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definitions - Vigilante

vigilante (n.)

1.member of a vigilance committee

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synonyms - Vigilante

vigilante (n.)

vigilance man

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analogical dictionary


worker, workman[Hyper.]




vigilante (n.)



  The Bald Knobbers, an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri, wearing crude "blackface" masks typical of the post-Reconstruction era in the United States -- as portrayed in the 1919 film, The Shepherd of the Hills.

A vigilante is a private individual (or (pl.) group of individuals) who presumes to carry out extralegal punishment in defiance of existing law.[1] Lynching is a principal form of vigilantism and was practiced widely in the United States particularly -- though not exclusively -- as an attempt to control and intimidate non-white and non-Christian citizens. Posses comitatus represent another form of vigilantism.



Italian for watchman, guard, from 'vigilante' vigilant, from Latin vigilant-, vigilans .[2]

  Vigilante behavior

"Vigilante justice" is rationalized by the idea that adequate legal mechanisms for criminal punishment are either nonexistent or insufficient. Vigilantes typically see government as ineffective in enforcing the law; and such individuals often presume to justify their actions as fulfillment of the wishes of "the community".

Persons alleged to be "escaping the law" or "above the law" are sometimes the victims of vigilantism.[3]

Vigilante behavior involves various degrees of violence. Vigilantes may assault targets verbally or physically or may vandalize property or actually kill individuals.

In a number of cases, vigilantism has involved mistaken identity.

  • Businessman Leo Frank was accused of murdering one of his workers in 1913, and was eventually kidnapped from prison and lynched in 1915. Frank received an official pardon decades later, in 1986.
  • In Britain in the early 2000s, there were reports of vandalism, assaults and verbal abuse towards people wrongly accused of being pedophiles, following the murder of Sarah Payne. [4]
  • In Guyana in 2008, Hardel Haynes was beaten to death by a mob who mistook him for a thief.[5]
  • In 2009, Philadelphia's Michael Zenquis was severely assaulted by a group of locals who mistook him for a rapist on the loose.[6]


Several groups and individuals have been labelled as vigilantes by historians and media. Vigilantes have been central to several creative fictional works and in some cases have been depicted as heroes and retaliatory forces against wrongdoers.

Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual and psychological parallels between the Dark Age and medieval aristocratic custom of private war or vendetta and the modern vigilante philosophy.

Recourse to personal vengeance and duelling was considered a class privilege of the sword-bearing aristocracy before the formation of the modern centralized liberal-bureaucratic nation-state (see Marc Bloch, trans. L. A. Manyon, Feudal Society, Vol. I, 1965, p. 127). In addition, sociologists have posited a complex legal and ethical interrelationship between vigilante acts and rebellion and tyrannicide.

In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been vested in folkloric heroes and legendary outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood[7]). Vigilantism in literature, folklore and legend is connected to the fundamental issues of dussatisfied morality, injustice, the failures of authority and the ethical adequacy of legitimate governance.

During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm [1] (cf. the medieval Sardinian Gamurra later become Barracelli, the Sicilian Vendicatori and the Beati Paoli), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.

  Colonial era in America

Formally-defined vigilantism arose in the early American colonies.

  19th century

  A lynching carried out by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856.

Later in the United States, vigilante groups arose in poorly governed frontier areas where criminals preyed upon the citizenry with impunity.[8]

  • From late December 1863 to 1864 the Montana Vigilantes were formed by citizens of Bannack, Virginia City and nearby Nevada City to fight lawlessness in the gold mining region of Montana. Over the next month, 21 men were hanged, including, on January 10, 1864, Henry Plummer the sheriff of Bannack, who was also the leader of a major gang of highwaymen. The last man hanged by the vigilantes may have done nothing more than express an opinion that several of those hanged previously had been innocent.
  • In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee by a group of six Confederate War veterans. The KKK or "Klan" sought to use extralegal force to resist Reconstruction in the post Civil War South of the United States. The KKK became a leading agent of racist and nativist violence in the United States.
  • In March 1898, the "101" of Skagway, Alaska posted handbills and held meetings trying to free the town of a bunco gang known as the "Soap Gang" under the control of the infamous Soapy Smith. Four months after its creation the 101 shot and killed Soapy in a shootout on Juneau Wharf.

  20th century

  • Lynching was the most common form of vigilantism in the US in the 20th Century -- it was practiced through the early years of the civil rights movement

extending through the late 1960's.

  • Formed in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been increasingly active against whaling and fishing vessels which they see as violating international laws, regulations and treaties, particularly where whaling is concerned. It endorses an active policy of scuttling fishing and whaling vessels while in harbor, and ramming and sinking vessels engaged in the killing of whales.
  • During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army were known to administer punishment beating to petty criminals and drug dealers in order to deter crime.
  • The Guardian Angels organization was founded February 13, 1979 in New York City by Curtis Sliwa and has chapters in 15 countries and 144 cities around the world.
  • Recognized since the 1980s, Sombra Negra or "Black Shadow" of El Salvador is a group of mostly retired police officers and military personnel whose sole duty is to cleanse the country of "impure" social elements by killing criminals and gang members. Along with several other organizations, Sombra Negra are a remnant of the death squads from the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s.[12]
  • In 1981, a resident of the rural town Skidmore, Missouri fatally shot town bully Ken McElroy in broad daylight after years of crimes without any punishment. Forty five people witnessed the shooting, but everybody kept quiet when it came time to identify the shooter.
  • In 1984, Bernhard Goetz was approached on a New York City subway train by four men intent on mugging him. He shot all four and fled, earning him the media appellation "the subway vigilante".
  • Formed since 1996, the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs of Cape Town, South Africa fights drugs and gangsterism in their region. They have been linked to terrorism since they bombed some American targets in Cape Town.
  • Formed since 1998, the Bakassi Boys of Nigeria were viewed as instrumental in lowering the region's high crime when police were ineffective.
  • Formed in 1996, Mapogo a Mathamaga of South Africa provides protection for paying members of this group. Leaders have been charged with murder, etc.
  • Los Pepes was a shadowy group formed in Colombia during the 1990s that committed acts of vigilantism against drug lord Pablo Escobar and his associates within the Medellin Cartel.

  21st century

  • Current vice mayor of Davao City, Philippines Rodrigo Duterte is noted for transforming the city from the murder capital of the nation[13] to what tourism organizations there now call "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia".[13] He's been suspected of being involved with the vigilante outfit Davao Death Squad and has been criticized by human rights groups and by Amnesty International for tolerating extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals. Time magazine has dubbed him "The Punisher".[13]
  • Formed since 2000, Ranch Rescue is a still functioning organization in the southwest United States ranchers call upon to forcibly remove illegal aliens and squatters off their property.
  • In the early decade of the 2000s, after the September 11 attacks, Jonathan Idema, a self proclaimed vigilante, entered Afghanistan and captured many people he claimed to be terrorists. Idema claimed he was collaborating with, and supported by, the United States Government. He even sold news-media outlets tapes that he claimed showed an Al Qaeda training camp in action. His operations ended abruptly when he was arrested with his partners in 2004 and sentenced to 10 years in a notorious Afghan prison, before being pardoned in 2007.
  • Operating since 2002, perverted-justice.com opponents have accused the website of being modern day cyber vigilantes.
  • The Minuteman Project has been described as vigilantes dedicated to expelling people who cross the US-Mexico border illegally.[14][15]
  • Salwa Judum, the anti naxalite group formed in 2005, in India, is also considered by many as a vigilante group and its policies are suspected to be helping the security forces in their fight against naxals.
  • In Hampshire, England, during 2006, a vigilante slashed the tires of more than twenty cars, leaving a note made from cut-out newsprint stating "Warning: you have been seen while using your mobile phone".[16] Driving whilst using a mobile is a criminal offence in the UK, but critics feel the law is little observed or enforced.[17][18][19]
  • The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been dubbed vigilantes by multiple news agencies.[20]
  • Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an Irish republican socialist paramilitary group, maintains a presence in parts of Northern Ireland and has carried out punishment beatings on local alleged petty criminals.[21] In 2006, the INLA claimed to have put at least two drugs gangs out of business in Northern Ireland. After their raid on a criminal organisation based in the north-west, they released a statement saying that "the Irish National Liberation Army will not allow the working class people of this city to be used as cannon fodder by these criminals whose only concern is profit by whatever means available to them."[22][23] On 15 February 2009 the INLA claimed responsibility for the shooting dead of Derry drug-dealer Jim McConnell.[24] On 19 August 2009 the INLA shot and wounded a man in Derry. The INLA claimed that the man was involved in drug dealing although the injured man and his family denied the allegation.[25] However, in a newspaper article on 28 August the victim retracted his previous statement and admitted that he had been involved in small scale drug-dealing but has since ceased these activities.[26]
  • Other Irish republican paramilitary organizations have served and continue to serve as vigilantes. Óglaigh na hÉireann for example in 2011 claimed responsibility for an arson attack on a taxi depot on Oldpark Road, Belfast, which led to the owners fleeing the country. It claimed that the owners were using the depot as a cover for drug dealing.[27] In 2010 The Real Irish Republican Army shot a man in the legs in Derry. The man was a convicted sex offender.[28] The Continuity Irish Republican Army in 2011 were blamed for the punishment beating of a heroin dealer in Clondalkin, Dublin, the man had previously been ordered to leave the country.[29]
  • Republican Action Against Drugs or RAAD are an Irish Republican vigilante organization active prodominantly in and around Derry. Although often attributed as being a front for "Dissident Republican" groups by the media, the organization claim to have no allegiance to any particular Republican party or paramilitary. Formed in late 2008 RAAD originally offered an "amnesty" to all drug dealers, asking them to make themselves known to the group before giving an assurance that they had stopped dealing.[30] In an interview with the Derry Journal in August 2009, the group's leadership explained: "We would monitor the actions of those who have come forward and, given an adequate period of time, interest in those drug dealers would cease and they could start to lead normal lives".[30] Since then RAAD have claimed responsibility for no less than 17 shootings as well as countless pipe bomb attacks (see Republican Action Against Drugs#Timeline).
  • In November 2010, Alejo Garza Tamez, a 77 year old Mexican hunter and businessman from the state of Nuevo León, Mexico, killed four and wounded two other members of the organized crime band Los Zetas, when they tried to take away his ranch from him. He is considered as a folk hero in Mexico.[31][32]
  • In October of 2011 on the United States, a Vigilante operating in Seattle, named Phoenix Jones was arrested and forced to reveal his true identity, after a confrontation with two groups who were fighting.
  • In June 2012. MODERN DAY VIGILANTE: A Texas Father beats a man to death who he caught sexually assaulting his 5 year old daughter. He was not charged, as you are authorized to use deadly force to protect against sexual assault in Texas. [33]

  Works of fiction

See: List of vigilantes in popular culture

Vigiliantism is a common theme in fiction, across a wide range of genres. In particular, vigilantes feature prominently in comic books and Hollywood movies. The vigilante character is frequently a superhero, such as Batman, or a rogue cop such as Dirty Harry.

  See also


  1. ^ OED, second edition, revised, 2005. p
  2. ^ ""vigilante" etymology". Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vigilante. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  3. ^ Harris, Bronwyn (May 2001). ""As for Violent Crime that's our Daily Bread": Vigilante violence during South Africa's period of transition". http://www.csvr.org.za/papers/papvtp1.htm. 
  4. ^ Paedophiles 'driven into hiding' Whispering game The campaign for 'Sarah's Law' Vigilante attack on innocent man
  5. ^ "Mob killings spark worry". Kaieteur News. December 14, 2008. http://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2008/12/14/mob-killings-spark-worry/. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Cuellar, Dann (June 5, 2009). "Wrong man attacked in vigilante injustice". 6abc,com (Center City). http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/local&id=6851290. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  7. ^ Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. http://books.google.com/books?id=X6OZHSrJCRAC&pg=PA316&lpg=PA316&dq=%22robin+hood%22+vigilantism#PPA316,M1. 
  8. ^ Mullen, Kevin. "Malachi Fallon First Chief of Police". 
  9. ^ Hine, Kelly D. (1998). "VIGILANTISM REVISITED: AN ECONOMIC ANALYSIS OF THE LAW OF EXTRA-JUDICIAL SELF-HELP OR WHY CAN’T DICK SHOOT HENRY FOR STEALING JANE’S TRUCK?" (PDF). http://www.wcl.american.edu/journal/lawrev/47/pdf/hine.pdf. 
  10. ^ Monkkonen, Eric (2005). "Western Homicide: The Case of Los Angeles, 1830–1870". Pacific Historical Review 74 (4): 603–618 [p. 609]. DOI:10.1525/phr.2005.74.4.603. "The homicide rate between 1847 and 1870 averaged 158 per 100,000 (13 murders per year), which was 10 to 20 times the annual murder rates for New York City during the same period" 
  11. ^ Nicholas Farrelly (July 2, 2010). "From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts". New Mandala. http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/07/02/from-village-scouts-to-cyber-scouts/. Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  12. ^ Gutiérrez, Raúl (2007-09-04). "RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating". Inter Press Service. http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=39143. 
  13. ^ a b c Zabriskie, Phil: The Punisher, Time magazine (Asia edition), June 24, 2002.
  14. ^ Casey Sanchez (August 13, 2007). "New Video Appears to Show Vigilante Border Murder". Southern Poverty Law Center. http://www.splcenter.org/blog/2007/08/13/new-video-appears-to-show-vigilante-border-murder/. Retrieved 2009-03-21. 
  15. ^ "Vigilantes Gather in Arizona". Anti-Defamation League. April 7, 2005. http://www.adl.org/learn/extremism_in_the_news/White_Supremacy/arizona_vigilantes_40705.htm. Retrieved 2009-03-21. 
  16. ^ "Phone vigilante slashes car tyres " BBC News dated 14 August 2006. Recovered on unknown date.
  17. ^ "Careless talk". news.bbc.co.uk. 2007-02-22. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6382077.stm. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  18. ^ "500 drivers a week flout phone ban". www.thisislondon.co.uk. http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23557108-details/500+drivers+a+week+flout+phone+ban/article.do. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  19. ^ "1,100 fined drivers get off the hook - Scotland on Sunday". scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com. http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/mobilephonedrivingban/1100-fined-drivers-get-off.2620914.jp. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  20. ^ "Sea Shepherd - Operation Migaloo In the News". www.seashepherd.org. http://www.seashepherd.org/migaloo/in_the_news.html. Retrieved 2009-06-21. 
  21. ^ INLA statement of 2004, claiming responsibility for a punishment attack
  22. ^ Brendan McDaid (31 March 2006). "INLA hands over drugs seized from cocaine ring". Belfast Telegraph. Archived from the original on May 17, 2011. http://web.archive.org/web/20110517133620/http://saoirse32.blogsome.com/2006/03/31/inla-hands-over-drugs-seized-from-cocaine-ring/. 
  23. ^ INLA dismantles another criminal gang April 07, 2006 10:51 Indymedia.ie
  24. ^ INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer Retrieved: 26-05-2009
  25. ^ INLA say they shot father-of-three – Derry Journal – 21 August 2009
  26. ^ INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore' – Derry Journal – 28th August 2009
  27. ^ Belfast Media | News | ONH claim arson attack on depot
  28. ^ Real IRA shot sex offender - Local - Derry Journal
  29. ^ CIRA blamed for attack on man (20) - News, Frontpage - Herald.ie
  30. ^ a b 'Only way to eradicate drugs scourge is to remove the dealers' - Local - Derry Journal
  31. ^ "Defiende su rancho del narco hasta la muerte RIP Alejo Garza Tamez" (in Spanish). El Blog del Narco. 23 de noviembre de 2010. http://www.sobrenarcotrafico.com/2010/11/23/defiende-su-rancho-del-narco-hasta-la-muerte-rip-alejo-garza-tamez/. 
  32. ^ Ovemex (November 22, 2010). "Mexican Marines Reconstruct the Death of Don Alejo Garza". Borderland Beat. http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2010/11/mexican-marines-reconstruct-death-of.html. 
  33. ^ Weber, Paul. "Texas father who beat daughter’s molestor to death will not be charged". National Post. http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/06/20/texas-father-who-beat-daughters-molestor-to-death-will-not-be-charged/. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 

  External links



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