The Omaha courthouse lynching - story below.

Will Brown, hanged, shot and burned. The Omaha courthouse lynching – story below.*

I respect the fact that many Americans defend the Second Amendment right to “bear arms” with great sincerity.

However, it is an indisputable fact that throughout the history of the United States, and until very recently, it has been a very mixed blessing, as it has also resulted in mobs of roaming racists taking the law into their own hands.

As Americans debate their gun laws, they would do well to also consider this important historical perspective. An armed citizenry – the “militia’ of the founding fathers – could well be considered a mixed blessing. Especially if you happen to be black.

I would urge you to read this article:

Wellthisiswhatithink says: Whatever gun laws are or are not put in place, the American people surely need to face their history unflinchingly, to understand this dynamic, and guard against it. The law-abiding, responsible gun-owning citizen is not the issue here. It is what guns can do in the hands of the wrong people, or where they are prevalent in the wrong situation.

*Although not specifically about guns – although they played their role – this infamous incident was part of the wave of racial and labor violence that swept the U.S. during the “Red Summer” of 1919 and is very relevant to an understanding of mob violence and vigilantism.

As in the nation at large, it was a turning point in the history of Omaha’s black community.

Following a national pattern, the local daily newspaper carried lurid, sensational accounts of attacks by African American males on white women, without similar coverage of assaults on African American women, by either black or white males.

After one particularly provocative story in September of 1919, Will Brown, an African American man, was arrested and held in the Douglas County Courthouse.  Largely due to the newspaper story, a mob gathered.  Omaha Mayor Edward P. Smith was nearly lynched himself when he unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the crowd.  Then the mob broke into the recently constructed building, tearing off Brown’s clothing as he was being dragged out.

He was hanged on a nearby lamppost and then his body was riddled with bullets.

Finally the body was burned.

Members of the mob tied what remained of his charred body to an automobile, and dragged it around the streets of downtown Omaha.  Pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold as souvenirs for 10 cents apiece.

Henry Fonda

Popular American actor Henry Fonda, who witnessed the lynching.

Although some of the leaders of the lynching were placed on trial, most received suspended sentences, or were convicted of minor offenses such as destruction of public property.

Some of the causes of the “Courthouse Lynching of 1919” were linked to Omaha city politics.

The mayor, who was a recently-elected reformer, was at odds with the machine-controlled police department, whose members were conspicuously absent during the height of the riot.

One of the thousands of witnesses to the lynching was a young man named Henry Fonda, who later remembered, “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen.

My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes.  All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”


  1. fatherkane says:

    It’s the part of the 2nd Amendment that everyone forgets.
    “A well regulated militia….’
    It doesn’t say “Self proclaimed ‘patriots’ wanting to take the law into their own hands, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.”
    Many humble thanks for the link..


  2. What role did guns play in this incident?


    • Again, Jon, you need to read the article/link that the story points to. The Omaha story goes to the issue of vigilantism – the link goes to guns more generally when in the hands of vigilantes.


    • Loren Blake says:

      During the Willie Brown lynching over 1000 guns were stolen from downtown Omaha pawn shops and hardware stores. Browns body was riddled with bullets even after his lifeless body was dangling from the noose. Brown was not actually killed by a gun but he still suffered from it’s wrath. Guns are ugly, and irresponsible gun owners make them even uglier.


  3. James Mahoney says:

    And so, Yolly, you think that things like this wouldn’t have happened (and presumably, won’t in the future) if guns were not available? A fatuous connection at best, and uncharacteristic of your otherwise well-considered arguments.

    Gangs of thugs–right, left, middle or unaligned; regardless of race, creed or nationality–will attempt to do their will. Combating those abominations is a separate issue from, and only very tenuously connected to, gun control.


  4. Richard Ember says:

    Oh Yolly, you can’t seriously expect to hold an incident in 1919 up as a factor ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything. I was thinking of introducing The Battle of Athens in post WW2 America as a factor in favour of gun laws but ruled it out on time – but you have trumped that by going back nearly 30 years before.

    As a footnote, google Battle of Athens – if nothing else it is a v interesting read about sma;ll town America in the 40s.


    • No of course 1919 is a long time ago – but the article it points to reveals similar appalling behaviour as recently as in the aftermath to Hurricane Katrina …


    • On a related point, I wasn’t aware of the Battle of Athens, and I thank you for referring to it. I note the Wikipedia article on it states it is often used as a validation of Second Amendment rights, and I can see why. I guess in all these situations, it’s a case of vigilante is as vigilante does. Or to put it another way, if the vigilantes are on the side of the angels and democracy as *I* see them, then *I* am more likely to consider their actions justified, whether they employ guns or not. I find this a genuinely fascinating topic, and I thank you for expanding it.

      If, for example, the National Front in East London had resorted to guns to support their appalling behaviour towards the local black, Asian and leftist population in those areas, I could, I am reasonably sure, have justified the Anti-Nazi League responding with defence of the community that involved firearms. And yet, simultaneously, I can see how that would degenerate rapidly into a mini-Syria in Plaistow in days. Or, you know, Lebanon, Kurdish Iraq, Soweto post apartheid and pre-Mandela elected, and so on. I am sure you take my point. I just don’t know what the solution is, but I am reasonably sure that the TOTAL POPULATION of guns in a community must affect the likelihood of situations spiralling out of control. I suspect we will disagree on that, but we should debate it.


  5. Richard Ember says:

    I will say thought that the picture, if genuine, is sickening. Look at the smiling faces. Dear God……


  6. Richard Ember says:

    Yes, I saw that Yolly. NO is known for its criminal activity and is possibly not a fair example of middle America. Criminals will always get guns – Mexico, for example, has v strict gun laws. How are they working out????


    • I do take your point, Richard. Except to say that in Mexico you have a generalised breakdown of law and order, which isn’t yet the case in the USA, and the role of guns in what is essentially a civil war between the drug gangs and the legitimate government doesn’t really inform the situation in America. But in any event, I really only mean to point out that in the on-going debate on guns, the role that they could play in a vigilante-style situation cannot be ignored because America has some history in this sense that needs to be understood – examined – considered. That’s really all I am saying.

      We all know, of course, that the gun control debate is not about law abiding citizens who keep guns for legally-permitted hunting or self-defence, who store them safely, and who would never consider using them wantonly.


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