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Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs

Narratives of Community and Nation

Lisa Arellano

Publication Year: 2012

Looking at the narrative accounts of mob violence produced by vigilantes and  their advocates as “official” histories, Lisa Arellano shows how these nonfiction narratives conformed to a common formula whose purpose was to legitimate frontier justice and lynching.

In Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs, Arellano closely examines such narratives as well as the work of Western historian and archivist Hubert Howe Bancroft, who was sympathetic to them, and that of Ida B. Wells, who wrote in fierce opposition to lynching.  Tracing the creation, maintenance, and circulation of dominant, alternative, and oppositional vigilante stories from the nineteenth-century frontier through the Jim Crow South, she casts new light on the role of narrative in creating a knowable past.

Demonstrating how these histories ennobled the actions of mobs and rendered their leaders and members as heroes, Arellano presents a persuasive account of lynching’s power to create the conditions favorable to its own existence.

Published by: Temple University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

When we are lucky, interdisciplinarity finds us at improbable but spectacular intellectual crossings; the graduate program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University, where this book was first a dissertation, enabled a number of such intersections. My dissertation...

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Introduction: History, Memory, and Narrative

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pp. 1-18

Imagine a lifeless body hanging from a noose. This body is a marker not of what Michel Foucault calls the state’s power over life and death but, rather, of the power of unsanctioned citizens to “execute” a fellow citizen in the name of justice and order.1 This is, in other words, a lynched body. This book...

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1. From Street Brawls to Heroism: The Official Vigilante Histories

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pp. 19-50

Early in his 1865 account of an 1864 vigilante movement in Montana, Thomas Dimsdale asserts, “It is probable that there never was a mining town of the same size that contained more desperadoes and lawless characters than did Bannack during the winter of 1862–63.”1 His assertion...

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2. Heroic Stories: Vigilante Ideals and Lynching Truths

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pp. 51-78

An ideal vigilance committee convened and acted in an organized and evenhanded manner in response to uncontrolled criminal conditions and was roundly supported and applauded by its community for doing so. This story of vigilante practice is told again and again by vigilantes, their...

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3. John/the Victim/the Heathen: Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Making of Western History

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pp. 79-109

Vigilantes and vigilante historians were initially responsible for the narrative construction of vigilante practice as heroic—for making, to borrow Foucault’s formula, “the stuff of history from street brawls.”1 But the vigilantes and their early chroniclers were not exclusively endowed with the...

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4. Narrative Revisions and the End of the Vigilante Ideal

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pp. 111-132

On May 21, 1892, Ida B. Wells’s first major editorial on lynching, “Eight Men Lynched,” was published in the independent Negro newspaper Free Speech.1 Wells’s incisive and aggressive critique of southern lynching practices provoked a vehement response in Memphis.2 On May 25, the white...

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Conclusion: Living in, and with, the Past

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pp. 133-139

When I teach undergraduates about the history of vigilantism and lynching in the United States, I include a question on the final that asks them to compare two songs. The first song is Abel Meeropol’s (a.k.a. Lewis Allen’s) “Strange Fruit”—most famously recorded by Billie...

Appendix A: Official Vigilante Histories

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p. 141

Appendix B: The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft

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pp. 143-144

Appendix C: Vigilance Committee Interviews

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pp. 145-146


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pp. 147-172


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pp. 173-181


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pp. 183-190

E-ISBN-13: 9781439908464
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439908457

Page Count: 204
Illustrations: 2
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 818734321
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs

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Subject Headings

  • Lynching -- United States.
  • Vigilantes -- United States.
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