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The Bald Knobbers, an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri, as portrayed in the 1919 film, The Shepherd of the Hills.

A vigilante is someone who illegally punishes someone for perceived offenses, or participates in a group which metes out extrajudicial punishment to such a person. Often the victims are criminals in the legal sense, however a vigilante may follow a different definition of criminal than the local law.

Members of community watch programs and others who use legal means of bringing people to justice are not considered vigilantes. For example, in 1979 Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels in New York City, a recognized crime fighting organization that now has chapters in many other cities. See also citizen's arrest.



The term vigilante has Latin origins: "vigilans/vigilantis"- the present participle of "vigilare" (to watch), and stands now for "watchman" or "watcher"[1]. Its etymology is closely related to the word vigilance.

Note that the term vigilantism is a derivative of vigilante, not of vigilant or vigilance. The term vigilante was introduced into English from the northeast United States. Vigilantism is generally frowned upon by official agencies (who would otherwise encourage vigilance on the part of citizens), especially when it gives way to criminal behavior on the part of the vigilante.

Vigilante behavior

"Vigilante justice" is sometimes spurred on by the perception that criminal punishment is either nonexistent or insufficient for the crime. Some people see their governments as ineffective in enforcing the law; thus, such individuals fulfill the like-minded wishes of the community. In other instances, a person may choose a role of vigilante as a result of personal experience as opposed to a social demand.

Persons seen as "escaping from the law" or "above the law" are sometimes the targets of vigilantism.[2] It may target persons or organizations involved in illegal activities in general or it may be aimed against a specific group or type of activity, e.g. police corruption. Other times, governmental corruption is the prime target of vigilante freedom fighters.

Vigilante behavior may differ in degree of violence. In some cases vigilantes may assault targets verbally, physically attack them or vandalize their property. Anyone who defies the law to further justice is a vigilante, and thus violence is not a necessary criterion.


Several groups and individuals have been labeled 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 noted in folkloric heroes and legendary outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood[3]). Vigilantism in literature, folklore and legend is deeply connected to the fundamental issues of morality, the nature of justice, the limits of bureaucratic authority and the ethical function 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 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.[4]

  • 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. 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.

20th century

  • In the early 20th century, the White Finns founded the Suojeluskunta (Protection Corps) as a paramilitary vigilante organisation in Finland. It formed the nucleus of the White Army in the Finnish Civil War.
  • In the 1920s, the Big Sword Society of China protected life and property in a state of anarchy.
  • 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.
  • 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.[7]
  • 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 surrounded 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 the frontmen 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 (present day)

  • Current mayor of Davao City, Philippines Rodrigo Duterte is noted for transforming the city from the murder capital of the nation[8] to what tourism organizations there now call "the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia".[8] 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".[8]
  • 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 2000, 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, 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.[9][10]
  • 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 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"[11]. Driving whilst using a mobile is a criminal offence in the UK, but critics feel the law is little observed or enforced.[12][13][14]
  • The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been dubbed vigilantes by multiple news agencies.[15]
  • 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.[16] 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."[17][18] On 15 February 2009 the INLA claimed responsibility for the shooting dead of Derry drug-dealer Jim McConnell.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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.

The Hollywood vigilante had its development in the 1960s[22] and 1970s[23]at a time when the cop or detective story was popular and replacing the Western genre in popularity where vigilantism often occurred. There was a change in the film industry, change in self regulation in the industry, and change in American values all which opened up production to violent content without completely banning it or censoring it to viewers making way for a "vigilante cop."[22] These cops are said to express unrelenting and uncompromising violence towards anyone who got in between both the vigilante cop and criminal that broke laws to accomplish their objectives.[22]

Vigilantism in the comic book arena has its basic concepts in several fictional genres, including stories published in dime novels and comic books. Many of the heroes of pulp fiction and comic book superheroes are vigilantes because they operate outside the law in order to combat lawlessness. In fact, virtually any superhero can be considered a vigilante if he is not acting under the direct authority of a law enforcement agency or other government body.

A key example is Watchmen, a DC Comics limited series of the late 1980s written by Alan Moore, in which the superheroes that remained active after the series' Keene Act are portrayed by society and government as illegal vigilantes. Also of note is the DC comic book character of the 1940s and revived in the 1980s, the Vigilante.

See also


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas (November 2001). ""Vigilante" etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  2. ^ Harris, Bronwyn (May 2001). ""As for Violent Crime that's our Daily Bread": Vigilante violence during South Africa's period of transition". 
  3. ^ Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). "A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence".,M1. 
  4. ^ Mullen, Kevin. "Malachi Fallon First Chief of Police". 
  6. ^ 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. Eric Monkkonen, “Western Homicide: The Case of Los Angeles, 1830—1870,” Pacific Historical Review, 74 (Nov. 2005), 609.
  7. ^ Gutiérrez, Raúl (2007-09-04). "RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating". Inter Press Service. 
  8. ^ a b c Zabriskie, Phil: The Punisher, Time magazine (Asia edition), June 24, 2002.
  9. ^ Casey Sanchez (August 13, 2007). "New Video Appears to Show Vigilante Border Murder". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2009-03-21. 
  10. ^ "Vigilantes Gather in Arizona". Anti-Defamation League. April 7, 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-21. 
  11. ^ "Phone vigilante slashes car tyres " BBC News dated 14 August 2006. Recovered on unknown date.
  12. ^ "BBC NEWS". Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  13. ^ "500 drivers a week flout phone ban". Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  14. ^ "1,100 fined drivers get off the hook - Scotland on Sunday". Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  15. ^ "Sea Shepherd - Operation Migaloo In the News". Retrieved 2009-06-21. 
  16. ^ INLA statement of 2004, claiming responsibility for a punishment attack
  17. ^ Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2006
  18. ^
  19. ^ INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer Retrieved: 26-05-2009
  20. ^ INLA say they shot father-of-three – Derry Journal – 21 August 2009
  21. ^ INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore' – Derry Journal – 28th August
  22. ^ a b c It should be noted that most of the movies based on superheroes could be considered as vigilante fiction. Gates, Philippa. "A Brief History of the Detective Film". 
  23. ^ Gates, Philippa. "Cop Action Films". 

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