lynch law


: the punishment of presumed crimes or offenses usually by death without due process of law

Word History


probably after Charles Lynch †1796 Virginia planter and justice of the peace

Note: The person thought to be the most likely eponym for the phrase lynch law (earlier Lynch's law, Linch's law and other variants) is Charles Lynch (1736-96), a planter who, as a militia officer during the Revolutionary War, was involved in the suppression of a Tory attempt to seize lead mines in Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1780. Such harsh measures were taken against presumed Tories—including hanging, shooting and whipping, with little concern for a proper trial—that the Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson cautioned Lynch directly; in 1782 the Virginia General Assembly was persuaded to pass an act of indemnity protecting Lynch and others from legal retribution. Remarkably, Lynch himself used the phrase "Lynch's law" in a letter of May 11, 1782 to a commercial agent for the lead mines, in which he addresses the mine foreman Sanders's difficulty in gaining the cooperation of the Welsh miners, and the miners' claims that Sanders was abusing them. Lynch thus concludes the letter: "I am convinc'd a party there is who by Lying has Deceiv'd some good men to Listen to them—they are mostly Torys and such as Sanders has given Lynchs Law too for Dealing with the negroes [i.e., illegally selling slaves] &c." (The complete text of the letter held in the Library of Virginia is in Lynching in America: A History in Documents, editor Christopher Waldrep, New York University Press, 2006, p. 36-37.) The other principal claimant as the Lynch of Lynch law is William Lynch (1742-1820), a Virginia farmer. In October, 1811, a conversation with William Lynch, then living in Georgia, was recorded in the diary of the land surveyor Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820): "Captain Lynch … 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. Mr. Lynch resided in Pittsylvania in the state of Virginia when he commenced legislator and carried his system into effect …The Lynch-men associated for the purpose of punishing crimes in a summary way without the tedious and technical forms of our courts of justice …This self created judicial tribunal was first organised in the state of Virginia about the year 1776 from whence it extended southward …." (Catharine Van Cortlandt Mathews, Andrew Ellicott: His Life and Letters, New York, 1908, pp. 220-22). William Lynch's claim appears to be buttressed by an editorial entitled "Lynch's Law" that appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger (vol. 2, no. 6, May, 1836, p. 389). The article purports to reproduce the text of a compact written by Lynch, signed September 22, 1780, that vows extralegal retribution "on a set of lawless men who have banded themselves together to deprive honest men of their just rights and property." The language of the text, with no reference to war or Tories, does not fit the times in which it was purportedly written, and it now seems likely that the compact was fictional, created by the Southern Literary Messenger's editor, Edgar Allan poe. It would not have been the only literary hoax perpetrated by Poe (see Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America, New York, 2002, p. 21).

First Known Use

1811, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of lynch law was in 1811

Dictionary Entries Near lynch law

Cite this Entry

“Lynch law.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Feb. 2024.

Legal Definition

lynch law

: the punishment of presumed crimes usually by death without due process of law

after William Lynch (1742–1820), American vigilante

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