Vigilance committee

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A vigilance committee was a group formed of private citizens to administer law and order or exercise power through violence in places where they considered governmental structures or actions inadequate. A form of vigilantism and often a more structured kind of lynch mob, the term is commonly associated with the frontier areas of the American West in the mid-19th century, where groups attacked cattle rustlers and people at gold mining claims; held kangaroo courts; and beat, killed, or exiled those they believed had violated their preferred norms (sometimes on a thin pretext of such, motivated by personal or mercenary gain). As non-state organizations, no functioning checks existed to protect against excessive force or safeguard "due process" from the committees. In the years prior to the Civil War, some committees worked to free slaves and transport them to freedom.[1]

In the West[edit]

In the western United States, both before and after the Civil War, the stated purpose of these committees was to maintain law and order and administer summary justice where governmental law enforcement was inadequate. In reality, they were often used by those high in the social hierarchy to attack unfavored groups, including recent immigrants and racial or ethnic groups. In newly settled areas, vigilance committees promised 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,[citation needed] 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. This took place during the trial of Charles Cora (Husband of Belle Cora) and James Casey in San Francisco during 1856.[2]


Vigilance committees were generally abandoned when the conditions favoring their creation ceased or when government officials made a show of force. In the west, as governmental enforcement increased and courts could dispense justice, residents abandoned the committees.


Vigilance committees, by their nature, lacked an outside set of checks and balances, often making them a tool of 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.

United States vigilance committees[edit]

Other vigilance committees[edit]

  • Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
  • Whitechapel Vigilance Committee; 1888, London, UK - founded to capture Jack the Ripper.
  • Vigilance Committee of the Gaelic Athletic Association - A committee tasked with identifying members of the association who either played or attended "Foreign Games" (predominantly soccer and rugby union) in contravention of the association's rules. The rule was in place until 1971, up to which point, many GAA players who also wished to play other sports had to resort to elaborate tactics including the wearing of disguises, the use of false names, and travelling covertly (e.g. in the boot of a car) to attend matches.
  • An Oxford Vigilance Committee was formed during World War I in Oxford, UK, a town whose own men of military age had gone to war, and where soldiers were stationed. The Committee ran volunteer patrols of women to discourage, observe, and report on what was perceived as "immoral" behaviour of the town's women. In November 1916, the Committee issued a report "on the Moral Condition of Oxford," warning that the town's streets were "crowded with young girls, whose dress [and] behaviour show that they are deliberately laying themselves out to attract men." Their reports included detailed accounts of casual or adulterous sexual liaisons in the town. Births out of wedlock in Oxford decreased from 1914 to 1925, but the Committee attributed the reduction to "forced marriages" and abortions.[5]

In film and media[edit]

  • 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 (1940). 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[edit]

  • Vigilance Committee is also a term used by some interest groups who monitor the actions of others.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Arthursville abolitionists ran Underground Railroad through Pittsburgh". Retrieved 9 January 2014.
  2. ^ "Eyewitness: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance - 1856." Accessed February 26, 2017.
  3. ^ Dresser, Amos (1836). The narrative of Amos Dresser : with Stone's letters from Natchez, an obituary notice of the writer, and two letters from Tallahassee, relating to the treatment of slaves. Link is to a reprinting in the collection Slave Rebels, Abolitionists, and Southern Courts. New-York: American Anti-Slavery Society.
  4. ^ Krieger, Dan (July 13, 2013). "Lynch mobs part of area's history". The Tribune. Retrieved May 29, 2020.
  5. ^ Malcolm Graham (30 November 2014). Oxford in the Great War. Pen and Sword. pp. 122–124. ISBN 978-1-78346-297-1.

General references[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Frontier Justice
  • Click here for a WorldCat search for American vigilance committee pamphlets published before 1900 available online, many but not all free. Click here for a search that includes pamphlets not available online.