Types of Social Violence


Mob actions come in several forms: riots, lynchings and vigilantism, and each of those break down into several distinct but over-lapping categories.

A mob is “any group of twelve or more people attempting to assert their will immediately through the use of force outside the normal bounds of law.” Riots are far and away the most common form of mob action; 5,200 riots, according to one historian, punctuate America’s tumultuous history with the worst being the 1863 New York City Draft Riot.[1] At no time has America been free of rioting, not even during its frequent wars. There have been several periods of intense rioting: the colonial period, the revolutionary period, the Jacksonian period 1830s-1860s, the1890s, and the crisis-racked 1960s. Mob actions were frequent and widespread during all these periods—which, as you can see, comprise good bit of American history. Mobs can form and act to celebrate or mourn or ridicule. We generally call these expressive or celebratory riots. This includes the result of shouting fire in a crowded theater. More recently expressive riots have been connected to sports events where either victory or defeat had led to riotous behavior.[2] By far most riots were repressive, where one group resorts to violence to suppress another in order to preserve or restore the racial, religious, ethnic, class or moral order of local society. The 20th century saw the rise of insurrectionary rioting by groups, usually African-Americans, objecting to being deprived of the rights and benefits of citizenship.

Historian Paul Gilje has identified four phases of rioting.  During the first century of colonization in North America, social disorder that sometimes grew into rebellions against a British colonial rule that often reflected social tensions carried over from British society. Then during the 1700’s, as society evolved into a recognizable hierarchies, social violence resulted from a variety of challenges to the social order: bawdy houses and drunkenness, unpopular market prices, the wealth and political disparity between costal and interior colonists, unemployed in cities, immigrant German and Scotch-Irish, Roman Catholics, as native-born sought to maintain their place. Fortunately, the riots of the 1760s and 70s were not nearly as bloody as their predecessors even as they proliferated towards the Revolution. Gilje reports 150-plus riots from 1765-1769 alone. That pace continued into the 1770s, acquiring an increasingly anti-British tenor that foreshadowed the Revolution.[3]

The third phase emerged in the early 1800s as the democratic forces set in motion by the American Revolution began transform American society. “Unleashed democracy,” as Gilje puts it, challenged established hierarchies, destroyed community ties, “created a world of individuals competing with one another.” Competition that often resulted in raucous and bloody rioting over all manner of things, including recently arrived immigrants, ethnicity, social reform, especially abolitionism, wealth, race and religion: riots in which “Americans could kill each other because they did not identify with each other.” The third phase continued into World War II and was by far and away our worst period of social violence, so far anyway.[4]

Historian David Grimsted generously describes Jacksonian mobs as “but a piece of the ongoing process of democratic accommodation, compromise, and uncompromisable tension between groups with different interests. They were social exclamation points….”[5] They were also acts of outright brutality and repression. During this time seventy percent of America’s cities holding 20,000 or more people experienced major civil disorder.[6] There were 147 riots in 1835 alone.[7] As Grimsted outlines, they covered the gamut of mob activity. Thirty-five were against abolitionists, eleven in response to slave insurrections, fifteen of them were race riots: eleven against blacks, three to help fugitive slaves and one by blacks.[8] Hezekiah Niles, a Baltimore newspaper editor, bemoaned “the spreading spirit of riot … in every quarter.” King Mob was triumphant, as Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story quipped upon witnessing the celebratory riots in DC at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration. Thirty-five major riots occurred in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston after pitting nativist Protestant mobs against immigrant Irish Catholics.[9] In the South rioters faced more cooperation than challenge from local law enforcement, which usually expressed scant objection. Southern mobs generally killed, injured and burned with impunity. In the North the police were more inclined to impede a mob’s activity, resulting in less loss of life among the rioters.[10]

Since the Civil War, rioting has become almost exclusively racial. White mobs in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 successfully mounted a coup d‘etat that drove black elected officials, businessmen from the city, bringing an end to black prosperity. In 1921 in the worst riot of the 20th century, white mobs destroyed Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” after African Americans successfully prevented a lynching. Outraged whites torched the entire black section of town, destroying over 1,000 blacks homes and businesses, killing as many as 300. Two years later whites obliterated the prosperous black village of Rosewood, Florida. As the century progressed, race riots began to shift in character from the repressive as African Americans began to defend themselves. In Atlanta in1906, blacks armed themselves to return fire at the bands of whites marauding through their neighborhoods. In Houston, 1917, and clearly by the Red Summer of 1919, blacks were rioting against segregation enforced poor education, inadequate job opportunities, sub-standard housing, and police violence.

In Chicago on July 27, 1919, a young black boy named Eugene Williams joined the throngs swimming in Lake Michigan to escape the 96-degree heat. Or the sin of straying into the white area, he was stoned and drowned. His death touched off a flurry of rock throwing between outraged blacks and typically resentful whites. Police refused to arrest the initial white rock thrower. Indeed, they went after a black man. This episode triggered a seven-day riot in which bands of whites ranged into black neighbors burning and pillaging. Twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites were killed in the fighting.[11] 


Dozens of similar acts of civil disorder took place in industrial cities across the country during those summer months. White GI’s returned from Europe to encounter competition for jobs and housing from blacks, with whom they associated a southern and subordinate position.  They found the challenge unacceptable. The Chicago riot, as indeed the entire Red Summer, was, in the words of historian Herbert Shapiro, “the result of a collision between racism and an enhanced black consciousness that rejected deference to white supremacy.”[12]

However, a great deal more was at play here. The white mobs wreaking havoc in city after city that summer joined rural lynch mobs in a wave of violence whose ultimate goals was the maintenance of the pre-existing racial order. The actions were local; the results became institutionalized. Repressive civil disorder attempted to prevent a re-definition of prevailing social, cultural, economic and political norms. Its ultimate target was change.

Other riots sought to bring about change, or at least to protest the lack of it. Blacks rioted in Harlem in 1943 in response to job discrimination in defense industry while blacks were fighting overseas in the name of freedom and democracy. In June of that same year, over a thousand white servicemen attacked black and Mexican youths in the streets, theaters and shops of Los Angeles supposedly in retaliation for an assault in white servicemen by Mexicans. For the most part, police allowed the mobs a free hand. The “Zoot-Suit Riot” was yet another example of the determination of white society to use any means necessary to maintain the primacy of their native culture. “Zoot-suits,” commented the district attorney, “are an open indication of subversive character.” The city council followed the riot by making the wearing of such garb a misdemeanor. “All that is needed to end lawlessness is more of the same action as is being exercised by the servicemen,” proclaimed the LA County Supervisor.[13]

It might be difficult to comprehend such a long stretch of rioting and civil disorder that exceeded the fire in the streets of the 1960s.  But from the 1830s until well into the 20th century this country was afire with civil disorder.[14] It preceded and followed the Civil War. What remains unappreciated even by many historians is the stark fact that the Reconstruction period was nothing more than a period of insurrection throughout the defeated South. The white South may have lost the Civil War but it certainly won the insurrection that followed. After all, Reconstruction ended in 1877 with pretty much the same type of states rights conservatives back in power—where they remained until the late 20th century, if not beyond.

This might cause anyone who lived through the 1960s and 70s or conversant with the social, political and economic chaos of those tumultuous times to raise an eyebrow. And the very idea that the 60s weren’t that violent—relatively speaking—probably doesn't sit well with modern conservatives, for whom the 60s brought their country to the brink of destruction and justified Leninist tactics to re-gaining power. But when compared to Gilje’s third phase, it happens to be true.

Gilje’s fourth or insurrectionary phase, phase began during the 1960s and 70s and continues to the present day. Since the end of World War II, most rioting has been insurrectionary in nature as aggrieved groups protest their real or perceived condition in society. The century long push by African Americans for access to full citizenship rights led first to a wave of repressive violence by whites. Then, and far more important, an extended period of race-riots we remember as the Long Hot Summers. A couple hundred insurrectionary riots spaced over four or five years and spread throughout the country, except the South, in which blacks rioted for their rights. Insurrectionary rights were not new. They had popped up now and again from the 1600s on. But every wave of civil disorder and mob action prior to the Long Hot Summers had largely been repressive. Not so now as inner city areas, ethnic neighborhoods and even college campuses erupted into violent demands for a larger voice in local, regional, nation, and, due to the war in Vietnam, international affairs.[15] The first riot occurred in Harlem in 1964. The following year a four-day riot in the Watts section of LA touched off a wave of insurrectionary rioting in black ghettos that did not really end until the spring of 1968 when violence swept the country upon the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. All told nearly 300 riots and disturbances involving half a million blacks broke out during these years, resulting in 50,000 arrests, 8,000 wounded and 250 dead, making it one of the worst period of peacetime turmoil in history, eclipsing even the lynch-filled 1890’s, and rivaling Jacksonian Era rioting. [16]

Given the frequency of mob action, it is important to understand the process, or processes, involved in the transformation of an assembly of random individuals with perhaps little in common into a mob capable of illegal collective action. Anyone can become a participant in a mob but only under a defined set of circumstances that even when met will not automatically result in riotous behavior. Riots are spontaneous. It is difficult, although clearly not impossible, to orchestrate a riot by arranging a protest demonstration in hopes that the assembled people will transform themselves into a mob. Social psychologist Roger Brown argues, “The wildness and folly of the mob are not created de novo in the crowd. The impulses are always there in all of us…” Because mob behavior is more extreme than individual behavior, it takes a feeling of “safety in numbers” to develop mental unity and unleash these “pre-existent primitive urges,” or, as Brown puts it, “The anonymity that comes with large numbers causes a loss of responsibility.” Even then there must be some sort of trigger event for crowd to become a mob.[17]

Mobs tend to be homogeneous in thought and action. It makes little difference what individual mob members are like, their social background, standard of living, moral character, level of intelligence, family make-up, and the like. More important, race, ethnicity and religion are not predictors. As Elias Canetti explains in his seminal work, Crowds and Power, Within the crowd there is equality. It is absolute and unquestioned and … of fundamental importance, absolute equality.” Canetti’s insight might also help explain some of the attractiveness of mob action. Once in a mob, individuals surrender to a collective state of mind that invariably transcends pre-existing conditions, and thus become far more inclined to exhibit non-normative behavior. Indeed, a critical aspect of the transformation of a crowd into a mob involves overcoming instincts toward normative behavior.[18]

Once action begins, from the inside of a mob that action makes sense and does not seem at all irrational, even including such bizarre anti-social behavior as the 1918 “lynching orgy” in Brooks and Lowndes counties in Georgia during which a mob killed eleven blacks in frustration at being unable to track down its intended victim. This mob strung up by the heels a pregnant black woman protesting the innocence of her husband, cut out and tore apart her eight-month-old fetus, before dousing her with gasoline and setting her afire.[19]

Such barbarity obviously exceeded the proclivities of individual participants. Mobs often contain rather commonplace, inoffensive people who get swept up and transformed. The temporary union of disparate individuals creates an entirely new entity, starkly different from any single individual in the mob. Thus, there is no averaging out of emotions; no balance between high and low. As far back as 1895, French historian Gustav le Bon described a mob, which he called a “psychological crowd,” as “a new body possessing properties quite different from those of the bodies that have served to form it.”[20] Once formed mobs become powerful entities unto themselves and are not easily contained. Even trained police units can turn into a mob and riot, as did the Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.[21]

Mobs are rational entities—from their own point of view though certainly not from society’s, odd as it sounds, “riotous crowds do not act merely on impulse and are not fickle.” Paul Gilje summarized scholarship this way: a “mob’s behavior is directly connected to its grievances [and it] “does not engage in wanton destruction of persons and property.”[22] Careful examination of a mob action always reveals a clear method to the seemingly riotous madness. Canetti explains it this way: “One of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted, a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability infected against those it had once and forever nominated as enemies.”[23] This is key to understanding the centrality of rioting to America’s violent behavior. To become a mob a crowd must overcome all internal proclivities against action. Crowds—random gatherings of people—are not mobs, even when they are demonstrating or protesting. The frequent and large anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War were not mobs, though a few occasionally gave birth to tangential rioting. Neither are the often boisterous gatherings of abortion opponents at Pro-Life rallies. Mobs must commit non-normative behavior, behavior that virtually always runs counter to civil society and is almost always illegal. Once a group or crowd of people become highly emotional and begin committing such behavior it has become a mob engaging in civil disorder. Although a mob shows single-minded purpose, it is not altogether monolithic. In a lynch mob, for example, a division of labor often occurs. Some members hold the victim; others may build the pyre, light the fire. Still others might shoot the victim. All while the vast majority ghoulishly watches the proceedings.

Mobs pass through several identifiable stages and meet certain criteria as they form. First, there must be a sufficient number of people to enable those present to develop an “impression of universality,” that is a feeling of safety in numbers. These numbers “help create a shared belief that the action is morally right.”[24] That would mean a bare minimum of three people. However, mobs generally grow to multiple dozens and often thousands. Whatever the size, the assembling people must have freedom of movement and the ability to communicate with one another. A police cordon down the center of a street dividing people combined with loud sirens, for example, would prevent almost any crowd from turning into a mob. With restricted movement and no way to communicate freely, the inevitable result would be diminished emotion and slow dispersal.

Baring this, over a period of time that can last from minutes to half a day, the crowd shares information about whatever topic has drawn them together, whether it be a murder, a rape, an act challenging social or racial tradition, or an unfavorable sporting or election outcome. As information passes from person to person, the crowd becomes visibly excited. “Milling around” grows in intensity, which in turn stimulates feelings of “mutual assurance” and an all-important “impression of universality.” Rumor plays an important role. Often by the time the crowd reaches the pay off point, the point of transformation into a mob, the shared and assimilated information has become wildly inaccurate.[25]

Thus, the crowd has reached its critical stage. As Roger Brown frames it, the gathering has become “a large number of people with a common conflict of impulse, in communication with one another and having the physical possibility of acting out the impulse they would not ordinarily act out.”[26] The crowd has reached its pay-off matrix. It will either act or dissolve. The last factor in the emergence of a mob is a trigger event. Even at its most excited a crowd might not become a mob, especially if superior force or outright violence is introduced against it. To ignite a mob a trigger event must take place. The trigger can be a leader who issues a call to action. At this key point of volatile emotions, it could be a drunken individual who shouts an epithet or throws a bottle. It might even be a thunderclap. In the case of the Rodney King riots in 1992, the event that touched off the riot was the withdrawal of law enforcement from the flash point at the corners Florence and Normandy. Thus emboldened, the assembled crowd began attacking passing motorists and the riot was quickly underway. Elias Canetti called this “eruption.” Once it takes place, a mob (or “open crowd” as he labelled it) “is no longer content with pious promises and conditionals. It wants to experience for itself the strongest possible feeling of its own animal force and passion.”[27]

In the case of an expressive mob, the trigger might simply be the random individual shouting fire in a crowded theater. During the 1977 New York City blackout, emboldened by the darkness and the perceived lack of law enforcement, thousands of people swept through the city looting, smashing windows, and spreading general havoc. Alternatively, the end of a sporting event might touch off celebratory rioting, regardless of whether the home team won or lost.[28]



Most incendiary is the lynch mob. Lynching, “the practice by which persons are punished for real or alleged crimes without due process of law,”[29] is distinctly American. Its name derives from Colonel Charles Lynch of Lynchburg, Virginia, who during the American Revolution formed a vigilante band to arrest and try Loyalists and highwaymen. He tried them in his home. If found guilty they received thirty-nine lashes “well laid on.” As time passed those tried before “Judge Lynch’s Court” or subjected to lynch-law were invariably put to death. After the Civil War removed the property value from Freedman and their descendants, lynching became predominantly racial and utterly barbaric.

But, what if the "bad guys" are black citizens or Chinese working on the transcontinental railroad? Or nine innocent Sicilians hanged[30] from a tree in New Orleans in the 1891? The New York Times called them "... sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins." Theodore Roosevelt considered America’s largest mass lynching “a rather good thing.” The leader of the lynch mob eventually became governor of Louisiana.[31]

According to the 1940 Tuskegee Guidelines for lynching, these criteria must be met in order for a lynching to have occurred.

            “(1) There must be legal evidence that a person was killed.

             (2) The person must have met death illegally.

             (3) A group must have participated in the killing.

             (4) The group must have acted under pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.”[32]

Mode of death is unimportant in a lynching. Motivation is all important. Why the victim is murdered separates a lynching from murder. Of the nearly 4,800 lynchings that have taken place since the 1882, when records were first kept, four fifths of the victims have been black and ninety percent of all lynchings have taken place in the South. The Wild West “necktie party” was largely a product of Hollywood. Like riots lynching has occurred most often in the hot summer months, with August being the most typical. Unlike rioting, lynching has been a predominantly rural phenomenon.

Sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck describe three reasons the white South lynched black southerners. All are interconnected and help explain why any type of lynching occurred, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the victim. “First, to maintain social control over the black population through terrorism; second, to suppress or eliminate black competitors for economic, political, or social rewards; and third, to stabilize the white class structure and preserve the privileged status of the white aristocracy.”[33] This latter was often unarticulated by the rioters and may have been largely subliminal. More than anything, however, lynching was a matter of upholding the honor of the lynchers as expressed in their control of local society, and most times, the continued domination of their race or religion.

Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage has identified four types of lynch mobs. They are mass mobs, posses, private and terrorist mobs. He places the size of mass mobs from over fifty into the thousands.[34] Posses, according to Brundage, often swelled into the hundreds. They often crossed the line from the quasi-legal to the extra-legal by summarily executing the apprehended suspect. At that point, they became a mob and a contributor to the over-all pattern of social violence. By far the most spectacular, mass mobs usually involved ritualized death employing torture, dismemberment, and self-cannibalism. Often times a festive atmosphere prevailed with participants dressing as though for a picnic, vying for good viewing positions, hoisting their small children onto their shoulders to give them a better view.

Ten thousand people attended the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Smith was supposed to have raped and killed a three and a half-year-old white baby. After an extensive search, Smith was brought back to Paris by train whereupon the mob transported him through the town on a chair atop a cotton wagon. Lynchers built a platform ten feet high lashed Smith to a pole atop the platform. Special trains brought in hundreds of onlookers. The little girl’s father burned the flesh from Smith’s feet with a hot iron. His tongue was cut out to silence his wailing.

Eventually Smith was burned alive. An eyewitness remarked, “Fathers, men of social and business standing, took their children to teach them how to dispose of negro [sic] criminals. Mothers were there too, even women whose culture entitles them to be among the social and intellectual leaders of the town.”[35] The 1934 mob that lynched Claude Neal sold body parts for souvenirs, not at all an unusual practice. Newspapers and radios spread the word of the lynching, and a special train was set up to transport people to the lynching.[36]

Private mobs were small and, for whatever reason, tended to operate in secret. The lynchers of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Mississippi, broke into the county jail under cover of darkness and, aided by local law enforcement, spirited Parker out of town to his death. By 1959 when this occurred, the probability of public, indeed national, identification was high, which accounts for the secrecy. Prosecution remained rare, for any type of lynching until the 1960s.[37] The 1955 lynchers of young Emmett Till were local heroes until tried. Although acquitted by an all-white jury in less than an hour, they were disgraced more for having been caught than their misdeeds. In 1912 a private mob actually “broke into” the federal prison at Marietta, Georgia, to kidnap and lynch Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman wrongfully convicted for the murder of young Mary Phagan an employee in his pencil factory. The mob, which the dean of the Atlanta Theological Seminary described as “a sifted band of men, sober, intelligent, of established good name and character—good American citizens,” felt he should have been sentenced to death and preceded to overrule the state governor who had commuted Frank’s sentence to life. As Tom Watson proclaimed after Frank’s conviction, “The voice of the people is the voice of God. Womanhood is made safer, everywhere.” Few locals contested these points with mob members without suffering a visitation from the Almighty themselves.[38]

The fourth category of lynch mob identified by Brundage is the terrorist mob, such as the Ku Klux Klan or other white-cappers and vigilante organizations.[39] In Mississippi at the start of the 1964 Freedom Summer, a terrorist mob comprised of local law enforcement and members of the KKK kidnapped and murdered, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in the well-known Civil Rights Murders. The purpose was retaliation for their civil rights activism but also to discourage other activists from entering that section of rural Mississippi. All lynch mobs contain conscious elements of terrorism. Cries of ‘that’ll teach ‘em” or “that’ll show ‘em we mean business” or “that’ll keep ‘em in their place” echoed throughout every area where a lynching occurred. In 1991 in Crown Heights, New York, a group of black men lynched a rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum in retaliation for the traffic death of a local black youth. The retaliatory action was part of a larger race riot.


Charivari (Shivaree)

Lynching’s little brother charivari or shivaree, as it came to be called in America, arrived with the early settlers and developed into a form of extra-judicial, public justice. What began as boisterous banging pots and pans and generally raising folksy hell outside the window of newlyweds – the word means ‘rough music’ – ­gave way to public humiliation and what be considered mild forms of torture, often involving tarring and feathering, and whipping. While mostly seen in the colonial and ante-bellum South, charivari survived into the early Twentieth Century. As with lynching local leaders acquiesced to popular will and allowing ritualized shaming against ne’er-do-wells, gamblers, radicals and non-conformists, women who challenged the local code of chastity and African Americans. Bertram Wyatt-Brown offers the rough scale of shivaree for whites, lynching for blacks.[40]


 “John Meints was tarred and feathered in Minnesota during World War I for not supporting war bond drives.”[41]

 Public shaming rituals associated with charivari were not always violent though they usually crossed the line into extra-legality. Often it meant the victim was driven out of town hanging from a pole or rail of some sort—or sitting backwards on a mule or donkey, possibly wearing some comical hat or mask, while the townsfolk beat on pots and pans, jeered or made mocking animal noises. Not exactly harmless fun, but this so-called “rogue’s march” had to have been preferable to death or maiming at the hands of a lynch mob.[42]



This tradition of public justice and the absence of effective government along the 18th and 19th century frontiers bred a distinct form of American collective violence known as vigilantism. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown described a vigilante group as an “organized, extralegal movement, the members of which take the law into their own hands.”[43] Brown adds that they are distinguishable from lynch mobs in their semi-permanent, organized structure. Though few actually lasted more than days or weeks. They were also illegal. Regardless of their intended purpose and romanticized caché, vigilantes acted without legal authority.[44]

People forget that all acts of vigilantism are illegal. There are no exceptions, yet vigilantes continue to occupy a place of respect in popular perception. Understand this and you will begin to understand the nature of American social violence. The right—the duty—of the individual to fend for himself is an American tradition. Private enforcement of public order, private citizens acting as police, judge, jury and executioner has long garnered praise regardless of such actions being undeniably illegal. Remember the celebration of Bernard Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, who in 1984 drew his .38 and took down four would-be robbers, they black, he white? He scored a front page of the New York Post and considerable coverage even though his actions were more criminal than those of his victims. He went to trial for attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, carrying a concealed and unregistered handgun. The jury nullified all but carrying an unlicensed handgun and he served about eight months. The young men shouldn’t be awarded a pass on this even though race was obviously an issue. They were not innocent victims. They threatened Goetz and given their intentions might well have deserved getting shot. But the lesson was clear. Goetz was standing up for himself. Whether or not Goetz’s action qualified as vigilante action, it was so regarded and was generally held to be justified if not exactly legal.

Support came from odd places. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization, supported Goetz. Its director, Roy Innis, offered to raise defense money for Goetz, "the avenger for all of us,” and called for a volunteer force of armed civilians to patrol the streets.  A special hotline set up by police to seek information was swamped by calls supporting the shooter and calling him a hero. Widely respected Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson explained away the broad sentiment with the quip, "It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York, because they've all been mugged."[45]

The first bona fide vigilante movement appeared in 1767 along the South Carolina frontier. The Regulators, as they called themselves, formed to carry out Indian removal and protect settlers against highwaymen when the colonial government refused to do either. They got so out of control administering their own interpretation of law and order that a counter-vigilance group was formed called the Moderators. From that point forward there have been at least 326 vigilante movements. And this does not include the dozens of militia movements that formed in the 1990s.[46]

Vigilante movements sprung up all over the frontier and tended to focus on lawbreakers. Here’s Teddy Roosevelt, who championed vigilantism: “Before there was law in California and Montana, and indeed as a requisite for bringing the law there, the Vigilantes had to … hang people. Technically, this was murder; practically it was the removal of murderers.” This is nothing short of moral relativism, and TR of all people should have known this. TR himself was shunned by the Montana vigilantes because of his big mouth and youthful impetuosity. Apparently they had more trouble with vigilantism’s illegality than Roosevelt did.[47]

As the country developed and urbanized, vigilantism shifted towards defense against the perceived threat posed by the flood of eastern and southern European immigrants. The San Francisco Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856 were urban and focused on political corruption and the unruly ethnic poor. They marked a shift from old, frontier, law and order vigilantism to “New Vigilantism,” which sought to maintain community, racial, ethnic and moral standards whether or not the law was being broken. Vigilante movements were usually formed and led by members of the local elite, generally businessmen seeking to ensure a hospitable business and commercial environment. Richard Maxwell Brown argues in favor of “good” or socially constructive vigilante movements that brought stability and were supported by the populace. On the other hand, he asserts “bad” vigilante movements often became socially destructive and anarchic. They generally maintained the pre-existing hierarchy but their targets were not the lawless but racial other types of minorities or outsiders that were perceived as threats. Brown claims, somewhat dubiously in my opinion, that these type movements often operated without community approval, tended to weaken rather than strengthen the social order, and often sparked counter- or anti-vigilante movements.[48]

All vigilante movements are ultimately destructive. The reason is straight forward enough: it encourages individuals, including non-citizens, to interpret the law themselves and to act on that interpretation. No matter quick fix to a problem might result. No matter how much safer people may be, they have sacrificed fundamental concepts of civil society and the social contract upon which a republic, a democracy is built. It makes America a country not of laws but of men. Irresponsible men. We are seeing today—in part—the results of the tradition of people taking the law into their own hands. Regardless, all vigilante movements were extralegal and therefore operated outside the law despite local support and the widespread popularity of vigilantism throughout history. It remains an important and distinctly American form of civil disorder.


Labor action

America has the most violent labor history of any western industrial nation. Labor actions often developed into riots and localized, armed insurrection. More often labor actions spawned officially sanctioned counter-violence. Violence resulting from strikes, lockouts and attempts at union organizing lasted until quite recently. The most violent era, however, came during labor’s infancy in the latter third of the nineteenth century.[49]

Strikes occurred everywhere during the tumultuous early days of the Labor Movement, nowhere more so than in the coal fields. The Molly Maguires, a secret society formed out of the Hibernians, acted as a vigilante committee defending Irish miners against management thugs and Pinkerton agents trying to prevent union organization and to quell worker unrest. The Molly Maguires were accused of murdering several management men, tried and executed or put in prison. Eventually, the Molly Maguires were broken, but their legacy was violent. Whether it was collective bargaining in urban factories or organizing the miners farther West, management resisted what most of the populace considered to be a radical, foreign-led labor movement. Strikes erupted by the dozens. Many took on the appearance of insurrections. In the Homestead Strike of 1892, 300 Pinkertons armed with Winchester rifles entered into a pitched battle with strikers. In some cases the strikes turned into outright slaughter. To break the miners' strike in Ludlow, Idaho, in 1914, management recruited "guards" to invade a tent city set up by striking miners, killing over twenty in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre. In addition to labor strife and the last of the Indian massacres, in which the Plains Indians were forced onto arid reservations, urban race riots spread nationwide. In the late 19th century, southern blacks, fleeing Jim Crow and Judge Lynch, joined the migratory tide cityward. Whites fomented these riots to discourage black economic competition and advancement. In the cities and on the Plains, blacks and Indians could and often did fight back, turning riots into deadly skirmishes.

Strikes or lockouts frequently deteriorated into violence. Often management hired armed thugs to break up strikes or prevent unionization. Workers just as often picked up weapons as part of their protest. During the riotous summer of 1877, state and federal troops violently suppressed a nationwide railroad strike over wage cuts. In cases such as the1892 Homestead Strike or the 1894 Pullman Strike, management attempts to enforce its labor practices led to pitched battles with multiple deaths. One of the most telling strikes took place in 1897 at the Lattimer mines in eastern Pennsylvania. Sheriff’s deputies, acting as strike breakers, were infuriated at the sight of foreigner mine workers carrying the American flag as part of their protest massacred nineteen unarmed Slavic miners. After the bloody shooting, the deputies left the scene laughing and joking about how many “Hunks” they had killed.

Indeed labor violence had a strong nativist streak to it. Actually, it was more than a streak; it was an entire epoch.    The labor movement has also born the stigma of the foreign radical, un-American in culture, custom, thought and deed. The entire idea of a man unable to handle matters on his own was an affront to every decent, hard-working Americans, the majority of whom were native-born, Protestant and proudly if not defiantly Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic or Scandinavian.


Dueling/Rough and Tumble/Eye-Gouging

On June 23, 1836 two young midshipmen settled their argument over “the relative speeds of two steamboats” by shooting at each other while other men stood by armed themselves to ensure each man acted as gentlemen should. The midshipmen, Daniel M. Key, son of Francis Scott Key, and John H. Sherburne, met at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground in the Maryland countryside a mile outside of Washington, D.C. Two friends served as seconds with a third standing by as surgeon. Shelburne said to his former close friend, “Mr. Key, I have no desire to kill you.”

“No matter, I came to kill you,” Key responded.

“Very well,” Shelburne replied, “I will kill you.” One of the seconds shouted, “Fire – one – two – three – Stop!” As the smoke lifted, Key collapsed to the ground and died half an hour later with his honor firmly intact. The ball from Shelburne’s flintlock pistol had passed through Key’s liver and lodged in his left side. This duel, or “pre-planned armed conflict between two individuals” to settle a point of honor, was one of maybe 100 hundred affairs of honor that took place along a farmland creek, widely known as Blood Run, a mile outside of Washington, DC, and one of possibly a thousand that occurred in North America since the British arrived bringing the duel of honor with them. Code Duello, murder with class. Or perhaps class murder.[50]

The rules were lengthy and strict, and limited to the upper classes only. No man need respond to a challenge from someone beneath his station. Any violation of the Code Duello might result in the death of a violator at the hands of his opponent’s second or, worse, public humiliation and loss of honor. The first recorded duel in British North America took place June 18, 1621 in Plymouth between two colonists using sword and dagger. Both men were wounded and for their efforts were bound together “neck to heels” without food or water for about twenty-four hours. Dueling was always frowned upon if not specifically illegal in colonial ties. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A duel decides nothing. A person appealing to it makes himself judge in his own case, condemns the offender without a jury, and undertakes himself to be the executioner.” During the heyday of the duel in America, post-revolution to 1850, despite being illegal in most states, a gentleman’s honor far exceeded any prohibitory ordinances as unwarranted intrusion of government in personal matters. Congressmen, Senators, military officers, governors and other state officers, a future president, a former cabinet officer and one sitting Vice President fought duels. In the latter case, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and former Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton himself had been involved in eleven duels prior to this final, fatal duel.[51]

Honor, our perception of how others perceive us, dominated the duel, as it did the Code of the West in the nineteenth century and urban gang violence in the twentieth, and was in fact a major factor underlying all social violence. Ironically, as historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown points out, “The ethic of honor was designed to prevent unjustified violence, unpredictability and anarchy. Occasionally, it led to that very nightmare.” It did so frequently, given the thousands of lynchings, riots and vigilante actions.[52]

The lower orders of colonial society employed their own form of private combat. It is known to this day as “rough and tumble” matches or “eye-gouging” fights, the latter being a far more accurate description. Seemingly more barbaric, this widespread backcountry custom into the early 19th century resulted in far fewer deaths that the more dignified form of honor fighting between gentlemen. In terms of rules, perhaps it bore the same relationship to dueling than Ultimate Fighting does today to boxing.

These were no-holds-barred battles in which men fought all out, using any tactic possible to damage their opponents. Men often grew and sharpened their fingernails to use as weapons. They bit and scratched, pulled each other’s hair, bit off fingers, ears and lips, tore at their opponent’s “cods.” Most especially, combatants inserted a sharpened fingernail into the eye socket of an opponent and popped out the eye, a technique much bragged about. Travelers were stunned to see one-eyed men, men missing an ear or fingers severed at the joint, or with their lips bitten off. Occasionally, men died. Some circuit-riding ministers refused to give services in these western counties because parishioners, if they were indeed parishioners in anyone’s church, cared more about fighting and drinking on Sundays than contemplating their spiritual lives.[53]

An Irishman travelling the witnessed a fight between two men he identified as a Kentuckian and a Virginian. With the Kentuckian latched onto his head, “the Virginian never lost his hold … fixing his claws in his hair and his thumbs on his eyes, gave them a start from the sockets. The suffered roared aloud, but uttered no complaint.” When the Kentuckian’s refused to quit, the Virginian bit his nose in two and tore off his ears. Then the “Kentuckian, deprived of eyes, ears and nose, gave in … The victor” was “chaired round the grounds.”[54]

All of these barbaric activities were part of savage attempts to defend one’s honor. A typical rough and tumble match might attract drinkers and betters and often spawned additional fights or spread into general melee. Rough and tumble provided entertainment in areas desolate of diversion from the rigors of survival. They also provided a crude social hierarchy in areas dominated by wild game, outlaws and hostile Indians. Champion gougers sat at the top of a barbaric local “society.” Much the same as their more refined duelist betters did in theirs.[55]

As historian Eliot Gorn explained, these individuals lived in “patriarchal, kin-based, small-scale communities” characterized by “rural hamlets, impassable roads, and provincial isolation.”[56] Death and pain were everywhere, and a man’s sense of self-worth and honor emanated from other men who prized bravery, strength, and the ability to dominate other men. “Reputation was everything and scars were badges of honor, demonstrate[ing] unflinching willingness to inflict pain while risking mutilation—all to defend one’s standing among peers—and became a central expression of the all-male subculture.” Gorn concluded that, “Violent sports, heavy drinking, and impulsive pleasure seeking were appropriate for men whose lives were hard, whose futures were unpredictable, and whose opportunities were limited. Gouging champions were group leaders because they embodied the basic values of their peers.” All of these poor whites were fiercely proud of their liberty even if it found expression in acts most observers of the day found savage and depraved.[57]

Early on settlers derived entertainment from violence. Besides the relatively well-known cock fighting, they staged bear-baitings and gander pulls in which living animals were put to death for sport. Even more striking was the rough and tumble fighting in the backcountry, where eye-gouging contests were so frequent that men grew long sharpened nails on their thumbs and forefingers to facilitate eye removal. According to tradition, "No natural weapons were barred. Fists flew at faces, feet kicked whatever they could find a target; knees bucked at unprotected crotches; teeth sank wherever there was flesh; fingers clutched at throats and thumbs seemed to gouge out eyes from their sockets." Of this American peculiarity one visiting Englishman commented, "The eye is not the only feature which suffers on these occasions. Like dogs and bears, they use their teeth and feet, with most savage ferocity, upon each other."[58] The winner became locally prominent. A traveler in those times could "tell a good from a vicious frontier tavern by noticing whether or not the keeper had lost his ears."[59]

Perhaps the most famous of all the gougers was the legendary Ohio river boatman, the snapping turtle himself, Mike Fink, who worked the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the early 1800's stealing, extorting, brawling, murdering, and bragging. Claiming to be half horse and half alligator, Mike Fink made a name for himself at rough and tumble and created a prototypical image that would be respected by many contemporaries and admirers.

This is how Mike Fink defined himself:

"I am a salt river roarer! I’m a ring tailed squealer. I’m a regular screamer from the old Massassip! Whoop! I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open and called out for a bottle of old Rye! I love the women and I’m chockfull o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snappin’ turtle … I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough an’ tumble, no holds barred, any man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back ag’in to St. Louiee. Coke on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw! I ain’t had a fight for two days an’ I’m spilein’ for exercise. Cock-a-doodle-doo!” At other times Fink proud of his endless skills claimed to be “a land screamer. I'm a waterdog. I'm a snapping turtle. I can lick five times my own weight in wildcats. I can use up Injens by the cord. I can swallow niggers whole, raw or cooked. I can out run, out dance, out jump, out dive, out drink, out holler, and out lick, any white things in the shape o' human that's ever put foot within two thousand miles o' the big Mississippi.”[60]


In those days calling someone a “scurrilous puppy” could get a man killed. An 1830 “Cracker Dictionary” cited by Nancy Isenberg set about defining these terms. Such boasting as Mike Fink’s was labeled “jimber jawed.” And nothing to be ashamed of. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent person, a “lawless rascal” (scum of nature), “no better than [the] savages,” for whom being “chewed up” meant literally having had his ears, nose or lips bitten off. These country “vermin” gloried in “boastful vocabulary … distrust of civilization and civilized folks … instinctive love of liberty (read: licentiousness) … and degenerate patterns of breeding.”[61]

Rough and tumble, as well as braggadocio, may have been the province of the lower classes but violent self-assertion surely was not. Gentlemen fought duels to protect their honor much as the lower elements poked out one another’s eyes. In the South a man's sense of self-worth was determined by what others thought of him. Defeating rivals on the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds outside Washington City or biting off their ears and taking out an eye in front of a backwoods tavern was one sure way to high esteem. Hard work, moral living, and what we blithely refer to as 'traditional family values' were for other sorts at other times in other sections of the country. They weren't manly and they wouldn't get anybody anywhere. Social violence of this sort may have a romantic and humorous quality but it linked honor and violence to our cultural mores. Children didn't need TV or cinema to grow up in a climate of violence. From Puritans burning Quakers, Jews, heretics and witches at the stake, to Mike Fink's peculiar breed of riverboat men to the Indian massacres and the suppression of black slaves, it was all around them.


The predilection for violent sport (one is tempted to put “sport” in quotes) extended to violence towards animals as well. Rather than foxhunting, backcountry people often used to torture animals for entertainment. Gander-pulls were a favorite blood sport in Maryland, Virginia and many other locales. A goose had his neck thoroughly greased and was suspended head down from a tree branch or a line so that riders, at full gallop, might compete to yank off its head. Competitors often toppled backwards off their horses, sustained serious injury, and an occasional death. The more fortune among the injured lost a finger or thumb to the snapping goose. The winner got the goose. Many frontier areas delighted in chaining a bear or a bull by one leg, setting loose a pack of hungry dogs and betting on the outcome. Cockfighting became something of an art form in this country, and is still practiced today, as are dogfights, which tend to attract crowds that would be comfortable in an eye-gouging match or a Ku Klux Klan rally. All of these events had a festive quality and were a time of much drinking and revelry and lascivious behavior.[62]


[1] Paul A. Gilje, Rioting in America, (Indiana University Press, 1996), 4. Paul Gilje’s estimate cited: http://cjrc.osu.edu/research/interdisciplinary/hvd/united-states/riots. In this database, Gilje lists many types of collective action that may not always be defined precisely as rioting. The Draft Riots began as an Irish protest against induction into the military, but quickly became a race riot.

[2] At the University of Maryland, College Park, where I teach, student mobs have responded to basketball victories and losses to Duke University by tearing down the goal posts in the football stadium!

[3] Gilje, 9–10, 35–36.

[4] IBID, 10, 63.

[5] Grimsted, American Mobbing, 1828-1861, (Oxford University Press, 1998), viii.

[6] Michael Feldberg, The Turbulent Era: Riot and Disorder in Jacksonian America, (Oxford University Press, 1980), 5–6.

[7] Grimsted, 4, 6.

[8] Grimsted, 4.

[9] Brown, Strain of Violence, 29.

[10] IBID, x–xi.

[11] Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 150–51.

[12] IBID, 151.

[13] Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, American Violence: A Documentary History, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 336–37.

[14] In fact, although Gilje doesn’t do so, one could also include the 1960s and early 70s in this period. Which would mean most of our history as a nation. The fourth phase would then be post-60s.

[15] Gilje, 10–11.

[16] Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 25th Anniversary Edition, (Hill & Wang, 2008), 185.

[17] Roger Brown, Social Psychology, 2nd edition (Free Press, 2003), 734.

[18] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, (Continuum Publishing Corp., 1978), 29.

[19] IBID, 760.

[20] Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, (Penguin Books, 1977), 27. Le Bon’s assertion that mobs are irrational has been disproven by subsequent scholars.

[21] The Walker Commission that investigated the Chicago disorders for the state of Illinois described the street violence as a “police riot.”

[22] Gilje, 7.

[23] Canetti, 22.

[24] Roger Brown, 754–755.

[25] Roger Brown, 733−735, 754−757.

[26] Roger Brown, 736.

[27] Canetti, 20-22.

[28]  New York Times, July 14, 1977.

[29] Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence, 21.

[30] They had been acquitted of murdering the chief of police.

[31] Ed Falco, “When Italian immigrants were 'the other,'” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/10/opinion/falco-italian-immigrants/.

[32] Harold C. Fleming, “The Law Gains Ground,” New South 6 (January, 1951), 4–5.

[33] Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882–1930, (University of Illinois Press, 1995), 18–19.

[34] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880−1930, (University of Illinois Press: 1993), 18–19.

[35] Joel Williamson. The Crucible of Race, (Oxford University Press, 1984), 185–6.

[36] James McGovern, Anatomy of a Lynching, (Louisiana State University Press, 1985).

[37] Howard Smead, Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker, (Oxford University Press, 1986).

[38] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics & Behavior in the Old South, (Oxford University Press, 1982), 439-440.

[39] Brundage, 19–20.

[40] Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, xviii, 435–437.

[41] Picture and caption from “Tarring and feathering,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarring_and_feathering, (accessed July 21, 2015). Pine tar, not paving tar, was generally used because it did not require heating and was not deadly.

[42] Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, 441–449.

[43] Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence, 95–96.

[44] IBID, 97.

[45] Rick Hampton (May 18, 1987). "Goetz jury did not endorse vigilantism," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sanger, David E. (December 30, 1984). "The Little-Known World of The Vigilante". The New York Times. John Leo; Jack E. White (January 25, 1985). "Low Profile for a Legend," Time.

[46] Brown, 96.

[47] TR quoted in Brown, 162–163. The Montana vigilantes executed 35 horse and cattle thieves while TR was “safely out of the way … on his North Dakota ranch.”

[48] Brown, 118–122.

[49] Philip Taft and Philip Ross, “American Labor Violence, its Causes, Character, and Outcome,” Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives,” Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, editors, (Sage Publications, 1979), 187.

[50] Robert Baldick, The Duel: A History of the Duel, (Clarkson N. Potter, 1965), 11–12.

[51] Baldick, 32, 128, 169–178. Myra L. Spaulding, “Dueling in the District of Columbia,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 29–30, (March 1925), 120. Barbara Holland, “Bang! Bang! You’re Dead,” Smithsonian, October, 1997, vol. 28, no. 7, 124.

[52] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South, (Oxford University Press, 1986), 39.

[53] Catherine McNicol Stock, Rural Radical: Righteous Rage in the American Grain, (Cornell University Press, 1996), 44

[54] This account by Thomas Ashe quoted in David Hackett Fisher, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, (Oxford University Press, 1989), 736–737.

[55] See Eliott J. Gorn, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch:” The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” American Historical Review, February 1985, Vol. 90 Issue 1, 18–43.

[56] IBID, 21, 34.

[57] IBID, 36, 42.

[58] Charles William Janson quoted in “Janson’s Stranger in America,” The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal for April 1807… July 1807, (Archibald Constable and Company, et al, 1810), 113, Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=UGUJAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA113&lpg=PA113&dq=The+eye+is+not+the+only+fe, accessed, January 14, 2015.

[59] Walter Blair and Franklin J. Meine, editors, Half Horse, Half Alligator: The Growth of the Legend of Mike Fink, (The University of Chicago Press: 1956), 36 fn.

[60] Gorn, 29.

[61] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, (Viking, 2016), 109-116.

[62] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, (Oxford University Press, 1989), 362‒364.

howard@howardsmead.com     © Howard Smead 2017