Everything has its limits, and when that limit is achieved, that’s it. For a machine, there is usually a gauge, a warning light, something to warn its user that there’s a problem. And it could be very serious, and if the user pushes it too far, bad things will likely happen. It’s bad enough when a pipe freezes in the house when we haven’t kept it warm enough, but it’s worse if that failure happens when our car engine seizes up while we’re on the freeway, and even worse when an engine fails on an airplane we’re riding in.
But what happens when a human exceeds his or her own limit? Just like for a machine, the consequences are bad, too, sometimes catastrophic.
We all have our own tolerance levels. Sometimes they’re simple things. “I just can’t eat anymore, I’m full,” you say at the Thanksgiving table. “I have to stop at two drinks,” you say at the New Year’s Eve party. “I can’t watch this,” you say when you see a gruesome video has been posted on your Twitter feed. Sometimes, though, we ignore our limits, and the end result is almost always bad. If we overeat, we might get sick, or at the least start putting on unwanted weight, with its associated health problems. If we drink too much, we might do something stupid, like get behind the wheel of a car. If we watch that video, it might cause nightmares, or even worse, start dulling our senses, making us increasingly immune to the feelings of horror and outrage such a sight should provoke.
I can’t speak for women, nor even for all men, but as a son and a husband and father, I know that the thought of my parents or wife or children being harmed is a thought I don’t want to have. If it were to happen as the result of an accident, that’s bad enough. But what if it happens due to a deliberate action, a criminal act? That makes it far worse. Because then, if you’re the typical son or husband or father, you start thinking of one thing: revenge.
That’s what happened to Frank Castle, and to John Henry Clayton. And the results weren’t pretty.
The rise of the Punisher.
The men I cited above are fictional characters. Frank Castle is the Punisher, originally appearing in Marvel Comics in 1974, and most recently in an eponymous Netflix TV series that arrived just a couple months ago. In the original comics version, Castle was a former Marine officer, a Vietnam veteran who later witnessed his wife and two children murdered by mobsters in New York. Enraged by the crime, Castle went on a one-man killing spree as he hunted down the perpetrators. When he succeeded in wiping them all out, he began targeting other criminals, and was given his nickname by the news media. Like all vigilantes, Castle believes he’s ultimately doing a service to the law-abiding citizens of whatever community he happens to operate in, performing a task the police and the legal system are unable, or unwilling, to do. He has his supporters and his detractors. He has his enemies, too, although his skills and determination keep that list very short.
The new Netflix series updated Castle to present day as an Afghan War vet. The modern character was introduced in 2016 as part of the second season of another Netflix series, Daredevil. In that appearance we learned that Castle had begun avenging the murder of his family by hunting down the killers, and by season’s end he had convinced the authorities that he had died in the effort. Now we see Castle finishing the original job and then trying to disappear, working construction in New York under an assumed name and with a changed appearance. His anonymity doesn’t last long, of course; very soon he’s forced to act in defense of a coworker who had tried to befriend him before running afoul of some penny-ante hoods. Castle’s interference in that situation brings him to the attention of Micro, a computer hacker who is in hiding himself and who has always suspected Castle was still alive. Micro makes contact and convinces Castle they want the same thing: justice meted out to the men who orchestrated the murder of the Punisher’s family and who also caused Micro to abandon his own.
The show is well-done but not for the faint of heart. Castle and Micro gain an unlikely ally in the form of an agent for the Department of Homeland Security, a woman who has been hunting the unknown Americans who murdered an innocent Afghan during her deployment to that war-torn country. The vigilantes and the agent eventually join forces to expose the conspiracy and bring down its leaders. There’s treachery and heroism and great New York location cinematography, all of which are strengths of Netflix’s Marvel superhero series.
The classic Western reluctant hero rides again.
In the 2016 movie Forsaken, Kiefer Sutherland portrays a Civil War veteran who returns to his Wyoming home some ten years after the war. In the intervening years, John Henry Clayton had wandered the West as he gained the unwanted reputation of a gunfighter. He comes home to be told by his aging farmer/preacher father, played by Sutherland’s real-life dad Donald, that his mother is dead, her son’s name on her lips at the end. This just adds to John Henry’s burden, already made heavy by his wartime combat experiences, his gunfighter rep (which began with a tragic mistake) and the loss of his teenage love, Mary Alice, who finally gave up on John Henry and married another man. (She’s played by Demi Moore, who as a 53-year-old is pretty convincing in the role of a woman some 20 years younger.) We also learn that since childhood, John Henry has been tormented by his belief that his father still blames him for the accidental drowning death of his younger brother William.
There’s trouble in town, of course, which John Henry tries to avoid as he works to repair his relationship with his father and help out on the farm. A ruthless land developer has his sights set on running not just the town, but owning all the farms around it. He has hired gunmen to run off the sheriff and pressure the farmers–or their widows–to sell out. Although he no longer carries a firearm, John Henry comes to the aid of one of the farmers when he’s beaten by the outlaws in town. For his trouble, John Henry is eventually beaten himself. Still, he refuses to pick up a gun and exact revenge, determined as he is to put his old life behind him. His mother’s gone and Mary Alice is another man’s wife (and mother of his child), but at the very least he can try to come to terms with his past peacefully.
But then the land developer and his men go too far, pushing John Henry over the edge. He arms himself and takes on the villains. The action doesn’t solve his own problems, though, but I’ll leave it to the reader to see the film and come to your own conclusions. Was John Henry right to do what he did? Shouldn’t he and the rest of the townspeople have just hunkered down to wait for the U.S. marshal to arrive?
Is it ever acceptable to take the law into one’s own hands?
Taking up arms as a vigilante, whether it be in a modern city or in the Old West, is never ultimately beneficial for society. While popular in fiction, they are very rare in real life, at least these days. History shows us, though, that whenever there is a power vacuum in a community, be it a small town or a country, somebody steps in to fill it and stave off the inevitable anarchy. Whether that person’s actions benefit the community or cause it further harm becomes the question. While it’s possible that the vigilante will act only against the criminals and the predators, it’s also equally possible that he will act against anybody who gets in his way, even if they are officers of the law.
Fictional vigilantes of the heroic kind, like the Punisher and Batman, have been staples in the comics and on screens large and small for many years now. But they have lines they will not cross. Batman will never kill, no matter how much the bad guy deserves killing. How many lives would Batman save simply by killing the Joker, rather than capturing him and sending him off to Arkham Asylum one more time, and from which he’ll escape yet again? Probably quite a few. Would it be acceptable, then, for Batman to protect those future victims by doing what the legal system cannot bring itself to do? That’s examined in very interesting detail in the book Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul.
Frank Castle has no problem with that. The body count in the 2017 series is high, and detailed in this video: Punisher Carnage. But Castle does have his own line. He will not kill police officers or soldiers, even if they stand in his way. He will find non-lethal ways to deal with them.
It was a different story in the 19th century American West. Law enforcement was often spotty and ineffective, or absent altogether. Before the arrival of the railroad, it might be weeks before any kind of police presence could arrive in a frontier town. The citizenry might eventually hire a police chief, usually known as the town marshal, and counties would have a sheriff, but these hirings and appointments were often politically-motivated, placing men in charge who were far from trained law enforcement officers but who could be counted on to enforce the law the way the town’s bosses wanted. It was not unknown for criminal activity to go unpunished, and sometimes communities would form “vigilance committees.” Two of the more notorious were Stuart’s Stranglers and the Bald Knobbers.
In Montana, the Stranglers were one of several vigilante groups that originally operated in gold-mining camps and by the 1880s had turned their attention to livestock rustlers. Led by rancher Granville Stuart, the Stranglers were said to have caught and executed dozens of rustlers and squatters, all of whom were killed without being brought before any kind of legal judge. They were so famous that it was said a young rancher from neighboring Dakota Territory by the name of Theodore Roosevelt asked to join them, a request Stuart declined.
Missouri had stayed in the Union during the Civil War but was the scene not only of combat between the two armies, but also guerilla warfare between Union and Confederate supporters. After the war, the violence continued to the point where, in 1883, a vigilance committee was formed in Taney County to drive out the gangs who’d been terrorizing the citizens. Led by a charismatic but shadowy newcomer named Nat Kinney, they met on a treeless mountaintop known as a “bald knob,” hence the group’s name, and often wore masks. There was opposition to the group, though, and not just from outlaws. A young man named Andy Coggburn was the most vocal of the Bald Knobbers’ opponents, and one night outside a church he was shot and killed by Kinney, who claimed self-defense. Kinney was never tried for the shooting, but was persuaded by the state government to disband the group. By then affiliated groups had sprung up in neighboring counties, but their masks grew more frightening and their activities more questionable. The Christian County chapter began targeting people who had not just allegedly violated the law, but certain moral codes as well. It wasn’t long before they started going too far and members of the community began to speak out against them. One of the opponents was William Edens, who continued to defy their threats even after suffering a beating at their hands. On the night of March 11, 1887, the vigilantes decided to deal with Edens once and for all. They found him and his sick wife in the cabin of his parents, James and Elizabeth Edens. Also in residence that evening was William’s sister, her husband and their two young children. The Bald Knobbers broke into the home and a gun battle ensued. William Edens and his brother-in-law were killed and James was seriously injured by an axe-blow to the head. Two of the invaders were wounded by the defenders’ gunfire. Eighty men were eventually indicted and tried for the crime, and four were sentenced to hang. One escaped, but the rest were strung up on May 10, 1889, in an execution that was botched but ultimately successful. Kinney himself had been shot dead in August 1888 by a farmer named Billy Miles, who surrendered to the police and was exonerated at trial. On July 4, 1889, Miles and his brothers escaped an ambush in which two of the attackers, a county sheriff and a bounty hunter, were killed.
That was pretty much the end of the Bald Knobber era in Missouri, although violent masked men appeared every now and then well into the 1920s. Today, an historical society in Forsyth, the town in which Nat Kinney killed Andy Coggburn, holds a “Law Day” festival with a Bald Knobbers pageant. In Taney County, the city of Branson is now a destination for tourists with country music and Ozark history as the theme, tracing its tourism origin back to the 1907 publication of the book The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright, who used generic Bald Knobbers as his villains. A local family started a minstrel show based on the book, leading to the city’s notoriety as an entertainment destination. At the nearby Silver Dollar City theme park, the Fire in the Hole Roller Coaster ride has a Bald Knobber theme. Sue and I visited Branson several times as hosts of bus tours during my radio days back in the 1990s, and rode that roller coaster more than once.
In Forsaken, Clayton’s Wyoming hometown needs law enforcement in the worst way, but none is available. James McCurdy (played by Brian Cox), the ruthless land developer, has caused the sheriff to flee and assembled a formidable force of gunfighters, led by the renowned “Gentleman” Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), who like John Henry is a Civil War veteran, although his service was on the Confederate side. The townspeople, who are held together by the Rev. Clayton, have sent to Laramie for the U.S. Marshal, but it’s anybody’s guess as to when he’ll arrive. Until then, the citizens are on their own against McCurdy and his gang. John Henry’s reputation has preceded him, throwing momentary fear into McCurdy’s men. But when they see he’s not inclined to even carry a gun anymore, much less use one, their depredations continue. Finally, they cross a line that John Henry cannot ignore, and he digs out his guns and goes to work.
The theme of Forsaken has been common in Western movies for a hundred years. In The Punisher, the theme of the vigilante is updated to a modern, urban setting, where law enforcement is much in evidence. But the conspiracy Castle and Micro go up against is way above the pay grade of the NYPD. By the time the series opens, the two men have already decided that turning themselves in, telling their story to the news media and hoping for the best is not an option. For one thing, the conspirators soon become aware that Castle is alive and is coming for them, so they’re being proactive by tracking down the few men the Punisher could possibly count on for help and terminating them with extreme prejudice. In addition to Micro, Castle has an ally in the news media, a newspaper reporter who provides him with information but is prohibited from publishing his side of the story. The DHS agent eventually comes around, but even with her help, Castle and Micro have to take on powerful federal government agencies. The odds are stacked against the Punisher and his few allies, but the vigilante always faces long odds.
The vigilante will always be with us.
In medieval times, the vigilante was the knight-errant in Europe or the ronin in Japan. These were highly-trained men who wandered the land seeking adventure or, at the very least, some sort of redemption. They had no master, but they did have a moral compass which guided them. Many historians consider the knight-errant and the ronin to be largely fictional creations. The gunfighters of the Old West did indeed exist, although they were as often on the wrong side of the law as on the right. Today, vigilantes like the Punisher or even Batman would be hard-pressed to operate for very long before the law would inevitably reel them in. While a significant percentage of the public and news media would no doubt cheer on a guy who eliminates drug dealers and other vermin, the powers-that-be would not allow him free reign for very long, and that’s probably a good thing. Would we really want a guy like Castle wandering around out there, armed to the teeth and seemingly impervious to police control? What guarantee would we have that he would operate within moral guidelines that we might agree with? None at all.
But on the movie and TV screens, they can be fun to watch.