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[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky]

[Lynching, Russellville, Kentucky]

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From the first year of Reconstruction to the early 1940s, lynching was the primary means of maintaining white supremacy in the American South. Considered by the federal government a normal condition of post-Civil War race relations, lynching was used not only as a specific act of summary "justice" but also as a symbol to further intimidate and degrade blacks. The magnitude of recorded mob violence between 1880 and 1940 almost defies description, involving more than five thousand men, women, and children in ritualized murder, often before an invited public. Two-thirds of the victims were African-American men. Kentucky was the site of some of the most vicious racial violence, perhaps because of its unique position as a slave-holding state that had remained loyal to the Union. The state was never "reconstructed," and thus former Confederates were easily able to preserve the racist society that had characterized the antebellum period, with little or no interference by the government. This photograph is brutal testament to racial terrorism in America. The facts of the case are drawn from a small article that appeared in the "New York Times" on August 2, 1908, the same day the photograph was made by a local journalist. On the previous night, one hundred white men had entered the Russellville, Kentucky, jail and demanded that four black sharecroppers who had been detained for "disturbing the peace" be turned over to them. The men were accused by the mob of expressing sympathy for a fellow sharecropper who, in self-defense, had killed the white farmer for whom he worked. The jailer complied, and Virgil, Robert, and Thomas Jones and Joseph Riley were taken to a cedar tree and summarily lynched. The text of the note pinned to one of the bodies was also inscribed on the verso of the photograph: "Let this be a warning to you niggers to let white people alone or you will go the same way."
Minor B. Wade (American, 1874–1932)

Hundreds of photographers whose names may never be known made their living following the armies during the Civil War. They worked out in the field tents and traveled at a moment’s notice. Photographers recorded the faces of tens of thousands of soldiers: new recruits and veterans—producing a vast likeness of American society. Many Civil War photographers began their careers as apprentices to Mathew B. Brady, America's self-appointed photographic "historian." Initially, a small corps of photographers copied maps and charts for the Union's Secret Service, which were distributed as photographic prints to both field and division commanders. During the Civil War, most photographers worked with the collodion-on-glass negatives, which required delicate and laborious procedures even in the studio. When the photographer was ready for action, a sheet of glass was cleaned, coated with collodion, partially dried, dipped carefully into a bath containing nitrate of silver, then exposed in the camera for several seconds and processed in the field darkroom tent--all before the silver collodion mixture had dried. Given the danger of their situation and the technical difficulty of their task, front-line photographers rarely if ever attempted action scenes. Civil War photographers produced vast photographic documentation of the Civil War. Despite decades of painstaking research by dedicated historians and Civil War buffs, a large number of the era's photographs remain unidentified.





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