Vigilante groups have been part of the American landscape since the nation was first settled. When crime is rife, and government is ineffectual, corrupt, or nonexistent, citizens will take over to enforce their idea of justice. But when vigilant groups become powerful, they can end up as corrupt as any government. Such was the fate of the Baldknobbers. See, the population of the new state of Missouri was divided along political lines during and after the Civil War, and the locals in power did not tend to uphold the law for their political opponents or against their allies. However, the Baldknobbers' tactics (and name) were appropriated by other groups with other goals. Dr. Matthew J. Hernando, author of Faces Like Devils: The Bald Knobber Vigilantes in the Ozarks, tells the story of the Baldknobbers.
“All U.S. vigilante groups are in some way a representation of the American value of self-government,” Hernando said. “We are a society that was founded, at least in part, on the firm belief that the people have the right to create their own institutions of government, what is referred to as the ‘right of revolution,’ expressed right there in the Declaration of Independence. If the government is not doing what it’s supposed to, if it’s not protecting the people’s liberties, if it’s not serving the people’s interest, we have the right to rise up and replace that government. The problem is, you cannot do that on a continuous basis and have a stable society.”
Some scholars have traditionally defined vigilantes as groups of middle- and upper-class men who want to reinforce “law and order.” However, Hernando points out that several vigilante groups were founded by members of poor, disenfranchised classes hoping to gain the economic or political power they didn’t have or to restore traditional morals. Inevitably, most groups fighting lawlessness by going outside the law become the corrupt criminal element they were trying to tamp down in the first place.
In addition to the Baldknobbers, Hernando tells us about the North and South Carolina Regulators, the White Caps, Las Gorras Blancas, the Deacons for Defense, the Ku Klux Klan, and other vigilant groups of varying notoriety, in an article at Collectors Weekly.