The lynch mob we imagine involves a band of white men coming together to work murder on a black person. Atticus Finch faces one down in To Kill a Mockingbird, even if he then goes on to tell his daughter that the mob’s murderous hatred of black men amounts to just a personal eccentricity which should not lower her opinion of them. Certainly history does not lack for examples of whites lynching non-whites, whether that meant blacks or the wide universe of comparatively pale people who nonetheless did not count as white at one point. But lynch mobs also killed people who the mob understood to share a race with them. They might, or might not, get a show trial before a respected member of the community but they ended up just as dead.
Southerners had long demanded that the North engage in some form of suppression of antislavery activity. Their constant complaints about abolitionists hang as much on how the North had not run them out of town as anything the abolitionists themselves said or did. Since at least the 1830s, proslavery men had demanded the North censor its mails to keep abolitionist literature away. That asked too much of the North, but Southern postmasters routinely searched the mail and burned material they found offensive. Simple discussion could prompt the same sort of defensive hostility, which further endeared proslavery politics to an otherwise disinterested North. Men who cared not at all about brutal, authoritarian control of blacks far away cared a great deal about slaveholders stomping on their own rights as white men in a free society. The Fugitive Slave Act made that concern especially immediate.
This must sound like a hysterical overreaction, but it made good sense to the planter class. They lived deeply integrated lives, with slaves always present. Discussing abolition meant that any nearby slave, like a cherished bodyservant, the maid next door, or one’s childhood playmate could hear and get ideas. Papers and pamphlets discussing abolition lay on tables where slaves could read them, even if the law forbade slave literacy. Slaveholders understood that situation as the equivalent of inciting a riot, something I think most modern Americans would agree does not fall under the umbrella of free speech.
The threat of mob violence could keep dissenting Southerners in line. It certainly served to drive the region’s few native antislavery types northward. It also spilled over on plenty of innocents. One such innocent, Irish stonecutter James Powers, worked on South Carolina’s new capitol building in 1859. The Carolinians admired his accent, maybe a bit too much, but had no trouble seeing him as a potential member of their society until John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry. He transformed every outsider in the South into an abolitionist guerrilla. Suddenly men who spoke like Powers did not belong. Someone should do something.
Powers got wind of this and fled Columbia. The mob pursued him for nine miles and then hauled him back and threw him in jail. Iron bars did not satisfy the mob, which dragged him out to the packed city square, where they declared Powers worse than a slave and handed slaves the whip to give him twenty-nine lashes. The Carolina mob still wanted more. They let a fire and heated a kettle of tar, forcing the boiling black ooze into his wounds and smearing it across all the skin they had not seen whipped off. They forced him to do a dance and declared that his outside matched his inside. Then someone got the feathers and doused Powers with those as well. Then, finally, they promised his head would roll if he ever returned to Columbia before throwing him on a train to Charleston.
A mob in Charleston met his train and hauled Powers off to jail, where they returned often to threaten. They dragged him out again, pushing and shoving him through the crowd at last to another train, which finally took him to New York. Powers’ made it out alive, as did many others, but the South lynched three hundred whites in the thirty years before 1860. It made for a strong message: Do not cross us; do not challenge our institutions, or you’ll leave town whipped, tarred, and on a train or in a box.