Vigilantism in Minnesota, 1850-1920
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Vigilantism, to Americans today, is often associated with white supremacist terrorism perpetrated to uphold Jim Crow or with the mythologized gunfighter of the Wild West, entrusted with upholding the law when the state was unable to do so. In Minnesota, however, the arrival of vigilantism in the late 1850s postdated the establishment of courts, secure prisons, and professional law enforcement and it continued, largely unpunished, into the early 1920s. Furthermore, the victims of Minnesotan vigilantism were overwhelmingly white and Indigenous rather than Black. Through an examination of newspaper records, this paper investigates why the demographics of Minnesotan lynching victims were different than in other states and for what reason vigilantism continued to be practiced in the state for so long after a working criminal justice system was established. In this paper I argue that vigilantism went unpunished because it did not threaten the white settler-colonial state, but rather it reinforced the patriarchal, white supremacist ideology which underpinned it. Vigilantes typically were white men who took it upon themselves to regulate the sexual and domestic lives of their communities, punishing extramarital sex, interracial sex, and spousal neglect which often were not crimes in the eyes of the law. In the 1850s to 1870s, white mobs disproportionately targeted Indigenous victims for lynching, with the newspaper record suggesting that white settlers were concerned they would be treated with too much leniency by the court system. In the first two decades of the 20th century, white Minnesotans views of the Ku Klux Klan also changed significantly, from largely viewing them as traitorous, cowardly insurrectionists to being upholders of law and order when the state was unable to provide it due to the spreading of Lost Cause rhetoric from the south. Finally, during World War I, vigilantes targeted people who belonged to left-wing groups such as the Nonpartisan League or the Industrial Workers of the World.