“People in the South don’t have much leisure time, and when they do get some time off they like to make the most of it. In the 1890s, making the most of it often meant rounding up a gang of friends and going out to find a black person to murder. After the lynching, everyone would have a nice picnic together while looking at the hanging corpse.”
—James W. Loewen
The idyllic associations evoked by a picnic—relaxation, leisure, and innocent pleasure in nature—stand in stark contrast to many darker moments throughout the history of picnicking in which the gentle picnic has been disturbingly twinned with violence and atrocity.
As the accounts below illustrate, across times and places, the act of picnicking has proved unexpectedly conducive to serving as a blithe backdrop or postscript to chaotic public disorder, brutal racist lynchings, callous terrorism, and shocking premeditated murder.
By juxtaposing normalcy with the extreme, the "picnic" setting ratchets up the horror exponentially, as humans pursue lethal and inhumane acts within spaces coded for tranquility and nourishment.
Picnicking's guise of genteel reprieve from society and its rules at times enables transgression, as darker human impulses remake pastoral settings in their own image.
The following snapshots provide chilling cases in point of how the veneer of civilized leisure embodied by the picnic can barely conceal an unruly potential for terror throughout the history of the picnic.
Public executions in the 18th and 19th centuries served as macabre community spectacle, attracting throngs of curious onlookers eager for morbid entertainment.
The gristly proceedings of hanging days fostered a carnival atmosphere, with vendors peddling food and drink to the assembled crowds.
After the grim main event, people would often linger to socialize and picnic in the vicinity of the gallows.
These impromptu post-execution picnics represented a striking juxtaposition between death and revelry.
Local citizens turned out in their finest clothes, children waved and played as if on holiday, and sweethearts strolled arm in arm to view the condemned final agonizing moments. With the deed done, the picnickers sought to capitalize on the gathering and transform the mood from somber to festive.
In England, so-called "hanging fairs" became popular by the mid-18th century.
The scheduled executions delivered an influx of visitors to a town, allowing vendors to profit and townsfolk to come together in grim celebration. Attendees packed meals and cakes to enjoy while taking in the thrills of the execution.
Ale stands also did brisk business amidst the festive atmosphere.
In America, post-hanging picnics were not uncommon, especially with public executions eventually dwindling over the 19th century. Local cooks might fry up foods to sell to the dispersing crowd after the condemned prisoner met their fate.
Morbid curiosity was satisfied, and the communal environment fostered a certain degree of joviality and relief once the unpleasant business had concluded.
This practice illuminates the carnival spectacle atmosphere that permeated public executions in that era.
With professional police forces not yet established, displays of capital punishment allowed people to indulge their fascination with mortality while reaffirming social order and morality. The execution picnic was part and parcel of this outlook.
The Boston Massacre occurred during a chaotic public gathering that bore similarities to a communal picnic, albeit one suffused with the tensions of the time.
On March 5th, 1770, rancor between Bostonian colonists and the British soldiers stationed in the city boiled over into violence on King Street.
Earlier that day, a wig maker named Edward Garrick had accused a British officer, John Goldfinch, of failing to pay his bill—an altercation that drew a crowd and constables to quiet the situation.
Later that evening, Private Hugh White stood guard outside the Custom House on King Street, attracting the notice of young colonists out for mischief.
Insulting words were exchanged, which soon led a mob of colonists to surround Private White.
As the crowd grew in size and hostility, the bells rang calling more citizens out to join the commotion. The tense scene took on an air of public spectacle, not unlike the spirit of a communal picnic or market gathering.
However, the jeering soon turned dangerous, with colonists yelling threats and throwing snowballs, sticks and stones at the overwhelmed Private White.
Fearing for his safety, White struck out with his bayonet, further enraging the crowd.
At this precarious moment, Captain Thomas Preston arrived with reinforcements, hoping to extricate White from the fracas.
Instead, the presence of more redcoats inflamed the mob's rage. Confusion reigned as the crowd pressed in and soldiers loaded their muskets. Suddenly, shots rang out in rapid succession. When the smoke cleared, five colonists lay dead or dying, including an ex-slave named Crispus Attucks.
The Boston Massacre was a flashpoint that exposed the seething resentment colonists held toward British troops and heavy-handed rule.
While starting as a scene of cavalier public revelry, it erupted into violence that provided early martyrs to the cause of liberty.
In the massacre's aftermath, John Adams defended the British soldiers in a fair trial, but the event became a symbolic rallying cry as unrest in the colonies moved inexorably toward the American Revolution.
The abhorrent phenomenon of lynching picnics represents a chilling low point in American history, laying bare the violent racism endemic to Southern society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As Reconstruction collapsed and Jim Crow arose, white mobs increasingly took the law into their own hands to terrorize and murder African Americans.
Lynchings peaked in the 1890s, and were often followed by grim communal celebrations that included Lynched victims being photographed and displayed as trophies.
When word spread that a lynching was to take place, white families would gather excitedly as if attending a social event.
They brought food, liquor and musical instruments to turn the brutal occasion into a perverse form of entertainment. The carnival-like atmosphere following lynchings encouraged white community bonding, with women and children participating alongside the men who meted out vigilante "justice."
Smiling white faces would pose for photos with the battered, hanging bodies of Black men, women and even children.
Postcards were made from the disturbing images and circulated proudly as if from a public picnic or holiday. The lynching and following picnic became opportunities to reinforce white identity and supremacist beliefs in a social setting.
Lynching picnics represented domestic terrorism targeting African Americans, used to bolster white political and social control through fear. By lynching with impunity and celebrating afterward, white mobs reinforced a racial hierarchy in which Black lives held little value. Calling these gatherings "picnics" conveyed a facade of normalcy over barbarism fueled by generations of bigotry.
The lynching picnic emerged from the specific environment of Southern racism and Deep South vigilantism in that period.
But its legacy still resonates today, a reminder that past injustices can echo into the present. It represents an appalling example of racism transmuting horrific violence into callous celebration.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919 stands as one of the most heinous acts of violence committed under British colonial rule in India.
On that day, thousands of peaceful Indian protesters converged in Amritsar's walled Jallianwala Bagh garden for a pro-independence rally and picnic.
This gathering, though lively, was by all accounts free of aggression or unrest. Nevertheless, British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer perceived it as a threat that demanded decisive retaliation.
The picnic turned to pandemonium when Dyer ordered dozens of armed Gurkha and Baluchi troops to surround the enclosed garden, blocking the only exit.
Without warning, the soldiers took aim at the dense crowd and opened fire, turning the festive occasion into a killing field. Continuous shooting persisted for ten brutal minutes, cutting down helpless men, women and children.
Those not instantly killed by bullets and buckshot tried fruitlessly to scale the walls or leap into a deep well for escape.
When the firing finally ceased, at least 379 lay dead by official count, with more than 1,200 injured.
Dyer showed no remorse, regarding the massacre as a necessary show of force to quell potential rebellion. However, the slaughter horrified the Indian populace and world opinion when news spread, hardening resistance to British rule.
An inquiry commission later declared Dyer's action "a monumental error." He was forced to resign in disgrace, but many Indians considered his punishment insufficient.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre demonstrated the willingness of the Raj to mete out violence on civilian gatherings, however harmless. The incident added moral urgency to Mohandas Gandhi's expanding satyagraha movement promoting civil disobedience.
Though a horrific tragedy, the Amritsar Massacre proved a galvanizing moment in India's steady march toward independence from imperial rule.
The serial murders committed by Ted Bundy in the Pacific Northwest in 1974 send a chilling warning about the potential dangers lurking beneath innocent recreational settings.
This was painfully evidenced at Washington's Lake Sammamish State Park, where several young women were brutally victimized after arriving to picnic on sunny summer days.
Bundy's modus operandi was to approach his targeted victims—often college-aged women with long, dark hair—in appealing public spaces and lure them to a secondary location where he would sexually assault and murder them.
At Lake Sammamish in the summer of 1974, he located vulnerable picnickers, asking for help with a supposed injury or pretending to be an authority figure. Trusting Bundy's benign facade, several women accompanied him only to meet a terrible fate.
At least three women vanished from Lake Sammamish that year after willingly leaving with Bundy—Denise Naslund, Janice Ott, and Nancy Wilcox.
Their bodies were later found dumped in the woods, bearing the marks of Bundy's horrific violence.
In total, Bundy eventually confessed to over 30 murders nationwide, establishing himself as one of the most notorious serial killers in American criminal history.
The Bundy murders at Lake Sammamish State Park shattered ideals of the countryside as a pastoral refuge immune to crime. His case showed predators could infiltrate cherished recreational areas where people felt safe to let down their guard.
For many, the specter of his crimes still haunt sites like Lake Sammamish, leaving an indelible imprint of vulnerability and menace beneath the scenic veneer.
The picnickers who crossed Bundy's path encountered evil when they least expected it, paying the ultimate price for misplaced trust.
The bombing of London's luxurious Savoy Hotel on September 12th, 1975 shattered the genteel atmosphere of its ornate riverside tea terrace, turning a peaceful afternoon repast into bloody chaos.
When the Provisional Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb in the lobby, the blast wave ripped through the Savoy's opulent Palm Court, where over 50 guests were partaking in the hotel's ritzy afternoon picnic tea service.
For decades, the palm-festooned Palm Court had been a fashionable spot for upper crust Londoners and tourists to gather for elegant picnic-style teas, complete with fine bone china, finger sandwiches, scones and pastries.
But on that September day, the IRA selected it as a symbolic target to bring their violent campaign for Irish unification to the doorstep of British high society.
Despite phoning in a warning, the IRA's bomb detonated before the area could be fully evacuated.
The thunderous blast collapsed the tea terrace roof, sending shards of glass, wood and metal raining down on screamed patrons.
Two women were killed immediately by the explosion, with over 50 other guests injured, many grievously. Blood flowed freely over the now-ravaged tearoom, mixing incongruously with spilled tea, broken china and upended tables.
In the aftermath, the IRA regretted the civilian deaths, having intended only to give British nobility and leadership a violent scare.
But their action made clear that neither privilege nor public innocence provided immunity from the ever-present threat of sectarian terrorism.
For a time, the genteel custom of afternoon tea in London lost a bit of luster.
The Savoy attack demonstrated that even the most civilized of traditions could be twisted by the creeping influence of political violence.