Would You join a Mob? (Sep, 1934)

Very odd article about group psychology and suggestibility and how they lead people to join lynch mobs. The author manages to completely ignore the fact that in the vast majority of cases lynching victims were black and the mobs were white. Additionally, the author constantly refers to the victims of mobs as “the killers” or “the slayers” even though most of them were grabbed out of holding cells before anything resembling a trial.

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Would You join a Mob?

by Prescott Lecky

AT THE University of Iowa, a student recently hurst into a psychology classroom. Dramatically he gave details of a local kidnaping and cold-blooded murder. The criminal had been caught, had confessed, and a mob was forming near the county jail to lynch him. How many would go along and help the lynchers?

At the height of the excitement, 200 students answered the following questions: How many would participate with the mob? How many would go along as spectators? How many would stay away?

In this spectacular manner, Prof. Norman C. Meier and two associates staged a test as part of extensive researches now being conducted in mob psychology. The student who brought the news acted the part so realistically that virtually the entire class was deceived. The results of the experiment give an illuminating picture of what the average citizen is likely to do if he finds himself near a forming mob.

If guilt is certain, according to the tests, sixty-six out of 200 people will take an active part. Sixty will go along as spectators. Approximately eighty will remain away. Thus, out of a group of 200 people of better than ordinary education, more than 120 will rush out to join or watch the mob.

What characteristics will these 120 have in common? Why will they act as they do? Would YOU join a mob?

Such questions, in view of recent outbreaks of mob violence, are occupying the attention of psychologists. Last year twenty-eight human beings were victims of mob murder in the United States. This is the peak figure for seven years. More than 5,000 people, many of them later proved innocent, have been lynched in the fifty-two years since 1882, nearly 500 of them since the World War.

One of the important things psychologists have discovered is that you can’t measure susceptibility to the mob spirit in terms of education or intelligence alone. In highly cultured communities as well as in backward ones, mass violence may make its appearance. An example of the kind occurred in a town in Texas.

With two colleges, twenty-seven churches, and twelve city parks, this community is known as “the Athens of Texas.” Yet, a few years ago, its citizens for fourteen hours were raging savages who battled Texas Rangers and National Guardsmen and finally burned a man alive!

Three times, the mob charged the courthouse where a negro prisoner, George Hughes, had been placed in the steel vault of the District Clerk’s office for safekeeping. Then a woman hurled a rock through a window. Two seventeen-year-old boys poured a five-gallon can of gasoline through the opening and a man tossed in a lighted match. In five minutes, the building was a mass of roaring flames. Howling outside, the mob cut the fire hose as fast as it was attached to the hydrants and the prisoner was burned alive in the vault in which he sought protection.

Nor was that all. Hardly had the embers begun to cool when men with acetylene torches and dynamite cut and blasted their way into the vault to obtain the body of their victim. Placing it on a truck, 2,000 men, women, and children paraded through the streets for nearly an hour. Still not content, they finally hanged the body from a limb, piled broken boxes and boards beneath, soaked them in kerosense, and applied a match.

“Texans,” said the Houston Post, editorially, “will share the astonishment of the outside world at this exhibition of lawlessness. It defies apology—almost defies explanation.” Yet the evidence shows that this barbarous spectacle might happen in almost any community.

What is the explanation? The answer goes back hundreds of thousands of years, back to the days of primitive men and the belief in creatures that were not human—demons, witches, and devils of fiendish power.

Virtually every case of mob violence grows out of the same thing: a crime so revolting to the moral sensibilities of a large number of people that it stamps the criminal as devoid of human feeling and makes him appear a fiend or devil.

In the Texas case, the prisoner had confessed to attacking an elderly woman. In other instances, mob murders grew out of such depraved crimes as burning a whole family alive, beating out the brains of a defenseless old man, murdering a nine-year-old child who offered the killer all the money she had, a nickel, if he would not harm her. Contrary to general opinion, only sixteen percent, less than one out of five, of those lynched have been accused of crimes relating to sex.

The subconscious feeling that it is dealing with something beyond the pale of humanity, with a devil in the form of a man, accounts for the excesses of the mob. There is no feeling of guilt, no remorse at killing a human being. Members of the mob see themselves not as fiends and savages but as heroes ridding the world of something that has no right to live. The psychological heritage of countless generations demands the destruction of devils. The curious, almost unbelievable, truth is: a mob murder is a moral crusade.

A few months ago, when Californians lynched the kidnapers of Brooke Hart, the papers reported a significant incident. After battering down the jail doors with huge iron pipes, and before they dragged the two prisoners from their cells to be stripped and hanged, members of the mob knelt in silent prayer.

This paradox would be inexplicable but for an understanding of the moral mainspring that actuates the crowd in its excess of violence. It must be appreciated if we are to understand how normal people lose themselves in the savage cruelty of a mob.

In time of war, a similar attitude prevails. Moral scruples against killing fellow men are stilled by the feeling that the enemy is a devil capable of any atrocity. You remember during the World War stories of how Germans were cutting off the hands of Belgian babies and boiling up the bodies of slain soldiers to obtain fat for soap making? Such falsehoods stirred up ingrained feelings descending from an age of demonology, feelings that devils must be destroyed. So in a mob. The crimes of which the victim is accused are repeated over and over. The consequence is that all emotions of compassion disappear and no extreme of punishment seems , too great.

In one case where a man was burned alive, leaders of the mob were preparing to hang him when a member on the outskirts of the crowd began reciting in a high-pitched voice the awful details of the crime of which he was accused. Repeated over and over again, they had a hypnotic effect upon the crowd, driving it into a frenzy. Chaining the prisoner to a stump, it poured gasoline over a pile of faggots and turned him into a writhing human torch. As soon as the embers were cool, members rushed in like madmen, hacking the stump and breaking up the chain to obtain treasured souvenirs of the fiendish action.

Only the ancient belief in devils and the feeling that a devil cannot be tolerated but must be brutally removed from the earth, can explain such an act. This and the moral mainspring behind mass violence give an insight into the action of mobs in the mass. But what about the individual? Why does he act as he does? Why does he do things in the mob he never could, conceivably do alone?

Everyone’s suggestibility mounts when he enters a crowd. A recent battery of tests made at one American university shows we are three times as likely to accept suggestions without criticism in a mob as we are in normal life. This gives the key to the manner in which ideas spread as though by contagion through an excited crowd.

It is this element of suggestibility that explains the abnormal action of the individual in a crowd. Hypnotism is heightened suggestibility in which the subject does whatever he is told. Something like hypnotism occurs in a crowd. Ideas are accepted without criticism and acted upon without reflection.

An example is the lynching of the “Santa Claus bandit” in the Southwest a few years ago. On Christmas Eve, Marshall Ratliff, dressed as a Santa Claus, robbed a bank and killed two policemen at Cisco, Texas. He was sentenced to death, won a sanity hearing, and while awaiting test in jail feigned paralysis. A guard, thinking him helpless, entered his cell. Ratliff leaped on him, snatched away his gun, shot him dead, and made an unsuccessful attempt to escape.

The next evening a mob of enraged citizens dragged him from his cell, paraded him through the streets, and started to string him up on a telephone pole. The rope broke just as it jerked him from the ground. Fifteen minutes later, a grass rope had been made. Then, according to newspaper reports, just as he was -being hauled into the air a second time, the leader shouted: “Maybe he wants to talk!” The men let go of the rope and dropped him to the ground again. Then somebody else shouted: “He doesn’t want to talk,” and immediately the suggestible crowd jerked him into the air for a third and last time, ending the savage exhibition.

The records of psychology contain numerous curious instances of this kind showing the power of suggestion.

A few months ago, for example, an eastern chemistry professor tried an experiment on his class. He held up a vial labeled “Violet Perfume” and asked the students to raise their hands as soon as they could detect the odor. Fifteen seconds after he had removed the cork every hand in the front row was up and in less than a minute three-fourths of the class had signaled they could smell the perfume. The bottle contained nothing but water. A doctor reports an even stranger incident from his medical practice. A man and his wife were bitten by a pet dog. The man was sure he was going to develop hydrophobia; the woman was sure she wasn’t. In three days, the man was sick in bed, his throat muscles were becoming taut and he complained of difficulty in swallowing. His wife was up and well.

At the end of five days, the man reported all symptoms of hydrophobia and when a week had gone by the attending physician saw he was actually on the verge of dying from a disease he didn’t have. Finally, on the eighth day, the doctor convinced him nobody with hydrophobia ever lived more than six days. He jumped out of bed and soon was as well as before the dog bit him.

Most amazing of all is an instance that occurred in London, Eng. An excitable, high-strung young woman was brought to a hospital for the removal of two small tumors of the scalp. In the operating room, at the last moment the anesthetic was found to be exhausted. While attendants rushed to bring a fresh supply, the nurse in charge placed the inhaler over the patient’s face to accustom her to the feel of it. Immediately, she began to breathe rapidly and in a few moments an arm that had been lying across her chest dropped to her side. By pinching it, the nurse discovered she was completely unconscious, overcome by an imaginary anesthetic.

One of the tumors was removed without any evidence that the patient felt the pain. Then the nurse tried an experiment. Removing the inhaler, she said to the surgeon: “I believe she is coming to.” The patient began to stir and show signs of reviving. When the inhaler was replaced, however, she became quiet and her breathing grew deep and regular. Later, she said she felt nothing during the whole operation although examination of the inhaler revealed she had been breathing air without even the smell of anesthetic in it.

Recent researches, here and abroad, have brought out many new facts about the mysterious power of suggestion. They have answered many of our common questions. For example:

At what time of day are we most suggestible? Toward evening when we are tired. At what age is our suggestibility at its peak? When we are eight years old. Are women more suggestible than men? Yes. Are Southern or Northern races more suggestible? Southern races. Is suggestibility the sign of a weak mind? No. Tests have shown that the person with an alert, wide-awake mind is more likely to be suggestible than one with a slow or dull brain.

AMONG the ingenious tests for suggestibility which have been worked out by psychologists are a number of simple ones that you can try on your friends.

One requires the subject being tested to hold a metal bob at the end of a string near a steel bar. He is told the bar is magnetized. If he is suggestible, unconsciously he will move the bob nearer the bar. In another experiment, two boxes, one larger than the other but both weighing the same are lifted by the subject. If he picks the larger box as heavier, he is suggestible. Again, a dozen small boxes of identical size and shape are placed on a table. The first five are progressively heavier, the rest weigh exactly the same. The suggestible person will imagine the later boxes vary in weight because the first five do. Lines of different lengths, appearing in a slit, and cork balls with hardly perceptible variations in weight are also used to detect susceptibility to suggestion.

One of the latest discoveries reported in connection with suggestion was made in an American psychological laboratory. Those whose hearing becomes keener when they are concentrating or in a reverie, the research workers discovered, are of the suggestible type; those who go into a “brown study” and do not hear when spoken to are not.

In a riot, a panic, a mob, or a lynching party, the members cease to think as units. They seem to lose all feeling of individual responsibility. They are swept along, veering from one suggestion to another and, in the end, almost always they are carried farther than they intended to go.

An illustration is the barbarous act of a Missouri mob.

After snatching from the hands of a sheriff, the murderer of a twenty-year-old school teacher, the mob started to hang the prisoner from a tree. Then a member shouted: “Let’s hang him in the school yard!” Immediately the crowd took up the cry and surged in that direction. At the schoolhouse, someone else yelled: “Let’s put him on the roof and fire the building!” Almost automatically, men rushed for ladders, dragged the victim to the roof, and handcuffed him to the peak. Then they poured gasoline in a great circle around him and touched it off with a match. While hundreds of men, women and children cheered, the fire ate through the roof and plunged the flaming body onto the desks below.

SUCH fiendish acts are almost always impromptu. They are thought of on the spur of the moment, after the suggestibility of the mob has reached the point where ordinary reason has ceased to function and where normal feelings are forgotten. Only on rare occasions do mobs act with the drilled precision of a football team, or carry out programs prepared in advance.

One recent example of the kind, however, occurred in West Virginia. A hundred masked men in motorcars, without licenses, silently circled the county jail late at night, gained admission by pretending they were bringing in a prisoner, and dragged two killers from their cells. Fifteen miles in the country, they strung up both, side by side, from the cross-arm of a telephone pole. Then they stepped back and at a word from the leader riddled the bodies with bullets. Before anyone could investigate, the killers had sped away.

MOST mob action has a different story. It begins with a formless group of excited people in a suggestible frame of mind. Gradually a leader emerges, makes suggestions and directs the pent-up violence of the mob toward a given purpose. Almost always, somewhere along the way, there is a psychological moment when the future action of the mob hangs in the balance.

During the Siege of Paris, in the Franco-Prussian War, a famous instance of this sort occurred. Storming the Louvre, where the government was sitting, a mob demanded the immediate execution of a Marshal of the army who, they said, had been caught copying fortification plans to sell to the enemy. Because the Marshal had helped design the fortifications and was most interested in seeing them prove their worth, and because similar plans could be bought in almost any bookstore, government officials knew the charges were absurd. But the orator who saved the prisoner’s life made no attempt to reason with the mob.

“Fellow citizens,” he declared, “you have done a great, patriotic deed. Your work is over. Let the government conclude your investigation. Justice—pitiless justice—shall be done. In the meantime we will keep the prisoner in custody.” The mob cheered, dispersed, and in half an hour the Marshal was able to return safely to his home.

A twist of a different kind marked a lynching in Indiana, a couple of years ago.

Shortly after nine o’clock at night, more than a thousand people had collected about the local jail where three murderers were awaiting trial. Leading citizens made impassioned pleas for law observance. A show of hands indicated that a majority of the crowd favored letting the law take its course.

At that moment, the aged father of one of the victims came from the jail where he had been conferring with the sheriff. As he emerged, those near-by surged toward him. He lost his footing and fell. Immediately, word ran through the crowd that he had collapsed from the shocking details of the crime he had heard inside. Like a match producing an explosion, the idea touched off the mob. In a fury it lynched two of the slayers and was ready to hang the third before State Troopers could get the situation under control.

IN THIS strange realm of suggestibility, psychology has many mysteries yet to solve. Recent researches, however, have gone far to explain how the mob-mind works and why such mass action takes place.

To sum up: Psychology has traced the excesses of a mob to the feeling that the victim is not human but is a devil that must be destroyed. This gives the feeling of moral justification. It has found that in the midst of the mob the individual loses his capacity to reason normally; that he reaches a suggestible state approaching hypnotism. It has learned that, if the conditions are right, mob violence may appear in any town. And, finally, it has discovered that only by avoiding crowds which may become violent can YOU be sure you will not join a mob.

  1. KHarn says: March 9, 20083:03 pm

    There are MANY cases of “whites” being lynched and the writer cites some of them. So don’t drag race into it.

  2. […] units that will follow orders even when there’s high risk of death. Studies of mob behavior have long revealed the fact that people’s behavior changes dramatically when they’re in a crowd: People who are […]

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