8 Real-Life Vigilantes You Probably Never Heard Of

real vigilantes

A vigilante is someone who takes the law into their own hands and attempts to pursue justice in ways inconsistent with the usual law enforcement channels.

Vigilantism commonly arises in a society when the police or other governing authorities are perceived to be powerless to prevent crime and wrongdoing.

As such, vigilantism invariably arises from a sense of justice and the desire to do good, though things often don’t stay that way, as we can see by casting our eyes over the history books.

Here are 8 real-life vigilantes you probably didn’t know!

#1: The San Francisco Vigilance Committee

Source: My Gold Rush Tale

One of the first documented instances of vigilantism, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee sprang up in the 1850s to combat crime and corruption in the incumbent government.

Its first appearance was in 1851 when 700 members signed a declaration to uphold justice. They executed men for crimes such as murder and grand theft.

They deported 14 to Australia, as well as expelling 14 more from the state of California, and handed over 15 to the authorities.

The Committee resurfaced in 1856 with a membership of over 6,000.

Again, four men were sentenced to execution, and political power was seized by the People’s Party, an offshoot of the Committee, which ruled for 11 years.

#2: The Bald Knobbers

Source: Legends of America

The unfortunately-named Bald Knobbers did not share quite so much success as their San Francisco counterparts.

Founded in the 1880s in Missouri by Nat Kinney, the Bald Knobbers initially wished to quell the escalating gang violence in their region, which had led to more than 30 murders in less than 20 years without a single conviction.

Hundreds of townspeople banded together and drove out the warring gangs; though in a community of only 7,000, they found their numbers proved enough to let them run rampant nevertheless.

An anti-Bald Knobber movement was founded, and after several years of in-fighting, Kinney was executed, and these real-life vigilantes were henceforth disbanded.

Notably, Kinney’s killer was acquitted, being deemed to have acted in self-defense.

#3: Rev. Ray Broshears

Rev. Ray Bros­hears, a homo­sex­ual activist, was a highly vocal critic of police activ­i­ties in San Fran­cisco. When a police offi­cers’ asso­ci­a­tion sued him for slan­der, he responded by print­ing up bogus “wanted” posters.

Bros­hears started a series of weekly lunches for senior cit­i­zens in con­junc­tion with a homo­sex­ual organization.

In San Francisco, the Lavender Panthers sprang up in 1973 to counteract the growing aggression and abuse towards the gay community and the authorities’ refusal to act.

Their founder, Reverend Ray Broshears, a Pentecostal Evangelist and self-proclaimed gay man, took it upon himself to start the group after being severely beaten by a gang of youths outside of his gay mission.

In his own words, his objective was to strike fear into the hearts of “all those young punks who have been beating up my faggots”.

The Panthers were known for appearing out of nowhere and beating their victims senseless with chains and clubs, though they did not carry guns.

Due to this abstention from firearms, the police mostly turned a blind eye to their activities.

#4: City Without Drugs

Source: Open Democracy

City Without Drugs originally started as a vigilante group in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg to fight against the growing problem of heroin trafficking in the 1990s.

The group was rumored to be affiliated with the mafia crime syndicate Uralmash and started its campaign by attacking dealers in the streets, leaving them bloodied and beaten.

They also abducted addicts and forced them to go cold turkey by handcuffing them to radiators or bunk beds.

These days, this real-life vigilante organization exists in a somewhat more legitimate state, though their members freely admit they are “skirting the edge of the law.”

Though they no longer use handcuffs, they do lock people up – at the behest of their concerned parents. Though technically illegal, the scheme has attracted praise from celebrities and citizens alike.

#5: Sombra Negra

Source: All That’s Interesting

The mysterious and terrifying vigilante group Sombra Negra (in Spanish, Black Shadow) first appeared in 1989 in the San Miguel region of El Salvador to address the growing problem of gang crime.

Their ostensible targets were members of the notorious gang MS-13, easily identifiable by their face and body’s heavy tattooing.

In 1995, one such member of Sombra Negra, nicknamed El Payaso Demonio (The Demon Clown), claimed to have killed 5 of a total 17 gang members executed by the group.

Very little is known about the group, although recently, rumors have surfaced that they have become more politically motivated in their targets.

#6: Davao Death Squads

Source: Asia Times

The Davao Death Squads (DDS) are a group of vigilantes in Davao City in the Philippines who abduct and execute criminals and drug-traffickers.

According to Amnesty International, the group has been responsible for over 300 deaths since 1998.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Davao has come under fire for implicitly supporting the group. However, during his (and the DDS’) reign, he has overseen a significant upturn in the city’s fortunes.

Davao was once the murder capital of the Philippines but is now allegedly the “most peaceful city in South East Asia,” according to tourism agencies. 

Time magazine has dubbed the mayor “The Punisher” for his controversial yet effective approach to law enforcement.

#7: Jonathan “Jack” Idema

Source: Rolling Stone

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Idema, a former Special Forces officer, went to Afghanistan with the ostensible purpose of conducting humanitarian work.

However, his true reason for going was to apprehend terrorists. In 2004, he delivered one such man to US forces, claiming him to be part of the Taliban. The man was released soon after.

Later that year, Idema and his associates were arrested and found to have built an illegal detention camp, where they were holding and torturing eight Afghan men. He was given a 10-year-sentence in an Afghan jail but released after only three.

He initially refused to leave the prison and maintained that he was acting on behalf of the US government throughout the entire ordeal, a claim that the American authorities have vehemently denied.

In 2012, Jack Idema died of complications from AIDS while living in Mexico.

#8: Phoenix Jones

In 2011, Phoenix Jones (birth-name Benjamin Fodor) started the Rain City Superhero Movement in Seattle, Washington, perhaps inspired by the film Kick-Ass that was released the previous year.

A mixed martial-arts amateur fighter, Jones became one of the most well-known vigilantes after witnessing several acts of crime against himself and his friends and being disappointed with the police and public reaction.

He and his band patrol the streets and look to break up fights and prevent crime, sometimes with the use of pepper spray.

Indeed, Jones’ use of pepper spray in one altercation in October 2011 led to his arrest, though he was not charged and has vowed to continue his vigilante work.

It might be a little difficult for him though, as Jones was charged with possession of illegal drugs with intent to sell in January of 2020.