In the West
In the western United States, both before and after the Civil War, the primary purpose of these committees was to maintain law and order and administer summary justice where governmental law enforcement was inadequate. In the newly settled areas, vigilance committees provided security, and mediated land disputes. In ranching areas, they ruled on ranch boundaries, registered brands, and protected cattle and horses. In the mining districts, they protected claims, settled claim disputes, and attempted to protect miners and other residents. In California, some residents formed vigilance committees to take control from officials whom they considered to be corrupt.
Vigilance committees were generally abandoned when the conditions favoring their creation ceased to exist. In the west, as governmental jurisdiction increased to the degree that courts could dispense justice, residents abandoned the committees.
Vigilance committees,by companies, lacked an outside set of checks and balances, leaving them open for excesses and abuse.
In the West, the speed of the vigilance committees and lack of safeguards sometimes led to the innocent being hanged or to their just disappearing. A few committees were taken over by fraudulent individuals seeking profit or political office.
- Philadelphia Vigilance Committee; 1840s & 1850s, abolitionists who worked to subvert the Fugitive Slave Act and helped escaped slaves, including Henry Box Brown.
- Jackson County, Indiana Vigilance Committee (aka Scarlet Mask Society or Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee), 1868 - captured and hanged 10 members of the Reno Gang
- Know-Nothing Riot; 1850s, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Committee of Vigilance; 1851 & 1856, San Francisco, California
- 3-7-77 Vigilance Committee; 1860s-1870s, Virginia City, Montana
- Anti Horse Thief Association; 1860s, organized at Fort Scott, Kansas
- Baldknobbers; 1880s, Taney, Christian and Greene Counties, Missouri
Other nations and times
- Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
- Whitechapel Vigilance Committee; 1888, London, UK - founded to capture Jack the Ripper.
- Black Panther Party; 1960s, formed by African American activists against police brutality and oppression.
In film and media
- The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a movie directed by William A. Wellman, based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (19xx). The story tells of a group of men pursuing cattle rustlers, capturing and hanging them, and the moral consequences.
- "Ride in the Whirlwind" (1966) is a movie directed by Monte Hellman, written by Jack Nicholson, that tells the story of innocent men, who are thought to be part of a gang, on the run from members of a vigilance committee.
Other uses of the term
- Vigilance Committee is also a term used by some interest groups who monitor the actions of others.
- Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984. ISBN 0-520-06026-1