At the start of the 20th century in the United States, lynching was photographic sport. People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. A writer 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.
In the post-Reconstruction era South, lynching photographs were printed for various purposes, including postcards, newspapers and event mementos. Typically these images depicted an African-American lynching victim and all or part of the crowd in attendance. Spectators often included women and children. The perpetrators of lynchings were not identified. At one particular lynching, it is said that nearly 15,000 people were in attendance. Often lynchings were advertised in newspapers prior to the event in order to give photographers time to arrive early and prepare their camera equipment. After the lynching, photographers would sell their pictures as-is or as postcards, sometimes costing as much as fifty cents a piece.
Though some photographs were sold as plain prints, others contained captions. These captions were either straightforward details—such as the time, date and reasons for the lynching—while others contained polemics or poems with racist or otherwise threatening remarks. An example of this is a photographic postcard attached to the poem "Dogwood Tree," which says: "The negro now/By eternal grace/Must learn to stay in the negro's place/In the Sunny South, the land of the Free/Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be." Such postcards with explicit rhetoric such as "Dogwood Tree" were typically circulated privately or mailed in a sealed envelope. Other times these pictures simply included the word "WARNING,".
In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed, which banned the publication of "obscene matter as well as its circulation in the mails". In 1908, Section 3893 was added to the Comstock Act, stating that the ban included material "tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination". 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,". Some towns imposed "self-censorship" on lynching photographs, but section 3893 was the first steps towards a national censorship. 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.
In Without Sanctuary (2000), a book of lynching postcards collected by James Allen, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack wrote:
"The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another. For the men and women who composed these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves – merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community."