When mild-mannered Bernhard Goetz shot four black youths who attempted to rob him in a New York subway in 1984, news reporters inevitably called him the “subway vigilante.” But Goetz was not a vigilante; he was not a member of a vigilant group of concerned citizens patrolling the subways as keepers of the peace. On the contrary, he was a frightened individual whose actions were neither premeditated nor motivated by social concerns, and there is more to vigilance than just self-defense.

Hollywood is partly to blame for this misperception of vigilantism. For the mere mention of “vigilante” is enough to conjure images of the bloodthirsty and irrational lynch mobs of old Westerns or of the vengeful lone gunners in such “vigilante movies” as Death Wish. This skewed image is unfortunate not only because it bespeaks a profound ignorance of American history, but because it also obscures an important truth about our national character and culture: that wherever America still exists, there will be vigilantes.

Ken Rex McElroy spent the 1970’s terrorizing the town of Skidmore, Missouri. He had been charged with 21 felonies, and all but once had escaped conviction. Robbing, raping, shooting, burning—this was how McElroy had defined community service. But the scared and silenced citizens of Skidmore reached their breaking point on July 10, 1981, when McElroy was shot to death in “broad daylight” on the main street of town. Forty-five townspeople witnessed the murder, and yet “no one saw a thing.” Despite grand jury investigations and FBI probes, national news coverage and a book about the event, no indictments were ever issued and no trial was ever held.

This is a classic example of American vigilantism. When law and order have vanished from a community—when law enforcement becomes helpless and jails insufficient, when judges and juries become frightened pawns of malfeasance, when bribery, corruption, coercion, and extortion become accepted substitutes for due process of law—citizens have banded together, taken the law into their own hands, and enforced an ad hoc form of justice that restores the sanctity of life and property. In unstable areas of the 18th and 19th centuries—such as in frontier communities or in cities like San Francisco during the Gold Rush that were suffering the social strains of massive immigration—it was vigilantes who regulated law and order through community patrols not unlike the neighborhood watch groups popular today. These “regulators,” as they were originally called, came from all walks of life, from all segments of the community, and were accorded respect as indispensable keepers of the peace. As legal historian Andrew Karmen has written, the vigilante credo of lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness was widely accepted as “a rational response to the inadequacies of the criminal justice system.” More often than not, vigilante action was socially constructive and was sanctioned by the community.

The quintessential example of socially constructive vigilantism is now virtually forgotten, but it involved the largest vigilante movement in American history: the Northern Illinois Regulators of the 1840’s. This was a perilous period in this region’s history. Immigration into the Rock River Valley had flourished since the end of the Black Hawk War in 1832, and the pioneers and primitive frontier communities that blanketed the area were virtually defenseless against criminals. Even with these migrations, there were often no more than two or three individuals per square mile. Jails were few and far between, with the facility nearest to Rockford being for years in Galena, some sixty miles away. Rapid transportation and communications were as yet unknown, and the dense forests of the region provided great cover for criminals.

Horse thievery, robbery, counterfeiting, and even murder—none of these were uncommon occurrences for this time and place. “A strong and well-organized band of desperadoes held almost undisputed and unobstructed dominion throughout this region of the country,” states a 19th-century history of northern Illinois. “Owners of fast or really good horses never presumed to leave them unguarded for a single night, unless the stable was doubly locked and barred, and a faithful dog either left within the stable or at the stable door; and often times the owners would sleep in the stable with their trusty rifles by their side, while no man ever thought of going to his stable or his wood pile after nightfall without his gun.”

These bandits of the 1830’s were exceptionally well-organized and waged a reign of terror that stretched from the Ohio River in the east to the Mississippi River in the west, and from southern Illinois and Indiana to northern Wisconsin and Michigan. They moved along well-defined trails and were assisted and given cover at scores of stations along the way. Passing and repassing stolen horses and counterfeit bills throughout the region, these way-station attendants were the 19th-century equivalent of modem-day front men who “launder” drug money and “fence” stolen goods. “Horse after horse was stolen and spirited away,” reads one account, and “no one knew where or how; robbery after robbery occurred throughout the [area]; every once in a while a mangled corpse would be found in some uninhabited woods; counterfeit money flooded the [area], but no clue to the authors of these crimes could be obtained.”

Nothing the communities did would stem the tide of crime. Arresting the malefactors was clearly not enough, for they seemed always able to pay any amount of bail, to escape while en route to court or jail, to pack juries and marshall perjured testimonies, or to arrange for innumerable changes in venue. A popular and revealing story of the times involved a Rockford sheriff who had just delivered a prisoner to the jail in Galena. Among the people gathered in Rockford to welcome home the sheriff ? The prisoner himself.

Northern Illinois was not, however, unique in either its inadequate law enforcement or its loss of faith in the criminal justice system. A lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, told Alexis de Tocqueville in 1832 that a man charged with murder is “always brought to trial, and always acquitted by the jury, unless there are greatly aggravating circumstances. . . . Each juror feels that he might, on leaving the court, find himself in the same position as the accused, and he acquits.” The man then showed Tocqueville the perquisites that came along with being an attorney at this time. “Look at the scars that cover my head,” he said. These “are knife blows I have been given.” But then “you went to the law,” said Tocqueville in anticipation. “My God! No,” the man replied. “I tried to give as good in return.”

The torching of the new courthouse in Oregon, Illinois, some thirty miles south of Rockford in Ogle County, is a prime example of what the Rock River communities were up against. According to Thomas Ford, an Ogle County judge who became governor of Illinois in 1842, the bandits “assembled in the night, and set the court-house on fire, in the hope that as the prisoners would have to be removed from the jail, they might in the hurry and confusion of the people in attending to the fire, make their escape. [The town’s] newly-erected temple of justice . . . was entirely consumed, but none of the prisoners escaped.” None escaped that evening, that is. For after their trial and conviction and sentence to jail, all of the prisoners successfully escaped.

This burning of the county courthouse, the community’s “temple of justice,” proved to be the final straw. On April 15, 1841, 15 representatives of Ogle County gathered to discuss what measures could be taken to regain control of their community. After calmly reviewing the inadequacy of the criminal justice system and the many crimes to which they and neighboring counties had been subjected, the citizens concluded that no option was left them but to take the law into their own hands. Regulator companies were organized across northern Illinois, with the Ogle County company directing their activities.

The regulators’ methods were simple and direct: they visited en masse every known and suspected criminal, ordered each to be out of the county within a certain length of time, and summarily and severely whipped into submission all who refused to leave. Their first visit was to a horse thief named John Earle. Some one hundred regulators dragged him from his house, stripped him of his shirt, tied his hands behind his back, and then whipped him with a rawhide 36 times, six times each by six consecutive regulators. In proof that the vigilantes came from all walks of life, the regulator noted for having administered the most “vigorous” strokes was the deacon of an Ogle County church. Later that same day they visited a Baptist preacher who was widely known to be aiding horse thieves in Rockford. The regulators tied him to a tree and administered 96 lashes, during which the preacher confessed to his crime.

Not surprisingly, the resident outlaws did not take kindly to regulator activity. Within days of these whippings some eighty of them gathered to plan their method of retaliation. Not wanting a direct encounter with the regulators, they opted for what today would be called terrorism. They sent an anonymous letter to John Long, the Ogle County regulators’ first captain. It threatened serious reprisals if he did not resign his position as captain, but Long refused. The bandits then burned down the mill where Long worked and, as an example of what they were prepared to do to him, broke the legs of his favorite horse. The bandits won; Long resigned. Nor was the next captain, C.W. Wellington, capable of sustaining such threats and tactics. He too resigned.

Wellington’s successor, John Campbell, received his first death threat within two weeks of being elected captain. It came in a letter from John Driscoll, one of the most notorious outlaws of the Rock River Valley, and it too threatened serious reprisals if regulator actions did not cease. But being a man of “sterling character,” Campbell refused to back down. Driscoll and his cohorts then decided that the captain “had to go,” and on Sunday, June 27, 1841, Campbell was murdered by two of Driscoll’s sons, David and Taylor.

News of the slaying spread quickly. One account says “the air was filled with threats of vengeance against [the Driscolls], and nothing but the lives of the murderous gang would pay the penalty. . . . Monday afternoon Rockford was more like a deserted village, than a bustling, busy little town. Every man that could go, went—all determined to avenge Campbell’s death.” John Driscoll was found at his son David’s home and was arrested and jailed in nearby Oregon City. Two other Driscoll boys, William and Pierce, were arrested by Rockford regulators and held at John Campbell’s home. David and Taylor Driscoll were sought but never found.

As soon it was sufficiently light on Monday morning, Campbell’s friends and neighbors began searching for evidence that would help to identify his murderers, and they found it. Tracks around Campbell’s bam led directly to David Driscoll’s stable, and a trail of broken horseshoe prints matched perfectly with the broken shoe on one of his father’s horses. The Ogle County sheriff then arrested John Driscoll “on suspicion of being an accessory to the murder of John Campbell.” The next day a group of White Rock regulators raided the county jail and, despite the sheriff’s protests, seized John Driscoll. They hurried him across the river to nearby Washington Grove, where they rendezvoused with the regulators holding Driscoll’s sons.

Five hundred enraged citizens had gathered along Grove Creek in Washington Grove by the time the regulators and their prisoners finally arrived. Present were farmers, preachers, judges, lawyers, doctors, mayors, sheriffs, and shopkeepers from all across northern Illinois. And contrary to the prototypical Hollywood scene—of the ravenous mob that seizes the prisoner and attempts to lynch him from the nearest tree—the events that followed were slow and methodical; there would be nothing rash or frenzied about the largest “vigilante trial” in American history.

E. S. Leland, an attorney from Ottawa, Illinois, acted as judge of the proceedings. He ordered the 120 regulators present to form a circle near a large oak tree and sat the lawyers and witnesses alongside the accused —John and William Driscoll; Pierce had been released—in the center of the circle. James Marsh, an attorney from Rockford, represented the Driscolls, and a Rockford attorney named Charles Lattimer represented “the people.” The defense was also given a chance to object to any of the members of the “jury”—the 120 regulators present— and Leland agreed to remove nine of them.

Judge Leland began by asking William Driscoll whether he had ever instructed his brother David, who had fled the state after the murder, to kill Captain Campbell. He said he had not. Numerous witnesses then testified against him, including an Ogle County citizen who claimed to have heard the accused not only give David Driscoll the order to murder Campbell but also instructions as to how to go about it. William then said, “I remember [giving the order to murder Campbell] but only did it in jest.” The judge and jury—the HI regulators—were not amused. “You will find that jesting away good men’s lives is a serious matter, and that it will not be tolerated in this community,” replied Judge Leland.

John Driscoll was similarly questioned and, by all accounts, given more than a fair chance to plead his case, but he offered none. Leland then put the question to the jury. “What say you gentlemen, guilty or not guilty?” “Guilty,” came the regulators’ unanimous response. As accomplices to the crime of murdering Captain Campbell, both men were sentenced to be hanged. Neither man protested the sentence, but both pleaded to be shot and not “hanged like dogs.” The regulators voted and the change was allowed. The Driscolls were given an hour to prepare for death, during which two ministers in the crowd agreed to pray with the Driscolls and to listen to confessions. William confessed to having murdered at least five men, and prayed for forgiveness. John Driscoll refused all prayers and remained quietly defiant throughout the ordeal.

Then, just before the executions were to begin, a few members of the crowd began to question the legitimacy of the trial arid to plea for the Driscolls to be turned over to proper law enforcement officials. Coming quickly to the vigilantes’ defense, Lattimer made a moving, passionate address that reportedly “had the effect of stilling the clamors of those who were ‘weak-kneed.'” “The people were justified in taking the course they had,” he argued, because “their safety demanded it.”

Five hundred spectators stood by as 111 regulators shouldered guns and filed into a single line. John Driscoll was made to kneel ten paces in front of half the assembled men, his son William the other half. Stout and strongly built, with heavy shaggy eyebrows and coarse gray hair, the 60-plus-year-old father remained still and silent as his eyes were blindfolded and his arms pinned behind him. A moment later every loaded gun but one successfully emptied its volley. Driscoll’s head was shattered beyond recognition. The other half of the line then fired, and within seconds Driscoll’s son also lay dead. Their uncovered bodies were buried side-by-side in a single, shallow grave.

The vigilantes’ actions clearly represented the will of the Rock River community, but support was not unanimous. Among those who objected to regulator activity was Philander Knappen, editor of the recently founded Rockford Star. In an editorial dated two days after the executions, Knappen argued that the vigilantes’ time would have been better spent in building stronger jails, and added: “If two or three hundred citizens are to assume the administration of lynch law in the face and eyes of the laws of the land, we shall soon have a fearful state of things, and where, we ask, will it end if mob law is to supersede the civil law? If it is tolerated, no man’s life or property is safe.”

The community was outraged. It believed it had been forced into drastic action because of drastic circumstances, that the local newspaper should not denounce what the community had clearly sanctioned, and that it was a vulgar insult to imply that the regulators had come into existence for plunder or profit and not for the reestablishment of the sanctity of life and property. A few nights after the controversial editorial appeared, the Star’s office was thoroughly ransacked. Type, copy, and ink were strewn across the room and “the entire office was reduced to a pile of mins.” The perpetrators of the crime were never identified. Devastated by the incident, Knappen sold the newspaper.

In September 1841 friends of the Driscolls arranged for the 111 regulators involved in the executions to be indicted in Ogle County on murder charges. The case was cumbersomely entitled: “The People v. Jonathan W. Jenkins, Seth H. King, George D. Johnson, Commodore P. Bridge . . . ” Not surprisingly, after the regulators entered a plea of not guilty, most of the time spent in the disposition of the trial was consumed in calling the names of the defendants. But once the judge had reminded the jury that it would be impossible for all 111 men to be guilty of murder—because only half of the guns used in the executions were actually loaded, and no one knew which ones—events came to a swift close. Without even adjourning for consultation, the jury returned its verdict: “Not guilty.”