A changing lynchocracy: Lynching and the performance of American identity in Gold Rush California, 1848--1858

by Brownrigg, Coya Paz, Ph.D., NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, 2010, 242 pages; 3402139


The lynching of Hispanos has been largely ignored in studies on lynching. From the hanging of Josefa Segovia in front of three thousand spectators in 1851 to the beheading of Miguel Soto in 1857, however, there is ample evidence that Mexicans, Chileans, and other Latin Americans were disproportionately the targets of lynching violence in California following the annexation of Mexican territories in 1848. Using Spanish-language sources to contest dominant histories of Gold Rush California, I argue that the lynching of Hispanos provides an important site from which to examine the role of public violence in constructing racial and national identities, an intervention that is particularly urgent given the contemporary resurgence of anti-immigrant action along the U.S.-Mexico border. A study of lynching violence during the period 1848-1858 reveals that lynching participated in casting Hispanos as fundamentally outside American identity and therefore undeserving of American resources, be they land, gold, or the rights of citizenship.

This dissertation is a cross-disciplinary historical study that uses performance theory as a critical lens through which to understand both the symbolic and material function of lynching in postwar and Gold Rush California. Central to my study is the assumption that both the corporeal act of lynching and the rhetorical application of the term lynching should be understood as performances designed to transmit particular cultural messages. The formulation of lynching as “performance” is not meant to obscure the material consequences of physical violence, but rather it asks how the fact of violence against individual bodies is mobilized as part of larger political and social agendas. To call lynching a performance is to acknowledge it as a public act, framed for an audience, and to recognize that public punishment is designed to signify beyond the immediate corporeal act.

AdviserE. Patrick Johnson
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAmerican history; Performing arts; Hispanic American studies
Publication Number3402139

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