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).