Sins of Omission

Hang ’Em High

I was recently watching Westward Ho, one of the many dozens of B Westerns I have in my collection, and it struck me that until the 1940’s vigilantes were most often portrayed in the movies as the good guys.  Following the credits at the beginning of Westward Ho we read, “This picture is dedicated to the Vigilantes . . . builders of the New Empire of the West . . . stern frontiersmen of the days of ’49.  Men who gave their lives to purge the new frontier of lawlessness.”

The 1935 movie stars a lean and youthfully handsome John Wayne.  The beautiful Sheila Bromley, a former Miss California, is his love interest, and a lanky Frank McGlynn, Jr., plays his long-lost brother.  John Wayne’s character forms a vigilante organization and sets out to fight outlaws and find his brother.  There are fistfights, gun battles, and chases aplenty, and great stunt riding by Yakima Canutt and other Gower Gulch cowboys.  Throughout the movie the vigilantes, at great risk to themselves, are ridding the frontier of thieving and murderous miscreants.

Westward Ho and other B Westerns were far more accurate in portraying the nature of vigilantism in the Old West than most of what came later.  The same is true of literature.  Thomas J. Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana, published in 1866 in Montana—making it the first book published...

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