Lynching postcards

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A colorized postcard of the lynching of Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Thomas Jones, and Joseph Riley on July 31, 1908 in Russellville, Kentucky.

Lynching postcards were produced for more than fifty years in the United States. They bore photographs and were distributed, kept, and even collected as souvenirs of racially-charged crimes — i.e., murders in the name of vigilantism and racial hatred — which were committed in public by mobs against African-Americans. It has been part of white supremacist culture, and some[who?] still distribute them[how?] as part of their nostalgia. Their distribution through the United States mail was banned in 1908.


Lynching in the United States became very common around the 1880s and the 1930s. African American males, females, and children were forcibly removed from their homes, to be lynched because they were accused of crimes by other people. This was a time were people wanted to demonstrate the superiority of one race or one religion. Most of the lynchings occurred in the South, but not all.[1] When a white person accused a black person of a crime, they were generally assumed to be guilty of that crime.[2][page needed] Crowds of people would decide to follow through with lynchings, even before a trial, because they were insistent in the guilt of that specific person, without a trial. Based on the gender, race, and class of the person who was accused, there would be a different way to lynch that person.[1] When these lynchings took place, people took souvenirs to remember the activities that happened that day. One form of remembrance were lynching postcards. These postcards were sold for money to people that were present to the lynch.[3]

In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed, which banned the publication of "obscene matter as well as its circulation in the mails".[4] In 1908, §3893 was added to the Comstock Act, stating that the ban included material "tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination".[4] Although this act did not explicitly ban lynching photographs or postcards, it banned the explicit racist texts and poems inscribed on certain prints. According to some, these texts were deemed "more incriminating" and caused their removal from the mail instead of the photograph itself because the text made "too explicit what was always implicit in lynchings".[4] Some towns imposed "self-censorship" on lynching photographs, but section 3893 was the first step towards a national censorship.[4] Despite the amendment, the distribution of lynching photographs and postcards continued. Though they were not sold openly, the censorship was bypassed when people sent the material in envelopes or mail wrappers.[2][page needed]


Lynching postcards were used as a mean of communication for many people. They were used by families to talk to each other about the activities they had taken part of during that day. Multiple people used these postcards as if they were the normal thing to send to a family member when they wanted to let them know something. Many people resold these postcards for more money because there were other people who wanted the postcards as souvenirs for themselves. James Allen acquired a collection of lynching postcards, buying them from people, dealers, Ku Klux Klan members and families that kept the postcards along with the other pictures they had for their family.[2][page needed] While he was obtaining these pictures, the people that sold him the postcards would whisper to him if he wanted to buy them, they were not necessarily out in the open when he bought them. According to Allen, the photographs taken for the postcards were most likely taken by the people who lynched the person because they already committed the lynch; now, they wanted to proselytize and remember it.[5][page needed]


The lynching postcards are usually taken with the person who is lynched being the center of attention of the postcard. Then, there are people to the side of the person smiling at the camera to show that they are at the lynching.[1] Their faces show no remorse of the activity that occurred moments before. They pose with the body of the person that was lynched looking at the camera as if the person was a statue that they want a picture with. The people in the background of the pictures do not seem to be hiding their faces, rather they are posing for the pictures.[5][page needed] The people in the background were not only adult male and females, but also children who sometimes took part in obtaining the souvenirs for the lynching.[3] For example, for the lynching of Leo Frank, he was the center of all the people in the image because everyone wanted to see him lynched because it had been a very public case. Due to this, the public did not want only a conviction, instead they decided to lynch him themselves by taking him out of his prison and hanging him on a tree.[6][page needed] Now, so many years later these postcards are sold, but not as open as they were sold before, they are sold in antique shops, with their owners whispering that they have these postcards. Not as open as they used to be during the time of the lynches.[5][page needed]

The manufacture and continued distribution of these cards was part of white supremacist culture, and has been likened to 'bigot pornography.'[7] White citizens were depicted as being victorious over powerless dead black victims, and the pictures became part of secular iconography. These images achieved additional local cultural force (where and by whom they were distributed), providing a synergy with assumptions about the objective truth of photography. It is argued:

"… that although lynching photographs were conspicuously modern in many ways, for white southerners who photographed and collected them, they were also intensely local and personal. Within specific localities, viewers did not disconnect the photographs from the actual lynchings they represented. Through that particularity, the images served as visual proof for the uncontested ‘truth’ of white civilized morality over and against supposed black bestiality and savagery."[7]

It is only when they are isolated and viewed outside the locality, population and culture that their craven purpose becomes apparent.[7]

People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. Richard Lacayo, writing for Time magazine, noted in 2000,

Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.[8]

However, the cards continued to sell, although not openly, and were sent instead in envelopes.[9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Wolters 2004, pp. 399–425.
  2. ^ a b c Apel 2004.
  3. ^ a b Young 2005, pp. 639–657.
  4. ^ a b c d Kim 2012.
  5. ^ a b c Allen & Littlefield 2018.
  6. ^ Oney 2004.
  7. ^ a b c Wood 2005, pp. 373–399.
  8. ^ Lacayo, Richard (April 2, 2000). "Blood At The Root". Time. Retrieved 2019-07-30.
  9. ^ Rushdy 2012, pp. 68–69.
  10. ^ Moehringer, J. R. (August 27, 2000). "An Obsessive Quest to Make People See". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2019-07-30.