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Vigilantism - Examples

committee movements mob mobs

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).

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