Vigilante Justice


But there was no time for King to draw, for as Casey said the first phrase, he fired and fled into the mist. King was hit. He staggered into the express office; it was their wagon behind which Casey had hid. There was little the men there could do for him but to try to make him comfortable on the floor, send for a doctor, give the alarm, and try to understand the few words that King could whisper as he lay there, mortally wounded. No need to guess the killer; everyone knew what had happened.

Others down the street said Casey’s shot had been simultaneous with his words. They had seen only a little, but enough to recognize another figure that, right after the shot, scuttled up Washington Street on the heels of Casey. It was his close friend, Ned McGowan—not a savory character, but with friends in court.

Casey went with McGowan directly to the station house and gave himself up. He knew that was the safest place for him. He had friends there, and more and closer friends soon joined him. They all felt confident that this affair would pass off like many another shooting. Even Cora, who had openly shot a United States marshal six months before, had not yet been convicted and was not likely to be, and Casey had more influence in the right places than Cora.

King had made himself a people’s hero, and now Casey had made him a people’s martyr. In an incredibly short time an angry mass of citizens was milling outside the station house door, demanding that Casey—and Cora too—be lynched immediately. Some of the crowd even tried to break into the station house, but the sheriff’s men easily stopped that, and in a pinch Casey had his friends around him, well armed and ready. …

But things kept getting hotter. James King of William’s brother was out there with the crowd. Now he was addressing them, his face streaming with tears, half in sorrow and half in wrath. The crowd knew who he was and cheered him. He demanded justice—instant justice—for his brother. Sheriff Scannell was getting nervous; better leave the crowd here and hole up in the county jail on Broadway near DuPont Street. Cora was there, and the crowd had not even tried to get him out of so secure a place.

Casey was smuggled out into a carriage with the city marshal and several police officers, and the carriage dashed off to the county jail. The crowd saw it go, and followed. The coach went faster, and when the people got there they found three of Casey’s friends—including Ned McGowan—close together just outside the big door, their guns drawn. But the crowd remained and would not go. Now young King was haranguing it again, urging it to attack the jail now, to get Casey and finish him off.

The sheriff was trying to recruit reinforcements. He sent out calls for the volunteer deputies, the local companies that called themselves “Law and Order.” Mayor Van Ness had by this time learned what was going on, and he supported the sheriff’s call. Only a few Law and Order men came—not more than twenty-six out of several companies. Even some of them hoped Casey would be hanged, though they were prepared to defend him against a lynching mob.

Word went around that the Vigilantes were assembling. There was a cheer, and a good many of the people moved over to Portsmouth Square, where the Vigilantes were thought to be meeting, to find out what they planned to do.


Nearly all the best people,” admitted William T. Sherman, who opposed it, “favored the idea of a Vigilance Committee.”

While the crowd was milling about the jail those “best people” were meeting. Some of them wanted to act that night. Others wanted to do whatever would keep the crowd from attacking the jail and trying to lynch Casey without any kind of trial. But everyone agreed that three things were facts: Casey must be brought to prompt justice and must not meanwhile be allowed to escape; he was not likely to be brought to justice by Sheriff Scannell; and the Vigilantes must organize immediately.

In the group that met that night were some men from the southern states, who had been leaders in the voluntary Law and Order companies. They had not observed the summons from Sheriff Scannell to report for duty at the jail, for the Cora and Casey business was more than they could stomach. They would join the Vigilance Committee in increasing numbers, even though it meant leaving their political affiliations and associating with northerners, mercantile shopkeepers, artisans, and anti-slavery men.

No president was elected that night, and it was decided to take no action until things had cooled off a little and to try to discourage the citizens from taking direct action themselves. A membership roster was drawn up, and each man, as he signed it, swore to mete out true justice and to stand by all the rest.

What had become of Coleman? He had only recently returned from New York, where he had married Carrie Page of Boston and set up an eastern office of his firm. He had hoped to bring his bride back with him to San Francisco, but she was not well enough, so he had come back alone, intending to return for her in a month or two. He had been out of touch with affairs in the city, but in his short span with the 1851 committee he had become a recognized leader and had at times been its presiding officer. Men respected his coolness and his judgment. He had opposed then, and could be counted on to oppose now, the emotional extremism of men like Sam Brannan.