On 5 April 1876, in its first session after the end of Mississippi’s Reconstruction government, the state legislature revised the state’s criminal code. The new law lowered the dollar threshold for what constituted grand larceny, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison, from twenty-five dollars to ten dollars. More drastic still, the law provided that stealing “any hog, pig, shoat, cow, calf, yearling, steer, bull, sheep, lamb, goat or kid, of the value of one dollar or more” would be punished as grand larceny. This provision gave the statute its common name, the Pig Law; made the law notorious; and earned it a prominent place in the mythology of Mississippi backwardness.
The law was blatantly racist in its targeting of cattle and swine theft, because such stealing was stereotypically considered “Negro” behavior, and whites owned the preponderance of cattle and swine. Mississippi legislators sought to protect white property down to the most insignificant monetary value while denying basic civil liberties to blacks.
Yet contrary to the claims of several influential historians, the law had a negligible effect on the size of the state’s convict population. In 1947 Millsaps College historian Vernon Lane Wharton argued that the Pig Law caused the prison population to quadruple, that the law made the convict lease system a big business in the state, and that the law’s repeal (which he misdated to 1887) immediately resulted in a decline in the prison population and thus led to the demise of convict leasing. Although many southern historians, including Fletcher M. Green, David M. Oshinsky, and C. Vann Woodward, accepted Wharton’s claims, they suffered from serious logical and factual errors. First, Wharton based his sweeping conclusions on an extremely short-term correlation derived from mismatched data sources. Because there is always a lag time between a law’s passage and its effects in law enforcement, courts, and prisons, it is most implausible that a law passed in 1876 could quadruple the prison population by 1877. Increases in the convict population between 1874 and 1877 resulted primarily from other factors (most likely an 1875 law that legalized convict subleasing). Moreover, to support his hypothesis about a causal relation between this specific law and a rise in convict population, Wharton would have had to provide evidence that any population growth consisted chiefly of persons sentenced for grand larceny, but he did not furnish any crime or sentencing data on the issue. Moreover, data show that the convict population declined by half during the relatively brief period that the Pig Law was in effect—from 1,003 convicts in 1877 to 752 by 1883 to 499 in 1888, when the law was repealed. Finally, contrary to Wharton’s argument, Mississippi did not abolish convict leasing until 1907, nineteen years after the Pig Law’s repeal.
The evidence, then, points to a narrative that runs directly counter to the one put forth by Wharton: Mississippi’s convict population declined while the Pig Law was in effect but climbed steeply after its repeal. The Pig Law has little social historical significance related to its effect on Mississippi’s convict population but is more important for cultural historical purposes as a component of the lore concerning Mississippi’s retrograde racial and social arrangements.
- Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928 (1996)
- David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996)
- William Banks Taylor, Brokered Justice: Race, Politics, and Mississippi Prisons, 1798–1992 (1992)
- Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (1947)
- C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (1951)