Famous Vigilantes

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The word vigilante, derived from the Spanish root vigilans, literally means a watchman. Currently it applies to an individual or a group who uses illegal authority for law enforcement. The vigilantes emerge when the people consider the governments are too weak to enforce law effectively. The vigilantes justify their actions by assuming that their actions are in conformance to the wishes of the community. There is invariably certain element of violence in vigilantes, and its degree may vary from verbal abuse to physical punishment, damaging the property or even lynching in extreme cases. Lynching was one of the earlier and more ruthless forms of vigilantism. The illegal status of vigilantism was seen by Abraham Lincoln as a bad omen for the nation, as he said, ‘There is even now something of ill omen amongst us’¦ the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts.”

1. Montana Vigilantes

Montana Territory Governor Benjamin F. Potts (1836-1887)
Montana Territory Governor Benjamin F. Potts (1836-1887)

In 1860s, Montana was a distant territory of Idaho. Culture of the area was influenced by the gold mining activity. Uneducated people clustered there for easy fortunes which were available abundantly. Three features (displaying fire arms, carrying large quantities of gold, and excessive drinking in saloons to pass the free time) were the norms of the society. All these features provided an optimum atmosphere for crimes. With only rudimentary form of courts in the area, a group of outlaws formed a gang called road agents, and this gang robbed and murdered the gold freighters. The Montana Territory was created on May 26, 1864 and the territory courts available for the residents of Bannak and Virginia City were only too insufficient and ineffective. Under these circumstances, secret Montana Vigilantes had undertaken the enforcement of law in their own hand. It is not known exactly, though it is estimated that more than thirty people were killed by the Montana Vigilantes between 1863 and 1865.

2. The Bald Knobbers

The Bald Knobbers
The Bald Knobbers

In 1883 thirteen men led by Nat. N. Kinney formed a retaliatory group. The Bald Knobbers were the people who wore masks with horns and retaliated against the bush fighters. They derived their name from the Snapp’s Bald Knob peaks of Ozark Mountain, where they met before forming the group. The Peaks were called bald knobs because there were no trees and they were covered only with grass. The Bald Knobbers remained active between 1883 and 1889. More than forty residents were murdered in Taney County between 1865 and 1885. Missouri, being a border state, was often invaded by the neighboring bush fighters during the civil war. Neighbor versus neighbor fighting spread throughout the state after the war. The James-Younger Gang was particularly active and killed many people, but they were never punished. The bush fighters attacked in the form of groups or individually and set properties on fire and occasionally killed the residents. The Bald Knobbers retaliated against them.

3. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance
Lynching of Charles Cora and James Casey, San Francisco, 1856

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed on June 9, 1851, and on June 10, 1851 it hanged John Jenkins after he was convicted on charges of stealing a safe from an office. Objectives of the Vigilante are reflected in an article published on June 13,1851 in Daily Alta California, which read ‘Whereas it has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco, that there is no security for life and property, either under the regulations of society as it at present exists, or under the law as now administered; Therefore the citizens, whose names are hereunto attached, do unit themselves into an association for the maintenance of the peace and good order of society, ‘¦ we are determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.’

4. Beati Paoli

Beati Paoli
Beati Paoli

The Norman Lord Roger II de Hauteville introduced feudalism in Sicily in 1701. Inquisition also sprouted in this period. Any actions by commoners that were considered heresy or treason were punishable by death. To prevent the excesses of the state and church, many secret individuals or groups were formed. The Beati Paoli, named after Saint Francis of Paoli, was formed in 17th century. The Beati Paoli meant to the Sicilians what Robin Hood meant to the Northern Europeans. The Paolis wore black hooded coats and operated at night from their hideouts and underground channels of Palmero. Traces of the Beati Paoli are still visible in the Capo district of Palermo, where a street, a restaurant, and a square are named after them.

5. The Bakassi Boys

The Bakassi Boys
Arrested Bakassi Boys of Ladipo Market

The Bakassi Boys was a group which comprised mostly of youth and which was known for anti-crime vigilantism. The group derived its name from Bakassi, a small peninsula in the Annang region of the coastal southern Nigeria. The oil resources of this peninsula had been a bone of contention between Nigeria and Cameroon. It was also the cause of increased crime rate in the area. The group emerged as an effective vigilante and was supported by the governor Orji Uzor Kalu. The Bakassi Boys were armed with cutlasses and guns, and they operated in the Igbo area of Nigeria. Occasionally they have been accused of illegal activities and human rights abuses.

6. City without Drugs

Uralmash factory
Uralmash factory

The Uralmash gang that was also involved in the vigilante group City without Drugs was founded by the Tsyganov brothers in 1990 in the city of Yekaterinburg, Russia. The gang got its name from the well known Uralmash factory, which they took over. The group invested the money earned through racketeering, into genuine businesses and so expanded their reach. They were involved in the vigilante group City without Drugs mainly to cleanse the city from the sale and consumption of heroine. They beat the drug traders publicly and punished the addicts by exposing them publicly to the severe cold in the streets.


Pagad members
PAGAD members

PAGAD is an acronym for People against Gangsterism and Drugs. It was a vigilante group formed in the Cape Flats area of Cape Town in South Africa. The vigilante group was initiated by a few members of colored communities in 1996, with an aim to pressurize government to control gangsterism and drug trafficking. In consideration of the ineffectiveness of the police, the vigilantes took the law in their own hands. The gangsters were warned by PAGAD to stop their activities or be ready to face the popular justice. The vigilantes became famous when they burned alive the gang leader Rashaad Staggie in 1996. In 2000, the vigilante group was involved in nine bombings, following the bombing on the Cape Town Planet Hollywood on August 25, 1998.


 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (logo)

SSCS is an acronym for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Based in the Friday Harbor of San Juan Island, Washington, U.S, it is a non profit marine conservation organization. The vigilante group believes in taking direct action against the defaulters to protect marine life. The group came into prominence when Animal Planet started filming its Whale Wars against the Japanese whaling fleet in the southern ocean. Sea Shepherd is a strong vigilante and owns many vessels including My Bob Barker, My Steve Irwin, My Sam Simon (donated by the founder of Simpsons) and My Brigitte Bardot.

9. The Guardian Angels

The Guardian Angels
The Guardian Angels (logo)

The Guardian Angels is an unarmed vigilante group comprising of volunteer citizen crime patrollers. Curtis Liwa founded it in New York City on February 13, 1979. It has chapters in fifteen countries and 144 cities in the world. The Guardian Angels were originally formed to fight increasing violence on the New York City subways. The vigilante was initially opposed by the New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Toronto Mayor David Miller, and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. With the decrease in public opposition, the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has supported the group publicly.

10. RAAD

Republican Action Against Drugs
Republican Action Against Drugs

RAAD is the acronym for Republican Action Against Drugs, which is an Irish Republican vigilante organization. It was formed in 2008. Although suspected as a dissident Republican front, the group denies any affiliation with the Republican Party or paramilitary groups. In an interview with the Derry Journal in 2009 the vigilante explained its course of action, saying ‘We would monitor the actions of those who have come forward and, given an adequate period of time, interest in those drug dealers would cease and they could start to lead normal lives.’ The group has claimed responsibility for seventeen shootings and numerous bombings.


Vigilantism is to a community what an autoimmune disease is to a body. In an autoimmune disease the immune system starts destroying the body tissues instead of the body invaders like the infectious viruses and bacteria. The vigilantes are self assumed caretakers of law but in fact they do more harm to the society than good to it. Many times the justice done to the accused by the vigilantes is nothing less than cruelty and callousness.

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