Vigilante Justice


Captain Farragut had already declined suggestions from the governor’s friends that he shell the town and “exterminate the insurrectionists.”

Farragut had personal friends on both sides and was held in great respect. He was deeply sympathetic with the aims of the Vigilantes, but increasingly distressed as their operations brought them more and more into conflict with established law. But whatever his personal reactions to the situation he was first of all a responsible representative of the United States government and bound to observe its established procedures.

It seemed more and more likely that Sterling Hopkins would recover. Nearly everyone on both sides hoped so, for then the committee would not have to try a justice of the supreme court for manslaughter, and Terry would be spared the possible results of such a trial. There is some evidence that the committee deliberately delayed any action on Terry until Hopkins was out of danger. The Vigilantes, who had demanded quicker action on accused men, were now delaying their own.

When it became clear that Hopkins was all too alive and that both public sentiment and the Vigilante troops would insist on a trial of Terry, the executive committee finally indicted him. The charges were resisting with violence the officers of the committee while in discharge of their duties, committing an assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and various breaches of the peace and attacks on other citizens going back as far as 1853. Coleman as president presided. The accused man was allowed his own counsel and pled not guilty. Testimony and cross-examination took about three weeks. The official Vigilante story of the results was that Terry was found guilty of resisting a committee officer and of one of the three charges arising from his earlier escapades. On the second major charge, of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, the jury debated through two nights and finally pronounced Terry “guilty of assault.”

No sentence was imposed immediately, and before any other action was taken, Judge Terry “escaped.” He fled to the John Adams and thence to Sacramento. How he could have managed without connivance to escape from so closely guarded a citadel is not clear. Some of the Vigilante guards, at least, must have closed their eyes.

One thing is clear: everyone concerned was well out of it, and the affair as a whole was a moral defeat for Judge Terry and the governor and therefore a moral victory for the committee. Terry took with him in his escape very little respect and few friendships, and even these diminished as his colorful career grew more and more tawdry. Neither he nor the governor had done anything in their struggles with the Vigilantes that had illuminated the constitutional issue or enhanced the majesty of the state.


After the Terry escapade the committee was stronger than ever and the governor weaker. The arms that General Wool had reluctantly loaned the state were in the hands of the Vigilantes, and so were those the Law-and-Order men had been holding. General Wool declined any further aid to the governor, so did Captain Farragut, and so did President Pierce. It was clear that the governor was on his way out as a figure of political influence. At last, on November 3, he revoked his insurrection proclamation of June 3. He was not re-elected.

But even while the Terry crisis was at its height, even while Commander Boutwell was threatening to fire on them, the Vigilantes were continuing with the business they had organized themselves to accomplish.

With all these alarms and efforts, the work of finding criminals and dealing with them went on. The committee executed two more murderers after thorough Vigilante trials. Joseph Hetherington, an Englishman, and Philander Brace, a desperado from New York City, each confessed to the murder of which he was accused, and each was hanged on July 29. These events passed almost without comment, for the power and rough justice of the Vigilantes were now taken for granted even by their opponents. Every day they were investigating, rounding up, and trying convicts from Australia who had illegally entered the port.

By mid-August the committee concluded that its work was accomplished, and this time with a thoroughness that should make unlikely any major recrudescence of crime—provided the citizens henceforth accepted their responsibilities at the election and primary booths, and for the general maintenance of decent social and political values and standards.

On August 18 the Vigilantes held a final parade through the streets of the city to mark the end of their activities. Immediately afterward some eight thousand citizen troops laid down their arms forever, and with them another eight thousand supporters disbanded. They went to their homes, returned to their businesses, and discarded in one stroke all the power they had won. Uncorrupted by that power, the Vigilantes ceased to exist.