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Sunday, December 20, 2009

MR. LYNCH'S LAW


I am amazed by the number of prominent men named Lynch hanging around the Piedmont country of Virginia in 1781. There was a William Lynch from Pittsylvania County who became a militia captain. Lynchburg was named for John Lynch who in 1781 had a stranglehold on ferry service over the James River. There was a James Lynch who had died in March at the battle of Guillford Courthouse, just 40 miles south of the Virginia border. And in October of that year, about a hundred miles to the east, James Head Lynch hung out his shingle, identifying his tavern, near the camps occupied by French troops during the battle of Yorktown. But the Lynch I get breathless about was a Quaker who lived 13 miles due south of Lynchburg.

At 19 years of age Charles Lynch tied the knot with Miss Anna Terrell and moved into a log cabin that he called Green Level, and which he roped into more than six thousand acres between the Roanoke and Otter Rivers. To work his fields Charles kept up to 24 human beings tied in bondage, which required dancing quite a moral jig for a Quaker, and something we know Charles was bothered by – just not bothered enough to stop profiting from it. The tobacco Charles grew was exported to England. And in cash poor Virginia that made him a local economic power. Charles was now in the loop of the planter-class society; no more mood swings for Chuck.

In 1766 Charles became a Bedford County Justice of the Peace, tied to the courts in New London, the county seat, and the House of Burges in Williamsburg. With the coming of the American Revolution, the now forty year old Charles was appointed a Colonel in the Virginia Militia. And as a militia leader his immediate concern was not the British, but the Cherokees.

While the Minute Men in New England were killing red coats at Bunker and Breed’s Hills, Virginia politicians were worried that this was noose time to leave their isolated frontier settlements out on a limb. So in October of 1776 a force of 1,600 Virginia and North Carolina militia, including Colonel Charles Lynch and his men from Bradford and Pittsylvania Counties, mounted a preemptive strike. They burned over 50 Cherokee towns, murdered their male inhabitants, ravaged their crops, slaughtered their livestock and left the women and children survivors to twist slowly in the cold winter winds. In desperation the frayed survivors retreated over the mountains into Kentucky and Tennessee, surrendering five million acres to their American executioners. This one expedition secured Virginia’s open flank, and for four years the state felt safe.

But, as they say, no noose is good noose. And in the winter of 1780 came word that the scourge of Independence, Benedict Arnold, leading a mix of red coats and Tories (loyalists), had arrived to choke off the revolution by giving Virginia the same treatment Virginia had given the Cherokee. The towns of Williamsburg and Richmond were captured. The state's new Governor, Thomas Jefferson, missed the gallows by a hair’s breath. Half the Virginia legislature was lassoed. Their plantations were burned. At the same time General Cornwallis was approaching Virginia, chasing Nathanial Green’s little Continental army northward across the Carolinas. The Tories were in every patriot’s pocket, as the region was suddenly awash in counterfeit Continental dollars. Virginia was suddenly standing on a trap door, and the British were ready to pull the lever and drop the patriots into eternity.

The local Tories saw this as the opportunity to strike at the Patriots who had been bullying them for 5 years, or so the bullies assumed. Rumors strung across the piedmont of Tory plans to sabotage the lead mines owned by Charles, the iron works outside of Lynchburg (in which Charles was an investor), free the 4,000 British and Hessian prisoners held at present day Charlottesville, and worse, capture the Patriot arsenal at New London, Virginia, which Charles had invested in.

Every sickened horse was presumed to have been poisoned by Tories. Every house and barn fire was assumed to have been Tory arson. As the newly appointed sheriff of Bedford County, Charles Lynch decided he was at the end of his rope. He had to act, if for no other reason than to galvanize the frayed Patriot nerves. He deputized a core of supporters and began throwing a noose over the countryside, roping in suspected Tories and bringing them to trial before a rump court in his own front yard, at Green Level.

The trials were brief while the punishments were swift and brutal. None of those arrested were strung up, but they were forced to either swear allegiance to the patriot cause or be tied to a tree and receive 39 lashes on their bare backs, followed by imprisonment. It seems to have been effective, as no Tory uprising occurred - if there had ever been any real possibility of such an uprising.

As spring approached, and the courts at Green Level continued, Governor Jefferson asked Charles to lead a regiment of riflemen to support Nathaniel Green in North Carolina. Did Jefferson make that request, at least in part, to bring an end to the Mr. Lynch’s courts? Jefferson never said so. He did send a letter thanking Charles for his "defense of liberty". But the Lynch courts also dropped off the agenda of the new sheriff.

When General Green made his stand at Guilford Courthouse Charles was in command of the Patriot right flank. After Cornwallis’ costly victory there, Green kept Charles in North Carolina; even after Cornwallis’ wounded army limped north across the Virginia border and into the trap at Yorktown.

In 1782 the Virginia legislature voted retroactive approval of Colonel Charles Lynch’s courts. The punishments Charles had rendered in his front yard were now called “Lynch’s Law”. But the House of Burghers set up no mechanism to repeat such 'Lynch courts' during any future crises.

In 1793 Charles freed five of his slaves, writing by way of explanation, that it was, “…our duty to do unto all men as we would they should do unto us.” However he freed only those five and left the rest in bondage to be inherited by his children, like a barn or a favorite chair. Charles Lynch died in his home at Green Level in 1796. He was sixty years old.

Some years later a Captain William Lynch, then living just over the Virginia border in North Carolina, stepped forward to claim that he had been the origin of the phrase “Lynch Law”. But there is no evidence William Lynch ever issued any pseudo-justice which would have inspired such an appellation. The vigilante compact of the Pittsylvania County Alliance he supposedly signed seems to have been an invention for an 1836 magazine article by Edgar Allen Poe, a known writer of invention (see “Tell Tale Poe”). And anyone who would claim credit for such a ga-rotten conception should be lynched, because that is just not puny.

http://www.avocamuseum.org/index.html
http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-lyn1.htm
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