VIGILANTES were members of citizens' committees set up in frontier towns and rural communities in the nineteenth century to keep order and put down illegal activity. Vigilante committees organized when citizens found law enforcement absent or inadequate. Occasionally, communities really were threatened with destruction by criminals. In those cases, citizens typically mimicked the duties and procedures of the legal authorities they supplanted, holding formal trials before administering punishment (usually hanging). For example, in the early 1860s a vigilante committee broke up a large Montana outlaw gang, headed by Sheriff Henry Plummer, which terrorized the citizens in the mining communities. John Beidler from Pennsylvania is said to have presided at many of the trials.
In many cases, however, although vigilantes cited a breakdown in law and order, other factors seemed to motivate their actions. Some vigilantes seemed to be frustrated by the inefficiency and expense of law enforcement, storming jails to hang persons already in custody. Sometimes vigilantes sought to enforce prevailing moral standards or attack their political opponents. The San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856, which had several thousand mostly Protestant and native-born members, wrested political control of the city by exiling the Irish Catholic leaders of the Democratic Party.
Today "vigilante" describes actions by groups or individuals who punish real or perceived wrongdoings outside the legal system. Dissatisfaction with law enforcement or the legal process remains the principal motive. Typically that dissatisfaction is shared by other individuals who see vigilante actions as heroic. Among the many cases receiving media coverage in the late twentieth century was that of Bernard Goetz. His 1984 shooting of four black youths, who he believed were attempting to rob him in a New York City subway car, gained Goetz national celebrity status.
Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
Stock, Catherine McNicol. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.
White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.