The "Bald Knobbers", an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri – as portrayed in the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills.
The "Bald Knobbers", an 1880s vigilante group from Missouri – as portrayed in the 1919 film The Shepherd of the Hills.

Vigilantism (/vɪɪˈlæntɪzəm/) is the act of preventing, investigating and punishing perceived offenses and crimes without legal authority.[1][2]

A vigilante (from Spanish, Italian and Portuguese "vigilante", which means "sentinel" or "watcher") is a person who practices or partakes in vigilantism, or undertakes public safety and retributive justice without commission.


According to political scientist Regina Bateson, vigilantism is "the extralegal prevention, investigation, or punishment of offenses."[1] The definition has three components:

  1. Extralegal: Vigilantism is done outside of the law (not necessarily in violation of the law)
  2. Prevention, investigation, or punishment: Vigilantism requires specific actions, not just attitudes or beliefs
  3. Offense: Vigilantism is a response to a perceived crime or violation of an authoritative norm

Other scholars have defined "collective vigilantism" as "group violence to punish perceived offenses to a community."[2]


Vigilantism and the vigilante ethos existed long before the word vigilante was introduced into the English language. There are conceptual parallels between the Dark Age and medieval aristocratic custom of private war or vendetta and the modern vigilante philosophy.[3]

Elements of the concept of vigilantism can be found in the Biblical account in Genesis 34 of the abduction and rape (or, by some interpretations, seduction) of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, in the Canaanite city of Shechem by the eponymous son of the ruler, and the violent reaction of her brothers Simeon and Levi, who slew all of the males of the city in revenge, rescued their sister and plundered Shechem. When Jacob protested that their actions might bring trouble upon him and his family, the brothers replied "Should he [i.e., Shechem] treat our sister as a harlot?"

Similarly, in 2 Samuel 13, Absalom kills his brother Amnon after King David, their father, fails to punish Amnon for raping Tamar, their sister.

In the Western literary and cultural tradition, characteristics of vigilantism have often been vested in folkloric heroes and outlaws (e.g., Robin Hood[4]).

During medieval times, punishment of felons was sometimes exercised by such secret societies as the courts of the Vehm[5] (cf. the medieval Sardinian Gamurra later become Barracelli, the Sicilian Vendicatori and the Beati Paoli), a type of early vigilante organization, which became extremely powerful in Westphalian Germany during the 15th century.

Vigilantism in the United States of America

Formally defined vigilantism arose in America during Spanish rule.

After the founding of the United States, a citizen's arrest became known as a procedure, based on common law and protected by the United States Constitution when civilians arrest people who they have either seen or suspect of doing things which are wrong.

The exact circumstances under which this type of arrest, also known as a detention, can be made varies widely from state to state.[6]

In the United States, vigilantism is defined as acts which violate societal limits which are intended to defend and protect the prevailing distribution of values and resources from some form of attack or some form of harm.[7]

Acts of vigilantism throughout the years

Portsmouth Square in 1858, San Francisco Committee of Vigilance site of origin
Portsmouth Square in 1858, San Francisco Committee of Vigilance site of origin

See also


  1. ^ a b Bateson, Regina (2020). "The Politics of Vigilantism". Comparative Political Studies. 54 (6): 923–955. doi:10.1177/0010414020957692. ISSN 0010-4140. S2CID 224924776.
  2. ^ a b Cohen, Dara Kay; Jung, Danielle F.; Weintraub, Michael (2022). "Collective Vigilantism in Global Comparative Perspective". Comparative Politics. 55 (2): 239–261. doi:10.5129/001041523x16630894935073. S2CID 252721449.
  3. ^ Dumsday, Travis (2019-06-17). "Alexander of Hales on the Ethics of Vigilantism". Philosophia. 48 (2): 535–545. doi:10.1007/s11406-019-00093-5. S2CID 189951647. Retrieved 2021-12-30.
  4. ^ Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery (2004-11-01). A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence. ISBN 9780802087744.
  5. ^ "Germany: Die Feme". Time. Oct 16, 1944.
  6. ^ Wollan, Malia (May 6, 2016). "How to Make a Citizen's Arrest". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 26, 2018.
  7. ^ "Phenomenology of Vigilantism in Contemporary America - An Interpretation". Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved January 21, 2023.
  8. ^ Krieger, Dan (July 13, 2013). "Lynch mobs part of area's history". The Tribune. Retrieved May 29, 2020.
  9. ^ Joseph Hall-Patton (June 1, 2016). "Pacifying Paradise: Violence and Vigilantism in San Luis Obispo". California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Retrieved 2021-07-11.
  10. ^ Nicholas Farrelly (July 2, 2010). "From Village Scouts to Cyber Scouts". New Mandala. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
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  16. ^ Casey Sanchez (August 13, 2007). "New Video Appears to Show Vigilante Border Murder". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 2009-03-21.
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  25. ^ INLA dismantles another criminal gang April 07, 2006 10:51
  26. ^ "INLA claims responsibility for murder of Derry drug dealer". Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved 26 May 2009.
  27. ^ "INLA say they shot father-of-three". Derry Journal. 21 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-24.
  28. ^ "INLA victim tells 'Journal' 'I did deal in drugs - but not anymore'". Derry Journal. 28 August 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-08-31.
  29. ^ "Belfast Media | News | ONH claim arson attack on depot". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2011-05-26.
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  31. ^ Cormac Byrne (16 March 2011). "CIRA blamed for attack on man (20)". Archived from the original on 2012-09-04.
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  33. ^ Gold, Jim (14 February 2011). "Costumed crusaders taking it to the streets". NBC News. Retrieved 14 October 2011.
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  35. ^ "¡A luchar por la justicia!, Articulo Impreso Archivado". 26 February 2011. Archived from the original on 7 May 2011. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
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  37. ^ Karla Zabludovsky (August 2, 2012). "Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2012.
  38. ^ Saul, Josh; Italiano, Laura (2013-10-11) "Orthodox Rabbis Beat Me, Stunned My Genitals", New York Post
  39. ^ Willsher, Kim (June 17, 2014). "Roma teenager in coma after being attacked by residents of French estate". The Guardian. Retrieved June 19, 2014.
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  41. ^ Quiano, Kathy; Westcott, Ben (2017-03-02). "Ex-Davao Death Squad leader: Duterte ordered bombings". CNN. Retrieved 2017-05-29.
  42. ^ "Women's Vigilantism in India: A Case Study of the Pink Sari Gang | Sciences Po Mass Violence and Resistance - Research Network". 2016-01-25. Retrieved 2023-04-03.