Strangely, the term kangaroo court is not Australian in origin. The term refers to an improperly constituted and illegitimate court, especially one constituted by people who are otherwise outside the law, prisoners, mutineers, etc. What kangaroos have to do with it is not known for certain. There are plenty of guesses, but no strong evidence.
What we do know is that the phrase arose on the American frontier, attested to as early as 1841 in reference to Natchez, Mississippi. Various suggestions have been proffered, none with any solid evidence behind them. The best is Barry Popik’s suggestion that the term may come from the Kangaroo district of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a rather notorious section of town known for its gambling dens and brothels that flourished in the 1820s and early 1830s. The name Kangaroo comes from the name of brothel in that district. Popik’s explanation fits the time and place, but to date no specific links between kangaroo court and this district have been found. Until someone finds a connection between the Vicksburg district and some account of mock or impromptu justice, Popik’s explanation must remain tentative.
Other suggestions include that such courts defy the law, just as strange creatures, like the kangaroo, seem to defy the laws of nature, or that the name comes from speed by which one jumps from the courtroom into prison. A third hypothesis that is frequently proffered is that it comes from informal prosecutions of claim jumpers during the California gold rush. The lexical evidence indicates that the phrase did not originate in Australia, so any actual connection with the land down under is incorrect.
Such courts were also known as mustang or mestang courts, in reference to a wild and uncontrollable horse. Not as exotic as a kangaroo, but a wild animal nonetheless.
The first known use of kangaroo court is from the 24 August 1841 New Orleans Daily Picayune (2):
The Concordia Intelligencer says “several loafers were lynched in Natchez last week upon various charges instituted by the Kangaroo court. The times grow warm; we can see another storm coming, not unlike that which prevailed in the days of the Murrel excitement. In Natchez, as in New Orleans, they are driving away all of the free negroes.” What is a Kangaroo court, neighbor?
The Mississippian of 12 January 1849 contains a letter to the editor from someone in Kosciusko, Mississippi (3, col. 2):
On the evening succeeding the election, a meeting was gotten up some what in imitation of a “Kangaroo Court,” for the purpose of trying three individuals, (not all of who had voted for Taylor,) on charges preferred, that one of them, H_____, is ever loudest to proclaim his democratic sentiments, but has never been known to vote for one of the party for any office, from President down.
Writer Philip Paxton published a fanciful account of frontier justice in the fictional town of Kangaroo in Kangaroo County, Texas in the 27 July 1850 Spirit of the Times (269) which was republished in his 1853 book Stray Yankee in Texas:
By a unanimous vote, Judge G—the fattest and funniest of the assembly—was elected to the bench, and the “Mestang” or “Kangaroo Court” regularly organized. Impossible as it would be for any one to convey to the reader a correct idea of the ludicrous and supremely ridiculous scene which ensued, I will yet attempt it.
In Paxton’s account, Judge G. then went on to declare:
It has been a source of deep regret to me and doubtless to say many of you, that our bar—of the grocery, I mean—has fallen into disuse, owing to the criminal want of criminal fines properly imposed, whereby the pockets of the bar-tenders, and the throats of our honorable body have suffered an unprecedented dryness.
It therefore behooves us all, acting in our several capacities, to do our duty most strictly in this matter. Suffering no criminal to go unpunished—no innocent accused, to escape conviction, but each one striving for the common end, heap up fines to be liquidated in liquors at the bar, payable in circulating medium, whose circulation has not been above medium in this latter days—and thus evade the deep and heavy mantle of disgrace which is fast settling around our once honored shoulders.
The “court” then set about convicting a man of disturbing the peace by kissing an elderly African-American woman on the cheek, and sentencing him to buy everyone drinks.
Many of the early uses of kangaroo court are in contexts very similar to what Paxton recounts. The phrase is found in prisons and among mutineers and other gangs that use such impromptu proceedings to extort money and possessions from newcomers.
Cohen, Gerald. “Kangaroo Court—Recent Antedatings and a Look at Barry Popik’s Tentative Suggestion.” Comments on Etymology, 49: 4–5. January–February 2011. 7–14.
“kangaroo, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition. 1989.
“kangaroo court, n.” Historical Dictionary of American Slang. 1997. 2:336.
Popik Barry. “Kangaroo Court.” The Big Apple. 4 August 2006
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton