Posse Comitatus

views updated May 11 2018

Posse Comitatus

LEADERS: William Potter Gale; James Wickstrom



The Posse Comitatus was a loosely organized collection of racist anti-government organizations that developed through the 1970s, garnered media attention during the 1980s, and had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s. The group believed that the federal government's authority is illegitimate and that any citizen can declare himself sovereign, or free of government control; its members also espoused radical racist positions, claiming that the U.S. government had come under the control of a Jewish conspiracy. The group's leaders advocated violence and the use of financial fraud in order to achieve their objectives. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Posse Comitatus' members and leaders had been largely absorbed into various other white supremacist groups.


White supremacist organizations have a long history in North America. Among the earliest of these groups was the Silver Shirts, a pro-Nazi group dating to the 1930s. This anti-Semitic organization attracted as many as 15,000 followers at its peak in 1934, though its numbers quickly dwindled in the years that followed; its members drifted away or moved to other white supremacist groups.

Among the members of the original Silver Shirts was a retiree named Henry Beach, a resident of Portland, Oregon. Although the Silver Shirts had long since dissolved, Beach retained his racist views, and in 1969 launched an organization he named the Sheriff's Posse Comitatus. Beach's group professed a blend of racist and antigovernment beliefs. At roughly the same time in California, William Potter Gale launched a similar organization called the United States Christian Posse Association. Gale was a long-time racist, and his organization had much in common with Beach's, including anti-Semitic beliefs and a belief in local, rather than federal rule. Little is known about how or even if the two groups coordinated their efforts, however, their beginning forms the genesis of the broader Posse Comitatus movement. From Beach and Gale's groups, similar Posses formed throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest and in agricultural regions. By 1975, approximately eighty such groups existed across the nation.

Posse Comitatus organizations existed without any formal hierarchy or authority, cooperating as they saw fit and operating autonomously. Despite this independence, several basic beliefs united the movement and fueled its efforts. Foremost among their beliefs is an unwillingness to submit to federal or state government authority.

The term "Posse Comitatus" is taken from a common law term meaning "power of the county," though it is often interpreted more loosely to mean simply the power of citizens to rule themselves. In practical use, the term refers to the local sheriff's authority to gather a group of men and force them to assist him in administering justice; many classic Western movies include a scene in which the sheriff leads a posse to arrest fleeing criminals.

The term also refers to legislation passed in the United States following the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This law generally forbids the use of federal troops for law enforcement actions within the United States, except as authorized by the Constitution, Congress, or Presidential order. The original purpose of the legislation was to prevent military involvement in Southern elections following the Civil War; the application of the law has effectively prevented most uses of military personnel or equipment against U.S. citizens, reserving these actions for civilian law enforcement agencies.

Consistent with both of these definitions, Posse Comitatus organizations are unanimous in their belief in local self-rule; most groups claim independence from federal (and in many cases, state) authority, recognizing only the local level of governmental authority. Under this system of government, the local sheriff is the highest level of government authority and is charged with enforcing local laws. The sheriff also serves at the pleasure of the citizens and may be removed from office, if they so choose.

Given their disrespect of federal authority, it is hardly surprising that Posse Comitatus members frequently refuse to pay income taxes or purchase automobile license plates. In addition, they were generally unwilling to recognize even the local government's right to repossess property such as farmland. They also generally deny the worth of U.S. currency, claiming that because the country's paper money is not based on actual gold reserves, it is worthless. This belief has been offered as the justification for numerous incidents of Posse fraud and counterfeiting.



James Wickstrom was first introduced to the Posse Comitatus by Thomas Stockheimer, the founder of the Wisconsin Posse Comitatus. While initially unsure about the group's beliefs that whites are the modern-day descendents of God's chosen people, Wickstrom soon became a convert, due in part to the influence of sermon tapes from group founder, William Potter Gale. Following Stockheimer's imprisonment on assault charges in 1976, Wickstrom moved to Missouri, where he soon started his own church. After a falling out with another white supremacist preacher in 1978, he moved to Wisconsin to join a fledgling community called Constitutional Township of Tigerton Dells. Wickstrom opened a church there and declared himself the community's head of counterinsurgency.

Wickstrom traveled extensively, preying on distraught farmers by telling them that they were victims of a Jewish plot and that the federal government was illegitimate; he advocated lynching as a simple solution to these problems. In later years, Wickstrom ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator and governor of Wisconsin. He later served jail time for various charges. In 2004, he was named the World Chaplain for the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group that reportedly adopted the motto, "No Jew left alive in 2005."


William Gale co-founded the Posse Comitatus movement in 1969. Gale was a virulent anti-Semite who, though lacking formal ordination, referred to himself as "reverend." Gale's message was consistently anti-Jewish, warning his listeners that Jews were children of Satan and that a Jewish conspiracy was acting to take over America. Gale is perhaps best known for a sound-bite from a sermon broadcast in Kansas in 1982: "If a Jew comes near you, run a sword through him."

Gale's racist views dated to the 1950s when he adopted the beliefs of Christian Identity, which teaches white superiority and Jewish inferiority. He preached and spoke continuously for the cause of white superiority until his death in 1988. At the time of his death, Gale was actively appealing his recent conviction for threatening an Internal Revenue Service agent. Ironically, Gales' parents had arrived in the United States in 1894, after fleeing Russian oppression. Gales' parents were both Jewish.

A second unifying characteristic of Posse members is anti-Semitism, or the contention that Jews are inherently inferior to whites. While white supremacists advance numerous theories about why Jews are inferior to whites, most of these justifications fall under two broad headings. First are biological rationales, which argue that Jews are somehow genetically inferior to people of European descent (whites). One such argument is the contention that the Jews of the Bible migrated to Europe, making today's Europeans the true Jews and today's Jews are imposters. This belief, called Ango-Israelism or British Israelism, is a central feature of a broader white supremacist movement known as Christian Identity. A more extreme biological argument made by some white supremacists is that Jews are not actually human beings; instead, though they appear human they are in fact a lower type of creature, so-called "mud people," or the soul-less descendents of Satan.

Rooting for Armageddon

[A review of the book], ARMED AND DANGEROUS The Rise of the Survivalist Right. By James Coates. New York: Hill & Wang.

It was in early June 1983 that more than 40 armed Federal, state and local police surrounded a remote farmhouse in the Arkansas Ozarks and tried to arrest a bespectacled 63-year-old tax protester named Gordon Kahl.

In the shoot-out and conflagration that ensued, both Kahl and a sheriff who led a half-dozen officers into the concrete farmhouse-bunker died. The sheriff killed the elderly fugitive with a single shot to the head, but not before Kahl had squeezed off a barrage from an automatic rifle. The lawman reeled outside but bled to death. Fellow officers unleashed a fusillade of fire and tear gas, igniting thousands of rounds of ammunition and stores of explosives in the bunker that rocked the rainy hillsides like thunder for two hours.

It was the end of a violent odyssey for Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer and anti-tax fanatic who had gone on the run four months earlier after another bloody confrontation.

In that incident, five armed officers, three of them Federal marshals, had come after Kahl at his rural North Dakota farm because he had violated his parole in a tax matter. Kahl, his 23-year-old son, and a third man opened fire, and when it was over all five lawmen lay on the ground, two dead and three wounded. Kahl himself had run straight at two of them with an automatic weapon, laying down a hail of fire. He managed to hide out for months until his fiery death in the bunker.

Kahl, it developed, was a disciple of Posse Comitatus, a neo-anarchist organization that is violent, anti-Semitic and antiblack as well as anti-government. The Jews, Posse leaders preached, were the fount of all evil, and the true Israelites were Aryans, destined to regain the Promised Land of America in a racial Armageddon that would establish the primacy of the white race.

Federal investigators began to uncover disturbing links between Posse adherents and other heavily armed racial extremists, including the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and lesser-known neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic survivalist groups with names like Aryan Nations, the Christian Patriots Defense League and the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord—the latter of which maintained a heavily armed compound some 60 miles from where Kahl died. But it was a year and a half before Federal investigators began to decipher the links and discover how dangerous the network they formed was.

That is also what James Coates's "Armed and Dangerous" is about—the rise of what he calls the survivalist right in America, a loosely linked network of armed racist revolutionaries bent on the overthrow of what they call the ZOG, or Zionist Occupational Government, and the establishment of an Aryan nation, or White Bastion, in its place.

It is also about the odd, violently racist beliefs of these organizations and the curious people who adhere to such beliefs—from those who, like Gordon Kahl, died for them, to the spiritual leaders like 66-year-old Richard Girnt Butler, founder of the goose-stepping Aryan Nations in Idaho, and Robert Miles, a former Klansman who is pastor of the racialist Mountain Kirk in upstate Michigan. There are also gruesome side trips to such places as a cult hideaway in Rulo, Neb., where a deviant cultist was flayed alive in the course of his ritual murder—although the motives behind such acts may have been more psychopathic than ideological.

Eighteen months after the Kahl shoot-out in Arkansas, an almost identical drama played itself out 2,000 miles away on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. There, 200 police officers surrounded a house where another fugitive, 31-year-old Robert Jay Matthews, died in a blaze set by a flare. He had held the men at bay for 36 hours with sproradic bursts from a machine gun.

Matthews was the charismatic leader of a group that calls itself the Bruder Schweigen, or Silent Brotherhood (it has come to be known as The Order), a fanatic band of racist revolutionaries later convicted of crimes ranging from armed robberies that netted more than $4 million to arson, counterfeiting and a host of other offenses. Two members of the group were convicted Nov. 17 in Federal District Court in Denver of civil rights violations in the 1984 machine-gun murder of the radio talk show host Alan Berg.

Investigators began to unravel a bizarre ideological affinity among the groups. Matthews plotted with his fellow racist warriors in the Bruder Schweigen, but there was no evidence that he knew Gordon Kahl. What possessed them both was the same anti-Semitic pseudotheology, called Christian Identity, or, more often, simply Identity. It holds that Jews are the offspring of Satan, have seized the land and the power of the true Aryan Israelites—white Christians—and must be exterminated, along with the "mud people," the blacks, browns and other minorities who are their purported henchmen. What also unites such people and the shifting groups they form is a kind of institutional paranoia that drives them into remote armed camps to prepare for the end.

                                  Wayne King

Source: New York Times, 1987

A second broad line of anti-Semitic reasoning rests on a seemingly endless stream of conspiracy theories that portray the Jews as plotting against white Americans. In some of these accounts, Jews, referred to as Zionists, are gradually taking over the U.S. banking and financial systems. In other versions of the story, the Zionists are working toward seizing control of the entire U.S. government. While these anti-Semitic assertions appear to have little basis in fact, they form one of the major elements of Posse Comitatus philosophy. In the Posse Comitatus and similar groups, white supremacist views extend to all non-whites, not just Jews.

Posse groups first began to attract attention in 1974, when Thomas Stockheimer, the leader of the Posse in Wisconsin, was tried and convicted for assaulting an Internal Revenue Service agent. Other Posse leaders in Wisconsin also attracted attention in the following years, including James Wickstrom, the self-appointed "national director of counterinsurgency" for the Posse. Wickstrom's base of operations was a farm in northeastern Wisconsin. There, he and others with similar views assembled a group of trailers, then declared the land the Constitutional Township of Tigerton Dells. In taking this step, Wickstrom and his comrades claimed that their property was no longer under the control of the U.S. government.

Wickstrom's message of defying the government and resisting foreclosing bankers resonated with farm families struggling to make ends meet during the farm crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Wickstrom began offering paramilitary style instruction at Tigerton Dells around 1980, claiming that thousands of students were being trained by elite military veterans. Wickstrom also ran for the U.S. Senate in 1980, receiving 16,000 votes. Two years later, he ran for governor of Wisconsin.

Following its early years of relative quiet, the Posse Comitatus leaped into the headlines in 1983 when Gordon Kahl became a fixture on the nightly news. Kahl was a tax protestor and racist who had stopped filing his income tax returns in 1968; he frequently traveled the country, encouraging others to do the same. In February 1983, Kahl was traveling to his rural home following a meeting with supporters. Local police and federal marshals had obtained an arrest warrant for Kahl and attempted to serve the warrant, using a roadblock.

Kahl's vehicle stopped before reaching the roadblock, and some of Kahl's passengers, including his son, aimed rifles at the marshals, who were already aiming their weapons at Kahl's vehicle. After a tense standoff, a firefight erupted; men on both sides of the standoff were hit, two officers died, and Kahl escaped. He was quickly added to the FBI's most wanted list, and a nationwide manhunt began. Kahl was eventually cornered in Arkansas, where both he and a sheriff died in a second gunfight.

Kahl's death provided a launching point for a massive publicity blitz in which Jim Wickstrom traveled the talk-show circuit, claiming that Gordon Kahl had been wrongfully killed and was therefore the movement's first martyr. Wickstrom's appearances on 20/20 and The Phil Donahue Show included little of his usual fiery rhetoric, instead serving to promote the Posse as a refuge for the working class and the oppressed.

Wickstrom's fame was short-lived. Soon after his Donahue appearance, he was charged with impersonating a public official, an accusation stemming from his actions in Tigerton Dells. Prosecutors argued that Wickstrom's claim of sovereignty was not only implausible, but that Wickstrom himself did not even believe it. The judge sentenced Wickstrom to thirteen and a half months in jail, the maximum sentence allowed. During his incarceration, Tigerton Dells was closed for zoning violations.

Wickstrom was released in 1985 and moved to Pennsylvania under a parole agreement that did not allow any involvement with the Posse Comitatus or other political groups for two years. Wickstrom, however, soon returned to Posse activities and was eventually arrested again. In 1990, he was convicted for his involvement in a plot to print $100,000 in counterfeit currency for use by white supremacists. With Wickstrom behind bars and no new leader emerging to take his place, the Posse foundered. By the time of Wickstrom's release in 1993, the Posse had largely disappeared.


Henry Beach and William Potter Gale independently form the first two Posse groups.
Thomas Stockheimer, leader of the Wisconsin Posse, is convicted of assaulting an Internal Revenue Service agent.
James Wickstrom begins offering paramilitary training at the Tigerton Dells compound. That same year, Wickstrom runs for U.S. Senate.
Gordon Kahl and U.S. Marshals exchange gunfire at a roadblock. Kahl escapes, but is later killed in a shoot-out in Arkansas.
Wickstrom is sentenced to 13 1/2 months for impersonating a city official.
Wickstrom is convicted for his efforts to print $100,000 in counterfeit currency. He serves three years in prison.
With the Posse Comitatus largely a memory, Wickstrom is named to the post of World Chaplain for the white supremacist group Aryan Nations.

Consistent with its core opposition to federal and state authority, the Posse Comitatus as an organization did not utilize any structure or authority above the local level. Given this inherent autonomy of each local chapter, the group never achieved the notoriety of other more organized hate groups. However the Posse Comitatus played a foundational role in the development of today's broader Christian Identity Movement, providing the early framework from which the current white supremacist movement evolved.


The philosophy of the Posse Comitatus is consistent with most other white-supremacist, anti-government factions, and includes several key positions. Foremost among these is the illegitimacy of the U.S. government. Consistent with this position, Posse members were often involved in overt actions to challenge the federal government's authority. In some cases, they simply quit paying income taxes, then proceeded to boast about it and encourage others to follow suit, leading to numerous confrontations between group members and Internal Revenue Service representatives. In other cases, they threatened public officials. Most of these threats were directed at mayors, city council members, and other local authorities; judges and other court officials were also frequent targets of group threats.

The group attracted government attention in 1975 when a band of Posse members allegedly created a team for the purpose of assassinating Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. The discovery of this plot prompted the FBI to open a formal investigation of the group; investigators concluded that the group numbered around 15,000, with perhaps 150,000 others supporting them.

While the Posse Comitatus claimed to support American values and ideals, it repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to defraud other Americans in pursuit of its objectives. Like many other anti-government factions, Posse members frequently issued counterfeit checks to purchase equipment and weapons. Group leader James Wickstrom served three years in prison for his part in a scheme to produce $100,000 in counterfeit U.S. currency for use by white supremacists. Group leaders frequently justified these fraudulent tactics by claiming that the U.S. financial system is controlled by Jewish bankers and should therefore be disrupted.

Violence was also a preferred tactic of the Posse Comitatus, though the group as a whole appears to have invested more time in planning and training for combat than it did in actual fighting. Kenneth Stern, in his 1995 book A Force Upon the Plain, provided extensive descriptions of Posse efforts in Kansas. He revealed how William Potter Gale and James Wickstrom joined forces to sponsor "counter insurgency seminars" during the early 1980's. According to a report by the Kansas Attorney General's office, training at these seminars included techniques for hand-to-hand combat, assassinations, night combat, the use of ambushes for murder, and bomb-making. William Gale also wrote a handbook on using guerilla warfare tactics which was widely distributed by Posse groups.

One of the more unusual tactics used by the Posse Comitatus was the establishment of so-called sovereign courts and government structures. Most notable was the group's Minnesota compound (Tigerton Dells), which leaders claimed was no longer part of the United States. In addition to his self-appointed role as head of counter-terrorism in the township, James Wickstrom also appointed himself its municipal clerk and judge. Wickstrom then exercised his self-appointed authority to grant a liquor license to township founder Donald Minniecheske, whose actual liquor license had been revoked two years earlier. For his actions in Tigerton Dells, Wickstrom was eventually convicted on two counts of impersonating a city official and sentenced to jail time.

Anti-government organizations like Posse Comitatus teach their members a variety of disruptive tactics for use in trying to avoid imprisonment or other legal sanctions. Many of the group's tactics appear rather juvenile, however, they can bring a routine judicial proceeding to a rapid halt. For example, Posse members will frequently deny that they are the person listed on a warrant or court docket, or in some cases, will simply refuse to identify themselves at all, leaving the court little recourse but to hold them in contempt.

In other cases, individuals refuse to sign court documents, again putting the proceeding on hold until a signature can be obtained. Some defendants have chosen to appear in court but have refused to speak or answer questions; conversely, defendants sometimes tie up the court by refusing to be silent, talking incessantly whenever given the floor. In one extreme case involving an anti-government activist, a defendant took the improbable step of convening his own court inside the actual courtroom. He then proceeded to ask the judge questions, issue rulings on motions, and conduct his own mock trial within a trial.

Anti-government factions also utilize intimidation as a weapon. In some cases, defendants pack courtrooms with their own supporters in an effort to sway the judge. In other cases, threats have been issued not just against judges and jurors but even court clerks. One of the most common anti-government intimidation tactics involves the use of fraudulent liens and lawsuits. Filing these legal motions against elected and judicial officials requires very little time or money for the anti-government activist. However, resolving the filing often requires a great deal of time and effort for the elected official, making these filings a potent harassment tactic. In many cases, defendants file a veritable mountain of paperwork, attacking the case judge, each juror, the prosecutor, and even such employees as the bailiff. They also frequently file to dismiss the case, since they claim not to be under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.


While the Posse Comitatus has largely disappeared, its ideology remains strong, carried forward by a variety of contemporary white supremacist organizations. Although largely autonomous, these competing groups often support one another when it advances their purposes, and in many cases their roots run back through the same racist leaders. The staunch support of other racist groups, coupled with members' frequent postings to racist discussion sites, creates the impression that these crusaders are not alone or unrealistic in their objectives. However, outside the white supremacist community itself, only a handful of Constitutional advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) generally support the white supremacist cause in any way. In those circumstances the advocacy groups are careful to distance themselves from support of the extremist ideology and restrict themselves to legal support of free speech rights.


The Posse Comitatus, a loosely organized coalition of anti-government white supremacist groups, formed one of the earliest stages in the development of today's white supremacist movement. With a membership that peaked around 15,000 during the 1970s, the group lost momentum during its leader's incarceration and was eventually supplanted by better organized anti-government and racist organizations.



Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.

Stern, Kenneth S. A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Web sites

Anti-Defamation League. "Paper Terrorism's Forgotten Victims: The Use of Bogus Liens against Private Individuals and Businesses." 〈http://www.adl.org/mwd/privlien.asp〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Anti-Government.com. "The Anti-Government Movement Guidebook: Posse Comitatus." 〈http://www.anti-government.com/〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Southern Poverty Law Center. "Hate and Hypocrisy: What Is Behind the Rare-but-recurring Phenomenon of Jewish Anti-Semites?" 〈http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=73〉 (accessed October 21, 2005).

Posse Comitatus

views updated Jun 11 2018


[Latin, Power of the county.] Referred atcommon lawto all males over the age of fifteen on whom a sheriff could call for assistance in preventing any type of civil disorder.

The notion of a posse comitatus has its roots in ancient english law, growing out of a citizen's traditional duty to raise a "hue and cry" whenever a serious crime occurred in a village, thus rousing the fellow villagers to assist the sheriff in pursuing the culprit. By the seventeenth century, trained militia bands were expected to perform the duty of assisting the sheriff in such tasks, but all males age fifteen and older still had the duty to serve on the posse comitatus.

In the United States, the posse comitatus was an important institution on the western frontier, where it became known as the posse. At various times vigilante committees, often acting without legal standing, organized posses to capture wrongdoers. Such posses sharply warned first-time cattle rustlers, for instance, and usually hanged or shot second-time offenders. In 1876 a four-hundred-man posse killed one member of the infamous Jesse James gang and captured two others.

In 1878 the use of a posse comitatus was limited by the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This act, passed in response to the use of federal troops to enforce reconstruction policies in the southern states, prohibited the use of the U.S. Army to enforce laws unless the Constitution or an act of Congress explicitly authorized such use. This act was amended five times in the 1980s, largely to allow for the use of military resources to combat trafficking in illicit narcotics.

Though rarely used, the posse comitatus continues to be a modern legal institution. In June 1977, for example, the Aspen, Colorado, sheriff called out the posse comitatus—ordinary citizens with their own weapons—to hunt for escaped mass murderer Theodore ("Ted") Bundy. Many states have modern posse comitatus statutes; one typical example is the Kentucky statute enacted in 1962 that gives any sheriff the power to "command and take with him the power of the county or a part thereof, to aid him in the execution of the duties of his office" (Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 70.060 [Baldwin 1996]).

"Posse Comitatus" is also the name taken by a right-wing, antitax extremist group founded in 1969 by Henry L. Beach, a retired dry cleaner and one-time member of the Silver Shirts, a Nazi-inspired organization that was established in the United States after adolf hitler came to power in Germany. The group operated on the belief that the true intent of the founders of the United States was to establish a Christian republic where the individual was sovereign. Members of the group were united by the belief that the federal government was illegitimate, being operated by Jewish interests through the internal revenue service, the federal courts, and the federal reserve. The Posse Comitatus received widespread media attention in 1983 when a leader of the group, Gordon Kahl, was involved in a violent standoff with North Dakota law enforcement officers. Convicted for failure to pay taxes and then for violating the terms of his probation, Kahl shot and killed three officers and wounded three others before being shot and killed himself.

further readings

Corcoran, James. 1990. Bitter Harvest. New York: Viking.

Hasday, Jill Elaine. 1996. "Civil War as Paradigm: Reestablishing the Rule of Law at the End of the Cold War." Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy 5.

Malcolm, Joyce Lee. 1994. To Keep and Bear Arms. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Posse Comitatus

views updated May 21 2018

Posse Comitatus

the body of men over the age of fifteen which the sheriff of an English county could raise as a force in a crisis, 1285.