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Actually About Half of Heroes Wear Capes: Vigilantes in the Real World and Their Morality

Maegan C. Fort

Glen Allen High School

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“Not all heroes wear capes.” Since Anonymous first said it, the phrase has taken off

(Glenn). Beyond being applied to the men and women who risk their lives and/or save people

every day, it has become the title of an Owl City song dedicated to the singer’s father as well as,

most notably, a meme. A quick Google search of the phrase brings up thousands of images of

“everyday heroes.” Although most of the images focus on pizza delivery drivers. But, some

heroes do wear capes. No, not Batman or Dr. Strange. Vigilantes are not constricted to the pages

of a comic book or a screen. In fact, vigilantes existed in the real world before the first one, The

Clock, appeared in a comic book in 1936 (Cronin). But, the media does not shine a light on the

vigilantes – good or bad – in our communities, giving no indication that vigilantism exists in the

modern era and leaving people to wonder whether it is just a thing of the past. The portrayal of

vigilantes in media as heroes, however, makes us wonder, “Should we miss them? Are they truly

gone” To know if they should and can be missed, though, the morality of their actions must be

questioned and it must be determined that they have disappeared entirely. Thus, what are

instances of vigilantism in the real world, both past and present, and are those acts moral?

What Makes a Vigilante a Vigilante

Before one can find acts of vigilantism throughout history and today, they must know the

characteristics of vigilantism. But, not all vigilantes are the same, making it difficult to define.

Political scientists classify vigilantism as a subtype of political violence whereas psychologists

and criminologists see it as acts of good citizenship and establishing social order (Vigilantism).

The dictionary puts it more simply as “any person who takes the law into his or her own hands”

(Vigilante). Despite the major differences in the definitions of vigilantism, it is much easier to
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determine the characteristics of vigilantes throughout history and the world. Most agree that

vigilantism does not occur in a vacuum. Vigilantes do not begin as a proactive, offensive front.

Vigilantes are created by a reaction to something, usually the feeling of injustice and lack of

safety from the government (Vigilantism). Consequently, vigilantes protect their identities to

avoid detection from the authorities they deem corrupt. Vigilantes also seek out help from others

with similar beliefs who are willing to fight for the same cause. The allying of vigilantes forms a

vigilance committee, just one classification of vigilantes. Depending on the acts the vigilante

commits, they are either classified as Crime Control or Social Control. Vigilantes can be

classified even further as Classical, Neo, or Pseudo-Vigilantes (Vigilantism).

Vigilantes in History

As previously stated, vigilantism dates back before The Clock ever appeared in comic

books. One of the earliest examples of vigilantism in America is the Boston Tea Party on

December 16, 1773 (Vigilantism). However, the first properly documented series of vigilante

acts occurred in South Carolina in 1767 where the Regulators took up arms against the “roving

gangs of desperadoes and plunderers” wreaking havoc on their town (Karmen). The 1800s was

characterized by a massive insurgence in vigilantes and vigilance committees. The largest

vigilance committee was founded in 1856 in San Francisco and vigilance movements took hold

in Montana from 1863-1865 and also in 1884 (Karmen). The majority of the movements were

for the purpose of simply protecting their land, family, and towns. However, there is a dark spot

on the history of vigilantism. Lynch mobs rose in popularity beginning in 1882 with 4,730

victims by the last recorded lynching in 1951. In fact, the last twenty years of the 1800s had

more murders from lynching than the number of court-ordered executions (Karmen). However,
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there were vigilance committees formed to combat this as well as with the goal of helping slaves

reach freedom in the North. The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia, whose operation began in

1837, worked as a secret auxiliary of the Vigilant Association founded by Robert Purvis. The

Vigilant Association, as well as the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia, promoted candidates for

public office who supported abolition, raised revenue, and provided resources for runaway slaves

while they stayed or passed through Philadelphia (Coval).

Present Day Vigilantes

However, vigilantes have not disappeared into the shadows. Now, vigilantism manifests

in large variety of ways besides the active violence performed by most historical vigilantes. John

Walsh, the host of American’s Most Wanted, is a vigilante in his own right. Walsh has dedicated

his life to catching criminals, catching over 1,000 fugitives including 15 from the FBI’s 10 Most

Wanted list (Vigilantism). Groups like The Guardian Angels, The Black Monday Society, and

the Allegiance of Heroes practice more passive methods of crime prevention (Vigilantism).

There are also modern acts of violent vigilantism as well. Sombra Negra, a group based in El

Salvador comprised of paramilitary personnel and police officers, targets gangs as well as

corrupt politicians, human rights defenders, and judicial officials. Sombra Negra is credited with

reducing the influence of the notorious gang MS-13 (Bargent). The murder of Ken Rex McElroy

in 1981 is perhaps the model example of vigilantism in recent history. McElroy was the bully of

Skidmore, Missouri. One day, as a mob surrounded McElroy’s care, he was shot and killed. The

crime has gone unsolved but it is impossible for none of the witnesses to have seen who fired the

gun. The town knows, but refuses to tell (Sulzberger).

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The Question of Morality

Morality is not concrete. Morality is abstract and therefore not black and white.

Determining the morality of a vigilante is far more complicated than determining the morality of

the criminals which they protect the community from. Society is often what determines the

morality of the people’s actions. Societal expectations also change constantly. What was taboo

ten years ago is now encouraged. Because of morality’s constant transformation, it is difficult to

put one label on vigilantes.


Vigilantes are complicated. Some, like the killer of Ken Rex McElroy, walk among us,

undisguised, indistinguishable. Others, like Shadow Hare and his Allegiance of Heroes

counterparts, are conspicuous in their efforts to hide their identity. Some protect communities

while some, like lynch mobs, attack it. There are some guidelines of what a vigilante is, but

vigilantes are complex. There is nothing that connects them all besides the fact that they each see

injustice in the world and wish to correct it. However, there is one certain thing about vigilantes.

Vigilantes are not restricted to media and entertainment. Vigilantes exist in both history and

present day with their morality being established by the effect of their actions on their

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Reference List

Bargent, J. (2014, May 23). Has gang violence in El Salvador sparked a death squad revival.

Insight Crime. Retrieved from


Coval, J. The Vigilant Committee and the Underground Railroad. Retrieved

Cronin, B. (2018, Jan. 20). Who was the first comic book masked vigilante? Retrieved


Glenn, S. Not all superheroes wear capes. Sam Glenn. Retrieved from


Karmen, A. Vigilantism. Retrieved from


Sulzberger, A.G. (2010, Dec. 15). Town mute for 30 years about a bully’s killing. The New York

Times. Retrieved from

Vigilante. Retrieved from

Vigilantism. Retrieved from

Vigilantism. Crime Museum. Retrieved from