VIGILANCE COMMITTEE, in the United States, a selfconstituted judicial body, occasionally organized in the western frontier districts for the protection of life and property. The first committee of prominence bearing the name was organized in San Francisco in June 1851, when the crimes of desperadoes who had immigrated to the gold-fields were rapidly increasing in numbers and it was said that there were venal judges, packed juries and false witnesses. At first this committee was composed of about 200 members; afterwards it was much larger. The general committee was governed by an executive committee and the city was policed by sub-committees. Within about thirty days four desperadoes were arrested, tried by the executive committee and hanged, and about thirty others were banished. Satisfied with the results, the committee then quietly adjourned, but it was revived five years later. Similar committees were common in other parts of California and in the mining districts of Idaho and Montana. That in Montana exterminated in 1863-64 a band of outlaws organized under Henry Plummer, the sheriff of Montana City, twenty-four of the outlaws were hanged within a few months. Committees or societies of somewhat the same nature were formed in the Southern states during the Reconstruction period (1865-72) to protect white families from negroes and " carpet-baggers," and besides these there were the Ku-Klux-Klan (q.v.) and its branches; the Knights of the White Camelia, the Pale Faces, and the Invisible Empire of the South, the principal object of which was to control the negroes by striking them with terror.
1 The 35th canon of the council of Elvira (305) forbids women to attend them.
See H. H. Bancroft, Popular Tribunals (2 vols., San Francisco, 1887); and T. J. Dimsdale, The Vigilantes of Montana (Virginia City, 1866).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)