Examining how narrative accounts of mob violence produced by vigilantes legitimized frontier justice and lynching

This week, Lisa Arellano, author of Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs, describes what triggered her interest in writing about vigilantism and vigilante narratives.

People are sometimes surprised that I have written a book about vigilantes.  I spent most of my college and early graduate school years studying political movements and the ways that people use language and stories to create ideas about their identities, and possibilities for political change.  When I finally found my way into a history graduate seminar, I discovered that history sometimes works in very similar ways.  So now, I work on politics and history and on the ways that these two types of knowledge intersect. 

I remember very clearly the moment in graduate school that triggered my interest in vigilantism.  During a history seminar, we were reading Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture.  Foley quotes a Mexican American man who said, about a man who immigrated to the U.S. after him, “I’d lynch him if I could.”  My fascination with that formulation was the genesis for my dissertation about vigilantes.  What was this man trying to express about himself and his place in the U.S. when he made this claim?  As someone who grew up in the West, I was already familiar with the positive spin sometimes put on frontier vigilantism.  The writings of anti-lynching activists like Ida B Wells and Walter White had familiarized me with the horrors of Southern lynching and the work of scholars like Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and Robyn Wiegman had helped me to think about the narrative and representational qualities of lynching violence.  The line from Foley’s book seemed to be about all, and none, of these familiar aspects of vigilantism and lynching.  The primary goal of my dissertation was to explain how all of these pieces were connected.

After travelling to archives around the country, and after looking at a wide array of different kinds of records left by vigilante groups, I discovered that oftentimes vigilantes worked very hard to leave glorified accounts of what they had done. They actually wrote histories of their own movements in order to create a favorable record of their actions!  These vigilante histories are still the centerpiece of my work and are the basis of my argument that a particular narrative formation was what created the form of violence we know as lynching.  According to this vigilante narrative, “an ideal vigilance committee convened and acted in an organized and even-handed fashion in response to uncontrolled criminal conditions and was roundly supported and applauded by its community for doing so.” 

When it came time to revise my dissertation for publication as a book, it was important to me to that I offer a fuller explanation of the ways that the vigilantes’ histories and accounts about themselves became so widely influential in histories of the region.  Some additional research on western archivist and historian Hubert Howe Bancroft allowed me to link up the vigilantes’ histories about themselves with histories about the west and with the process of regional archive building.  The vigilantes, their historians, and early local archivists and history writers did a remarkably good job creating positive accounts of vigilantism until Ida B. Wells intervened.  Among the anti-lynching activists, it was really Wells who figured out how important language, stories and narratives were in legitimizing vigilante practice.

While Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs is about the past and the ways that we remember and write history I believe that its most important lessons are for the present day.  The vigilante narrative continues to appear in a variety of contexts—from border patrols to community anti-crime groups.  The historical vigilantes help us understand how and why these practices can be understood, by some, as heroic (as well as the reasons that this self-understanding is often misplaced.)  The vigilante example also clearly demonstrates how violence, like politics and history, is both constituted and legitimated through language and stories.  My new research focuses on violence, gender and sexuality from 1950 to the present in order to understand these ideas in a different context.

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