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.