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Vigilantes

VIGILANTES

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Robert M.Guth

Cynthia R.Poe

See alsoRegulators ; Revolutionary Committees ; White League andvol. 9:Constitution of the Committee of Vigilantes of San Francisco .

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vigilantes

vigilantes (vĬjĬlăn´tēz), members of a vigilance committee. Such committees were formed in U.S. frontier communities to enforce law and order before a regularly constituted government could be established or have real authority. They were most common in mining communities, but were also known in cow towns and in farming settlements. The extreme penalty inflicted by the vigilantes was lynching. Among the most famous of the vigilante groups were those formed in San Francisco in 1851 and reorganized in 1856 to bring order to the notorious Barbary Coast. Measures taken by vigilance committees were at best extralegal. When such committees were formed in a community with a well-constituted government and a police force, they were strictly illegal and usually were merely the expression of mob violence.

See W. Gard, Frontier Justice (1949, repr. 1968); S. A. Coblentz, Villains and Vigilantes (rev. ed. 1957); A. C. Valentine, Vigilante Justice (1956); J. H. Jones, The Minutemen (1968); A. Madison, Vigilantism in America (1973).

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Vigilantius

Vigilantius (vĬj´Ĭlăn´shəs), fl. 400, Christian priest of Gaul who was violently opposed by St. Jerome. Jerome's letters and a tract, Liber contra Vigilantium, declare that Vigilantius denied the efficacy of relics, prayers to the saints, almsgiving, celibacy of the clergy, and monasticism. His works are not extant.

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