A History of Putting a Spin on Vigilante Justice

 

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

Vigilantes

Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs: Narratives
of a Community and a Nation

Lisa Arellano (American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies)

Temple University Press (2012)

Associate Professor Lisa Arellano’s research for what would become Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs took her to archives in Louisiana, Idaho, Montana, and California. And though the specific incidents in the accounts and commentary she studied included ostensibly unique events—measured vigilante justice of the Wild West and brutal racial lynch mobs of the Deep South—Arellano found herself reading the same narratives over and over. The stories, she writes, “all contained similar and recurring formulations such that they were virtually interchangeable.”

How could that be? Her book, which is more historiography than history, shows that the propagation and ritualization of such violence relied upon a selective reality that emphasized barbaric (and always unprecedented) crime, inept officialdom, and a valorous and even heroic response.

Arellano examined the stories attached to vigilante movements in the 19th-century West, and that alone is a fascinating snapshot into that period of our history. There was something distinctly American in this romanticized do-it-yourself brand of justice and commentators of the time. In fact, in one noted study of the time, Arellano shows, the author revised his accounts of “popular tribunals” before publication to ensure that only the most idealized version emerged.

Omitted was the sometimes racially motivated selection of targets by vigilantes (in California Chinese laborers were a convenient “other”). While it was acknowledged that there were rogue elements, the principled vigilantes, wrote self-published historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, were the embodiment of democracy, “watching the welfare of the commonwealth, using force only when all other means fail, using its power with moderation, tempering justice with mercy, and gladly relinquishing its distasteful duties the moment it can do so with safety.”

The reality was sometimes very different, as some vigilantes in the West included torture and even taking of human trophies in their dispensation of justice, Arellano writes. The skin of one “ferocious bandit” hung by vigilantes in 1891 was tanned and made into various items, including a medical bag and a pair of lady’s shoes (displayed at a local bank in Wyoming). 

This was justified by the alleged heinousness of the criminals, a rationalization that extended to the narratives that later accompanied southern lynchings, Arellano writes.  The “uncontrolled criminal conditions” that made vigilantism necessary took the form of the alleged sexual assaults on white women by black men. Lawlessness was assigned a racial identity, and in the Jim Crow South it was the chivalric duty of white men to defend their women against such crimes (mostly unsubstantiated) in the most brutal ways possible. 

Arellano explores the work of Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching activist whose pamphlets began to erode the southern lynching myth in the 1880s and 1890s. Wells not only described the horrific reality of southern lynching but also helped dismantle the narrative that made it defensible and disguised its role in helping one race control another.

It’s strong and discomfiting stuff, and Arellano notes that when she teaches this subject her students find it hard to imagine how brutal vigilantism could be explained as heroic or part of an American ideal. But it was and still is, and many of the elements of early vigilante narratives survive today. “We need to be fully able to name and understand the construction of this past,” Arellano writes, “in order to engage with its ‘historically’ continuing presence.”

Arellano’s goal in this book, she wrote, “is to muddy seemingly clear historical waters.”

She’s done that and, in the process, it becomes apparent that this particular form of violence is tied to a carefully constructed and perpetuated narrative intended to obscure our view of our past and ourselves.

Believe it at your own risk.

 
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