Vigilante Justice


Public opinion was vehement. This was the time to make an example—and make it quickly—that would discourage future crimes. Hundreds massed next day before the city offices, shouting for immediate and drastic action. At the beginning several men rushed into the courtroom and tried to make off with the prisoners, but they attempted no real force and withdrew, unsuccessful. Then handbills appeared and were distributed, urging citizens to assemble again later that day and, if necessary, to hang the two men themselves. The bills bore four names: W. H. Jones, E. A. King, J. B. Huie, and S. Brannan.

About dusk a large crowd assembled, and Mayor Geary first addressed it from the second-story balcony that overlooked the street. He urged restraint and promised that if the crowd would let the law take its proper course justice would be done. But the crowd wanted action and said so. Then Sam Brannan took the mayor’s place, and the people cheered.

“I am very much surprised,” he said, “to hear people talk about grand juries, recorders, or mayors. I’m tired of such talk. These men are murderers, and I will die or see them hung by the neck. We are the mayor and the recorder, the hangman and the law. The laws and the courts never yet hung a man in California, and every morning we are reading fresh accounts of murder and robberies.”

This drew shouts of approval, and it looked as though Brannan would have his way. If he did, there would be no restrained and just tribunal, but only an angry lynching.

At this point a tall, well-proportioned young man stepped forward, uninvited, to the railing of the balcony. Only a few knew him, but he had an imposing manner of controlled power that impressed the crowd.

William T. Coleman had been born near Cynthiana, Kentucky, twenty-five years before. After displaying remarkable enterprise and character in a variety of man-sized jobs, he managed to enter the university at St. Louis to study law. But in the attempt to combine full-time study with self-support his health broke, and he was forced to abandon formal education.

In the spring of 1849 he was strong and healthy again and organized a party to go overland to California. He started up businesses in Sutter’s Fort, Placerville, and Sacramento as contractor, builder, and supplier of goods. All were successful. Then, after a preliminary trip to San Francisco to survey possibilities there, he set up the firm of William T. Coleman and Company at the corner of Sansome and Jackson Streets. His operations were conservative, his integrity unquestioned, and his rise to prosperity steady and sure.

“We will not ,” he said, “leave it to the courts. … The people here have no confidence in your promises, and unfortunately they have no confidence in the execution of the law by its officers. Matters have gone too far! I propose that the people here present form themselves into a court, to be organized within this building immediately. That the prisoners be brought before it. That testimony be taken, counsel on each side allotted. That the trial be begun by twelve o’clock, and if the prisoners be found innocent let them be discharged, but if guilty let them be hung as high as Haman, and that before the sun goes down.”

This was different advice from that of Brannan, who had prejudged the prisoners and would “die or see them hung by the neck.” In some ten minutes Coleman had changed the atmosphere from that of a lynching bee to one of justice and responsibility. He was calling on the crowd to act like fair and reasonable men. The people liked it. They were volatile, but they recognized good leadership and shouted their agreement. Now that he had them with him, Coleman hammered home his points against mob rule.

“We don’t want a mob! We won’t have a mob! Let us organize as becomes men !—here, now, as a committee of citizens, and insist on the right.”

A committee of fourteen substantial citizens, including Coleman, was then appointed by acclamation. It recommended that the trial be conducted by and among themselves; that if the authorities should choose to assist in the business, they were welcome and invited; but if not, counsel would be assigned to the prisoners, a public prosecutor appointed by the committee, and trials immediately begun. The legal authorities declined to participate, though apparently they raised no difficulties about handing over the prisoners.

The committee empaneled a jury and appointed three judges and a judges’ clerk. As the case was heard, the crucial point proved to be the identity of Burdue. The jury deliberated at length and finaly reported nine for conviction and three for acquittal, including the foreman.

Windred and Burdue were handed back to the authorities and were soon tried again by the regular courts. Since Jansen had recovered, neither man was charged with murder, but each was found guilty of robbery and sentenced to imprisonment for fourteen years. Windred, in keeping with the best San Francisco tradition, soon escaped through the floor of his extempore jail. Burdue, now legally proved to be Stuart, was sent to Marysville to stand trial there for the murder of Sheriff Moore. He was found guilty of that murder, though still denying he was Stuart, and was sentenced to be hanged.

Those were the liveliest events of the first five months of 1851, but they were not the only ones in which the people participated directly in the attack on crime. In May a volunteer force to assist city officers to discover and apprehend criminals was organized under the leadership of Captain Macondray with the approval of the mayor and reluctant cooperation of the sheriff.