Crisis and Response. Before civil and judicial institutions could be firmly established, frontier law was often enforced by vigilantes who, without legal authorization, took the law into their own hands. In San Francisco in the 1850s these bodies were known as vigilance committees. The city was a rough-hewn little settlement prior to the discovery of gold in January 1848. Over the course of the next year the Gold Rush drew eighty thousand people to the territory. With them came a wave of competition, greed, overcrowding, fear, violence, and crime that local authorities could not control.
The Public Court. A store robbery in San Francisco’s business district in February 1851 left the proprietor, C. J. Jansen, badly beaten. Besides the assault the robbers stole $2,000. The police arrested two Australians for the crime, and an angry crowd quickly gathered. One of the men present, a merchant named William Coleman, led the crowd in demanding the immediate organization of a people’s court. Three judges and a twelve-member jury were selected from the crowd, and Coleman acted as prosecutor. Jansen, however, could not positively identify the alleged attackers, and the jury deadlocked. Over the course of the deliberations the crowd’s anger diminished. The prisoners were returned to the proper authorities, where they were tried for the crime a second
time and convicted in a normal court, but in the aftermath of the original assault and extralegal trial the first vigilance committee remained active for about a month. During that time it carried out four hangings; one man was executed after he was found guilty of attempting to steal a safe. For various other crimes the committee forced twenty-eight men to leave the city and never return.
Mob Justice. Later vigilance committees were just as direct and violent in their methods. By 1855 many San Franciscans had come to believe that an atmosphere of lawlessness had overwhelmed the city, a fearful development helped along by the ineffectiveness of the existing legal system. In November of that year Charles Cora, uncharitably described as an “Italian gambler,” murdered a U.S. marshal. Attentive citizens grew increasingly angry when efforts to convict Cora failed. Not long afterward a newspaper editor, known for his attacks on the city’s criminal element, was shot to death. Police arrested James Casey for the crime, but the public was not satisfied. The vigilance committee’s signal, an engine bell, was rung, attracting a large and formidable mob. Cora and Casey were taken from their cells and hanged in public from the roof of a building.
The law enforcement group known as the Texas Rangers plays a prominent part in many myths about the West. While Stephen Austin first formed this group in 1823 to organize retaliation against local Indians, not until 24 November 1835 did Texas create the first official group of Texas Rangers. At first, since the Indian policy of Texas president Samuel Austin was friendly, the Rangers did not do much. After the more aggressive reign of Texas president Mirabeau Lamar, during which the Texas Rangers fought many battles with local Mexicans and American Indians, the role of the Rangers shifted toward that of a guerrilla fighting force. When Austin regained the presidency of Texas in 1841, he decided to use the Rangers to protect the Texas frontier.
By his definition, however, the “frontier” in Texas was represented by the incoming Anglo-Americans that Austin had recruited for settlement. Understandably, the indigenous Indians and long-time Mexican residents did not welcome either this encroachment on their lands or the Rangers’ often ruthless enforcement of pro-American policies. The Rangers also aroused hostility when they participated in the Mexican War and in their perpetual harassment of non-whites in Texas. In essence the Rangers in these years saw their primary job as defending white ranchers. In this sense the Texas Rangers as a law enforcement unit often caused as many problems as they defused.
Source: Julian Samora, Gunpowder Justice: A Reassessment of the Texas Rangers (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979).
The Second Vigilance Committee. The second vigilance committee distinguished itself from the first by being significantly larger (it reportedly had more than six thousand members) and for carrying out part of its agenda by using electoral politics as a weapon. Besides punishing criminals with the rope, the committee dedicated itself to smashing a corrupt political machine led by Democrat David Broderick. Candidates supported by the vigilance committee defeated Broderick’s men at the polls. Despite such actions, however, vigilante groups focused most of their attention and energies toward discharging the law whenever and wherever they believed civil and judicial authorities had failed to protect the community. In some places their deliberateness and adherence to legal precedence overturned the simplistic notion that a vigilance committee was nothing more than a euphemism to describe what was in reality a lawless mob. In Payette, Idaho, the committee gave the accused the right to a trial by jury: a body comprised of seven members whose majority decision was final. Their bylaws allowed for only three forms of punishment: banishment, public whipping, and execution. The apparent benefits of such a system, devised for simplicity and efficiency, were undermined by episodes of retribution, which no doubt punished the innocent as well as the guilty.
Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York: Basic Books, 1993);
Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
vig·i·lan·te / ˌvijəˈlantē/ • n. a member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.DERIVATIVES: vig·i·lan·tism / -ˌtizəm/ n.
Vigilante Woof! Street Gang 1983 (R)
Frustrated ex-cop, tired of seeing criminals returned to the street, joins a vigilante squad dedicated to law and order. Often ridiculous and heavy handed. 91m/C VHS, DVD . Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Carol Lynley, Rutanya Alda, Richard Bright, Woody Strode, Donald Blakely, Joseph Carberry, Joe Spinell, Frank Pesce; D: William Lustig; W: Richard Vetere; C: James (Momel) Lemmo; M: Jay Chattaway.