Vigilante Justice


King then shifted his attack from the gamblers and criminals to the municipal officers that failed to curb them. That same day the coroner’s jury pronounced that the murder had been premeditated and had no mitigating circumstances, and King wrote in the Bulletin:

And the more we hear of the character of the present Sheriff, the stronger grows the belief that if this Cora escapes justice at all, it will be the fault of the Sheriff and his deputies. … That no effort will be spared to get Cora clear begins now to be apparent. His friends are already at work. Forty thousand dollars, it is said, have been subscribed for that purpose. Of this some $5,000 will be sufficient to cover lawyer’s fees and court charges, and the balance can be used as occasion may require. … Look well to the jury! … What we propose is this: If the jury which tries Cora is packed, either HANG THE SHERIFF or drive him out of town.

Meanwhile Belle, Cora’s beautiful mistress and the queen of the underworld, hired able and expensive lawyers to defend her man. One of them, Colonel E. D. Baker, a man of good repute, tried to withdraw when he realized the strength of popular feeling against Cora, but he had accepted a large retainer from Belle, and she held him to his word. Reluctantly he did his best and was eloquent and effective in Cora’s defense. Cora appeared before the court in “a gorgeous waistcoat, light gloves, a new pale suit and a jaunty overcoat,” and lolled with insolent indifference as the trial went on. After twenty-four hours the jury failed to agree.

The old year yielded to the new. Cora remained in the custody of the sheriff, further legal action seemed indefinitely postponed, citizens continued to talk much but do nothing, and King continued to attack crime. Winter gave way to spring, and it was on May 14 that what seemed like a relatively tame specimen of King’s verbal thrusts created the climax. On that day King published an editorial that seemed mild compared to some previous ones. It attacked the appointment of one Bagley to a position in the customs house. Bagley was a minor satellite of the dominant political machine, but, in one of those internal dissensions which occur in even the best-regulated political gangs, he had been involved in a gun fight with Supervisor James P. Casey.

Casey was credited with having invented “the double-improved-back-action ballot box,” in which false ballots could be hidden in advance and then counted with the others. There was no question that the box existed and that it had been used in elections, notably including the one that made Casey supervisor.

King referred in his newspaper to the fact that Casey had once been an inmate of Sing Sing prison, and to “the fact of having stuffed himself through the ballot box.” But those facts, King went on, offered “no justification why he [Bagley] should shoot Mr. Casey, no matter how richly the latter may deserve to have his neck stretched for his frauds on the people.”

Shortly after this editorial appeared Casey strode into the office of the Bulletin , where King sat at his desk. Casey protested vigorously against what King had written and demanded a public apology. King showed him the door. As Casey left he was heard by others to say in a loud voice, “If necessary, I shall defend myself.” Neither King nor the others present could have been under any illusion as to what Casey meant, and King’s staff urged him not to leave the office alone, but when King set off for home that evening he was unaccompanied. He did put a small pistol in his breast pocket, but over it he wore a short buttoned cloak. It would not be easy to draw quickly if he should need to.


If that May evening was like many another in San Francisco, gray fingers of mist had groped their way through the gaps in the mountain rampart against the sea and then with swift stealth had blotted out the bright sun from Pacific Heights down to the Marina. The wind had died; the mist emphasized both sound and silence, and men walked the streets in blind isolation. In the breathy stillness figures loomed up suddenly and were gone. The atmosphere seemed furtive; the solitary pedestrian felt deserted yet observed.

It was through such a gray foreboding that James King of William would have begun his walk home that night alone.

He was crossing Montgomery Street diagonally between Washington and Clay. Part way home and all was well! No untoward meeting, no alarming sound of whispers, no stealthy shuffles that might mean ambush. … One could not see much, but there, across the street, was looming out a shape. … It was only an express wagon, and empty. James King of William must have breathed a little sigh of relief.

James Casey stepped out from behind the wagon, just in front of Phil’s Oyster Saloon. Casey looked excited; he was breathing hard. He threw back his cloak, and there beneath it was his hand, pointing a large navy revolver at King’s chest.

There was no time for anything, not even for King to draw. What Casey said, so rapidly and excitedly that the words ran together, was heard by other men than King and reported later. “Are you armed? Defend yourself! Come on! Defend yourself!”