Lynching is American. The term comes from Charles Lynch, who was a justice of the peace in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. A Patriot, Lynch encouraged and instructed other Patriots to commit extralegal punishments against those that supported the Crown. Lynch’s Law, as it became know; typically was carried out by mobs that tarred and feathered their victims. The public humiliation not only sent fear through Loyalists, it also acted as a way to ensure that others would fall in line and become good Patriots and, eventually, Americans. At the onset of the 19th century, pro-slavery factions lynched abolitionists that advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery in America.
Lynching has never been a legal form of capital punishment like hanging or firing squad. Yet, throughout the country, law enforcement overlooked the actions of angry mobs seeking vengeance for perceived crimes. Throughout America’s history, lynching has happened for a variety of reasons. Horse thieves, rapists, murderers, back-talkers, and sometimes, people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time were strung up a tree and left for anyone to see. Mob violence was horrific and lynchings proved to be a powerful spectacle. From the American Civil War until the last recorded lynching in 1981, thousands of people died as they were strung up a tree, pole, or just strangled for a perceived or real crime. Below is a sampling of eight kidnappings and lynchings that impacted communities throughout America.
William “Bill” Sketoe, Jr, Methodist Minister, December 3, 1864
The lynching of Bill Sketoe has become ledgend. A native of Spain, Sketoe resided in the southern Alabama town of Newton. His lynching and death, over the years, has evolved into a popular ghost story. Even why he was lynched and murdered carries some controversy as facts have been spun into good stories. Some details of Sketoe are undisputed; he lived in Newton and got on the bad side of the Newton Home Guard.
When southern states began seceding from the United States of America, not all residents of these states agreed. In Georgia, for example, there were numerous heated and sometimes violent debates on the issue. Voters—only white males who met the requirements to vote—eventually voted to secede. Southern states that had port cities on the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, or on rivers, were extremely concerned about how an impending war would impact their trade and profits. Blockading of any port city would dramatically reduce importation of food items that sustained the populace. Despite the massive agricultural output of most southern states, they grew one crop: cotton, which people could not eat to survive.
As the armies engaged on the battlefields, some of the most horrific fighting occurred on the home front. Families that supported the Union were targeted as traitors. People that attempted to maintain neutrality were forced either to take the side of Southern resistance or be forced to leave their homes, farms, and assets. Millions of people were violently forced to leave their homes. The violence increased as more and more men fled the Confederate army at the request of their wives, mothers, and daughters.
Wives and mothers mailed letters to their menfolk in service begging for their return. They outlined how the armies, deserters, and home guards were pillaging their food supplies; burning their barns, homes, and land; absconding with cherished family possessions; and claiming all livestock by order of the Confederate government. Women and children were left with nothing but the promise of starvation. As such, Confederate soldiers deserted by the thousands to protect the very thing they were fighting for: their homes, families, and livelihood.
The Home Guards were created as a way to deal with deserters and unionists that continually terrorized the local population. Reasons for desertion were not nearly as important as returning soldiers to the front lines to fight against the invading armies of the Union. For Bill Sketoe, legend states that he was a Confederate deserter; however, he has no service record. It was much more likely that Sketoe was a Unionist and terrorized the local population as he gathered food to support the hundreds of other Unionists hiding in the dense woods around Newton.
Sketoe was a large, tall man. He was crossing the Choctawhatchee River when the Home Guard came upon him. Already a well-known person, the Home Guard dragged Sketoe into the woods, where they beat him and then forced him to crawl through the sand along the river. Next, he was dragged to a waiting buggy, where a noose was placed around his neck, and the rope thrown over a nearby tree branch. Sketoe was given a last request of prayer. Instead of praying for himself, he prayed for the men who had captured him and put him into the noose. This made the Home Guard mad and the horse attached to the buggy was hit. As the men were expecting to see Sketoe dangle by his neck, they realized that they had not considered the man’s body size. Sketoe’s weight bent the branch and his feet still touched the ground. To make the hanging successful, men from the Home Guard began digging a hole so that Sketoe’s feet could freely dangle and he would die from the hanging.
Bill Sketoe’s hanging was successful and he died. When his body was removed his wife, Sarah, buried her husband’s body. The hole, however, took on a life of its own. In the years following the Civil War, locals declared that the whole dug by the Home Guard to accommodate Sketoe’s frame never stayed filled. Today the unfillable hole has been covered by tons of rock and debris to strengthen the riverbank. Members of Sketoe’s descendants and Newton officials placed a monument near the death site, honoring Sketoe, which is a popular site for visitors and believers of the paranormal.