Vigilante Justice


The next morning, just before dawn, the Vigilantes were in an unusual bustle in their headquarters, preparing for the execution of the two sentenced men. Perhaps they were too busy to be on their guard; perhaps they underestimated the opposition; or perhaps, in those small hours, their leaders were absent. At any rate, for once they were taken by surprise. Sheriff John C. Hayes appeared with a deputy and a small group of police. He entered the committee headquarters without opposition and produced a warrant of habeas corpus, procured on the personal affidavit of the governor himself in behalf of Whittaker and McKenzie. The sheriff marched off with the two prisoners and put them in the city jail.

Almost immediately the bell began its slow strokes. Vigilantes in great numbers hurried to their headquarters, and the usual crowd followed and waited. But they waited in vain, for nothing happened, and after a while they dispersed, wondering. Two days passed, and the citizens wondered still more.

On Sunday morning the Reverend Mr. Williams was “engaged in devotional exercises with the prisoners, among whom were Whittaker and McKenzie.” Suddenly an armed and disciplined platoon of thirtysix Vigilantes, silent as usual, appeared at the jail. They pushed past the sheriff’s men, who offered slight, if any, resistance. The Vigilantes escorted the two prisoners into a coach that drew up before the jail and in it galloped off down Battery Street. As they did so the firehouse bell began to toll again.

People appeared like lightning as soon as they heard the bell, and those who first arrived at the jail ran after the departing carriage. It drove to the committee rooms on the Battery, and by the time the first of the crowd arrived they saw that blocks and tackle had been rigged to two beams projecting above the windows of the second floor. Within seventeen minutes from the time the prisoners had been put into the coach they were swinging from those beams, while a crowd already grown to six thousand watched in silence beneath.

That event was the last major action of the Vigilance Committee of 1851. It had hanged four men, excluded a number from admission to the port, banished a few, and warned many others. Crime had declined so rapidly that for a few months, at least, San Francisco was a city of normal order and safety. The “Sydney coves” were not in evidence. On September 16 the committee announced that it would suspend further action indefinitely. Its rooms on Battery Street were vacated, and smaller new rooms, “open at all times, day and night, to its members,” were taken on Sacramento Street. Like most reform movements, it subsided almost as rapidly as it had begun, and left the opposition—the criminals and corruptors, who never slumber—covertly to regain their strength.


Like the Vigilantes, the people of San Francisco returned with enthusiasm to their normal activities of private pleasure and private gain, of municipal growth and municipal indifference. Within the next four years the overgrown and unruly frontier town became a city with outward stability and some pretensions to crude luxury.

The town was still a Mecca for the easy-money men. The still raw metropolis offered politicians and grafters a fine field for developing the more sophisticated devices of corruption they had learned elsewhere. A new kind of crime was developing, less noticeable because more subtle than that of the earlier Gold Rush ruffians. The new way was not to flout the law openly but to evade or bribe it. Corruption became deeply ingrained in the life of the city. The grafters rivaled the thieves; the corrupt politicians replaced the incendiaries; the prosperous gamblers outlived the drunken brawlers.

In late 1852 immigration slackened and prices fell a little, though not enough to trouble most San Franciscans. Business optimism was not damped, and men went on with their speculations. But by 1854 the overexpansion of earlier years and the long chances the merchants and bankers had taken began to come home to roost in the forms of unsold goods, bad debts, and bankruptcies. Thirty per cent of the space in the warehouses of the city suddenly stood empty.

Three hundred out of some thousand substantial businesses in the city failed, and the next year another 197 firms became insolvent. Several local banking houses went under. Down with one of them went an honest and popular young man, who had been an active Vigilante, named James King of William. Municipal finances, which had been increasingly shaky for several years, also reached the critical stage. In his public message on March 12, 1855, the mayor revealed that the city deficit for the past year alone had been $840,000. Before 1855 had ended, the city had repudiated some $737,000 of its obligations. The public was restive, nervous, and resentful.

A criminal class cannot thrive in a community where public officers are honest and efficient, where police and courts enforce the laws, and where the people do not tolerate corruption. But the criminals were making out better than the honest men in the political atmosphere of San Francisco. A machine modeled on Tammany Hall controlled the city government and was also at war with another machine, dominated by a few men of southern origin, for control of state offices and federal patronage.

James King of William was a curious kind of man to find in the San Francisco of the 1850’s. He had come there seeking not gold, but health. He brought with him the values of a cultivated Eastern background and refused to discard them. He cared more for justice than for power, for public virtue than for his own welfare.