views updated Jun 11 2018


The term vigilante, of Spanish origin, means "watchman" or "guard." Its Latin root is vigil, for "awake" or "observant." Vigilantes have also been known as "slickers," "stranglers," "mobs," and "committees of safety."


American vigilantism originally arose as a frontier response to the threat and reality of crime. The first settlers who moved to the Deep South and the Old West were not protected by a criminal justice system. There were no law enforcement agencies, no regularly scheduled court sessions, no nearby jails or prisons, and vast open spaces to which offenders could escape from their victims. In the absence of any legal system, correctional facilities, or institutional mechanisms for redress of grievances, victims and their allies felt compelled periodically to track down and round up outlaws and "take the law into their own hands" (see Madison; Brown).

Vigilance committees were voluntary associations of men (rarely including women) who worked together to combat genuine, exaggerated, or imagined dangers to their communities, families, property, power, or privileges. These short-lived organizations usually had formal hierarchies, strictly defined chains of command, written bylaws, and paramilitary rituals. Their leadership typically was drawn from the elite of frontier society, including local businessmen, plantation owners, ranchers, merchants, and professionals. The members were recruited from the middle strata. The targets of their wrath generally were singled out from the lower classes and marginal groups. Vigilantes blacklisted, harassed, banished, flogged, tarred and feathered, tortured, mutilated, and killed their victims (Madison; Brown).

Lynchings originally were public whippings carried out in Virginia in the late 1700s by a vigilance committee led by a Colonel Lynch. As the years passed, and the violent punishments meted out by vigilante bands escalated, the expression came to mean a summary execution, usually by hanging. Lynch mobs were more spontaneous and less organized than vigilance committees. Vigilantes who acted as part of a committee or mob were able to conceal their identities, especially when shrouded by darkness or disguised by hoods, masks, or uniforms. Acting in concert also bolstered their courage, diminished their sense of individual responsibility for the suffering they inflicted, and virtually eliminated their risk of getting caught and punished for their illegal deeds (Burrows).

Vigilantism has been a label placed on so many different situations over the centuries that no precise definition can capture all its elements, and arguments inevitably arise over the appropriateness of categorizing some group or event as an example of vigilantism. The essential defining elements of vigilantism are that it embodies the following: a social reaction to crime; actions taken by civilians (whether as individuals, or as members of clandestine groups, large crowds, or mass movements) as opposed to government officials; a response that involves violence that exceeds the legitimate use of force in self-defense; an intent to inflict punishment and pain in order to avenge a previous wrong or to deter future misconduct or to incapacitate dangerous persons; a belief that the resort to force is necessary and justifiable because government agents cannot or will not provide protection or enforce the law; and a recognition that the remedies undertaken are illegal, since governments claim a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in the form of police and military action (Sederberg; Culberson; Johnston; and Moses).


American history is peppered with outbreaks of vigilantism. The first recorded series of incidents took place in the backwoods of South Carolina in 1767. To counter a reign of terror imposed by roving gangs of desperadoes and plunderers, isolated frontiersmen banded together and called themselves the Regulators because they viewed their efforts as restoring balance to a situation that had slipped out of control. They carried out a bloody two-year campaign to suppress banditry that successfully reestablished law and order within their immediate territory, but their excesses provoked the mobilization of an opposition movement, the Moderators.

The largest vigilance committee arose in San Francisco when it was a Gold Rush boomtown. As many as eight thousand members joined to retake the streets from criminals who were terrorizing the townspeople in 1856. Four alleged murderers were hanged and many suspected thieves and gamblers were driven away by mob action. But the committee also had a political agenda, and used its power to wrest control of the municipal political machinery from recently arrived Irish Catholics.

The nation's bloodiest vigilante movements swept across Montana from 1863 to 1865, and again in 1884. Thirty people were put to death during the first wave of violent vigilantism, including a corrupt Rocky Mountain sheriff said to be in league with highwaymen and horse thieves. During the second wave, thirty-five people branded as outlaws were slain by mob action.

Between 1767 and 1909, at least 326 vigilante movements arose across the country. The typical committee had between one hundred and several hundred members, and lasted up to one year. Fewer than half of the known movements claimed any lives. Of the 141 movements responsible for carrying out 729 unauthorized executions, the largest committees tended to be the most deadly. Most of the violence erupted in the West, especially in Texas, Montana, and California, from the time of the Civil War up to the end of the nineteenth century (see Brown).

A much larger death toll mounted because of the rampages of unorganized lynch mobs, primarily in the Deep South. Between 1882 and 1951, angry crowds lynched about 4,730 victims. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the number of people killed by lynch mobs exceeded the number of court-ordered executions. Even if they formed spontaneously, lynch mobs after Reconstruction also served as a vehicle for white supremacists to intimidate local black residents from exercising their constitutional and civil rights. Black men were the primary but not the only victims of angry crowds. In New Orleans in 1891, a huge mob mobilized by a local vigilance committee stormed the city jail and lynched eleven Italian immigrants alleged to be Mafia leaders responsible for the assassination of a high-ranking police official. After World War I, mob attacks grew more vicious; an estimated 10 percent of the victims were burned alive, and yet Congress failed to respond to an antilynching movement's outcry that federal legislation should compel law enforcement authorities to investigate, arrest, and prosecute ringleaders. Lynchings tapered off by the 1920s and were rare by the 1940s (Hofstadter and Wallace; Moses).

Ideologies of vigilante groups

Vigilante violence is the opposite of revolutionary violence. Revolutionaries resort to force in order to overthrow the established order and create new arrangements, whereas vigilantes unleash violence to restore order and maintain the status quo. In their manifestos, vigilance committees proclaimed that their coercive campaigns were meant to halt destabilizing trends, shore up faltering structures, revive fading traditions, and buttress existing relationships. Their actions were intended to quash challenges to local elites from either below or outside.

To legitimize their lawless deeds, vigilantes argued that their ends justified their means. In order to preserve sacred traditions, enforce conventional moral codes, and further respect for authority, "honorable red-blooded, law-abiding" citizens sometimes were compelled to impose "retaliatory justice." They portrayed themselves as acting in self-defense as they lashed out in righteous indignation against "idlers," "parasites," "intruders," "corrupters," and "predators." They filled their manifestos with appeals to natural law, patriotism, and religion. Claiming that the basic law of nature is survival, vigilante committee spokesmen asserted that a right to self-preservation took precedence over written legislation and procedural guidelines in life-and-death, kill-or-be-killed struggles. In their speeches and writings, leaders and supporters reaffirmed their faith in God and country and in the ultimate sanctity of the law. But they interpreted the democratic ideals of popular sovereignty and the right to revolution as calls to action when government officials seemed inept, corrupt, or overly tolerant of criminal behavior. In their appeals to others to join their mobilization, vigilantes invoked the cherished frontier ethics of self-reliance and of male responsibility for the wellbeing of women and children. Leading elected officials, judges, lawyers, and legal scholars accepted and defended the vigilante credo during the late 1800s and early 1900s. More concerned with suppressing disruptive behavior than with respecting due process, they granted qualified approval to vigilantism's simple, direct, swift, certain, and severe punishments as a rational response to the inadequacies, delays, and uncertainties of an allegedly "ineffectual" criminal justice process (Hofstadter and Wallace; Madison; and Brown).

The Ku Klux Klan and other "night rider" groups have been the most explicitly ideological of all vigilante groups. Since the period of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, Klansmen have attacked "troublemakers" that they believed threatened their way of life: rebellious members of minority groups who did not accept their place in the local social order, civil rights activists, labor union organizers, recently arrived immigrants, outside agitators, and alleged subversives. Most of the victims of Klan terror have been African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.

Contemporary vigilantism

Although the frontier disappeared from the American scene long ago, outbreaks of vigilantism persist and even can be considered common if broadly defined. For example, a strain of vigilantism underlies criminal verses criminal revenge killings: drive-by shootings among feuding street gangs, turf battles between rival drug-selling crews, and mob hits among warring syndicates. People engaged in illegal activities cannot present their grievances to the authorities without incriminating themselves, so they feel compelled to take the law into their own hands to retaliate against those who wronged them.

Teenagers act as vigilantes when they attack homeless vagrants and drive them away or set them on fire. Overzealous self-appointed protectors of the neighborhood commit illegal acts of "do-it-oneself justice" when they burn down drug dens like crack houses, or firebomb the homes of former child molesters or rapists whose whereabouts were made public by community notification requirements. Vigilante impulses to inflict on-the-spot punishments surface whenever angry crowds quickly gather, chase after, and mete out "curbstone justice" or "street justice" to known or suspected purse snatchers, prowlers, burglars, robbers, and rapists before the police arrive. Officers themselves can engage in police vigilantism if they beat a suspect on the street, during the ride to the police station, or in its basement, to make sure the perpetrator is punished before being released with a mere "slap on the wrist" by the "revolving door" of an overly lenient justice system (Marx and Archer; Shotland; and Kotecha and Walker).

Highly politicized expressions of vigilantism also marred life in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Angry citizens frustrated by what they perceived to be an invasion of illegal aliens from Mexico organized their own heavily armed patrols to supplement Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) efforts to stop border crossings. Certain acts of domestic terrorism embodied vigilantism, as when rogue elements within the right-to-life movementconvinced that abortion constitutes murderassassinated doctors who legally terminated pregnancies or bombed the clinics where these medical procedures are performed. Some bias crimes that expressed the offender's hatred of the victim's "kind" of person were motivated by an impulse comparable to Klan-type vigilantism to rid society of "undesirables," as when volatile members of white supremacist neo-Nazi groups randomly attacked complete strangers solely because of their race or religion. Survivalists, imbued with the frontier spirit of self-reliance and self-preservation, stockpiled weapons and ammunition and warned that they would resort to vigilantism in the event of a breakdown of law and order in the aftermath of a natural disaster, financial collapse, chemical or biological attack, nuclear war, or political turmoil. Militia groups, motivated by their interpretation of the meaning of patriotism, denounced what they perceived to be treachery at the highest levels of government and proclaimed their willingness to fight local, state, and federal authorities to preserve the first ten amendments of the Constitution. They set up their own "common law courts," in which "sovereign citizens" or "freemen" could exercise their "God-given rights" to avoid taxes, and to indict, put on trial, convict, and call for punishments of troublemakers as well as treasonous public officials (Dees and Corcoran; and Stern).

The theme of victims inflicting severe physical punishments on offenders who were not caught by the police, or not convicted in court, or not sufficiently punished by the court-imposed sentence, has been a popular element in the plots of many books and movies. However, in real life, few former victims have launched anticrime crusades in which they lashed out ferociously against those who would dare to try to harm them; and those that did were not hailed as heroes, and did not inspire copycat crimes. Fears that neighborhood-based civilian anticrime patrols, which serve as the eyes and ears of the police, would evolve into Latin Americantype "death squads" whose targets "disappear" turned out to be unfounded as the twentieth century ended.

Tendencies toward vigilantism are held in check by countervailing forces and ideologies. Police and prosecutors press charges against those who exceed the legal limits of the legitimate use of force in self-defense. The tenets of professionalism espoused by law enforcement officials proclaim that the criminal justice process must be controlled by experts, not laymen who want to break rules and impose their own notions of just deserts. Civil rights and civil liberties organizations advance the argument that due process safeguards and constitutional guarantees must be followed in order to protect innocent persons from being falsely accused, mistakenly convicted, and unjustly punished. Vigilante "justice" imposed by lynch mobs has been exposed as too swift and too sure, with its kangaroo courts and railroading of suspects, and too severe, with vicious beatings and brutal on-the-spot executions as punishments that do not fit the crime. Vigilantism turns victims into victimizers. Formerly accepted with pride, the label vigilante remains a derogatory term.

Andrew Karmen

See also Crime Causation: Political Theories; Justification: Law Enforcement; Justification: Necessity; Justification: Self-Defense; Victims; Violence.


Brown, Richard M. "Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism." New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Burrows, William E. Vigilante! New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Culberson, William C. Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1990.

Dees, Morris, and Corcoran, James. Gathering Storm: America's Militia Network. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Hofstadter, Richard, and Wallace, Michael, eds. American Violence: A Documentary History. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Johnston, Lawrence. "What is Vigilantism?" British Journal of Criminology 36, no. 2 (1996): 220236.

Kotecha, Kanti C., and Walker, James L. "Vigilantism and the American Police." In Vigilante Politics. Edited by H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976. Pages 158172.

Madison, Arnold. Vigilantism in America. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Marx, Gary T., and Archer, Dane. "Community Police Patrols and Vigilantism." In Vigilante Politics. Edited by H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976. Pages 129157.

Moses, Norton. Lynching and Vigilantism in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography. Guilford, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Sederberg, Peter C. "Phenomenology of Vigilantism in Contemporary AmericaAn Interpretation." Terrorism 1, no. 3 (1978): Pages 287305.

Shotland, R. Lance. "Spontaneous Vigilantism: A Bystander Response to Criminal Behavior." In Vigilante Politics. Edited by H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter C. Sederberg. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976. Pages 3044.

Stern, Kenneth S. A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.


views updated May 17 2018


Taking the law into one's own hands and attempting to effect justice according to one's own understanding of right and wrong; action taken by a voluntary association of persons who organize themselves for the purpose of protecting a common interest, such as liberty, property, or personal security; action taken by an individual or group to protest existing law; action taken by an individual or group to enforce a higher law than that enacted by society's designated lawmaking institutions; private enforcement of legal norms in the absence of an established, reliable, and effective law enforcement body.

The foundation of the American legal system rests on the rule of law, a concept embodied in the notion that the United States is a nation of laws and not of men. Under the rule of law, laws are thought to exist independent of, and separate from, human will. Even when the human element factors into legal decision making, the decision maker is expected to be constrained by the law in making his or her decision. In other words, police officers, judges, and juries should act according to the law and not according to their personal preferences or private agendas.

State and federal governments are given what amounts to a monopoly over the use of force and violence to implement the law. Private citizens may use force and violence to defend their lives and their property, and in some instances the lives and property of others, but they must do so under the specific circumstances allowed by the law if they wish to avoid being prosecuted for a crime themselves. Private individuals may also make "citizen arrests," but the circumstances in which the law authorizes them to do so are very narrow. Citizens are often limited to making arrests for felonies committed in their presence. By taking law into their own hands, vigilantes flout the rule of law, effectively becoming lawmaker, police officer, judge, jury, and appellate court for the cause they are pursuing.

The history of vigilantism in the United States is as old as the country itself. In many ways, the history of the United States began with vigilantism. On December 16, 1773, American colonists, tired of British direct taxation, took part in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. As part of the resistance, they threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

During the 1830s, so-called "vigilance committees" formed in the South to protect the institution of slavery against encroachment by abolitionists, who were routinely assaulted, tarred and feathered, and otherwise terrorized by these committees with the acquiescence of local law enforcement personnel. After slavery was abolished, southern vigilante groups, such as the ku klux klan, sought to continue white dominance over freed blacks by using lynching and other forms of intimidation that were prohibited by law. During the second half of the twentieth century, African-American vigilantes wantonly destroyed symbols of white authority and property associated with white society in retaliation for the injuries and indignities caused by racial segregation and discrimination.

Vigilantism continues to metamorphose. Private watch groups patrol their neighborhoods to guard against criminal activity. Antiabortion extremists commit deadly attacks against family health care clinics and family health care workers, often in the name of religion. Environmental activists inflict economic losses on companies by obstructing lawful business activities that they think will cause harm to the air, water, or land. Every day people use force and violence to exact revenge against someone whom they believe has done them wrong. In each case, vigilantes take it upon themselves to enact justice, rather than enlist police officers, lawyers, judges, and the rest of the established legal machinery to do the job. And, in each case, vigilantes risk starting a cycle of violence and lawlessness in which the victims of vigilantism take the law into their own hands to exact pay-back.

The motivations underlying acts of vigilantism vary according to the individual vigilante. Some vigilantes seek to carry out personal agendas to protest existing law. Others seek to enforce existing law as they interpret, define, or understand it. Still others seek to implement or call attention to some kind of higher law that they feel overrules the norms established by society's designated lawmaking institutions. Since no state or federal jurisdiction offers any kind of "vigilante defense" to criminal prosecution, vigilantes must rely on the moral rectitude of their cause to justify their acts. Yet the morality of most acts of vigilantism is relative to whether one is the perpetrator or victim of vigilantism, as the targets of vigilantism rarely agree that the acts were justified.

The moral relativity associated with vigilantism is not as evident in less technological societies where vigilantism is simply equated with action taken by private residents to maintain security and order in the community, or to otherwise promote community welfare. For example, during much of the nineteenth century, local governments in the western United States were decentralized and loosely organized at best. As part of this often makeshift political order, certain individuals or groups of individuals took it upon themselves to provide summary justice for alleged victims of criminal activity. Some of the individuals accused of wrongdoing, and rounded up by this posse-style system of justice, were no doubt unhappy with the justice that was dispensed. However, these vigilante groups were prevalent in this particular region of the country, making them the norm and not the exception. As a result, such groups were typically more widely accepted than vigilante movements from other eras.

further readings

Abrams, R. G. 1999. Vigilant Citizens: Vigilantism and the State. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press.

Culberson, William C. 1990. Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in the United States. New York: Greenwood.

Safire, William. 1985. "Up the Ante." San Francisco Chronicle (February).