Vigilante Justice

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The people in the Unitarian Church on Stockton Street must have noticed some surprising absences from the mourners’ benches, for leading Vigilantes were not there. Everyone knew the absences were not due to lack of Vigilante sympathy with King’s family, and they could assign only one other reason. So, as the long procession moved slowly up the hill, many of those who were following it began to trickle quietly away. Others saw them and followed. Soon a large crowd, gathering numbers as it went, was moving silently back toward Fort Gunnybags on Sacramento Street.

The first arrivals found some three thousand Vigilante troops massed in company front, forming a hollow square around a cannon, beneath the windows of their headquarters. Two platforms, each big enough for a man or two to stand on, were set in place outside the second-story windows over the street. Their outer edges were held up by a single rope fastened to the roof above, where Sterling Hopkins stood with other armed Vigilantes.

The bell of King’s funeral church had been tolling steadily, but suddenly it stopped. Then it struck again, just once. Then “every bell in town rang,” and the crowd saw Casey and Cora, accompanied by a priest, led through the windows out onto the platforms. The two nooses were adjusted. The priest said his final words and withdrew.

Cora stood as quiet and erect as a French nobleman, at the guillotine. Gambler and murderer though he was, the man had courage and dignity. Casey broke down; he was trembling and hysterical and began a long and incoherent speech. He had to be helped to stand.

Hopkins, leaning forward over the parapet above, got the signal. With one stroke he cut the rope. Both platforms dropped. James King of William was hardly in his grave before his murderer and the man whose hanging he had demanded were on their way to theirs.

The firebrand, before it was extinguished, had lit the flame of public conscience.

AFTERMATH

Governor Neely Johnson returned to Sacramento. General Sherman also retired from the immediate fray to his banking office near the Battery. Both were silent for a week, but both would be heard from again.

Even those who opposed the committee recognized its complete control of the city, and for a few days after the execution of Casey and Cora public tension relaxed. But the Vigilantes did not; they remained in active and almost continuous operation, investigating other crimes and suspected lawbreakers. The overall results were impressive. During the six months before the committee was organized there had been over a hundred murders in and near San Francisco. In the six months after May 16, there were but two.

But the committee still had its enemies in high places, and the governor had not given up. On May 31 he met with General Wool and asked him to supply Sherman, as head of the state militia, with federal arms from the United States arsenals to be used to suppress the Vigilantes. Sherman was present at the meeting and observed “4,000 muskets in Wool’s arsenal at Benicia.” The governor extracted what he thought, and Sherman later said he thought, was an implied promise from Wool to supply the requested arms. It was presumably on the strength of that assumption that on June 3 the governor issued a statement that the County of San Francisco was “in a state of insurrection,” and called upon all citizens to enlist in the militia, under General Sherman, to quell it.

The effect of the proclamation on the people of the city can be imagined. To most of them the governor’s position was little short of fantastic, but that did not make it less alarming. He represented the power and authority of the state, and all men who henceforth sided with the Vigilantes were technically traitors against it. An armed clash would endanger their homes and their lives. Under these circumstances the almost unanimous support the public gave the Vigilantes was a tribute to the strength of public convictions as well as public courage.

Sherman wrote privately to a friend:

“I did not think it necessary to declare the county in a state of insurrection. Still, that was none of my business. The publication of the proclamation and my orders [to marshal the federal arms and to organize and arm a militia] caused a tremendous excitement. Everybody supposed that civil war would forthwith be inevitable. Companies began to form, and moderate people became much alarmed as a conflict seemed to be impending. All the time, however, the Vigilance Committee were strengthening in number and material. As men were enrolling on our side pretty fast, the Governor sent by his aide-de-camp Col. Rowe to General Wool a letter requesting him to issue to me, on my requisition, such arms and munitions as I might call for. [General Wool] told Rowe that in the then state of feeling he thought it was unsafe to send arms to San Francisco. When Rowe told me this I was thunderstruck, as I could look nowhere else for arms, for the idea of enrolling the militia without arms was an absurdity.”