When mild-mannered Bemhard Goetz shot four blacknyouths who attempted to rob him in a New Yorknsubway in 1984, news reporters inevitably called him the “subwaynvigilante.” But Goetz was not a vigilante; he was not a membernof a vigilant group of concerned citizens patrolling the subwaysnas keepers of the peace. On the contrary, he was anfrightened individual whose actions were neither premeditatednnor motivated by social concerns, and there is more to vigilancenthan just self-defense.nHollywood is partly to blame for this misperception of vigilantism.nFor the mere mention of “vigilante” is enough to conjurenimages of the bloodthirsty and irrational lynch mobs of oldnWesterns or of the vengeful lone gunners in such “vigilantenmovies” as Death Wish. This skewed image is unfortunate notnonly because it bespeaks a profound ignorance of American history,nbut because it also obscures an important tmth about ournnational character and culture: that wherever America still exists,nthere will be vigilantes.nKen Rex McElroy spent the 1970’s terrorizing the town ofnSkidmore, Missouri. He had been charged with 21 felonies, andnall but once had escaped conviction. Robbing, raping, shooting,nburning—this was how McElroy had defined communitynservice. But the scared and silenced citizens of Skidmore reachedntheir breaking point on July 10, 1981, when McElroy wasnshot to death in “broad daylight” on the main street of town.nTheodore Pappas is the associate editor of Chronicles. Annabbreviated version of this piece ran in the October 1990nissue of Rockford Magazine.nVigilante JusticenA Case Studynby Theodore PappasnForty-five townspeople witnessed the murder, and yet “no onensaw a thing.” Despite grand jury investigations and FBI probes,nnational news coverage and a book about the event, no indictmentsnwere ever issued and no trial was ever held.nThis is a classic example of American vigilantism. When lawnand order have vanished from a community — when lawnenforcement becomes helpless and jails insufficient, when judgesnand juries become frightened pawns of malfeasance, whennbribery, corruption, coercion, and extortion become acceptednsubstitutes for due process of law—citizens have bandedntogether, taken the law into their own hands, and enforced annad hoc form of justice that restores the sanctity of life and property.nIn unstable areas of the 18th and 19th centuries—such asnin frontier communities or in cities like San Francisco duringnthe Gold Rush that were suffering the social strains of massivenimmigration—it was vigilantes who regulated law and ordernthrough community patrols not unlike the neighborhood watchngroups popular today. These “regulators,” as they were originallyncalled, came from all walks of life, from all segments ofnthe community, and were accorded respect as indispensablenkeepers of the peace. As legal historian Andrew Karmen has written,nthe vigilante credo of lawlessness on behalf of lawfulnessnwas widely accepted as “a rational response to the inadequaciesnof the criminal justice system.” More often than not,nvigilante action was socially constructive and was sanctionednby the community.nThe quintessential example of socially constmctive vigilantismnis now virtually forgotten, but it involved the largest vigilantenmovement in American history: the Northern Illinois Reg-nnnMAY 1992/23n