Vigilantes — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When I was researching a proposed book, I became interested in vigilante justice – or lack of  justice part  – in Montana. But I started wandering elsewhere when I found a great website called “Legends of America,” a treasure lode of information about vigilante groups throughout the old west.

As in Montana, such groups were usually formed to protect honest citizens in areas where law was non-existent, or in places were the law itself was corrupt. But in many instances the groups became what they once hunted. The classic film, “The Oxbow Incident,” is a vivid example of what sometimes happened.

The term vigilante stems from its Spanish equivalent, meaning private security agent. They were most common in mining communities but were also known to exist in cow towns and farming settlements. They range from the Anti Horse Thief Association (A.H.T.A.), which still exists today as a fraternal organization, to the Bald Knobbers which had a brief run in Missouri.

One of the first groups was the San Francisco Vigilantes of 1851. The Gold Rush had transformed the small Spanish settlement into a boom town as thousands of men flocked to California to make their fortunes. The town grew from approximately 800 residents in 1848 to nearly 25,000 three years later, “including murderers, swindlers, thieves, sporting girls and carpetbagger politicians.”

When the city was incapable of handling the lawlessness, the city’s merchants established the “Committee of Vigilance” in 1851. Some 700 members met in secret and drew up bylaws and announced that the elected government was incapable of protecting the lire and property of the city’s citizens and claimed that role for itself.

The committee believed that Australian immigrants were mostly responsible for the city’s crime and immediately began to prevent them from landing in San Francisco and deporting several dozen men. Their justice was swift and certain, hanging four men accused of murder. Word of lynching and exiling criminals had the desired effect. Crime dropped swiftly, and the committee’s success spurred the establishment of other vigilante groups throughout the west. Having accomplished its purpose, the San Francisco group disbanded in 1852 and turned to city back over to the elected officials.

A new group, however, was formed in San Francisco in 1856 when the city was taken over by a gang of “organized political plunderers,” according to “Legends of the West.” Some of the worst elements of San Francisco had taken control of the city government, stuffing ballot boxes, bribing voters, intimidating those that couldn’t be paid off and electing their own judges. When the editor of one of the city’s papers exposed the graft, he was murdered “by a low life politician and known ballot box stuffer named James Casey.” Thinking he would be protected by his friends, he turned himself in.

The response was immediate. A new vigilante group was formed, including one of leaders of the first group. The group took over a commercial warehouse which was converted into an armory and drill hall. The crooked politicians appealed to the governor and federal authorities who refused to help, and the committee “purified” the government by exiling politicians, and criminals. It then disbanded for a second time.

Then there was the longer lasting Anti Horse Thief Association (A.H.T.A.) that was organized in 1859 to provide protection for Kansas stock owners during the days of the Kansas-Missouri border war. The group was so successful in catching horse thieves that it soon expanded into stopping other illegal activities as well, and additional branches were formed throughout Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, and the Indian Territory which was particularly rife with crime. Before long, courts were recognizing their value and gave them approval.

In 1905, a spokesman for the organization stated the A.H.T.A. “uses only strictly honorable, legal methods. It opposes lawlessness in any and all forms, yet does its work so systematically and efficiently that few criminals are able to escape when it takes the trial.” At this time, the national organization numbered over 30,000 members.

Once the outlaw days had come to an end, the organization continued to exist as a fraternal organization, eventually having groups in 16 states. It still exists today.

A third group was the Dodge City Vigilantes (1873). Dodge City, established in 1872, was teeming with buffalo hunters, railroad men, soldiers and desperadoes. In its first year as a town, fifteen men were buried in Boot Hill. 

Local businessmen hired a gunfighter named Billy Brooks to tame the town, but when he did little to stop the violence they formed a vigilante committee. The committee warned the six most violent offenders to leave town immediately. Four went. Two stayed and were hunted down and killed.

However this group did not disband and, as often happened with vigilante groups, became the main source of violence. One of its members, a dance hall owner, chased a man out of his establishment and shot him. As the victim lay writhing in the street, the proprietor walked up to him and shot him again.

Several months later, two vigilante members killed a man named William Taylor. Not a good move. Taylor was employed by the commanding officer of Ft. Dodge who entered the city and arrested six of the vigilantes.

The Montana vigilantes also had a controversial life. During Montana’s gold rush days, the law was mostly absent in what was then the Territory of Idaho. After a young miner was murdered in Virginia City, and two of his suspected murderers were set free, outraged citizens decided justice was too slow. Five men were sworn in as the Vigilance Committee, patterned after the San Francisco Vigilantes. In the next few years, 22 men were lynched, some of which were probably not guilty. Some researchers believe the entire affair was a cover up for the so called vigilantes who were actually committing the crimes. Random lynchings continued in Montana Territory throughout the 1860s until a backlash against extralegal justice took hold around 1870.

More about vigilante committees in my next blog.

On a more cheerful note, I wish you a magical holiday season. Thank you all for being a part of this community.

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14 thoughts on “Vigilantes — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. Patricia, you cracked me up at the end with your “on a more cheerful note…”

    I have always wondered about how “vigilantes” got their name. Thanks for filling that gap in my brain bank!

    May your holiday season also be magical!

    Peace, Julie

  2. Love your post, Pat. So informative. This is a subject I’ve had to research off and on, but even Texas, with our rich “Valianty” justice attitudes, doesn’t compare to the organized system of Montana. I’m eager to read your next installment. Thanks for sharing. Don’t know about you guys, but I’m really having trouble getting back into the swing of things, after such a wonderful holiday. I hope all of the Fillies and our friends had a great Thanksgiving. Hugs, Phyliss

  3. I read every single word of this, Pat. Vigilantes figured big time in my book, Petticoat Ranch.

    I wanted to explore the idea that vigilantes often start out with good motives, take the law into their owns hands, then gradually end up being criminals themselves. Some of these examples are great.

  4. Wonderful blog, Pat! Lots of things I didn’t know but that would be great to put into a book. I don’t hold with any group of men (especially meeting in secret) to mete out justice, but I can see how sometimes that was the only way to protect themselves and their families. And like Phyliss pointed out the vigilantes often turned criminals themselves. I guess they thrived on power. I wish you well with the proposed book.

  5. Linda and all . . .I also thought the vigilante tales held many seeds for stories. I was particularly interested in San Francisco and the fact that criminal elements took over the city. I was also fascinated that 700 people came together in secret to start a vigilante group.

  6. Fascinating blog. Checked out the web site for Legends of America. Lots of good stuff there. Not only the vigilantes but the ranchers in, I think it was Wyoming, who hired a guy to stop the rustling. Sort of a reverse type of vigilantes. He became quite famous and now I can’t remember his name.
    Looking forward to more.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. Somewhere among my miles of notes for future stories is a sketch of a murder mystery with vigilantes involved…and I think I actually considered setting it in Montana! Neat to find out there’s a historical basis there.

  8. Really interesting blog, Pat. I was aware of vigilantes, but didn’t know the full story, especially the fascinating way you tell it. Didn’t the Johnson County war have its share of vigilante violence? Thinking of the hanging of the woman called Cattle Kate. But maybe that was just two sides of the “war.” Anyway, I’m rambling. Thanks for a great blog.

  9. Elizabeth. . .I do think the vigilante violence was all on one side in the Johnson County wars. What amazed me is the group in Missouri/Kansas that was so extensive. In all my reading about the west, I’ve never heard of the Anti Horse Thief Association before. I intend to do more research on these folks.

  10. Very interesting. I didn’t know that’s where the word came from. Too bad we can’t keep the good (swift justice) and get rid of the bad (corruption). Our courts are so bogged down and not without corruption either but I’m sure there’s less getting the wrong man.

  11. Patricia,
    Thank you for such a wonderfully informative post. I look forward to the continuation. In all honesty, I have never heard much positive about the vigilante movements. It always seemed to be a group of people out for revenge or interested in immediate action on few facts rather than justice. I can understand the frustration when justice doesn’t seem to be served or takes too long in coming. But fairness and justice fly out the window when actions aren’t guided by law and regulation. Corruption may be there in the official system, but vigilantism isn’t free of the same. The old saying about absolute power corrupting absolutely can be very true in this situation.

    Hope you have an enjoyable holiday season.

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