American Literature

“Gonzales-Day has combed numerous records to provide a thorough accounting of lynchings in California. In addition, as a professor of studio art, he provides a fascinating analysis of the photographs of lynchings included in the book. . . . Lynchings in the West has much to recommend it. . . . Gonzales-Day provides an impressive documentation of lynchings. . . . A useful and interesting study.” — Paul T. Hietter, Journal of Arizona History

“Gonzales-Day makes a strong activist case for the potential of archival rethinking to recuperate the erasure and drift . . . . [T]he reader should be . . . . mindful of the important questions and contributions that Gonzales-Day has made to the history of California.” — René Hayden, Southern California Quarterly

“Gonzales-Day raises important questions about the mythology surrounding frontier justice. . . .” — Robert Miller, Journal of the West

“Gonzales-Day’s work throws the emphasis on the spectators themselves and makes hard lines between then and now, them and us, difficult to draw.” — Holland Cotter, New York Times

“In Ken Gonzales-Day’s historic and moving work, what we learn is this: the trees are not as innocent as they seem. They present disturbing details, hide valuable fragments of history, and figure prominently in the world of racial injustice.” — Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

“Ken Gonzales-Day makes an important contribution to recent lynching scholarship. He adds to the understanding of lynching outside the South, and he shows that victims were not always African Americans. . . . His expert eye brings an unusually interesting insight to his analysis of lynching images that extends to the significance of the photographer’s flash powder, the meaning of a copy print, and the value of seeing the backside of images. . . . Lynching in the West is a very well-argued and well-written book, based on an impressive research base, and handsomely illustrated with historical images and Gonzales-Day’s own photographs.” — James H. Madison, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“The author’s archival research is to be commended. . . . The book is also innovative for what it suggests about the racial ascription and categorization of Latinos. . . . Although more attention has been paid to African Americans, their plight against state-sanctioned racial violence deserves even more scrutiny and should raise even more alarm than it already does. Gonzales-Day strengthens this cause by better revealing the depth and breadth of white supremacist ideology and history in the United States and by providing an intellectual logic for solidarity among groups of color united in a common struggle. In so doing, his book is one among many recent publications that reinforce the need for more comparative and relational approaches to studying race and its social salience.” — John D. Márquez, Latino Studies

“The book's appendices, which comprise nearly complete inventories of lynchings and legal executions in California, will be of great aid to future scholars. Also valuable is Gonzales-Day's perspective as a photographer. The book is generously illustrated with historical photographs of California lynchings and executions, and these are supplemented by Gonzales-Day's own photography, which highlights the impact on the California landscape of lynching violence against Mexicans, as well as its erasure from histories of California.” — Michael J. Pfeifer, Journal of American History

“This book of the dead, though narrow in its coverage, is deep in revealing the impulsive nature of destructiveness in human nature or the desire for justice and the self-righteous belief that knowledge of justice lies not in the slow revolutions of the courts but in the impulsive decisions the people. Often—perhaps too frequently—it has been felt by the public that whereas the Constitution has endowed all citizens with the inalienable right to vote it also endowed them with an unfailing sense of justice—and the right to carry it out. This volume demonstrates both drives and how they run amuck.” — Ray B. Browne, Journal of American Culture

“This interesting book documents our current fascination with lynching and reminds us that violence reached into every ethnic corner of America.” — Christopher Waldrep, Western Historical Quarterly

“Utilizing his knowledge as an artist and writer, Gonzales-Day draws from a large body of newspapers and books about all the lynchings in California between 1850 and 1935… [His book] provide[s] important new information and statistical data . . . . ” — Larry E. Burgess, California History

"An innovative, critical study of images, art, and archives that shows how the visual evidence of extralegal violence toward Latinos in California has been erased from the historiography of lynching. . . . Lynching in the West points toward the urgent need to revise the history of lynching in the United States. . . . It is clear that the book will become a seminal work on the cultural history of lynching in the West." — José Luis Benavides, Aztlán

"By questioning and clarifying the meaning of terms nostalgically associated with the West, [Gonzales-Day] makes important paradigmatic challenges to well-known historical tropes." — Bridget R. Cooks, Western American Literature

"Remarkable and unsettling. . . . Ken Gonzales-Day is a talented writer, and the book is at points highly readable, filled with crisp and evocative prose. The visual images, including a dozen pages of color plates, are bracing as well. . . . Gonzales-Day has made a major contribution to fields such as Chicano history and western history.” — Pablo Mitchell, Pacific Historical Review

Gonzales-Day uncovers a little-known chapter in the history of wild frontier justice. By digitally removing the dead bodies from his suite of souvenir snapshots, he highlights the spectacular nature of these vigilante-driven diversions, shifting attention to the (absent) original sin of mob violence.” — Mitra Abbaspour, artUS

Lynching in the West is an important and groundbreaking book, which revises the racialized history of lynching in the United States. Ken Gonzales-Day’s argument is based on extensive archival research, and his careful, nuanced reading of images provides a beautiful example of how cultural historians can use photographs as primary evidence in exciting new ways.” — Shawn Michelle Smith, author of Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture

“In this meticulously researched and innovative study, Ken Gonzales-Day brings to light the history of lynching in California. As an artist, Gonzales-Day renders a stunning visual record of an absent history. As a scholar, he assembles the documents that reveal the racial violence that undergirds the development of the Golden State, the West, and the American Dream.” — Chon A. Noriega, Professor and Director, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, and Adjunct Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ken Gonzales-Day is Professor and Chair of the Department of Studio Art at Scripps College. A practicing artist, he has held fellowships at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Smithsonian Institution. His work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in cities including Los Angeles, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and New York.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Search for California’s Hanging Trees 1

1. Counting the Dead: Frontier Justice and the Antilynching Movement 23

2. The Greatest Good: Capital Punishment or Popular Justice? 63

3. In the Shadow of Photography: Copy Prints in the Archive 93

4. Signifying Bodies: Unblushing and Monstrous 133

5. The Wonder Gaze 173

Conclusion 201

Appendix 1. Case List of Lynchings and Summary Executions 205

Appendix 2. Selected List of Legal and Military Executions 229

Appendix 3. Pardons, 1849–59 237

Notes 239

Bibliography 275

Index 297
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3794-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3781-2
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