Vigilante Justice


Standing alone among the saloons and gambling houses on Portsmouth Square was one small adobe house, the only relic of the original buildings of the village of Yerba Buena. From its low roof line projected a heavy wooden beam. That beam was used that night. It was never used again, for just twelve days later “Old Adobe” was demolished by San Francisco’s latest great fire. It survived just long enough to make history that night.

What happened was reported the next morning by the Alta with unusual and dramatic brevity: “The Vigilance Committee is at last formed, and in good working order. They hanged at two o’clock this morning, upon the Plaza, one Jenkins, for stealing a safe.”

But none of the morning papers printed what some claimed they heard Sam Brannan shout as Jenkins, the rope around his neck, stood beneath the projecting beam of the old adobe house:

“Every lover of liberty and good order lay hold of this rope!”


The Jenkins case was ended, but the work of the Vigilantes was not. They had organized to drive crime from San Francisco, and making an example of Jenkins alone would not accomplish that. Hanging had been a drastic penalty for theft, but there was no doubt that it had been an effective deterrent to other criminals.

The Vigilantes sought their justification and public approval by their actions. They almost immediately took steps “to prevent the further introduction of convicts from the British Penal Colonies into California.” With the apparent concurrence of federal officers, special groups of Vigilantes boarded every vessel entering the port of San Francisco from Australia and examined the papers and person of each passenger and seaman who wanted to disembark. If a man lacked the permit to land, issued by the United States consul in Sydney, he was not allowed to enter the city. Some were sent back to Australia at the expense of the committee; others were allowed to go on to some other port and take their chances there.

The Vigilantes punished men, but in one case, at least, they saved men from unjust sentences rendered by the regular courts. One night a squad of Vigilantes took into custody a man who was acting suspiciously, and on investigation he proved to be the real Stuart, the man Burdue had been thought to be. Under pressure he admitted his identity and finally confessed to the murder of the sheriff in Auburn. This proved Burdue innocent of that murder, for which the regular courts in Marysville had sentenced him to die. It also made it unlikely that either Burdue or Windred, who had escaped, had had anything to do with the attack on Jansen, for which the San Francisco courts had given them long sentences.

When Stuart realized that escape was impossible and that he was certain to be found guilty of the murder of the sheriff, he confessed to the attack on Jansen and completely exonerated Burdue and Windred. He was found guilty of the murder; the priest was sent for; the firehouse bell tolled; and then, manacled and escorted by a grim and disciplined company of Vigilantes, he was led to the wharf at the foot of Market Street, where he was swiftly hanged. Burdue was released by the authorities, and the citizens of San Francisco took up a subscription, to which Jansen contributed, “to compensate in some measure for his extreme sufferings.”

Many of the local officers of the United States Army and Navy cooperated with the committee. The mayor offered no overt interference, and sheriffs of the area exchanged information with the Vigilantes about crimes and suspects. There was no question that the Vigilantes had become the most powerful force in the city and had the support of most of the citizens.

But, under the surface, opposition fermented among politicians such as David C. Broderick, southern proslavery men such as David S. Terry, and wholly sincere legalists such as Hall McAllister, who believed that extralegal punishment of crime was as subversive as crime itself. For the moment, however, these adverse elements were submerged by the supporters of the committee.

In August a new complication arose, for a figure appeared to lead and consolidate the opposition. The committee had taken into custody Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, charged with various crimes of burglary, robbery, and arson. Each was formally tried by the committee; each confessed; and each was sentenced to be hanged. The committee had made no announcement of the date of the executions, but on August 20 it was rumored about the city that the men would be hanged the next day.

It was also generally known that a few days earlier Governor McDougal had visited the Vigilante headquarters and talked with its leaders. It was reported that he had then indicated that he would not invoke the state’s authority against the committee. Consequently there was surprise, if not consternation, when, on August 20, he issued a proclamation to the people of the County of San Francisco, directed against the Vigilance Committee. He called on all good citizens “to unite to sustain public order and tranquillity, to aid the public officers in the discharge of their duty, and by all lawful means to discountenance any and every attempt to substitute the despotic control of any self-constituted association, unknown and acting in defiance of the laws, in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.”