by Howard Smead

Two high school students gun down 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their weaponry on themselves. Several citizens hang a woman for no apparent reason, while dozens watch.  Two men beat and kill a young boy, yet the murderers go unpunished.  A riot breaks out because children are required to read from the King James Bible instead of the Roman Catholic Bible. These incidents suggest lawlessness and chaos.  They describe events in American history.  Each involved ordinary citizens.  How could average, mainstream Americans commit such atrocities? The answer lies in why they committed them. And the answer to that lies in our past.

We are a nation at war with itself, and that war has generated continual CIVIL DISORDER. Violent breaches of order by the citizenry against one another or the government have come in many forms, including: rioting, lynching, vigilantism, labor strikes, as well as violent recreation and violent entertainment. Of the three types of violent behavior: war, criminal and group, the last is least well known but has been at least as commonplace as criminal and much more so than war. Violence in its group form was, as historian Michael Wallace put it, "a basic device used to change or preserve the system." Regardless of its goal, however, collective violence has long represented civil disorder at its most clamorous.

Such violence generally carries strong extralegal elements. Participants, whether it be lynchers, vigilantes or rioters knowingly and willfully break the law with the expressed intent to enforce their view of the law, morality, or social, racial, ethnic or religious tradition. Put another way American civil disorder has often been "lawlessness on behalf of lawfulness." Repressive rioting, for example, has generally sought to protect "the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals." Historically, such private enforcement of the social order has been so widespread as to be commonplace. And its signature has always been the end justifies the means. Thus, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, social violence is initiated with a "conservative bias," to maintain the status quo.

Remarkably little social violence has been directed against governmental authority. One of the paradoxes of American civil violence has been that it has co-existed with institutional stability. This stems directly from the conservative - and non-insurrectionary - nature of most social violence. Throughout the decades many incidents of civil disorder served governmental policy. This is the major distinction between American civil disorder and European mobbing, which has more often been directed against the government.

With the major exception of the Civil War, this country remained fairly clear of anti-government violence until the 1960s when a great deal of the rioting and terrorism was aimed directly at the federal government. Thirty years later, right-wing militias conducted a great deal of anti-government posturing though little open violence. What militia violence resulted came when individual members resisted arrest for various violations of the law. The exception to this came on April 19, 1995, in the country's most destructive terrorist act: The mass murder of 268 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Even given that, rioters have rarely challenged government authority. In fact, in many incidents of civil disorder local authorities sided with or participated in the mob action.

Historical Amnesia

Ironically, while the history of civil disorder is widely documented, until recent decades it remained absent from historical studies. To this day it remains absent from public awareness. This phenomenon, remarked upon by a select few scholars, is known as "historical amnesia." Or as Richard Hofstadter elaborated, "The United States has a history but not a tradition of domestic violence." What makes American civil disorder so extraordinary comes not so much from its voluminous record, but from the public's remarkable ability to convince itself that it is peace-loving and peaceable. The historical record does not support such a conclusion.

The reasons for this collective memory loss amount to much more than a simple, though understandable, desire to forget unpleasant events. Rather it is because American civil disorder has lacked an ideology. Mob action and vigilantism share no common philosophical or political thread, save that of localism. Although there are pronounced racial and ethnic themes, rioters have come from all shades of the political spectrum and have been black and Latino as well as white. Similarly, social violence has appeared in all parts of the nation. It lacks a geographical locus. Although the South has been the most violent region, owing to its connection to the inherently violent institution of slavery, lynchers, anti-labor thugs, duelers and eye-gougers have cropped up in every quadrant of the map.

Thus, social violence has lacked the sort of cohesion that might have caused it to become a sustained phenomena. While most repressive acts of violence have been perpetrated by whites against blacks, whites have died defending blacks. White mobs frequently lynched  and white-capped white abolitionists.  The same Protestant mobs that rioted against Irish-Catholic immigrants joined forces with the Irish against Chinese workers.


The causes of such a widespread pattern of civil disorder have been several. No single factor - including race - sufficiently explains it. The most often cited explanation for civil disorder, indeed for our violent past, has been America's frontier heritage. The facts do not support this. Most collective violence occurred well away from the frontier, even in the South. Other countries with similar frontier heritages, Canada and Australia have no history, culture or mythos of frontier violence. This fact ought to, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, cast further doubt on this myth. In fact, in this country, most collective violence, most civil disorder, has been urban.

Why has so much civil disorder taken place in the nation's urban areas? The answer lies in the cosmopolitan mixture of race and ethnicity. Race has been the preeminent cause of American civil disorder. Indeed, the harshest violence erupted  from racial and  ethnic conflict. Violence was the major underpinning of white superiority over blacks both during and after slavery. Whenever the white population felt even vaguely threatened by black revolt or peaceful progress toward equality, whites were likely to resort to violence, whether it was to punish a perceived criminal or to prevent black political participation or economic progress. This rule also applied to nativist reaction to Roman Catholic immigration in the East and Chinese railroad construction workers in the West. Ironically Protestants and Catholics joined forces when they felt threatened by the Chinese, as in Denver, Colorado in 1880 or Rock Springs riot in 1885, which was the worst case of anti-Chinese violence on record. Rampaging white miners slew twenty-eight Chinese workers.

Given the propensity for racial and ethnic riot and lynching, why didn't local authorities intervene? The 19th century tradition of laissez faire meant local governments were weak and disinclined. Law enforcement was notoriously inefficient and corrupt. Many cities lacked a police force until the Civil War era. Beyond that law enforcement often supported the riots either through non-intervention or active participation.  Prior to high-speed communications and automobiles, state governments found it easy to honor the tradition of localism and avoided interference. After the turn of the century, public outrage at the continued frequency of civil disorder combined with an improved ability to respond led to increased state intervention. As for the federal government, except for labor violence, in which the federal government invariably sided with management against the strikers, the federal government stayed out of riot and lynching control whether in the city or the countryside.

Federalism, localism, laissez-faire and lack of concern for acts of racial and ethnic repression combined to preclude federal intervention at least through the turn of the century. Not until the gruesome 1934 lynching of Claude Neal did federal authorities even begin to instruct concerned citizens how they might induce their state governments to act against social violence. Moreover, with the sole exception of the prosecution of the KKK in South Carolina during Reconstruction, not until the Claude Screws case 1948 did the federal government bring charges against citizens for acts of social violence.

During the Gilded Age, America's cities, as indeed the countryside, began massive, rapid social change. Historically, change has been the engine of collective violence around the world. The United States was no different. Minimal urban government combined with maximum laissez-faire meant that as immigrants began to flood into American cities the proper authorities unwilling and unable to protect them. An additional factor that enabled rioters, lynch-mobs and vigilantes to act decisively was the pervasiveness of guns since 1820 when arms production became industrialized.

Psychology of the Mob

One of the most peculiar aspects of civil disorder is that anyone, given proper circumstances, can become a participant.  This is because of  the centripetal forces involved in the transformation of a group or crowd into a mob. Several factors must combine and draw people into the vortex until the action convulses outwards.

How does a group become a mob? Emergence and contagion of civil disorder depends upon crucial factors. Even these do not guarantee violence will result. Mobbing is more or less spontaneous. One could plan a demonstration in hopes it becomes a riot. But that assumes a great deal for fortuitous events to follow. Sociologist Roger Brown argues that "The wildness and folly of the mob are not created de novo in the crowd. The impulses are always there..." Because mob behavior is more extreme than individual behavior, it takes a feeling of "safety in numbers" to develop mental unity and unleash these "pre-existing primitive urges." "The anonymity that comes with large numbers causes a loss of responsibility."

Mobs are homogeneous in thought and action. It has made little difference what individual mob members are like: standard of living, character and intelligence. Similarly, family background, race, ethnicity are ultimately not determinative factors. Once in a mob they assume a collective state of mind.

Mobs are highly emotional and irrational from society's point of view. This is because they exhibit non-normative behavior. Indeed, part of the transformation of a crowd into a mob involves overcoming instincts toward normative behavior. However, from the inside of a mob, once action begins, that action makes sense and does not seem at all irrational, even including such bizarre anti-social behavior as the 1918 "lynching orgy" in Brooks and Lowndes counties in Georgia, during which a lynch mob killed eleven blacks in frustration at being unable to track down its intended victim. This mob strung up by the heels a pregnant black woman protesting the innocence of her husband, cut out and tore apart her eight-month-old fetus, before dousing her with gasoline and setting her afire.

Such emotionality obviously exceeded the individual expression of individual participants, which describes the function of the mob in the first place. Mobs often contain rather commonplace, inoffensive people who get swept up and transformed. The temporary union of often disparate individuals creates an entirely new entity, starkly different from any single individual in the mob. Thus, there is no averaging out of emotions; no balance between high and low. Once formed mobs are powerful entities and are not easily contained.

The crowd must overcome all internal proclivities against its intended action, otherwise it never becomes a mob. A mob is greater than the sum of its parts. French historian Gustav le Bon described it as "a new body possessing properties quite different from those of the bodies that have served to form it." Even police units can turn into a mob and riot, as the Chicago police did at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Crowds - random gatherings of people - are not mobs, even when they are demonstrating or protesting. The frequent and large anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War were not mobs, though a few occasionally gave birth to tangential rioting. Neither are the often boisterous gathering of abortion opponents at Pro-Life rallies. Mobs must commit non-normative behavior, behavior that is virtually always illegal. Once a group or crowd of people become highly emotional and begin committing such behavior it has become a mob engaging in civil disorder.

Although a mob manifests singularity of purpose, it is not altogether monolithic. In a lynch mob, for example, a division of labor often occurs. Some members hold the victim, others may build the pyre, light the fire. Still others might shoot the victim. The vast majority simply - and ghoulishly - watch the proceedings.

In order for a crowd to become a mob, several factors must occur. First, there must be a sufficient number of people to enable those present to develop an "impression of universality," that is a feeling of safety in numbers. These numbers "help create a shared belief that the action is morally right." That would mean a bare minimum of three people. However, mobs generally grow to multiple dozens and often thousands. Whatever the size, the assembling people must have freedom of movement and the ability to communicate with one another.

Over a period of time that can last from minutes to half a day, the crowd shares information about whatever topic has drawn them together, whether it be a murder, a rape, and act challenging social or racial tradition. As information passes from person to person, the crowd becomes visibly excited. "Milling around" grows in intensity, which in turn stimulates feelings of "mutual assurance" and the inevitable "impression of universality." Rumor plays an important role. Often by the time the crowd reaches the pay off point, the point of transformation into a mob, the shared and assimilated information has become wildly inaccurate.

Thus, the crowd has reached its critical stage. As social psychologist Roger Brown frames it, the gathering has become "a large number of people with a common conflict of impulse, in communication with one another and having the physical possibility of acting out the impulse they would not ordinarily act out."

The crowd has reached its pay-off matrix. It will either act or dissolve. The last factor in the emergence of a mob, is a trigger event. Even at its most excited a crowd might not become a mob, especially if superior force or outright violence is introduced against it. To ignite a mob a trigger event must take place. The trigger can be a leader who issues a call to action. At this key point of volatile emotions, it could be a drunken individual who shouts an epithet or throws a bottle. It might be a clap of thunder. In the case of the Rodney King riots in 1992, the trigger event that touched off the riot was the withdrawal of law enforcement from the flash point at the corners Florence and Normandy. Thus emboldened, the assembled crowd began attacking passing motorists, and the riot was underway.

In the case of an expressive mob, the trigger might simply be the proverbial individual shouting fire in a crowded theater, thus creating panic. Alternatively, the end of a victorious sporting event might touch off celebratory rioting. During the 1977 New York City blackout, thousands of people, emboldened by the darkness and the perceived lack of law enforcement, rioted. Mobs swept through the city looting, smashing windows, and spreading general havoc.


As these events indicate, by far the most common manifestation of civil disorder is rioting, which can be repressive, insurrectionary or expressive. Repressive mobs have been most common and have generally sought to preserve the racial, ethnic and religious or moral order.

Throughout its tumultuous history, America has had well over a thousand riots. There have been several periods of intense rioting: The 1830s-1860s, the 1890s and the 1960s. No period has been entirely free of rioting. Historian David Grimsted generously describes Jacksonian mobs as "but a piece of the ongoing process of democratic accommodation compromise, and uncompromisable tension between groups with different interests. The were social exclamation point...." They were also acts of outright repression, usually surrounding slavery and abolitionism. Quite often the rioters were nativist and anti-Roman Catholic.

During this time, 70% of America's cities holding 20,000 or more people experienced major civil disorder. There were 147 riots in 1835 alone. As Grimsted outlines, they covered the gamut of mob activity. Thirty-five were against abolitionists, eleven in response to imagined slave insurrections, fifteen of them were race riots: eleven against blacks, three to help fugitive slaves and one by blacks. Hezekiah Niles, a Baltimore newspaper editor, bemoaned "the spreading spirit of riot ... in every quarter. King Mob was triumphant, as  Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story quipped upon witnessing the celebratory riots in DC at Andrew Jackson's inauguration. Thirty-five major riots occurred in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

In the South rioters faced little challenge from local law enforcement, which expressed scant objection. Southern mobs generally killed, injured and burned with impunity. In the North the police often sought to impede the progress of a mob's activity, resulting in loss of life among the rioters.

Since the Civil War, rioting has become almost exclusively racial. White mobs in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 successfully drove black elected officials from office and the city, and brought an end to black prosperity. The Wilmington Riot was effectively a racial coup d'etat. As the century progressed, race riots began to shift in character from the repressive to the insurrectionary. In Atlanta in1906, blacks armed themselves to return fire at bands of whites marauding through their neighborhoods. Blacks had long fought back, lending racial riots a communal nature. But the repressive elements dominated. As early as Houston in 1917 and clearly by the Red Summer, blacks were rioting in protest against segregation that insured poor education, inadequate job opportunities, sub-standard housing and police brutality.

In Chicago on July 27, 1919, a young black boy named Eugene Williams joined the throngs swimming in Lake Michigan to escape the 96 degree heat. Offshore, he strayed into the white area, was stoned for this breach of racial etiquette and drowned. His death touched off a flurry of rock throwing between outraged blacks and whites. Police refused to arrest the initial white rock thrower. Indeed, they went after a black man. This episode triggered a seven-day riot in  which bands of whites ranged into black neighbors burning and pillaging. Twenty-three blacks died. Blacks fought back, killing 15 whites.

Dozens of similar acts of civil disorder took place in industrial cities across the country during those summer months. White GI's returned from Europe to encounter competition for jobs and housing from blacks, with whom they associated a southern and subordinate position.  They found the challenge unacceptable. The Chicago riot, as indeed The Red Summer, was, in the words of historian Herbert Shapiro, "the result of a collision between racism and an enhanced black consciousness that rejected deference to white supremacy."

However, a great deal more was a play here. The white mobs wreaking havoc in city after city that summer joined their companion rabble, rural lynch mobs, in an unplanned wave of violence whose ultimate goals was the maintenance of the pre-existing racial equilibrium. The actions were local; the results became institutionalized. Repression civil disorder attempted to prevent a re-definition of prevailing social, cultural, economic and political standards. Its ultimate target was change.

Other riots sought to bring it about, or at least to protest the lack of it. Blacks rioted in Harlem in 1943 in response to job discrimination in defense industry while blacks were fighting overseas in the name of freedom and democracy. In June of that same year, over a thousand white servicemen attacked black and Mexican youths in the streets, theaters and shops of Los Angeles supposedly in retaliation for an assault in white servicemen by Mexicans. For the most part, police allowed the mobs a free hand. The "Zoot-Suit Riot" was yet another example of the determination of white society to use any means necessary to maintain the primacy of their native culture. Commented the District Attorney, "zoot-suits are an open indication of subversive character." The City Council followed the riot by making the wearing of such garb a misdemeanor. "All that is needed to end lawlessness is more of the same action as is being exercised by the servicemen," proclaimed the LA County Supervisor.

Black dissatisfaction erupted during the insurrectionary Long Hot Summers of the mid-60s. The first riot occurred in Harlem in 1964. The following year a 4-day riot in the Watts section of LA touched off a wave of insurrectionary rioting in black ghettos that didn't really end until the Spring of 1968 when mobbing at the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. swept the country. All told nearly 300 riots and disturbances involving half a million blacks broke out during these years, marking it one of the worst period of peacetime turmoil in history, eclipsing even the lynch-filled 1890's, and rivaling Jackson Era rioting.

Labor strikes

 America possesses the most violent labor history of any western nation. Labor actions often developed into riots, if not localized, armed insurrection, and just as frequently spawned officially sanctioned counter-violence. The incidents of disorder resulting from strikes, lockouts and attempts at union organizing lasted until quite recently. The most violent era, however, came during labor's infancy from Reconstruction until the 1920s.

 Strikes or lockouts frequently deteriorated into violence. Often management hired armed thugs to break up strikes or prevent unionization. Workers just as often picked up weapons as part of their protest. During the riotous summer of 1877, state and federal troops violently suppressed a nationwide railroad strike over wage cuts. In cases such as the 1894 Pullman Strike or the 1892 Homestead Strike, management attempts to enforce its labor practices led to violent conflagrations with multiple deaths. One of the most telling strikes took place in 1897 at the Lattimer mines in eastern Pennsylvania. Sheriff's deputies, acting as strike breakers, were infuriated at the sight of foreigner mine workers carrying the American flag as part of their protest massacred nineteen unarmed Slavic miners. After the bloody shooting, the deputies left the scene laughing and joking about how many "Hunks" they had killed.


Even more gruesome than rioting was a distinctly American form of repressive mob action, the lynch mob. Lynching, or lynch-law, took its name from Colonel Charles Lynch of Lynchburg, Virginia, who during the American Revolution formed a vigilante band to arrest and try Loyalists and highwaymen. He tried them in his home. If found guilty they received thirty-nine lashes "well laid on." As time passed those tried in "Judge Lynch's Court" were invariably put to death.

According to the 1940 Tuskegee Guidelines for lynching, these criteria must be met in order for a lynching to have occurred.
 "(1) There must be legal evidence that a person was killed.
  (2) The person must have met death illegally.
  (3) A group must have participated in the killing.
  (4) The group must have acted junder pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition."

Mode of death is unimportant in a lynching. Why the victim is murdered separates a lynching from murder. The Wild West "necktie party" was largely a product of Hollywood. Of the nearly 4,800 lynchings that have taken place since the 1882, when records were first kept, four fifths of the victims have been black and ninety percent of the lynchings have taken place in the South. Like riots, lynchings have occurred most often in the hot summer months, with August being the most typical. Unlike rioting, lynchings have been predominantly a rural phenomena.

Sociologists Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck have demonstrated the three main reasons the white South lynched blacks. All are interconnected and help explain why any type of lynching occurred, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the victim. "First, to maintain social control over the black population through terrorism; second, to suppress or eliminate black competitors for economic, political, or social rewards; and third, to stabilize the white class structure and preserve the privileged status of the white aristocracy." This latter was often unarticulated by the rioters and may have been largely subliminal. More than anything, however, lynching was a matter of upholding the honor of the lynchers as expressed in their control of local society, and most times, the continued domination of their race or religion.

Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage has identified four types of lynch mobs. They are mass mobs, posses, private and terrorist mobs. He places the size of mass mobs from over fifty into the thousands. Posses, according to Brundage, often swelled into the hundreds. They often crossed the line from the quasi-legal to the extra-legal by summarily executing the apprehended suspect. At that point they became a mob and a contributor to the over-all pattern of civil disorder. By far the most spectacular, mass mobs usually involved ritualized death employing torture, dismemberment, and self-cannibalism. Often times a festive atmosphere prevailed with participants dressing as though for a picnic, vying for good viewing positions, hoisting their small children onto their shoulders to give them a better view.

Ten thousand people attended the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Smith was supposed to have raped and killed a three and a half-year-old white baby. After an extensive search, Smith was brought back to Paris by train whereupon the mob transported through the town on a chair atop a cotton wagon. Lynchers built a platform ten feet high lashed Smith to a pole atop the platform to create a better view of Smith's demise. Special trains brought in hundreds of onlookers. The little girl's father victim burned the flesh from Smith's feet with a hot iron, His tongue was cut out to silence his wailing and profanity. Eventually Smith was immolated. An eyewitness remarked,  "Fathers, men of social and business standing, took their children to teach them how to dispose of negro[sic] criminals. Mothers were there too, even women whose culture entitles them to be among the social and intellectual leaders of the town." The mob that lynched Claude Neal sold body parts for souvenirs, not at all an unusual practice. Newspapers and radios spread the word of the lynching, and a special train was set up to transport people to the lynching.

Private mobs were small and, for whatever reason, tended to operate in secret. The lynchers of Mack Charles Parker in Poplarville, Mississippi, broke into the county jail under cover of darkness and, aided by local law enforcement, spirited Parker out of town to his death. By 1959, when this occurred, the probability of public, indeed national, identification was high. Prosecution remained rare, for any type of lynching until the 1960s. The 1955 lynchers of young Emmett Till were local heroes until tried. Although acquitted by an all-white jury in less than an hour, they were disgraced more for having been caught than their misdeeds. In 1912 a private mob actually "broke into" the federal prison at Marietta, Georgia, to kidnap and lynch Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman wrongfully sentenced to life for the murder of an employee in his pencil factory. The mob felt he should have been sentenced to death and proceeded to overrule the presiding judge.

The fourth category of lynch mob identified by Brundage is the terrorist mob, such as the Ku Klux Klan or other white-cappers and vigilante organizations. Both terrorist mobs and private mobs took it upon themselves to enforce local social order or extract vengeance for some real or imagined crime or offense against the people. In the summer of 1964, a terrorist mob comprised of local law enforcement and members of the KKK kidnapped and murdered, James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in the well-known Civil Rights Murders. The purpose was retaliation for their civil rights activism but also to discourage other activists from entering that section of rural Mississippi. All lynch mobs contain conscious elements of terrorism. Cries of 'that'll teach 'em" or "that'll show 'em we mean business" or that'll keep 'em in their place" echoed throughout every area where a lynching occurred. As recently as 1991 in Crown Heights, New York, a group of black men lynched a rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum in retaliation for the traffic death of a local black boy. The retaliatory action was  part of a larger race riot. These latter two acts of civil disorder bear a striking resemblance to vigilantism.


Localism and the absence of effective government along the 18th century frontier, bred a distinct form of American civil disorder known as vigilantism. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown described vigilante groups as an "organized, extralegal movement, the members of which take the law into their own hands." Brown adds that they are distinguishable from lynch mobs in that vigilance committees have an organized structure and are semi-permanent, though few lasted more than a short period of days or weeks. They were also illegal. Regardless of their intended purpose, they had no legal authority to enforce the law, or morals or tradition.

The first vigilante movement appeared in 1767 along the South Carolina frontier. The Regulators, as they called themselves, formed to carry out Indian removal and to protect against highwaymen when the colonial government refused to do either. They got so out of hand in administering their own interpretation of law and order that a counter-vigilance group developed called the Moderators. From that point forward there have been at least 326 vigilante movements. This does not include the dozens of militia movements that formed in the 1990s.

Vigilante movements sprung up all over the frontier and tended to focus on law breakers. The San Francisco Vigilance Committees of  1851 and 1856 were urban and focused on political corruption and the unruly ethnic poor. They marked a shift from old, frontier, law and order vigilantism to "New Vigilantism," which sought to maintain community, racial, ethnic and moral standards whether or not the law was being broken. Vigilante movements were usually formed and led by members of the local elite, generally businessmen seeking to ensure a hospitable business and commercial environment. Brown argues in favor of "good" or socially constructive vigilante movements that brought stability to an area and were supported by the populace. On the other hand, he asserts "bad" vigilante movements became socially destructive and anarchic. They generally operated without community approval and weakened the social order. These movements often sparked counter- or anti-vigilante movements.

Regardless, all vigilante movements were extralegal and therefore operated outside the law despite local support and the widespread popularity of vigilantism throughout history. It remains an important and distinctly American form of civil disorder.


Backcountry violence often included a peculiar form of disorder known as rough and tumble fighting or eye-gouging matches. These were no holds barred battles in which men fought all out, using any tactic possible to damage their opponents. Men often grew and sharpened  their fingernails to use as weapons. They bit and scratched, pulled each others' hair, bit off fingers, ears and lips, pulled at their opponent's "cods." Most especially, combatants inserted their nails into the eye socket of an opponent and popped out the eye, a technique much bragged about. Travelers were stunned to see one-eyed men, men missing an ear or fingers severed at the joint, or with their lips bitten off. Occasionally, men died. All of these barbaric activities were part of savage attempts to defend one's honor. A typical rough and tumble match might attract drinkers and betters and often spawned additional fights or spread into general melee. Rough and tumble provided entertainment in areas desolate of diversion from the rigors of survival. They also provided a crude social hierarchy in areas dominated by wild game, outlaws and hostile Indians. Champion gougers sat at the top of a barbaric local "society."

Backcountry people often used to torture animals for entertainment. Gander-pulls, in which a goose was greased and suspended from a line so that riders might at full gallop compete to yank off its head. The winner got the goose. Many frontier areas delighted in chaining a bear or a bull by one leg, setting loose a pack of hungry dogs and betting on the outcome. All of these events had a festive quality and were a time of much drinking and revelry and lascivious behavior.