Vigilante Justice


Mr. Maloney was not averse to ardent spirits on occasion and doubtless thought them efficacious after this brief but harrowing experience. He devoted the first few hours of his regained freedom to visits to several San Francisco saloons and, fortified by their hospitality, was sufficiently restored to give voice to repeated announcements of his intention to shoot on sight Messrs. Coleman, Truett, and Durkee of the Vigilante Executive Committee. Under the circumstances, the Argus-eyed committee decided to soothe Mr. Maloney in some quiet and nonalcoholic place of its own choosing and sent Sterling Hopkins and four other Vigilantes to bring him in.

Maloney and his companions, perhaps sensing impending trouble, had made their way to the Palmer and Cook building, a refuge of what was left of the anti-Vigilante junto. There they found Judge Terry, that distinguished jurist and two-gun Texan, and with him another Texan and Law-and-Order man, Dr. Richard P. Asher. Unfortunately for all concerned, Dr. Asher held appointment as the local agent of the United States Navy.

Hopkins and his squad traced Maloney and soon appeared at the Palmer and Cook offices. When they entered and claimed Maloney, Judge Terry drew his gun on Hopkins, with words history has not seen fit to record verbatim. Hopkins returned to headquarters—without Maloney—for further instructions. He was told to return with his squad to Maloney’s retreat and there to mount guard on Maloney, but not to use force or take action, except, presumably, to prevent Maloney from making a getaway.

But Maloney and Judge Terry had decided not to stay put. Hopkins and his men arrived just in time to see them, with their friends, heading toward the armory, conspicuously in possession of knives and shotguns. Hopkins and his quartet caught up with them, and Hopkins tried to arrest Maloney. There was a considerable exchange of compliments and some pushing and shoving, which developed into a minor disorganized melee. As in most such affairs, the stories of what happened then differed widely, partly, at least, because no one knew quite what happened, or all that happened, and made up in assertion what was lacking in certainty. But it is clear that no one was physically attacked or hurt until Judge Terry suddenly stabbed Hopkins in the neck and then, with Dr. Asher and Maloney, plunged into the armory and banged shut its iron doors. One of Hopkins’ men stayed to take care of him; two mounted guard outside the armory, another hurried back to Fort Gunnybags to report.

In short order the firehouse bell was tolling. This time it was three quick taps, followed by three more. Apparently that was a special call that meant emergency, but not general assembly. But it meant excitement to the citizens, and on this occasion that was regrettable, for it magnified the incident beyond all repair. It gave no chance to let the opposition save face. But there was no help for it, and when the Vigilantes marched the crowd went with them.

They marched impressively, in silence, in military order, and with cannon and horsemen in their column. Chief Marshal Doane, once again on his white horse, knocked on the armory door and demanded “the instant surrender of these premises.” Asher was the man who replied. He said he would open the doors “on condition our safety is guaranteed.” “There are no conditions,” snapped Doane.

Soon the doors opened, and Doane and his troops marched back to their headquarters with Judge Terry, Dr. Asher, and the now sobered Maloney in their column.

Nothing more happened that day. The next morning Commander Boutwell of the Navy ship John Adams , the ranking Navy officer in the absence from the city of Captain Farragut, sent to the committee a formal inquiry as to how long it intended to hold Dr. Asher in custody. The committee replied with formal courtesy that Dr. Asher would be held only for the time necessary to secure his answers to questions regarding the knifing affair at which he had been a close witness. The committee invited Commander Boutwell or his representative to be present at that questioning, and consequently Lieutenant Hoxton of the John Adams heard the interrogation, after which Dr. Asher was immediately released.

Terry, who was now “the Committee’s White Elephant,” did not take kindly to his custody or his custodians. He made all sorts of demands and threats and was particularly downcast that so great a man as he could be in trouble merely for sticking a knife into “a damn little Yankee well-borer.” The judge became increasingly, in the words of Coleman, “an … unwelcome and undesired tenant of our quarters, thrust upon us with all the weight of his office, all the embarrassment of his care.” Everyone knew that the committee wished it had never run foul of the judge, but public resentment against him was very great, especially among the Vigilante troops. The committee was in a position in which it did not want to prosecute, but could not afford to climb down.

Terry wrote to Commander Boutwell for “the protection of the flag of my country,” and Boutwell became troublesome to the Vigilantes. He sent messages threatening to interfere unless Terry was immediately released, and Terry’s friends tried to get Boutwell to turn the guns of the John Adams on Fort Gunnybags—without, of course, damaging any nearby buildings or innocent citizens—an assignment that would have tested the marksmanship of the United States Navy. The committee replied with careful respect that it would communicate with Boutwell’s superior officer before taking a position.