Vigilante Justice


And what of the powers above and beyond Sheriff Scannell? The governor was not a man of strong character, but he could be very stubborn. And then there was the question of the attitude of the federal government, not only in faraway Washington, but nearby in the Navy ships in the bay and in the person of Captain David G. Farragut, the ranking commandant at Mare Island; and, nearby too, in the person of General J. E. Wool, the senior Army officer, not many miles away at the arsenal at Benicia. Nor could the Vigilantes ignore the newly appointed major general in command of the state militia—that West Pointer and San Francisco banker, William Tecumseh Sherman. Many of the Vigilantes knew him quite well, but although he was a good man, he was prickly, and a firm supporter of law and order.

That future hero of the Civil War had resigned his military commission in 1853 and settled in San Francisco as partner of a St. Louis banking firm. Tall, erect, red-haired, with an alert mind but a nervous and somewhat querulous temperament, Sherman was in a complicated position. Nearly all the leading businessmen and bankers in the city were members of the Vigilance Committee, and Sherman was eager, for business reasons, to be in their good graces. He was as concerned about the local crime wave and the corrupt politics as most men, and he had a profound respect for William Coleman and others of the Vigilantes.

But Sherman’s West Point training inclined him to support the letter of the law at possible expense to its reasonable application. He was a cautious man, but his acceptance of the governor’s appointment to head the militia, only a few days before, had committed him to support the governor, whatever position he might take.

At two o’clock that morning Governor Neely Johnson appeared at the headquarters and asked to see the president of the Vigilantes. Coleman left his executive committee in session and went to meet the governor. Afterward, Coleman said the governor had agreed that the Vigilantes should proceed with their efforts to suppress crime.

But still later that night the governor returned. This time he had with him Sherman and several of his strongest political supporters. The governor’s attitude was completely changed. He was blustering and belligerent. He intimated that unless the committee would promise to leave the matter entirely to the regular officials and courts, it would be necessary to call out all the forces at his command.

From that point Coleman’s version was corroborated by the other Vigilantes present. He said to the governor, “Let us understand each other clearly. As I understand your proposal, it is that if we make no move, you guarantee no escape, an immediate trial, and instant execution?”

The Governor: “Yes.”

Coleman: “We doubt your ability to do this, but we are willing to meet you halfway. This is what we will promise. We will take no steps without first giving you notice. But in return, we insist that men of our own selection shall be added to the sheriff’s force within the jail.”

The Vigilantes said that the governor accepted this agreement and left. On the matter of the jail guard there was no further controversy. Sherman corroborated that understanding and accompanied the guard of ten Vigilantes to the jail, where they remained, with the very reluctant agreement of the sheriff, until the Vigilantes withdrew them for other action. But on the main points there was later emphatic disagreement as to what was understood. The next day the governor claimed that Coleman had virtually pledged that the committee would leave the Casey-Cora matter to the sheriff and courts without interference. Since in that case the Vigilantes would have small reason for existence, such a promise by Coleman seems on the face of it absurd.

If the governor thought he had the support of the citizens, or even of the militia, he soon learned different. Sherman himself wrote that the Law and Order party refused any further help to Governor Johnson because he had “stooped” to trying to make terms with the “rebels.” Sherman issued his own call to the Law and Order forces, but only a few answered, and some of the militia even left their posts at the jail to sign up with the Vigilantes. Sherman was able to form only “a company with four guns, and two or three uniformed companies of infantry whose arms were kept in the several San Francisco armories,” and he soon found that he could not count even upon these men or these arms.

Meanwhile a working party of Vigilantes brought scores of large gunny sacks filled with sand and piled them vertically against the walls of their headquarters to a height of ten feet and a thickness of eight feet so that the building was almost impregnable against small-arms attack. From that time on the offices were known as Fort Gunnybags.

Then two developments determined action. Chief Marshal Doane reported that his troops were ready for action. Word came to the committee that the governor was claiming that the Vigilantes had promised to leave Casey and Cora to the courts and that he had taken no steps to bring immediate trial. When Coleman heard these reports, he went before the committee with but four words: “The time has come.”