vigilantes (vĭjĭlănˈtēz) [key], members of a vigilance committee. Such committees were formed in U.S. frontier communities to enforce law and order before a regularly constituted government could be established or have real authority. They were most common in mining communities, but were also known in cow towns and in farming settlements. The extreme penalty inflicted by the vigilantes was lynching. Among the most famous of the vigilante groups were those formed in San Francisco in 1851 and reorganized in 1856 to bring order to the notorious Barbary Coast. Measures taken by vigilance committees were at best extralegal. When such committees were formed in a community with a well-constituted government and a police force, they were strictly illegal and usually were merely the expression of mob violence.

See W. Gard, Frontier Justice (1949, repr. 1968); S. A. Coblentz, Villains and Vigilantes (rev. ed. 1957); A. C. Valentine, Vigilante Justice (1956); J. H. Jones, The Minutemen (1968); A. Madison, Vigilantism in America (1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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