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Vigilante Justice

Give him a fair trial and then hang him.

Lake City, Colorado
A vigilante edict of the 1880s, adorned with a coffin, serves an eviction notice on ruffians. Special emphasis was placed on footpads - sneak thieves who skulked about on padded soles and relieved miners of gold and silver.

All across the West, wherever communities felt the law was too weak or slow to act against suspected malefactors, citizens took matters into their own hands - or hired freelance gunmen to do the work for them. In either case, as a Colorado vigilante recalled, "There were no appeals, no writs of errors, no attorney's fees. Punishment was swift, sure and certain."

Vigilante justice ranged from impromptu necktie parties, to operations that were paramilitary in planning and scope. Montana ranchers, for example, dispatched at least 35 men during the course of a massive hunt for rustlers and horse thieves in 1884. At the conclusion of the 19th Century, the known toll exacted by frontier vigilante groups, large and small, stood at nearly 700 victims - but since the avengers had reason to be shy of publicity, the true figure was undoubtedly much higher.

Few men in the history of the Old West ever met a death as emphatic as that visited by Montana vigilantes in 1864 upon a bandit named Joe Pizanthia. Implicated in a number of murders and stage robberies, Pizanthia was cornered in a cabin on a wooded hillside near the town of Bannack. When two members of the vigilante party tried to force their way in, Pizanthia killed one and wounded the other in the hip. At this point, the besiegers' rage "rose nearly to madness," as one participant later recalled. They procured a small howitzer from the town, blew several holes in the cabin walls and followed the cannonade with a storm of small-arms fire. Then they rushed the place. Inside, they found their quarry badly wounded-but that was not enough to appease them. The man who had been shot in the hip proceeded to empty his revolver into the outlaw. Still not wholly satisfied, the vigilantes strung him up with a clothesline and fired more than 100 bullets into the swaying corpse. Then they set the shattered cabin ablaze and tossed what remained of Joe Pizanthia onto the flames.

While the penalty inflicted on Pizanthia was unusual, the savage impulse behind it was not. On a frontier where every advance toward prosperity and security was hard won, citizens would go to any lengths to protect what they had gained. Criminal elements - known or merely suspected - posed a threat to the stability that communities cherished, and if constituted authority appeared powerless to deal with the problem, determined individuals had to step in. And so, from the parched plains of Texas to the wooded valleys of the Black Hills, ordinary men took on the role of vigilantes, banding together in secret committees, unauthorized posses or impromptu mobs to eradicate the criminal menace. Some objects of their fury were hanged, shot or burned, with or without pretense of a trial; others were beaten, flogged and, in a grim application of eye-for-an-eye retribution, branded like the cattle they had tried to rustle. In one notorious instance, a vigilante force of wealthy cattlemen and their hired gunmen declared war on an entire Wyoming county, in an attempt to root out rustlers and simultaneously discourage the spread of small ranching interests; the invaders lost the Johnson County War, as it became known, but only after a three-day pitched battle with several hundred defending settlers.

Such episodes clearly demonstrated that vigilante action contained the seeds of a lawlessness greater than the crimes it curbed. Yet a Montana schoolmaster who was present at Joe Pizanthia's brutal demise expressed the dilemma of his contemporaries when he wrote: "The question of the propriety of establishing a Vigilance Committee depends upon the answers to the following queries: Is it lawful for citizens to slay robbers and murderers when they catch them; or ought they to wait for policemen, where there are none, or put them in penitentiaries not yet erected?"

At the fringes of the frontier, vigilantes had a ready answer to such questions: they acted on their own because there was virtually no other law. But vigilantism also flourished in settled parts of the West, wherever peace officers and magistrates seemed overly concerned with the statutory niceties of due process, or wherever they simply proved ineffectual against wrongdoers. Indeed, some authorities welcomed vigilantes, even incorporating them into the law-enforcement apparatus.

These alliances might be tacit and informal, signalized only by a lawman standing idly by while vigilantes did their work. That happened, for example, at Aurora, Nevada, in 1864. After some 30 settlers in the area had been murdered by horse thieves and desperadoes, a vigilance committee rounded up several bandit leaders. As its members set about building a gallows in front of the town armory, one dissenting citizen dashed off a telegram of protest to the Territorial Governor in Carson City, informing him of the situation. The Governor in turn wired an inquiry to U.S. Marshal Bob Howland, who was in Aurora at the time. The marshal's reply was terse but crystal-clear: "Everything quiet in Aurora. Four men to be hanged in 15 minutes."

In 1861 the Colorado Territory actually conferred official status upon district vigilance committees, providing by law that each committee should be empowered to "examine and report all criminal violations of the law." And throughout the West, state or territorial charters were granted to vigilante groups formally organized as range associations, stock growers' associations and homesteaders' protective associations. Many of them held annual meetings, issued reports - and quietly went about hanging and shooting outlaws.

While most vigilantes were well-intentioned citizens whose aim was to protect the commonwealth, some were impelled by less exalted motives. Men of wealth, seeking to insure their private interests, had little trouble finding hired guns to serve them. Of all the gunfighters, these mercenaries were the hardest to classify. As a group, they were neither outlaws nor lawmen, though many had pursued both careers in the past. In their role as vigilantes, they usually operated not so much in defiance of the law as simply beyond its reach.

For the most part, these hirelings were nameless, faceless individuals who sought no notoriety and left little trace as they went about their lethal labors. Once they received their blood money, they just rode over the horizon, never to be seen again. They regarded their trade as a way of earning a day's pay - and they found no lack of employers. In the early 1860s, the Overland Stage Line called upon freelance gunmen to help guard a newly opened route through the Rockies against harassment by road agents and horse thieves. After a few shootings and lynchings of the miscreants, all paid for by the Overland, the stages went through unmolested. Railroads everywhere in the West recruited professional gunslingers as private detectives to combat train robberies, thereby extending the extraordinary police powers granted to the companies by state and territorial governments. Wyoming, for example, authorized railroad conductors to make arrests, and North Dakota designated all trainmen as peace officers; still, the railroads chose to maintain their private armies as well.

On the great public grazing lands from Texas to Montana, cattlemen who monopolized the lands relied on hired guns to beat back challenges from sheepherders and homesteaders or, more commonly, to protect their herds from rustlers. One reason large ranches brought in gunmen was the fact that ordinary cowboys would not always use their six-shooters against rustlers. The foreman of a big Wyoming ranch complained: "The men working for the cattle outfits seemed to have an understanding among themselves that they were being paid so much a month for working, not fighting, and it was up to the owner or manager to do his own fighting." Naturally, owners or managers preferred to delegate such work to professionals.

Often, range-roaming gunfighters were recruited by stockmen's associations and given such bland titles as "cattle detectives" or "stock inspectors." When rustlers were spotted making off with cattle, the gunmen would arrive in a body, suddenly pounce on and dispose of the culprits, then as suddenly disperse. In most cases, they went unidentified, and even when caught they could usually depend on the protection of their employers to elude the law's grasp.

Respectable and influential, these employers were also well-heeled - so well that the cattle detectives who worked for them ranked among the best-paid guns in the West. Their wages averaged between $100 and $150 a month - roughly three times as much as the remuneration of a typical deputy U.S. marshal. In some places the pay scale rose to $250 a month, plus bounties for obtaining the conviction of a horse thief or cattle rustler. That kind of money bought some men of impressive records and reputations-men whose names still gleam in contrast to the gray anonymity of the average hired gun. In the 1880s, when two big west Texas spreads, the LS and the XIT, sought to wipe out outlaws and small ranchers suspected of rustling, the ranch owners were able to attract top gunfighter talent. The LS forces were led by Pat Garrett, the exsheriff from New Mexico who had killed Billy the Kid. One of the XIT gunmen was former Texas Ranger John Armstrong, the man who finally brought John Wesley Hardin to book.

In many a mining camp and cattle range, vigilantes did more to drive out desperadoes than did elected officials. The committees of vigilance were formed because there was no other effective action against crime. The vigilance committees of the West differed from the lynchers of the South in that, instead of circumventing the law, they enforced it. They had a large hand in making the frontier West safe for settlement and in clearing the way for statutory law. They saved many frontier communities from anarchy and bridged the gap between lawlessness and the formal administration of justice that came later.

Frontiersmen who found a horse thief or two dangling from the limb of a tree did not automatically conclude that justice had been violated. Action by the vigilance committee not only was swifter and surer than that of some of the feeble courts but often was fairer. Proceedings of these committees were informal - more so in some instances than in others. But the committees were organized only after conditions had become desperate, and the men they punished were usually those whose guilt was clear beyond doubt.

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