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A vigilance committee was a group formed of private citizens to administer law and order where they considered governmental structures to be inadequate. The term is commonly associated with the frontier areas of the American West in the mid-19th century, where groups attacked cattle rustlers and gangs, and people at gold mining claims. As such groups operated outside the law, they sometimes took excessive actions and even sometimes killed innocent people without knowing it. In the years prior to the Civil War, some committees worked to free slaves and transport them to freedom.
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. This took place during the trial of Charles Cora (Husband of Belle Cora) and James Casey in San Francisco during 1856.
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 their nature, 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.
United States Vigilance Committees
- 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
- San Francisco 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 Vigilance commitees
- Biddulph Peace Society; 1876, Biddulph, Ontario, Canada
- Whitechapel Vigilance Committee; 1888, London, UK - founded to capture Jack the Ripper.
- 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 1920, but the Committee attributed the reduction to "forced marriages" and abortions.
- 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 (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
- Vigilance Committee is also a term used by some interest groups who monitor the actions of others.
- "Arthursville abolitionists ran Underground Railroad through Pittsburgh". Retrieved 9 January 2014.
- “Eyewitness: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance - 1856.” Accessed February 26, 2017. http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/woolley.html.
- Malcolm Graham (30 November 2014). Oxford in the Great War. Pen and Sword. pp. 122–124. ISBN 978-1-78346-297-1.
- Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984. ISBN 0-520-06026-1
- Bancroft, Hubert Howe, Popular tribunals V.1, The History Company, San Francisco, 1887
- Bancroft, Hubert Howe, Popular tribunals V.2,The History Company, San Francisco, 1887