Vigilante Justice


The Vigilantes of San Francisco have been a legend and a byword ever since the 1850’s. According to one view they represented lynch law and violence; according to another they exemplified the Anglo-Saxon tradition by which the citizens work out and enforce codes of justice, order and civic decency informally when formal procedures cease to work. Either way, their story is one of the fascinating chapters in American history.

Alan Valentine has written, in Vigilante Justice (Reynal and Company: $3.50) , an account of Vigilante days which, in his own words, “is a story of the growing pains of San Francisco.” It depicts American democracy in the raw, with men using extralegal means to work their way back to law and order after they had permitted their society to become corrupted. It indicates that the faults men find in society lie ultimately within themselves, and it shows how men may become convinced that they may short-cut government and overrule their own officials.

AMERICAN HERITAGE is privileged to present herewith a condensed version of this study of what the Vigilante movement accomplished and why it came into being.


Sam Brannan’s heels pounded brisk staccatos on the plank sidewalks that bounded San Francisco’s boglike streets. He was always brisk, and this morning the sky was bright blue and the air like wine. It was not always thus, for on many a summer morning the mists that rolled in from the Golden Gate the night before lie damp and heavy over the city until nearly noon. But on that sixteenth of July, 1849, they had burned away early, and the sun was warm on Brannan’s broad shoulders and his shock of heavy hair.

A morning like this should make a man forget his troubles, if he had any. Sam had very few, and many things to be thankful for. Business was never better; his flour mills here in the city were paying well; his store at Sutter’s Fort was grossing $150,000 a month since the Gold Rush began; his real-estate investments in Sacramento were rising in value every day. His California Star was doing well too, and it was pleasant to be an editor and have his public say on every matter. His health was good, and he had had a good breakfast.

Yet Sam had something on his mind. Things were happening in San Francisco that would trouble any honest citizen, and Sam was honest. A man could be honest and still broad-minded, and Sam was tolerant. But he was against crime, and crime in San Francisco was getting out of hand.

Ex-convicts from Australia and crooked lawyers and politicians from the East were getting more numerous and powerful every day, and they were twice as dangerous because they were beginning to work together. And now there was this gang of young hoodlums who called themselves the Hounds and were terrorizing the Chileños and Mexicans in the poorer parts of town. Something would have to be done about them and done soon. Sam was on his way to see Alcalde Leavenworth.

Sam didn’t have too high an opinion of Leavenworth, who could not seem to make up his mind what to do and kept talking about legal difficulties. Sam knew just what to do; he saw things simply and clearly, and that was one reason he had got ahead. If Leavenworth and the politicians wouldn’t clean things up, then it was a case for direct action by the people. Now he was going to be the first to tell the alcalde that if he didn’t call a public meeting to discuss the crime wave there would be trouble.

He would probably find Leavenworth in Portsmouth Square, for that was where people gathered. They called it the Plaza and had their public meetings there, as well as their biggest saloons and gambling houses.

In spite of the normal appearance of the square, Sam knew there was unrest beneath. Citizens were not going to take the events of last night lying down. The Hounds had gone too far. They had staged the worst riot yet, and not a single arrest had been made. Alcalde Leavenworth had simply lost control of the situation. It wasn’t wholly his fault, for the city had grown too fast for its primitive municipal setup. There were few deputies, and they seemed to be either incompetents or cowards or in cahoots with the toughs. There was no jail, and the judges were too slow or too scared or too easily tangled up by some smooth defense lawyer. Nobody had much respect left for the courts in San Francisco.

More and more influential citizens were agreeing with Sam that the job would have to be done by the people, legal or not. Conditions in San Francisco were beyond the control of normal law. The settlers in the mining camps had had to enforce their own law, and they had done a pretty good job of it too.

There would have to be an assembly of the citizens, right here in the square, today, or tomorrow at the latest. It would be better to have the meeting called by the alcalde, for that would make whatever happened afterward more or less legal. But if the alcalde wouldn’t call a meeting Sam would do it himself, and no matter who called it, Sam was going to make a speech. He knew just what he would say, and he was pretty sure what would happen afterward. Sam believed in the people, especially if they did what he said.