Vigilante Justice


After these qualifications had been agreed upon there was no certainty they would be observed or enforced. Even before the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had attracted many foreigners and some professional politicians from the East, and the combination was electorally a dangerous one. A Kanaka from the Sandwich Islands might swear in a phrase of broken English taught him by a ward heeler that he had been born in New York City, and although the statement seemed implausible his sponsor stood beside him to support his oath. Then who would find it practical to raise the question of perjury and try to prove it?

It was only after the city had indulged in a veritable orgy of elections that two other major problems emerged. The first was the question of how many total votes would make an election representative and valid. If less than one-quarter of the estimated qualified voters cast ballots to elect a city council, and the election was close, could that council be accepted as the true voice of the people? The second question was the relation of an elected council to the established alcalde, who had been approved by the governor. Did the new council take over his powers and authority, or was he still the superior executive authority?

These troubles were still to come when the people of the city decided in 1848 to elect six city councilmen to hold office until their successors, chosen at some later election approved by the governor, were installed. The council was elected. A few weeks later the governor authorized the election of an official council to replace it, and on December 28, 1848, a second council was chosen and installed. But the first council declined to resign, claiming that since only 347 votes had been cast in the December election (and some of them questionable), the second council had no validity. Both councils met and tried to transact the same city business. Instead of having no municipal council, San Francisco now had two competing ones, and the previous chaos was compounded.

But that was only the beginning. The first council ordered a new election, and on January 153 third council was chosen, but by an even smaller total vote. So the citizens met once again in Portsmouth Square, demanded the resignation of all three councils, and set the date of February 21 for the election of another one, and of three justices of the peace as well. The council elected in February promptly tried to oust the alcalde, but the governor supported him, and he managed to get the original 1848 council reinstated and his own position strengthened. The city was back just where it had been the year before, and very few were happy about it.

In order to clear the air the governor named August 1 as the date for the election of a new council, but his action stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry San Franciscans. They held a mass meeting and adopted resolutions that the people had the right to organize their own city government and that the governor had no right to set an election date for them. And just to make the matter a little more complicated, the fourth council—that elected in February—re-entered the fray. It announced that it was the legally constituted body and would insist upon directing municipal affairs until deprived of its authority by the people, who had elected it.

That made municipal business more chaotic than ever, so the people elected a new council—the fifth within a year—on July 9. But only 174 citizens voted, so it was tacitly agreed that the best thing was to vote again on August 1, even though the governor had suggested it. That election took place “in a spirited though orderly manner.” There were at least ten different slates of candidates, but on all of them John W. Geary was the nominee for mayor, and he received all of the 1,576 votes cast. A council of twelve, including Sam Brannan, was elected. It was the sixth and final council elected within the year and the first accepted by most of the people. Its initial appropriation of city funds was to purchase the brig Euphemia and turn it into a city jail—the first in San Francisco.

San Franciscans had thus far limited their popular assemblies to matters of politics, and in this they were one step behind the mining communities nearby. In them the citizens used their meetings to enforce laws as well as to make them; they were courts as well as caucuses. But the difference was one more of degree and of need than of principle.

The gold-mining settlements used popular tribunals for local justice because there was no available alternative. Though their courts were often very informal and their techniques dubious, they managed to establish reasonable order in those rough areas, and they were rarely unjust. But in San Francisco for the first four years such justice as was administered had been by the accredited officers of the law. There the punishment of crime was more dilatory and more lenient. The climate of the city under official law in 1850 was less sober and law-abiding than that of many of the mining camps under popular tribunals.

So far as formal law was concerned, men accused or arrested had to await trial at the next Court of Sessions, which met once every two months at the county seat. It was almost impossible to keep an accused man in custody when there were no jails, and witnesses had to go at their own expense to the county seats to testify. Smooth and sometimes corrupt lawyers could find technicalities to secure one or more postponements of the trial, and postponements almost always meant that the accused would be discharged.