February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
The Vigilantes of San Francisco have been a legend and a byword ever since the 1850’s. According to one view they represented lynch law and violence; according to another they exemplified the Anglo-Saxon tradition by which the citizens work out and enforce codes of justice, order and civic decency informally when formal procedures cease to work. Either way, their story is one of the fascinating chapters in American history.
Alan Valentine has written, in Vigilante Justice (Reynal and Company: $3.50) , an account of Vigilante days which, in his own words, “is a story of the growing pains of San Francisco.” It depicts American democracy in the raw, with men using extralegal means to work their way back to law and order after they had permitted their society to become corrupted. It indicates that the faults men find in society lie ultimately within themselves, and it shows how men may become convinced that they may short-cut government and overrule their own officials.
AMERICAN HERITAGE is privileged to present herewith a condensed version of this study of what the Vigilante movement accomplished and why it came into being.
Sam Brannan’s heels pounded brisk staccatos on the plank sidewalks that bounded San Francisco’s boglike streets. He was always brisk, and this morning the sky was bright blue and the air like wine. It was not always thus, for on many a summer morning the mists that rolled in from the Golden Gate the night before lie damp and heavy over the city until nearly noon. But on that sixteenth of July, 1849, they had burned away early, and the sun was warm on Brannan’s broad shoulders and his shock of heavy hair.
A morning like this should make a man forget his troubles, if he had any. Sam had very few, and many things to be thankful for. Business was never better; his flour mills here in the city were paying well; his store at Sutter’s Fort was grossing $150,000 a month since the Gold Rush began; his real-estate investments in Sacramento were rising in value every day. His California Star was doing well too, and it was pleasant to be an editor and have his public say on every matter. His health was good, and he had had a good breakfast.
Yet Sam had something on his mind. Things were happening in San Francisco that would trouble any honest citizen, and Sam was honest. A man could be honest and still broad-minded, and Sam was tolerant. But he was against crime, and crime in San Francisco was getting out of hand.
Ex-convicts from Australia and crooked lawyers and politicians from the East were getting more numerous and powerful every day, and they were twice as dangerous because they were beginning to work together. And now there was this gang of young hoodlums who called themselves the Hounds and were terrorizing the Chileños and Mexicans in the poorer parts of town. Something would have to be done about them and done soon. Sam was on his way to see Alcalde Leavenworth.
Sam didn’t have too high an opinion of Leavenworth, who could not seem to make up his mind what to do and kept talking about legal difficulties. Sam knew just what to do; he saw things simply and clearly, and that was one reason he had got ahead. If Leavenworth and the politicians wouldn’t clean things up, then it was a case for direct action by the people. Now he was going to be the first to tell the alcalde that if he didn’t call a public meeting to discuss the crime wave there would be trouble.
He would probably find Leavenworth in Portsmouth Square, for that was where people gathered. They called it the Plaza and had their public meetings there, as well as their biggest saloons and gambling houses.
In spite of the normal appearance of the square, Sam knew there was unrest beneath. Citizens were not going to take the events of last night lying down. The Hounds had gone too far. They had staged the worst riot yet, and not a single arrest had been made. Alcalde Leavenworth had simply lost control of the situation. It wasn’t wholly his fault, for the city had grown too fast for its primitive municipal setup. There were few deputies, and they seemed to be either incompetents or cowards or in cahoots with the toughs. There was no jail, and the judges were too slow or too scared or too easily tangled up by some smooth defense lawyer. Nobody had much respect left for the courts in San Francisco.
More and more influential citizens were agreeing with Sam that the job would have to be done by the people, legal or not. Conditions in San Francisco were beyond the control of normal law. The settlers in the mining camps had had to enforce their own law, and they had done a pretty good job of it too.
There would have to be an assembly of the citizens, right here in the square, today, or tomorrow at the latest. It would be better to have the meeting called by the alcalde, for that would make whatever happened afterward more or less legal. But if the alcalde wouldn’t call a meeting Sam would do it himself, and no matter who called it, Sam was going to make a speech. He knew just what he would say, and he was pretty sure what would happen afterward. Sam believed in the people, especially if they did what he said.
Before 1846 California was a vast, lightly settled, and loosely governed province of Mexico. In its widely separated valleys and along its mountainous seacoast there were a few ranches, trading settlements, and Catholic missions. Formal government was limited and elementary, and often the only official over a wide area was the alcalde, whose appointment was made or ratified by the remote government in Mexico City.
Americans had always vaguely coveted California, and enough had settled there to justify the maintenance of an American consul at Monterey. When the United States went to war with Mexico an American attempt to take over the great Mexican territory of California was attractive to expansionists and defensible as military strategy. Timing operations to the advices of Consul Larkin at Monterey, General Frémont scampered belligerently about central California with a handful of troops, and then Commodore Sloat put his Navy ship into Monterey Bay and declared all California to belong to the United States. After a few relatively bloodless marches and encounters, virtually all resistance ended.
In 1847 General Stephen Kearny was put in charge of the territory of California by the United States government, but his instructions stated that the federal Constitution had not been extended over the people of California, since Congress had taken no action. It had taken no action because federal legislation on California would have raised the question of free or slave territory in a Congress already close to disruption. So General Kearny announced that until changes could be made the existing laws would remain in effect, provided they harmonized with the American Constitution. Since few knew or could find out just what the existing laws were, it was not easy to determine their harmony. The alcaldes had governed chiefly by ear, with little reference to statutory law or record books, and their American successors were even more at sea. Mexican laws were not available in printed form, and working summaries of United States laws were equally unobtainable.
It was not only the problem of determining what the laws were, and whether a man had broken them, but of what to do with him if he had. Police were at first nonexistent, sheriffs few and far between, and justices of the peace might arrest a man but could not sentence him. There were no jails into which an accused man could be securely put.
The Americans resented any form of government that was not their own, and especially one as highly centralized and remotely controlled as the California military government. They wanted no ordering about by anybody. In 1849 the Californian voiced the general complaint against “military despotism” and also, paradoxically, against the inefficiency of the military government. And still the federal government failed to act. General Richard B. Mason, who had replaced General Kearny as governor, was distressed. As late as August 19, 1849, he reported to the attorney general in Washington: “For the past two years no civil government has existed here, save that controlled by the senior military or naval officer; and no civil officers exist in the country save the alcaldes appointed or confirmed by myself.”
But when Governor Mason tried to strengthen civil government by appointing local alcaldes, the Californian said that if communities could not elect their own alcaldes, then government by alcaldes would be worse than direct martial law. And when the governor issued a call for a state constitutional convention, the American citizens promptly questioned the right of the governor to do so. They wanted a convention, but not one called by the military authorities. Mason and his lieutenants must have thought these civilian Californians hard to please.
After vigorous assertions of their rights and their independence, the citizens of San Francisco decided to accede to the governor’s call and to make California a state as quickly as possible.
When the convention ended on October 13, 1849, these men had created a state constitution and formally presented themselves for admission to the Union.
Congress finally recognized the fait accompli and admitted California as a free state. President Fillmore signed the bill on September 9, 1850, and in San Francisco the citizens celebrated their statehood in lively western style.
While San Franciscans were taking the lead in making California a state, they were also creating a city government. It took them more than a year to do it, and before they had finished, they were at odds with the governor, the alcalde, and with themselves.
The first problem was to decide who might vote, and this was not easy. A requirement of more than a few months of continuous residence would eliminate most of the people of the city. Yet it would obviously not do to let every male over twenty-one, regardless of how brief a time he had been in San Francisco and how soon he intended to depart, vote for its city council. The uncertainty of land titles made any property qualification too complicated to attempt, and the absence of personal records made the question of American birth or citizenship an uncertain one. So it was decided that any man who would affirm by oath, even if through an interpreter, that he was an American citizen and had lived six months in California and thirty days in San Francisco County, could vote unless his oath were challenged. If it was challenged, the only recourse would be to charge the man with perjury.
After these qualifications had been agreed upon there was no certainty they would be observed or enforced. Even before the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had attracted many foreigners and some professional politicians from the East, and the combination was electorally a dangerous one. A Kanaka from the Sandwich Islands might swear in a phrase of broken English taught him by a ward heeler that he had been born in New York City, and although the statement seemed implausible his sponsor stood beside him to support his oath. Then who would find it practical to raise the question of perjury and try to prove it?
It was only after the city had indulged in a veritable orgy of elections that two other major problems emerged. The first was the question of how many total votes would make an election representative and valid. If less than one-quarter of the estimated qualified voters cast ballots to elect a city council, and the election was close, could that council be accepted as the true voice of the people? The second question was the relation of an elected council to the established alcalde, who had been approved by the governor. Did the new council take over his powers and authority, or was he still the superior executive authority?
These troubles were still to come when the people of the city decided in 1848 to elect six city councilmen to hold office until their successors, chosen at some later election approved by the governor, were installed. The council was elected. A few weeks later the governor authorized the election of an official council to replace it, and on December 28, 1848, a second council was chosen and installed. But the first council declined to resign, claiming that since only 347 votes had been cast in the December election (and some of them questionable), the second council had no validity. Both councils met and tried to transact the same city business. Instead of having no municipal council, San Francisco now had two competing ones, and the previous chaos was compounded.
But that was only the beginning. The first council ordered a new election, and on January 153 third council was chosen, but by an even smaller total vote. So the citizens met once again in Portsmouth Square, demanded the resignation of all three councils, and set the date of February 21 for the election of another one, and of three justices of the peace as well. The council elected in February promptly tried to oust the alcalde, but the governor supported him, and he managed to get the original 1848 council reinstated and his own position strengthened. The city was back just where it had been the year before, and very few were happy about it.
In order to clear the air the governor named August 1 as the date for the election of a new council, but his action stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry San Franciscans. They held a mass meeting and adopted resolutions that the people had the right to organize their own city government and that the governor had no right to set an election date for them. And just to make the matter a little more complicated, the fourth council—that elected in February—re-entered the fray. It announced that it was the legally constituted body and would insist upon directing municipal affairs until deprived of its authority by the people, who had elected it.
That made municipal business more chaotic than ever, so the people elected a new council—the fifth within a year—on July 9. But only 174 citizens voted, so it was tacitly agreed that the best thing was to vote again on August 1, even though the governor had suggested it. That election took place “in a spirited though orderly manner.” There were at least ten different slates of candidates, but on all of them John W. Geary was the nominee for mayor, and he received all of the 1,576 votes cast. A council of twelve, including Sam Brannan, was elected. It was the sixth and final council elected within the year and the first accepted by most of the people. Its initial appropriation of city funds was to purchase the brig Euphemia and turn it into a city jail—the first in San Francisco.
San Franciscans had thus far limited their popular assemblies to matters of politics, and in this they were one step behind the mining communities nearby. In them the citizens used their meetings to enforce laws as well as to make them; they were courts as well as caucuses. But the difference was one more of degree and of need than of principle.
The gold-mining settlements used popular tribunals for local justice because there was no available alternative. Though their courts were often very informal and their techniques dubious, they managed to establish reasonable order in those rough areas, and they were rarely unjust. But in San Francisco for the first four years such justice as was administered had been by the accredited officers of the law. There the punishment of crime was more dilatory and more lenient. The climate of the city under official law in 1850 was less sober and law-abiding than that of many of the mining camps under popular tribunals.
So far as formal law was concerned, men accused or arrested had to await trial at the next Court of Sessions, which met once every two months at the county seat. It was almost impossible to keep an accused man in custody when there were no jails, and witnesses had to go at their own expense to the county seats to testify. Smooth and sometimes corrupt lawyers could find technicalities to secure one or more postponements of the trial, and postponements almost always meant that the accused would be discharged.
By early 1849 the press of San Francisco and the area was urging that something drastic be done. The Placer Times of May 5 attributed the rapid increase in crime to the fact that society was “held together without other law than had suggested itself in times of emergency.” The Alta of San Francisco had pointed out on January 4 the grave dangers of lynch law, which, it said, was “worthy only of barbarians.” Yet a few months later, as the crime wave mounted, the Alta was calling for direct action against crime as essential to law and order. By that time most San Franciscans apparently agreed, but the more sober of them hoped that when direct action by the people came, it could be managed with reason and restraint.
When California became United States territory in 1846, there was not even a hamlet called San Francisco. Only a village of a few frame shanties named Yerba Buena was squeezed between a cove in the bay and the sand and chaparral of the hills behind. The village was growing, but in late 1847 its population was only 439, of which eighty-three were under ten years old. When a young lieutenant in the United States Army named William Tecumseh Sherman first visited it in July of that year, he wrote that the only road was “nothing but a path from the mission into the town, deep and heavy with drift sand.”
Yerba Buena became San Francisco, but in 1848 it was still a village of some eight hundred on the edge of an “almost treeless peninsula” amid “a mountainous wilderness of low shrubbery, of drifting sand and of steep hill-slopes.” But late that year the Gold Rush began, and before the end of 1849 some forty thousand immigrants had landed at San Francisco port, and about thirty thousand more had come into the area overland. Another three or four thousand seamen deserted their ships to seek their fortunes at the mines. On July 1 there were 526 ships in the port of San Francisco, and another hundred large square-riggers elsewhere in the bay and river. Many of these craft would never leave the bay, as their crews deserted and no new hands could be secured.
By late 1849 San Francisco could boast of more saloons than permanent dwellings, and every saloon with any pretensions was also a gambling establishment. The most prosperous of these were the center of the town’s social life, open twenty-four hours a day. Professional gamblers paid high rents just to place their tables in the big saloons. The best hotel in the city was the Palmer House, but its function as a place to sleep was incidental. Bayard Taylor, the poet and journalist from the East, who was there at the time, wrote that it rented for $110,000 a year, of which amount the gamblers paid $60,000 for their first-floor establishments.
Everyone gambled and, at that time, gambled in public. Judges and clergymen placed their bets at the same tables with gold miners, ranchers, crooks, and ex-convicts. Men fresh from the gold fields would place their entire pannings on a single turn of the wheel or pack of cards. The spirit of the gaming tables carried over into most of the city’s business houses, where all but a few would risk their entire capital on some extravagant venture.
As for the strips of land between the rows of buildings, to call them streets was to flatter them. Even the hog-wallow that was Pennsylvania Avenue in the early days of the national capital was a fine solid surface compared to the main streets of San Francisco in 1849. In dry weather they were rough and dirty stretches of loose sand and dried mud, but during the long rainy season they were bottomless sloughs. There were no streetlights, gutters, or sewers, and men carried lanterns as well as pistols at night.
The expanding population created a shortage of every kind of goods, most of which had to come by ship around Cape Horn. As prosperity grew, luxury goods, especially of the flashy kind, were in demand at exorbitant prices, which went on mounting as millions of dollars’ worth of pure gold poured into the city every month. Miners who had come into the city to celebrate their winnings did not quibble over prices; “men talked of dollars as others talked of dimes.” Fifty cents was the minimum tip, and a good mechanic made not less than thirty dollars a day. A private box at the theater cost fifty dollars; a good meal was five dollars; cheap boots cost thirty dollars, and good ones a hundred dollars.
And now, to add to these troubles and extravagances, a gang of young ruffians was making itself a serious menace. Citizens began to barricade their doors and windows at night, to stay off the streets after dark, and to hope that theirs would not be the house or office or outbuilding to be entered or set on fire that night.
It was through that varied collection of people, and in the tense atmosphere of that garish town, that Sam Brannan picked his way that bright July day, the morning after the Hounds’ worst riot, looking for the alcalde.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
A curious name, too, James King of William. It was like him to have taken it and to have kept it when it was no longer needed. Back in Georgetown, that then sleepy annex of a muddy Washington, he had grown up with another James King, and to prevent confusion he added his father’s name, William, to his own. Through his San Francisco days he kept the unique title, and wore it into history.
He was dark and handsome, and vivid is the word that describes him best, but he was never very lucky. He had started off in Washington with the banking firm of Riggs and Corcoran, and he was doing well until his health broke and he had to go off to find a better climate. He tried Chile and Peru, but ended up in San Francisco in 1849.
He wasn’t strong enough to work in the gold camps, so he set up a banking house of his own in the city. From the beginning the nicest people in town took to him and his pretty young wife and small children. But just as things were going really well at last, his luck broke again. He had merged his bank with another, and without his suspecting it his partners carried on some very shady deals. In 1855 it all came out, and his bank failed. So did he.
King had to do something to earn money. His friends told him that he ought to start a newspaper of his own. Sam Brannan’s old Star had faded out; the Herald was the mouthpiece of the political crowd; and even the Alta wasn’t as lively as it had been in 1851. Friends loaned him money to get started, and on October 8, 1855, King put out the first issue of his Daily Evening Bulletin . It was really a one-man paper; he wrote most of it himself and kept the accounts and helped set the type too.
Coleman had said that King was terribly in earnest, and he proved it in the Bulletin . He preached civic righteousness in short, pithy paragraphs, with plenty of personal application. Right from the start he went after the grafters and gamblers and crooked politicians harder than anybody had ever done. He somehow got wind of most of the crooked deals that were going on and came right out with them in print. He never let up for a single day, and he wasn’t afraid to name names. People began to buy his paper just to see what new revelations he had to make and what new names he would call the gangsters or the sheriff. It wasn’t long before the circulation of the Bulletin was the biggest in town.
They say that some of the proprietors of the big gambling houses offered him big payments if he would ease off on his attacks, but he turned them down and then got after them twice as hard. His friends began to worry about what might happen to him, but nothing they could say would make him stop. He was just thirty-three then, and perhaps like most young men he couldn’t believe that anything could really happen to him.
Less than six weeks after the first issue of King’s Bulletin a United States marshal was shot and killed by a prosperous San Francisco gambler, who called himself Charles Cora. Cora was a notorious figure, in every way made to order for the part of villain. He was young, swarthy, debonair, and immaculately, though flashily, dressed. He had won and bought his way into social acceptance in the more flexible elements of society, including some of the officers of law and government. He had as his mistress one of the handsomest young women in town.
Immediately after shooting the marshal, Cora hurried to the jail, where he had friends. He was taken into protective custody to save him from the crowd that promptly gathered outside and shouted, “Lynch him!” The guard was doubled.
That night, for the first time in more than three years, the people of the city heard the bell on the California Engine House toll the same slow, single strokes that had called the 1851 Vigilantes to duty. The people welcomed the sound, but they shuddered too as they thought of what it might mean. But when, next morning, nothing had happened, most of them were disappointed too.
The bell had indeed been a call to the remaining members of the old Committee of Vigilance. Many of them had answered the call, Sam Brannan among them. Some wanted to act immediately; others urged restraint or delay. The law, they said, must be given a chance to “redeem itself.” Vigilantes would be justified in taking action into their own hands only after it had been clearly demonstrated to the people that the legal authorities were not going to convict Cora. This time the cooler heads won the day. It was agreed to take no present action, but to watch the situation.
But James King of William was not controlled by any Vigilante caucus, and his paper was his own. Singlehanded, he moved immediately to the attack. The Bulletin of November 19 reported the murder of Marshal Richardson and editorialized strongly on the need to punish Cora and other agents of corruption. King wrote that “the excitement on Saturday night was intense, and strongly reminded us of the old Vigilance Committee times. … It [the Vigilance Committee] was a fearful responsibility, and one we do not wish to see resorted to if it can be avoided.” On November 20 he made the first recorded public suggestion that perhaps there would have to be a new committee of vigilance.
King then shifted his attack from the gamblers and criminals to the municipal officers that failed to curb them. That same day the coroner’s jury pronounced that the murder had been premeditated and had no mitigating circumstances, and King wrote in the Bulletin:
And the more we hear of the character of the present Sheriff, the stronger grows the belief that if this Cora escapes justice at all, it will be the fault of the Sheriff and his deputies. … That no effort will be spared to get Cora clear begins now to be apparent. His friends are already at work. Forty thousand dollars, it is said, have been subscribed for that purpose. Of this some $5,000 will be sufficient to cover lawyer’s fees and court charges, and the balance can be used as occasion may require. … Look well to the jury! … What we propose is this: If the jury which tries Cora is packed, either HANG THE SHERIFF or drive him out of town.
Meanwhile Belle, Cora’s beautiful mistress and the queen of the underworld, hired able and expensive lawyers to defend her man. One of them, Colonel E. D. Baker, a man of good repute, tried to withdraw when he realized the strength of popular feeling against Cora, but he had accepted a large retainer from Belle, and she held him to his word. Reluctantly he did his best and was eloquent and effective in Cora’s defense. Cora appeared before the court in “a gorgeous waistcoat, light gloves, a new pale suit and a jaunty overcoat,” and lolled with insolent indifference as the trial went on. After twenty-four hours the jury failed to agree.
The old year yielded to the new. Cora remained in the custody of the sheriff, further legal action seemed indefinitely postponed, citizens continued to talk much but do nothing, and King continued to attack crime. Winter gave way to spring, and it was on May 14 that what seemed like a relatively tame specimen of King’s verbal thrusts created the climax. On that day King published an editorial that seemed mild compared to some previous ones. It attacked the appointment of one Bagley to a position in the customs house. Bagley was a minor satellite of the dominant political machine, but, in one of those internal dissensions which occur in even the best-regulated political gangs, he had been involved in a gun fight with Supervisor James P. Casey.
Casey was credited with having invented “the double-improved-back-action ballot box,” in which false ballots could be hidden in advance and then counted with the others. There was no question that the box existed and that it had been used in elections, notably including the one that made Casey supervisor.
King referred in his newspaper to the fact that Casey had once been an inmate of Sing Sing prison, and to “the fact of having stuffed himself through the ballot box.” But those facts, King went on, offered “no justification why he [Bagley] should shoot Mr. Casey, no matter how richly the latter may deserve to have his neck stretched for his frauds on the people.”
Shortly after this editorial appeared Casey strode into the office of the Bulletin , where King sat at his desk. Casey protested vigorously against what King had written and demanded a public apology. King showed him the door. As Casey left he was heard by others to say in a loud voice, “If necessary, I shall defend myself.” Neither King nor the others present could have been under any illusion as to what Casey meant, and King’s staff urged him not to leave the office alone, but when King set off for home that evening he was unaccompanied. He did put a small pistol in his breast pocket, but over it he wore a short buttoned cloak. It would not be easy to draw quickly if he should need to.
If that May evening was like many another in San Francisco, gray fingers of mist had groped their way through the gaps in the mountain rampart against the sea and then with swift stealth had blotted out the bright sun from Pacific Heights down to the Marina. The wind had died; the mist emphasized both sound and silence, and men walked the streets in blind isolation. In the breathy stillness figures loomed up suddenly and were gone. The atmosphere seemed furtive; the solitary pedestrian felt deserted yet observed.
It was through such a gray foreboding that James King of William would have begun his walk home that night alone.
He was crossing Montgomery Street diagonally between Washington and Clay. Part way home and all was well! No untoward meeting, no alarming sound of whispers, no stealthy shuffles that might mean ambush. … One could not see much, but there, across the street, was looming out a shape. … It was only an express wagon, and empty. James King of William must have breathed a little sigh of relief.
James Casey stepped out from behind the wagon, just in front of Phil’s Oyster Saloon. Casey looked excited; he was breathing hard. He threw back his cloak, and there beneath it was his hand, pointing a large navy revolver at King’s chest.
There was no time for anything, not even for King to draw. What Casey said, so rapidly and excitedly that the words ran together, was heard by other men than King and reported later. “Are you armed? Defend yourself! Come on! Defend yourself!”
But there was no time for King to draw, for as Casey said the first phrase, he fired and fled into the mist. King was hit. He staggered into the express office; it was their wagon behind which Casey had hid. There was little the men there could do for him but to try to make him comfortable on the floor, send for a doctor, give the alarm, and try to understand the few words that King could whisper as he lay there, mortally wounded. No need to guess the killer; everyone knew what had happened.
Others down the street said Casey’s shot had been simultaneous with his words. They had seen only a little, but enough to recognize another figure that, right after the shot, scuttled up Washington Street on the heels of Casey. It was his close friend, Ned McGowan—not a savory character, but with friends in court.
Casey went with McGowan directly to the station house and gave himself up. He knew that was the safest place for him. He had friends there, and more and closer friends soon joined him. They all felt confident that this affair would pass off like many another shooting. Even Cora, who had openly shot a United States marshal six months before, had not yet been convicted and was not likely to be, and Casey had more influence in the right places than Cora.
King had made himself a people’s hero, and now Casey had made him a people’s martyr. In an incredibly short time an angry mass of citizens was milling outside the station house door, demanding that Casey—and Cora too—be lynched immediately. Some of the crowd even tried to break into the station house, but the sheriff’s men easily stopped that, and in a pinch Casey had his friends around him, well armed and ready. …
But things kept getting hotter. James King of William’s brother was out there with the crowd. Now he was addressing them, his face streaming with tears, half in sorrow and half in wrath. The crowd knew who he was and cheered him. He demanded justice—instant justice—for his brother. Sheriff Scannell was getting nervous; better leave the crowd here and hole up in the county jail on Broadway near DuPont Street. Cora was there, and the crowd had not even tried to get him out of so secure a place.
Casey was smuggled out into a carriage with the city marshal and several police officers, and the carriage dashed off to the county jail. The crowd saw it go, and followed. The coach went faster, and when the people got there they found three of Casey’s friends—including Ned McGowan—close together just outside the big door, their guns drawn. But the crowd remained and would not go. Now young King was haranguing it again, urging it to attack the jail now, to get Casey and finish him off.
The sheriff was trying to recruit reinforcements. He sent out calls for the volunteer deputies, the local companies that called themselves “Law and Order.” Mayor Van Ness had by this time learned what was going on, and he supported the sheriff’s call. Only a few Law and Order men came—not more than twenty-six out of several companies. Even some of them hoped Casey would be hanged, though they were prepared to defend him against a lynching mob.
Word went around that the Vigilantes were assembling. There was a cheer, and a good many of the people moved over to Portsmouth Square, where the Vigilantes were thought to be meeting, to find out what they planned to do.
Nearly all the best people,” admitted William T. Sherman, who opposed it, “favored the idea of a Vigilance Committee.”
While the crowd was milling about the jail those “best people” were meeting. Some of them wanted to act that night. Others wanted to do whatever would keep the crowd from attacking the jail and trying to lynch Casey without any kind of trial. But everyone agreed that three things were facts: Casey must be brought to prompt justice and must not meanwhile be allowed to escape; he was not likely to be brought to justice by Sheriff Scannell; and the Vigilantes must organize immediately.
In the group that met that night were some men from the southern states, who had been leaders in the voluntary Law and Order companies. They had not observed the summons from Sheriff Scannell to report for duty at the jail, for the Cora and Casey business was more than they could stomach. They would join the Vigilance Committee in increasing numbers, even though it meant leaving their political affiliations and associating with northerners, mercantile shopkeepers, artisans, and anti-slavery men.
No president was elected that night, and it was decided to take no action until things had cooled off a little and to try to discourage the citizens from taking direct action themselves. A membership roster was drawn up, and each man, as he signed it, swore to mete out true justice and to stand by all the rest.
What had become of Coleman? He had only recently returned from New York, where he had married Carrie Page of Boston and set up an eastern office of his firm. He had hoped to bring his bride back with him to San Francisco, but she was not well enough, so he had come back alone, intending to return for her in a month or two. He had been out of touch with affairs in the city, but in his short span with the 1851 committee he had become a recognized leader and had at times been its presiding officer. Men respected his coolness and his judgment. He had opposed then, and could be counted on to oppose now, the emotional extremism of men like Sam Brannan.
When morning came, the Bulletin appeared with its editorial column, King’s personal precinct, dramatically blank. The top of the chief news column was almost as impressive in its brevity: “Mr. King has been disabled … from acting as editor of this paper. … Members of the Vigilance Committee met together and consulted on the best mode to be adopted, but no definite arrangements have been made.”
That evening Coleman was told that there was to be another meeting and that he must be there. He went and found a large number of men, the meeting already organized and discussion going on. “I remained in the background, listened attentively to all that was said, thought seriously of the business, and was asked to speak.” He was urged to reconsider his refusal to head the new committee and was swayed by the argument that if he would “start the thing” others would then take over. Finally he agreed, and the next morning a notice appeared in the Alta and the Herald .
The Committee of Vigilance. The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at 105½ Sacramento this day, Thursday, 15, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the Committee of Thirteen.
Long before nine o’clock the next morning the old Know-Nothing Hall on Sacramento Street was filled to capacity.
Coleman addressed the meeting. He said he would take charge if he were left free to choose the first council of the committee himself. This was agreed. He then asked those present to vacate the hall and said, “In a short time the books will be ready for enrollment.”
Coleman insisted that the organization must be “very close, very guarded. We must be very careful whom we admit.” That was his reason for adjourning the meeting. He wanted to check over the bona fides of every man already sworn to membership and to go equally thoroughly into the records and loyalties of each of the hundreds of new applicants. He wrote out a new and drastic oath of fealty to the committee, first took it himself, and then personally swore in all over again each of the trusted dozen he had kept with him on adjourning the meeting. This was the original “Committee of Thirteen.”
Some applicants were rejected. Every man who was accepted was sworn in individually. Each new member then signed the book and was allotted his number. Enrollment went on all day, and the committee had to move to the Turnverein Hall, which was larger. Some thirty-five hundred men were enrolled within two days, and later estimates of the total membership ran as high as eight thousand.
At eight o’clock on May 15 Coleman addressed the entire membership. He said that armed companies of one hundred each would be formed immediately under a Vigilante named Doane as chief marshal, and that each company would elect its own officers, subject to executive approval.
Coleman then reported that the committee had secured several thousand muskets, with bayonets. (These came from George Law, who had bought them for a filibustering expedition that had not come off. Later the committee would add to its arsenal more than twenty cannon, given, lent, or sold by sympathetic masters of ships in the bay.) Everything proceeded in a quiet and orderly way, and some two thousand men were organized into sixteen companies, officers selected, and drill, with muskets, promptly begun under Chief Marshal Doane. Many other men waited for assignment to duty or for acceptance into membership.
Night was close to morning, and Coleman and his lieutenants were still hard at work in the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee. They had been at it almost continuously since the morning after King was shot, and in that time they had accomplished near miracles. They had organized a committee, established adequate headquarters, closely checked and sworn in some thirty-five hundred volunteers, created an armed force of over two thousand men, staffed it, drilled it, and provided it with excellent muskets and some cannon, and, somehow, found funds to finance all this. Nothing on such a scale had been attempted by the 1851 committee. They had every right to be exhausted.
But there was still much to do, and none of it could wait. There were questions of the committee’s relations to the people of the city, for upon the clear support of the majority of the citizens rested the moral justification of the Vigilantes.
There were questions of politics and security. The committee must be certain whom it could count upon, who were its open enemies and how great was their power, and who were its smiling secret underminers. One false step, one misplaced trust, one serious leak of Vigilante plans, and the committee would be finished.
There were questions, too, of strategy and tactics. If, as the people obviously expected, Casey and Cora were to be tried by the committee, its first step was to secure the persons of the two murderers. That could not be done by guile, for the sheriff and his supporters were forewarned and alert. If it must be done by force, that meant an open attack on constituted authority—civil war in San Francisco.
And what of the powers above and beyond Sheriff Scannell? The governor was not a man of strong character, but he could be very stubborn. And then there was the question of the attitude of the federal government, not only in faraway Washington, but nearby in the Navy ships in the bay and in the person of Captain David G. Farragut, the ranking commandant at Mare Island; and, nearby too, in the person of General J. E. Wool, the senior Army officer, not many miles away at the arsenal at Benicia. Nor could the Vigilantes ignore the newly appointed major general in command of the state militia—that West Pointer and San Francisco banker, William Tecumseh Sherman. Many of the Vigilantes knew him quite well, but although he was a good man, he was prickly, and a firm supporter of law and order.
That future hero of the Civil War had resigned his military commission in 1853 and settled in San Francisco as partner of a St. Louis banking firm. Tall, erect, red-haired, with an alert mind but a nervous and somewhat querulous temperament, Sherman was in a complicated position. Nearly all the leading businessmen and bankers in the city were members of the Vigilance Committee, and Sherman was eager, for business reasons, to be in their good graces. He was as concerned about the local crime wave and the corrupt politics as most men, and he had a profound respect for William Coleman and others of the Vigilantes.
But Sherman’s West Point training inclined him to support the letter of the law at possible expense to its reasonable application. He was a cautious man, but his acceptance of the governor’s appointment to head the militia, only a few days before, had committed him to support the governor, whatever position he might take.
At two o’clock that morning Governor Neely Johnson appeared at the headquarters and asked to see the president of the Vigilantes. Coleman left his executive committee in session and went to meet the governor. Afterward, Coleman said the governor had agreed that the Vigilantes should proceed with their efforts to suppress crime.
But still later that night the governor returned. This time he had with him Sherman and several of his strongest political supporters. The governor’s attitude was completely changed. He was blustering and belligerent. He intimated that unless the committee would promise to leave the matter entirely to the regular officials and courts, it would be necessary to call out all the forces at his command.
From that point Coleman’s version was corroborated by the other Vigilantes present. He said to the governor, “Let us understand each other clearly. As I understand your proposal, it is that if we make no move, you guarantee no escape, an immediate trial, and instant execution?”
The Governor: “Yes.”
Coleman: “We doubt your ability to do this, but we are willing to meet you halfway. This is what we will promise. We will take no steps without first giving you notice. But in return, we insist that men of our own selection shall be added to the sheriff’s force within the jail.”
The Vigilantes said that the governor accepted this agreement and left. On the matter of the jail guard there was no further controversy. Sherman corroborated that understanding and accompanied the guard of ten Vigilantes to the jail, where they remained, with the very reluctant agreement of the sheriff, until the Vigilantes withdrew them for other action. But on the main points there was later emphatic disagreement as to what was understood. The next day the governor claimed that Coleman had virtually pledged that the committee would leave the Casey-Cora matter to the sheriff and courts without interference. Since in that case the Vigilantes would have small reason for existence, such a promise by Coleman seems on the face of it absurd.
If the governor thought he had the support of the citizens, or even of the militia, he soon learned different. Sherman himself wrote that the Law and Order party refused any further help to Governor Johnson because he had “stooped” to trying to make terms with the “rebels.” Sherman issued his own call to the Law and Order forces, but only a few answered, and some of the militia even left their posts at the jail to sign up with the Vigilantes. Sherman was able to form only “a company with four guns, and two or three uniformed companies of infantry whose arms were kept in the several San Francisco armories,” and he soon found that he could not count even upon these men or these arms.
Meanwhile a working party of Vigilantes brought scores of large gunny sacks filled with sand and piled them vertically against the walls of their headquarters to a height of ten feet and a thickness of eight feet so that the building was almost impregnable against small-arms attack. From that time on the offices were known as Fort Gunnybags.
Then two developments determined action. Chief Marshal Doane reported that his troops were ready for action. Word came to the committee that the governor was claiming that the Vigilantes had promised to leave Casey and Cora to the courts and that he had taken no steps to bring immediate trial. When Coleman heard these reports, he went before the committee with but four words: “The time has come.”
The next morning dawned on what Sherman remembered as an “exceedingly beautiful day.” At eight that morning every Vigilante reported for duty. Only the executive committee and the heads of the twentyfive companies knew the whole plan of action, but each company was instructed to take a certain route to an assigned spot near the jail, to leave headquarters on a stated minute, and to arrive at the destination within sixty seconds of a specified time. At eleven the troops were all standing with organized precision, and shortly, company after company, they marched by various routes. Each arrived within the specified minute. As the troops marched, the crowd followed. The twenty-five hundred armed Vigilante troops massed in company fronts along Broadway, facing the jail door, and in the cross streets nearby.
Then the ten-man guard of the Vigilantes emerged from within the prison and joined the troops outside, giving Sheriff Scannell an indication of what was coming. The sheriff had posted his 150 men at vantage points in the jail and on the roof, but the militia were not there.
“A solemnity and strictness pervaded the whole party,” wrote a priest who was present. But one could hear the immediate crowd, estimated at fifteen thousand, draw in its breath as one man when sixty Vigilantes, with precision and dispatch, dragged through the massed troop formation a large cannon and fixed it facing the large door of the jail, precisely and carefully aimed. The gunner lit his slow fuse and then waved it silently back and forth to keep it ready for the command.
At exactly one o’clock Marshal Doane rode his white horse forward to the door of the jail and rapped smartly on it with his riding whip. A little wicket in the door opened, and Doane was seen by some of the watchers to hand in a note. Then there was a brief colloquy at the door, and Doane galloped away. Three carriages appeared, driving through the pathway opened by the troops. They rolled up to the big door, and three men stepped from them. One was Coleman, one was Truett, a member of the Vigilante Executive Committee, and the third was Marshal North. They rapped on the jail door and were admitted at once.
They walked without hesitation down the corridor to Casey’s cell. When Casey saw them coming he jumped back from the door and, cowering against the opposite wall, brandished a sixteen-inch knife—an interesting possession for a prisoner in jail under charge of murder. Coleman later said, “I told him to lay it down, and looked him sharply in the eye, steadily, and he finally laid it down and crossed his hands.”
The three Vigilantes emerged with Casey. The crowd is said to have drawn in its breath for a great cheer, but Coleman raised his hand for silence, and the sounds died. Only from Telegraph Hill and remote housetops could distant cheers be heard. Coleman and Truett, with Casey between them, got into the first carriage. Casey’s hands were free, and Coleman and Truett thought him unarmed, until later they found he had another dagger hidden in his boot.
Escorted by the other two carriages, they drove briskly back to Fort Gunnybags. Then they decided to get Cora as well and send a message to the sheriff demanding him. Scannell first refused and then yielded. Cora was brought in similar style to the Vigilante headquarters, and the committee sent one more message to the sheriff—that it would leave the jail in his possession and that it would hold him responsible for the safety of the remaining prisoners and the proper discharge of his duties. Then the Vigilante troops were withdrawn from the jail.
Then, on May 20, the trials began. The accused were permitted to choose their own counsel from among the Vigilantes and chose Truett and Smedley, who defended them. At half-past one on the afternoon of the second day the court was interrupted when Marshal Doane entered, saluted Coleman, and reported that James King of William had died.
The trial continued, but as the news of King’s death spread through the city nearly every building except the gambling houses and saloons was promptly draped in black. The church and fire bells all tolled but one: the bell now on the roof of Vigilante headquarters did not ring. Its peal was still to come.
It did not come for two days after the trial began, for the committee’s court sat almost continuously through nearly forty-eight hours. This was no judicial farce of a hasty lynching mob. At last the jury found unanimously that each of the prisoners was guilty of murder, and sentenced each to be hanged at noon on May 23. Then it was learned that the funeral of King would be held on May 22, and the execution of Casey and Cora was secretly set for the same hour.
After his sentence Casey degenerated into sniveling fright. Cora bore himself better. Chastened at last, he asked to see his Belle, who had supported him throughout with unswerving loyalty, and for a priest to give him absolution. Both were brought to him by the Vigilantes. Belle asked Cora to have the priest marry them, and the priest refused Cora absolution unless he did so. A few hours before the execution, Father Maraschi married Arabella Bryan to Cora.
King’s funeral services began at noon. Little Sterling Hopkins, standing on the roof of Fort Gunnybags for a special purpose, could hear the swell of the organ from the nearby Unitarian Church on Stockton Street, and said he could even hear the drone of the sermon. No funeral services in San Francisco were ever like this. Solemnity, perhaps mixed with unconscious contrition for their past indifference to crime, gripped the people until it seemed to weigh down the very air one breathed.
The people in the Unitarian Church on Stockton Street must have noticed some surprising absences from the mourners’ benches, for leading Vigilantes were not there. Everyone knew the absences were not due to lack of Vigilante sympathy with King’s family, and they could assign only one other reason. So, as the long procession moved slowly up the hill, many of those who were following it began to trickle quietly away. Others saw them and followed. Soon a large crowd, gathering numbers as it went, was moving silently back toward Fort Gunnybags on Sacramento Street.
The first arrivals found some three thousand Vigilante troops massed in company front, forming a hollow square around a cannon, beneath the windows of their headquarters. Two platforms, each big enough for a man or two to stand on, were set in place outside the second-story windows over the street. Their outer edges were held up by a single rope fastened to the roof above, where Sterling Hopkins stood with other armed Vigilantes.
The bell of King’s funeral church had been tolling steadily, but suddenly it stopped. Then it struck again, just once. Then “every bell in town rang,” and the crowd saw Casey and Cora, accompanied by a priest, led through the windows out onto the platforms. The two nooses were adjusted. The priest said his final words and withdrew.
Cora stood as quiet and erect as a French nobleman, at the guillotine. Gambler and murderer though he was, the man had courage and dignity. Casey broke down; he was trembling and hysterical and began a long and incoherent speech. He had to be helped to stand.
Hopkins, leaning forward over the parapet above, got the signal. With one stroke he cut the rope. Both platforms dropped. James King of William was hardly in his grave before his murderer and the man whose hanging he had demanded were on their way to theirs.
The firebrand, before it was extinguished, had lit the flame of public conscience.
Governor Neely Johnson returned to Sacramento. General Sherman also retired from the immediate fray to his banking office near the Battery. Both were silent for a week, but both would be heard from again.
Even those who opposed the committee recognized its complete control of the city, and for a few days after the execution of Casey and Cora public tension relaxed. But the Vigilantes did not; they remained in active and almost continuous operation, investigating other crimes and suspected lawbreakers. The overall results were impressive. During the six months before the committee was organized there had been over a hundred murders in and near San Francisco. In the six months after May 16, there were but two.
But the committee still had its enemies in high places, and the governor had not given up. On May 31 he met with General Wool and asked him to supply Sherman, as head of the state militia, with federal arms from the United States arsenals to be used to suppress the Vigilantes. Sherman was present at the meeting and observed “4,000 muskets in Wool’s arsenal at Benicia.” The governor extracted what he thought, and Sherman later said he thought, was an implied promise from Wool to supply the requested arms. It was presumably on the strength of that assumption that on June 3 the governor issued a statement that the County of San Francisco was “in a state of insurrection,” and called upon all citizens to enlist in the militia, under General Sherman, to quell it.
The effect of the proclamation on the people of the city can be imagined. To most of them the governor’s position was little short of fantastic, but that did not make it less alarming. He represented the power and authority of the state, and all men who henceforth sided with the Vigilantes were technically traitors against it. An armed clash would endanger their homes and their lives. Under these circumstances the almost unanimous support the public gave the Vigilantes was a tribute to the strength of public convictions as well as public courage.
Sherman wrote privately to a friend:
“I did not think it necessary to declare the county in a state of insurrection. Still, that was none of my business. The publication of the proclamation and my orders [to marshal the federal arms and to organize and arm a militia] caused a tremendous excitement. Everybody supposed that civil war would forthwith be inevitable. Companies began to form, and moderate people became much alarmed as a conflict seemed to be impending. All the time, however, the Vigilance Committee were strengthening in number and material. As men were enrolling on our side pretty fast, the Governor sent by his aide-de-camp Col. Rowe to General Wool a letter requesting him to issue to me, on my requisition, such arms and munitions as I might call for. [General Wool] told Rowe that in the then state of feeling he thought it was unsafe to send arms to San Francisco. When Rowe told me this I was thunderstruck, as I could look nowhere else for arms, for the idea of enrolling the militia without arms was an absurdity.”
Governor Johnson was so angry with General Wool that he announced he would “never again recognize him as an officer or a gentleman.” The governor, Sherman went on, “is now powerless, for the militia … have deserted him en masse . … I might from sympathy have continued to aid him, but by so doing I would have driven off all our business, for so high has this feeling run that all business-men have yielded to it, and have regarded those who favored the cause of Law and Order as enemies of the people. … It is a lesson I will never forget—to mind my own business in all time to come.”
Sherman was right about the power and popular support of the Vigilantes. A great civic mass meeting voted by acclamation to “endorse the committee,” and even the churchmen recorded their approbation.
Sherman was also right that what the Vigilantes wanted was to finish the job as quickly as possible and return to their own affairs. Had they not been impeded by the governor’s crossfire, they could have disbanded sooner.
As for the military efficiency of the committee’s troops, it was probably even greater than was indicated by Sherman’s description to a friend. The Vigilantes were now so eager and disciplined that within fifteen minutes of the sounding of the firehouse bell seventenths of them, or some five thousand men, would be at headquarters ready for business. They had accumulated stores that could feed their whole army for several days, and upstairs in their “fort” were a well-appointed hospital and a completely equipped armorer’s shop. Their morale was high, and they would have fought hard against opposition from any source except one. They were loyal to the United States. If the President of the United States had opposed them, they would have been in a quandary and would probably have yielded. It is almost certain they would never have fired on federal troops. But the federal government never opposed them or declared them subversive. In fact, it supported them indirectly by inaction.
Their greatest strength with the people lay in the fact that they were demonstrably incorruptible. They could not be diverted from their self-appointed task, frightened, bribed, or tempted. They did not even give evidence of political ambitions, collectively or as individuals.
Sherman resigned as head of the state militia, and two days later General Wool flatly refused again to aid the governor against the Vigilantes. The governor’s case seemed lost. But then he tried for help from Washington. On June 19 he wrote to President Franklin Pierce, asking for federal aid against the insurrectionists. The President’s reply did not reach California until July 19, but when it came it stated the President’s refusal, on constitutional grounds. That letter arrived too late to have much bearing on events.
Long before the President’s reply was received, Judge David S. Terry, of the state supreme court, came to the aid of the governor. The judge unearthed a federal statute that could reasonably be interpreted as giving the commonwealth a right to a proportion of the federal arms stored on its soil if they were requested by the governor to deal with an emergency. Armed with that new persuader, the governor again applied to General Wool, who capitulated and agreed to allow the governor the use of some federal arms.
The governor promptly set about getting them into the hands of his own men. It is futile to speculate what would have happened had he been successful. At any rate, it was the Vigilantes who saved him from the worst fruits of his own ineptitude. They did so by seeing to it that no arms reached his weak and halfhearted militia. Their moves were so well timed and effective that it is hard to believe they were not getting covert information from sources close to the federal forces. Few sensible men, whether for or against the Vigilance Committee, wanted to see San Francisco turned into a battleground and their state a shocking example of internecine war. The leaders of the Vigilantes were successful businessmen, and businessmen, then as now, had their contacts.
On June 20, just as the steamer Bianca drew up to a wharf in San Francisco, it was boarded by a platoon of Vigilantes, who did not need to search hard to find twelve cases of rifles and six of ammunition. Resistance, if any, was minor, and the arms were soon safely stored in Fort Gunnybags.
By some coincidence, another score or so of Vigilante troops happened to go to Corte Madera and happened there to come upon the ship Mariposa . Their curiosity was too much for them, and they went aboard. Perhaps they were surprised to come upon eleven cases of muskets and three boxes of pistols. In a short time these too were added to the mounting arsenal in the Sacramento Street headquarters.
On June 21 another party of Vigilantes took to the waters of the bay and chanced to come upon the schooner Julia , which on close inspection proved to contain some 150 muskets in six cases. On that occasion a protest was registered by Mr. Rube Maloney, the leader of several men who said they represented the state. The Vigilantes brought back to Fort Gunnybags not only the muskets, but also, under protest, Mr. Maloney and two of his companions. The committee released the three men, but not the muskets.
Mr. Maloney was not averse to ardent spirits on occasion and doubtless thought them efficacious after this brief but harrowing experience. He devoted the first few hours of his regained freedom to visits to several San Francisco saloons and, fortified by their hospitality, was sufficiently restored to give voice to repeated announcements of his intention to shoot on sight Messrs. Coleman, Truett, and Durkee of the Vigilante Executive Committee. Under the circumstances, the Argus-eyed committee decided to soothe Mr. Maloney in some quiet and nonalcoholic place of its own choosing and sent Sterling Hopkins and four other Vigilantes to bring him in.
Maloney and his companions, perhaps sensing impending trouble, had made their way to the Palmer and Cook building, a refuge of what was left of the anti-Vigilante junto. There they found Judge Terry, that distinguished jurist and two-gun Texan, and with him another Texan and Law-and-Order man, Dr. Richard P. Asher. Unfortunately for all concerned, Dr. Asher held appointment as the local agent of the United States Navy.
Hopkins and his squad traced Maloney and soon appeared at the Palmer and Cook offices. When they entered and claimed Maloney, Judge Terry drew his gun on Hopkins, with words history has not seen fit to record verbatim. Hopkins returned to headquarters—without Maloney—for further instructions. He was told to return with his squad to Maloney’s retreat and there to mount guard on Maloney, but not to use force or take action, except, presumably, to prevent Maloney from making a getaway.
But Maloney and Judge Terry had decided not to stay put. Hopkins and his men arrived just in time to see them, with their friends, heading toward the armory, conspicuously in possession of knives and shotguns. Hopkins and his quartet caught up with them, and Hopkins tried to arrest Maloney. There was a considerable exchange of compliments and some pushing and shoving, which developed into a minor disorganized melee. As in most such affairs, the stories of what happened then differed widely, partly, at least, because no one knew quite what happened, or all that happened, and made up in assertion what was lacking in certainty. But it is clear that no one was physically attacked or hurt until Judge Terry suddenly stabbed Hopkins in the neck and then, with Dr. Asher and Maloney, plunged into the armory and banged shut its iron doors. One of Hopkins’ men stayed to take care of him; two mounted guard outside the armory, another hurried back to Fort Gunnybags to report.
In short order the firehouse bell was tolling. This time it was three quick taps, followed by three more. Apparently that was a special call that meant emergency, but not general assembly. But it meant excitement to the citizens, and on this occasion that was regrettable, for it magnified the incident beyond all repair. It gave no chance to let the opposition save face. But there was no help for it, and when the Vigilantes marched the crowd went with them.
They marched impressively, in silence, in military order, and with cannon and horsemen in their column. Chief Marshal Doane, once again on his white horse, knocked on the armory door and demanded “the instant surrender of these premises.” Asher was the man who replied. He said he would open the doors “on condition our safety is guaranteed.” “There are no conditions,” snapped Doane.
Soon the doors opened, and Doane and his troops marched back to their headquarters with Judge Terry, Dr. Asher, and the now sobered Maloney in their column.
Nothing more happened that day. The next morning Commander Boutwell of the Navy ship John Adams , the ranking Navy officer in the absence from the city of Captain Farragut, sent to the committee a formal inquiry as to how long it intended to hold Dr. Asher in custody. The committee replied with formal courtesy that Dr. Asher would be held only for the time necessary to secure his answers to questions regarding the knifing affair at which he had been a close witness. The committee invited Commander Boutwell or his representative to be present at that questioning, and consequently Lieutenant Hoxton of the John Adams heard the interrogation, after which Dr. Asher was immediately released.
Terry, who was now “the Committee’s White Elephant,” did not take kindly to his custody or his custodians. He made all sorts of demands and threats and was particularly downcast that so great a man as he could be in trouble merely for sticking a knife into “a damn little Yankee well-borer.” The judge became increasingly, in the words of Coleman, “an … unwelcome and undesired tenant of our quarters, thrust upon us with all the weight of his office, all the embarrassment of his care.” Everyone knew that the committee wished it had never run foul of the judge, but public resentment against him was very great, especially among the Vigilante troops. The committee was in a position in which it did not want to prosecute, but could not afford to climb down.
Terry wrote to Commander Boutwell for “the protection of the flag of my country,” and Boutwell became troublesome to the Vigilantes. He sent messages threatening to interfere unless Terry was immediately released, and Terry’s friends tried to get Boutwell to turn the guns of the John Adams on Fort Gunnybags—without, of course, damaging any nearby buildings or innocent citizens—an assignment that would have tested the marksmanship of the United States Navy. The committee replied with careful respect that it would communicate with Boutwell’s superior officer before taking a position.
Captain Farragut had already declined suggestions from the governor’s friends that he shell the town and “exterminate the insurrectionists.”
Farragut had personal friends on both sides and was held in great respect. He was deeply sympathetic with the aims of the Vigilantes, but increasingly distressed as their operations brought them more and more into conflict with established law. But whatever his personal reactions to the situation he was first of all a responsible representative of the United States government and bound to observe its established procedures.
It seemed more and more likely that Sterling Hopkins would recover. Nearly everyone on both sides hoped so, for then the committee would not have to try a justice of the supreme court for manslaughter, and Terry would be spared the possible results of such a trial. There is some evidence that the committee deliberately delayed any action on Terry until Hopkins was out of danger. The Vigilantes, who had demanded quicker action on accused men, were now delaying their own.
When it became clear that Hopkins was all too alive and that both public sentiment and the Vigilante troops would insist on a trial of Terry, the executive committee finally indicted him. The charges were resisting with violence the officers of the committee while in discharge of their duties, committing an assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and various breaches of the peace and attacks on other citizens going back as far as 1853. Coleman as president presided. The accused man was allowed his own counsel and pled not guilty. Testimony and cross-examination took about three weeks. The official Vigilante story of the results was that Terry was found guilty of resisting a committee officer and of one of the three charges arising from his earlier escapades. On the second major charge, of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, the jury debated through two nights and finally pronounced Terry “guilty of assault.”
No sentence was imposed immediately, and before any other action was taken, Judge Terry “escaped.” He fled to the John Adams and thence to Sacramento. How he could have managed without connivance to escape from so closely guarded a citadel is not clear. Some of the Vigilante guards, at least, must have closed their eyes.
One thing is clear: everyone concerned was well out of it, and the affair as a whole was a moral defeat for Judge Terry and the governor and therefore a moral victory for the committee. Terry took with him in his escape very little respect and few friendships, and even these diminished as his colorful career grew more and more tawdry. Neither he nor the governor had done anything in their struggles with the Vigilantes that had illuminated the constitutional issue or enhanced the majesty of the state.
After the Terry escapade the committee was stronger than ever and the governor weaker. The arms that General Wool had reluctantly loaned the state were in the hands of the Vigilantes, and so were those the Law-and-Order men had been holding. General Wool declined any further aid to the governor, so did Captain Farragut, and so did President Pierce. It was clear that the governor was on his way out as a figure of political influence. At last, on November 3, he revoked his insurrection proclamation of June 3. He was not re-elected.
But even while the Terry crisis was at its height, even while Commander Boutwell was threatening to fire on them, the Vigilantes were continuing with the business they had organized themselves to accomplish.
With all these alarms and efforts, the work of finding criminals and dealing with them went on. The committee executed two more murderers after thorough Vigilante trials. Joseph Hetherington, an Englishman, and Philander Brace, a desperado from New York City, each confessed to the murder of which he was accused, and each was hanged on July 29. These events passed almost without comment, for the power and rough justice of the Vigilantes were now taken for granted even by their opponents. Every day they were investigating, rounding up, and trying convicts from Australia who had illegally entered the port.
By mid-August the committee concluded that its work was accomplished, and this time with a thoroughness that should make unlikely any major recrudescence of crime—provided the citizens henceforth accepted their responsibilities at the election and primary booths, and for the general maintenance of decent social and political values and standards.
On August 18 the Vigilantes held a final parade through the streets of the city to mark the end of their activities. Immediately afterward some eight thousand citizen troops laid down their arms forever, and with them another eight thousand supporters disbanded. They went to their homes, returned to their businesses, and discarded in one stroke all the power they had won. Uncorrupted by that power, the Vigilantes ceased to exist.
Their president set them an example. Having accepted reluctantly the leadership urged upon him, this man who had wished to serve the Vigilantes as “a common soldier, a common worker” had become a marked man, not only in California but in the eyes of the watching nation. He could surely have risen to high places in California politics. He was urged to accept senatorial nomination and was later suggested by Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun and others as the man to oppose Grover Cleveland for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. He did not lift a finger to secure support for either office or for any other.
Ten days after the Committee of Vigilance had its final parade, William Coleman left San Francisco on his postponed trip to join his wife in New York.
The Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856 were engendered in crises of crime, when men’s emotions were high and they were more concerned with action than with the causes of civic corruption. But men like Coleman saw the truth: that bad crime and bad government resulted from ethical slackness and political irresponsibility on the part of San Francisco’s citizens, even of good citizens like themselves. The people of the Golden Gate were reaping in the corruptions of others what they had sown in their own past indifference.
The Vigilantes raised constitutional issues they did not solve and which remain quiescent, but unanswered, a century later. No man can solve those issues for all times and conditions. The emergency right of free men to overrule their own officers of government will always be determined by situations and not by laws. What the Vigilante movement demonstrated, not for the first time or the last, is that free men, sufficiently harassed, will claim and exert those rights and that the manner in which they do so is in great part determined by the character and quality of their leaders.
Democracy keeps its reason and its elevation only when it produces leaders who are themselves men of elevated standards. Its social system must produce such men for such emergencies. But democracy is not leadership alone; only when its citizens play their parts, constantly and consistently, in the civic duties and ethical integrity of their communities, can social corruption, political crises, and self-appointed Vigilantes be avoided. That is the lesson for which James King of William died and William Coleman lived.