Vigilante Justice


The next morning dawned on what Sherman remembered as an “exceedingly beautiful day.” At eight that morning every Vigilante reported for duty. Only the executive committee and the heads of the twentyfive companies knew the whole plan of action, but each company was instructed to take a certain route to an assigned spot near the jail, to leave headquarters on a stated minute, and to arrive at the destination within sixty seconds of a specified time. At eleven the troops were all standing with organized precision, and shortly, company after company, they marched by various routes. Each arrived within the specified minute. As the troops marched, the crowd followed. The twenty-five hundred armed Vigilante troops massed in company fronts along Broadway, facing the jail door, and in the cross streets nearby.

Then the ten-man guard of the Vigilantes emerged from within the prison and joined the troops outside, giving Sheriff Scannell an indication of what was coming. The sheriff had posted his 150 men at vantage points in the jail and on the roof, but the militia were not there.

“A solemnity and strictness pervaded the whole party,” wrote a priest who was present. But one could hear the immediate crowd, estimated at fifteen thousand, draw in its breath as one man when sixty Vigilantes, with precision and dispatch, dragged through the massed troop formation a large cannon and fixed it facing the large door of the jail, precisely and carefully aimed. The gunner lit his slow fuse and then waved it silently back and forth to keep it ready for the command.

At exactly one o’clock Marshal Doane rode his white horse forward to the door of the jail and rapped smartly on it with his riding whip. A little wicket in the door opened, and Doane was seen by some of the watchers to hand in a note. Then there was a brief colloquy at the door, and Doane galloped away. Three carriages appeared, driving through the pathway opened by the troops. They rolled up to the big door, and three men stepped from them. One was Coleman, one was Truett, a member of the Vigilante Executive Committee, and the third was Marshal North. They rapped on the jail door and were admitted at once.

They walked without hesitation down the corridor to Casey’s cell. When Casey saw them coming he jumped back from the door and, cowering against the opposite wall, brandished a sixteen-inch knife—an interesting possession for a prisoner in jail under charge of murder. Coleman later said, “I told him to lay it down, and looked him sharply in the eye, steadily, and he finally laid it down and crossed his hands.”

The three Vigilantes emerged with Casey. The crowd is said to have drawn in its breath for a great cheer, but Coleman raised his hand for silence, and the sounds died. Only from Telegraph Hill and remote housetops could distant cheers be heard. Coleman and Truett, with Casey between them, got into the first carriage. Casey’s hands were free, and Coleman and Truett thought him unarmed, until later they found he had another dagger hidden in his boot.

Escorted by the other two carriages, they drove briskly back to Fort Gunnybags. Then they decided to get Cora as well and send a message to the sheriff demanding him. Scannell first refused and then yielded. Cora was brought in similar style to the Vigilante headquarters, and the committee sent one more message to the sheriff—that it would leave the jail in his possession and that it would hold him responsible for the safety of the remaining prisoners and the proper discharge of his duties. Then the Vigilante troops were withdrawn from the jail.


Then, on May 20, the trials began. The accused were permitted to choose their own counsel from among the Vigilantes and chose Truett and Smedley, who defended them. At half-past one on the afternoon of the second day the court was interrupted when Marshal Doane entered, saluted Coleman, and reported that James King of William had died.

The trial continued, but as the news of King’s death spread through the city nearly every building except the gambling houses and saloons was promptly draped in black. The church and fire bells all tolled but one: the bell now on the roof of Vigilante headquarters did not ring. Its peal was still to come.

It did not come for two days after the trial began, for the committee’s court sat almost continuously through nearly forty-eight hours. This was no judicial farce of a hasty lynching mob. At last the jury found unanimously that each of the prisoners was guilty of murder, and sentenced each to be hanged at noon on May 23. Then it was learned that the funeral of King would be held on May 22, and the execution of Casey and Cora was secretly set for the same hour.

After his sentence Casey degenerated into sniveling fright. Cora bore himself better. Chastened at last, he asked to see his Belle, who had supported him throughout with unswerving loyalty, and for a priest to give him absolution. Both were brought to him by the Vigilantes. Belle asked Cora to have the priest marry them, and the priest refused Cora absolution unless he did so. A few hours before the execution, Father Maraschi married Arabella Bryan to Cora.

King’s funeral services began at noon. Little Sterling Hopkins, standing on the roof of Fort Gunnybags for a special purpose, could hear the swell of the organ from the nearby Unitarian Church on Stockton Street, and said he could even hear the drone of the sermon. No funeral services in San Francisco were ever like this. Solemnity, perhaps mixed with unconscious contrition for their past indifference to crime, gripped the people until it seemed to weigh down the very air one breathed.