Vigilante Justice

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A curious name, too, James King of William. It was like him to have taken it and to have kept it when it was no longer needed. Back in Georgetown, that then sleepy annex of a muddy Washington, he had grown up with another James King, and to prevent confusion he added his father’s name, William, to his own. Through his San Francisco days he kept the unique title, and wore it into history.

He was dark and handsome, and vivid is the word that describes him best, but he was never very lucky. He had started off in Washington with the banking firm of Riggs and Corcoran, and he was doing well until his health broke and he had to go off to find a better climate. He tried Chile and Peru, but ended up in San Francisco in 1849.

He wasn’t strong enough to work in the gold camps, so he set up a banking house of his own in the city. From the beginning the nicest people in town took to him and his pretty young wife and small children. But just as things were going really well at last, his luck broke again. He had merged his bank with another, and without his suspecting it his partners carried on some very shady deals. In 1855 it all came out, and his bank failed. So did he.

King had to do something to earn money. His friends told him that he ought to start a newspaper of his own. Sam Brannan’s old Star had faded out; the Herald was the mouthpiece of the political crowd; and even the Alta wasn’t as lively as it had been in 1851. Friends loaned him money to get started, and on October 8, 1855, King put out the first issue of his Daily Evening Bulletin . It was really a one-man paper; he wrote most of it himself and kept the accounts and helped set the type too.

Coleman had said that King was terribly in earnest, and he proved it in the Bulletin . He preached civic righteousness in short, pithy paragraphs, with plenty of personal application. Right from the start he went after the grafters and gamblers and crooked politicians harder than anybody had ever done. He somehow got wind of most of the crooked deals that were going on and came right out with them in print. He never let up for a single day, and he wasn’t afraid to name names. People began to buy his paper just to see what new revelations he had to make and what new names he would call the gangsters or the sheriff. It wasn’t long before the circulation of the Bulletin was the biggest in town.

They say that some of the proprietors of the big gambling houses offered him big payments if he would ease off on his attacks, but he turned them down and then got after them twice as hard. His friends began to worry about what might happen to him, but nothing they could say would make him stop. He was just thirty-three then, and perhaps like most young men he couldn’t believe that anything could really happen to him.

“HANG THE SHERIFF”

Less than six weeks after the first issue of King’s Bulletin a United States marshal was shot and killed by a prosperous San Francisco gambler, who called himself Charles Cora. Cora was a notorious figure, in every way made to order for the part of villain. He was young, swarthy, debonair, and immaculately, though flashily, dressed. He had won and bought his way into social acceptance in the more flexible elements of society, including some of the officers of law and government. He had as his mistress one of the handsomest young women in town.

Immediately after shooting the marshal, Cora hurried to the jail, where he had friends. He was taken into protective custody to save him from the crowd that promptly gathered outside and shouted, “Lynch him!” The guard was doubled.

That night, for the first time in more than three years, the people of the city heard the bell on the California Engine House toll the same slow, single strokes that had called the 1851 Vigilantes to duty. The people welcomed the sound, but they shuddered too as they thought of what it might mean. But when, next morning, nothing had happened, most of them were disappointed too.

The bell had indeed been a call to the remaining members of the old Committee of Vigilance. Many of them had answered the call, Sam Brannan among them. Some wanted to act immediately; others urged restraint or delay. The law, they said, must be given a chance to “redeem itself.” Vigilantes would be justified in taking action into their own hands only after it had been clearly demonstrated to the people that the legal authorities were not going to convict Cora. This time the cooler heads won the day. It was agreed to take no present action, but to watch the situation.

But James King of William was not controlled by any Vigilante caucus, and his paper was his own. Singlehanded, he moved immediately to the attack. The Bulletin of November 19 reported the murder of Marshal Richardson and editorialized strongly on the need to punish Cora and other agents of corruption. King wrote that “the excitement on Saturday night was intense, and strongly reminded us of the old Vigilance Committee times. … It [the Vigilance Committee] was a fearful responsibility, and one we do not wish to see resorted to if it can be avoided.” On November 20 he made the first recorded public suggestion that perhaps there would have to be a new committee of vigilance.