Vigilante Justice

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Sam Brannan had his way, and the alcalde issued a proclamation calling on the citizens to assemble in Portsmouth Square at three that afternoon. A large crowd appeared. The chief speech was made by Brannan, who urged organized citizen action against the Hounds. The crowd shouted its agreement; a subscription was started for the robbed and wounded citizens of the night before; and twenty-three men volunteered as special constables. Armed to the teeth, they arrested twenty Hounds that same evening and imprisoned them on the U.S.S. Warren , anchored in the bay.

At a later public meeting in the square the citizens elected Hal McAllister as associate counsel for the people to aid the mayor, and also two associate judges to sit with the alcalde on the trial of the prisoners. One of these was W. M. Gwin, soon to be a senator in Washington; the other was James C. Ward, in a few months to be a leading Vigilante. The Hounds who had been arrested were tried and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Since, however, there was no jail, they were, in accordance with precedent, set free. But they had been badly scared, and the Hounds as an organization ended forever. Acting on “strong advice,” a good number of them left San Francisco.

But the public attack on the Hounds did not end crime in San Francisco, for the most dangerous criminals were untouched by it. The professional thieves and gangsters were still at large and only temporarily quiescent. They were organizing themselves, and developing useful working relationships with congenial spirits among the police, the gamblers, and the political hangers-on. Within a few months after the Hounds had been put down crimes were more numerous and brazen than ever.

The greatest fear of the citizens was fire. The city was built almost entirely of wood; the buildings were close together; the wind was strong and frequent; the only fire protection was crude and voluntary. Small fires were routine and several large ones swept across the entire city. Some of these were certainly started for spite or by criminals to permit looting. The fear of arson reached its peak in early 1851, for during the previous eighteen months much of San Francisco had been burned to the ground four times. The efforts of the authorities to catch the perpetrators seemed futile.

But arson was only part of the greatest problem of all, and that was the large group of criminals that had settled in or near the city. They came from all over the world, for the pouches of loose gold, the easy pickings, the dark streets, the inefficient police, the saloons and gambling houses, and the constant supply of fresh victims made San Francisco the criminal’s happy hunting ground. The most numerous and vicious of these were the professional criminals who had gained entrance to San Francisco from the British penal settlements in Australia. They arrived on every ship from the antipodes, and set up their own colony at darks’ Point on the fringe of the city. Soon they had organized themselves into one of the most daring and unscrupulous gangs in all criminal history. As time went on, they accumulated friends in court: the shyster lawyers who would defend them; the policemen who would tip them off or close their eyes; the politicans who would provide indirect immunity for certain political favors in return. Some arrests were made, but the jailbirds did not stay in jail; the cases did not come to court; the judges did not convict; and some of the juries acted as though they had been packed.

The responsible citizens might call public meetings and pass “laws” requiring gambling houses to be licensed and to pay a heavy tax, but these were not enforced by the officers of government. The few reforms they attempted were spotty and sporadic and had at best very temporary results. Social laxity and minor crimes were ignored by most of the population, and there was not yet any strong and general public opinion against the political corruption on whose back crime rode. Citizens minded their own business and defined their own business narrowly. Another man’s actions and morals were his own affair so long as he kept them to himself. This was the liberty and free enterprise Californians had come so far to enjoy. Only when the full enormity of what was happening to their city dawned on them, only when their property and lives were in actual jeopardy, were many of them moved from talk to action.


It was late in the evening of February 19, 1851—almost closing time for Jansen’s clothing store. Jansen was alone. Two men entered, struck him down, and escaped with $2,000, leaving Jansen for dead. The citizens clamored for action, and two days later the sheriff arrested two men and charged them with the crime. One of them called himself Thomas Burdue, but he was believed to be a notorious ruffian named James Stuart who had recently murdered the sheriff of nearby Auburn and robbed him of $4,000. The other man said his name was Windred. Both insisted on their innocence, and Burdue denied that he was Stuart, but several men who had seen Stuart insisted that Burdue was the man. The prisoners were taken before the dazed and perhaps dying Jansen, who was found to have concussion of the brain. Jansen identified Burdue, and Windred less confidently, as his attackers.