Vigilantism has featured since the founding of the American nation and has appeared regularly throughout American history. Whilst vigilantism per se is not purely an American phenomenon, it is nonetheless rooted strongly in American history, tradition and ideology. Early examples of American vigilantism include the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory tactics employed by both Whigs and Tories during the Revolution (Brown, 1975: pp.41-66). Other events include the Salem witch trials, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction era, and the violent tradition of vigilantism and extremism found in Edgefield, South Carolina Back County (Madison, 1973: pp.13-70).

All of the above instances suggest a prevalence and tradition of recourse to vigilante action in American history. They also underscore the complex and varied nature of the topic. This is not, of course, a phenomenon relegated only to America’s past. Indeed, several recent examples of vigilantism in America over the last few decades include the 1981 murder of Skidmore, Missouri town bully Ken McElroy in broad daylight, in which the whole town remained tight-lipped over who the murderer was.[1] Bernhard Goetz, the ‘Subway Vigilante’, shot four black men on a subway train in 1984 after they allegedly tried to rob him, causing a media stir and widespread public debate (Fletcher, 1988: pp.1-17). Similarly, ex-con Michael Mullen targeted and shot dead registered sex-offenders during 2005 after tracking them down on websites, waiting for his victims to answer the door before he opened fire.[2] These instances present issues such as race, crime and perceived failures in judicial rulings as features of or behind contemporary vigilantism, indicating the varied and complex nature of the topic. In a similar vein, but suggesting that vigilantism in America can occur in different ways relative to a specific event or social issue, for example, New York City video activist ‘Jimmy Justice’ posts YouTube videos of traffic agents breaking laws.[3] Similarly, Julian Assange, a self-styled vigilante who overtly challenges power structures and establishments by leaking controversial information using the internet site ‘WikiLeaks’, has also been discussed using vigilante language.[4] These incidents also indicate how vigilantism often embraces or responds to new technologies. As Brown points out, information technology and mass-media advancements have enabled vigilantism to take on a new form distinct from that which demands the obvious physical involvement that characterised vigilantism in America’s past (Gurr, 1989: pp.251-262). Despite being accused of harassment during filming, underscoring the significance of vigilantism as often infringing upon the rights of others, Jimmy Justice has prompted the New York City Police Department to accept video evidence of alleged criminal activities from its concerned citizens (Ibid. Richburg). These events are obviously of a different note to the more overtly violent cases cited above, yet they emphasise the extent to which vigilantism is an indelible part of American life, appearing in various forms and in response to a whole range of concerns.

As such, this section of the blog will provide details on various vigilante groups and individuals in American history, then and now, including the forms and effects of their actions since the Colonial times to today’s Real Life Superhero Movement.

You will also find topics such as race, religion, politics, vendettas and feuds all discussed herein, alongside the more obvious (and not so obvious) violent episodes and incidents that have characterised the nation’s relatively young life. We have broken down such topics into two main groupings on this site. Please hover over the ‘History’ button in the above tabs to access ‘Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’ of vigilantism in American history!



[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/us/16bully.html?_r=0 A.G. Sulzberger, ‘Town Mute for 30 Years About a Bully’s Killing’, Dec 15th, 2010.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/us/man-charged-in-killings-of-sex-offenders.html Carolyn Marshall, ‘Man Charged in Killing of Sex Offenders’, Sept 7th, 2005.

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/02/AR2008080201503.html Keith B. Richburg, ‘New York’s Video Vigilante, Scourge of Parking Enforcers’, August 3rd, 2008.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/feb/07/age-wikileaks-style-vigilante-geek-over Evgeny Morozov, ‘The Age of the WikiLeaks-Style Vigilante-Geek is Over’, Feb 7th, 2011.

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