Vigilante Justice


The Alta of Monday morning, June 9, reported with relief and with no apparent irony that on the previous Sunday there had been remarkable quiet and very little crime worth reporting. Yet small items elsewhere in its columns that day reported six cases of drunkenness, six of larceny, three of stabbing, one of burglary, four of assaulting officers, one of attempted robbery, and three charges of keeping disorderly houses.

During the week that followed, small groups of businessmen were meeting quietly and sounding one another out about starting a committee of vigilance. These groups were apparently separate and spontaneous, and did not merge for several days. James Neal, for example, said that on Sunday he talked with George Oakes, and that together they visited Sam Brannan. They found him with his chief clerk, A. Wardwell, and the four men decided to call together a selected group of responsible citizens. They did so, and found other minds moving along the same lines. The next day a good attendance of invited men met at noon at the California Engine House and discussed what to do.

It was late on Tuesday evening that a committee was formed, and each of its members pledged himself to protect life and property in San Francisco. Among them was R. S. Watson, the foreman of the jury that had refused to find Burdue and Windred guilty. Another was “the moderate and cautious Mr. Macondray, a prominent merchant,” who headed the volunteer police force. Another was of course Sam Brannan, who was elected president for the first month. William Coleman became a member of the Committee of Vigilance, but he did not play a leader’s role in 1851; he was not then the Lion of the Vigilantes.

These men all knew that if they were to drive crime and criminals from San Francisco they would have to act outside the law—perhaps in defiance of the officials who represented the law. They were in no mood to shrink from that and were ready to fall back on the justification of the higher laws of nature, necessity, and the American Constitution.

That was the state of affairs in San Francisco just before ten o’clock on the night of June 10, 1851.


It was a little after ten o’clock that same night, an unusually fine summer night for San Francisco. The citizens who had that evening formed a committee of vigilance were on their way to their beds. Few reached them, for within an hour the bell of the California Engine House sounded. It tolled the slow, single strokes the Vigilantes had just agreed would be their summons to duty.

This was its first call, and only the Vigilantes knew its meaning. The members hurried to the rooms Sam Brannan had offered to the committee for its headquarters. Soon there was brought before the Vigilantes “a very large, rough, strong and vicious-looking man called Jenkins, an ex-Sydney convict.” He was, said Coleman, “well-known as a desperate character, who had evaded justice on many occasions, and whose record, easily proved, would entitle him to the severest punishment.”

Only an hour or two earlier some loungers on the Battery had seen a man coming suspiciously out of one of the warehouses on the wharf, carrying a small safe. When he knew he was noticed he hurried to the edge of the pier and dropped the safe into the bay. He was caught, and several Vigilantes, returning home after their evening meeting, came upon him with his captors before the police had appeared. They took him in charge and sent one of their members back to the firehouse to toll the bell.

Coleman’s account continues:

The Committee was organized immediately into a court, and Jenkins was tried for this act, the witnesses being in every way credible, and fresh from the scene of the offense within the past hour. He was convicted of the act, and a discussion arose as to what should be his punishment. …

On the conclusion of Jenkins’ trial on all charges against him, the vote was taken. He was found guilty, and it was determined to hang him that night. This I resisted most strenuously. I contended that it was not bold, not manly, not creditable, and the effect would be to lay at our door an undeserved imputation of cowardice—to hang him at night, in such hot haste. I proposed instead that he should be held until the next morning, and should rise with the sun, to be hung in its broad light, as the sun rose. But only a few agreed with me.

The crowd that now stood in thousands in the streets below saw silent Vigilantes come and go, and word was spread that a criminal was being tried within. Well before two in the morning the firehouse bell began to toll again. The people assumed that meant a verdict had been reached, and a grim one. They saw a clergyman taken into the building, surely for a last talk with the condemned man. Then the execution would take place shortly. …

Sam Brannan came to the window and addressed the crowd. He told them what had taken place and what the Vigilantes proposed Sam Brannan came to the window and addressed the crowd. He told them what had taken place and what the Vigilantes proposed to do. He asked the crowd if it approved. If there were any dissenting voices they were drowned out in a shout of what appeared to be unanimous approval. At two o’clock Jenkins, surrounded by Vigilantes armed and in marching order, was brought out. The crowd fell silently in behind them as they marched through the streets—Sansome, California, Montgomery, and Clay—to Portsmouth Plaza.