Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Howard on Ending Extralegal Violence in West Virginia

Josh Howard’s Defending Person and Reputation: Efforts to End Extralegal Violence in Western Virginia, 1890-1900, is now available online in the American Journal of Legal History:
Violence peaked in Virginia during the early-1890s with a series of racially-motivated lynchings and honor killings in the western mountains. Governor Charles O'Ferrall responded by demanding county courts rededicate themselves to enforcing law and preventing extralegal violence, which led to a statewide decrease in lynchings. The governor's demands were not intended to create better race or labor relations, but were more to create social stability attractive to outside investors. As a result, county courts did just that: prevent extralegal violence, make arrests, and hold trials all in the interest of presenting an image of stability. One specific town in western Virginia – Clifton Forge – provides an excellent case study to explore this phenomenon. Clifton Forge became a major railroad hub in 1888, and residents committed one of the state's most brutal lynchings in 1891. The governor's call for order certainly targeted Clifton Forge, yet violence persisted there throughout the mid-1890s. Most visible to outsiders was two murders and the subsequent trials. A railroad conductor shot dead a prominent Natural Bridge businessman, and a young African-American man assaulted a white woman and murdered a black girl. Clifton Forge residents demanded different types of mob justice in each of these cases, but the legal system prevailed. However, both trials had flaws; one was overturned on appeal, the other a clear sham. These trials reveal that judges and local media were committed to both justice and presenting the image of justice, the latter of which being more important both for the town's future and in appeasing the governor.