Vigilantism Research Paper

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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.’’

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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-anddeath, 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 selfreliance 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 movement— convinced that abortion constitutes murder— assassinated 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 courtimposed 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 American– type ‘‘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.


  1. BROWN, RICHARD ‘‘Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism.’’ New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  2. BURROWS, WILLIAM Vigilante! New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
  3. CULBERSON, WILLIAM Vigilantism: Political History of Private Power in America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1990.
  4. DEES, MORRIS, and CORCORAN, JAMES. Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Network. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  5. HOFSTADTER, RICHARD, and WALLACE, MICHAEL, eds. American Violence: A Documentary History. New York: Knopf, 1970.
  6. JOHNSTON, LAWRENCE. ‘‘What is Vigilantism?’’ British Journal of Criminology 36, no. 2 (1996): 220–236.
  7. KOTECHA, KANTI, 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 158–172.
  8. MADISON, ARNOLD. Vigilantism in America. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
  9. MARX, GARY, 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 129–157.
  10. MOSES, NORTON. Lynching and Vigilantism in the United States: An Annotated Bibliography. Guilford, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
  11. SEDERBERG, PETER ‘‘Phenomenology of Vigilantism in Contemporary America—An Interpretation.’’ Terrorism 1, no. 3 (1978): Pages 287–305.
  12. 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 30–44.
  13. STERN, KENNETH A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
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