The San Francisco Vigilance Committee

THE association of citizens known as the vigilance, committee, which was organized in San Francisco on the 15th of May, 1856, has had such an influence on the growth and prosperity of that city that now, at the end of twenty-one years, a true account of the origin and subsequent action of that association will be read with interest.

For some time the corruption in the courts of law, the insecurity of the ballot-box at elections, and the infamous character of many of the public officials had been the subject of complaint, not only in San Francisco, but throughout the State of California.

It was evident to the honest and respectable citizens of San Francisco that if the vote by ballot was no longer to he an indication of the will of the people, and if the trial by jury was not to be a protection to the individual, it would become the duty of the people to protect themselves by reforming the courts of law, and by taking the ballot-box from tlie bands of greedy and unprincipled politicians. In such cases it is easier to see the necessity than it is to provide the means of reform.

Although the vigilance committee, in the summer of 1851, had done much good, and its beneficial effects had been proved by time, yet the members of that association who were still living in San Francisco did not wish again to have recourse to so dangerous a remedy, if there were any other means of correcting the evils which had become almost insupportable.

There were two newspapers in San Francisco which represented the two parties thus opposed to each other: the people were represented by the Evening Bulletin, and the politicians by the Sunday Times. The Evening Bulletin was edited by James King, better known in San Francisco as James King of William. Mr. King had been a resident of San Francisco since the early days of gold, and had become a journalist in 1855, after going through the vicissitudes of a business life as banker, financial agent, etc. He was a man of good education, and much respected.

The editor of the Sunday Times was James P. Casey. Mr. Casey was well fitted to act as champion of the political gamblers in San Francisco, for he had spent, two years in Sing Sing prison before coming to California, and he had the reputation of being the most accomplished stuffer of ballot-boxes in the city of San Francisco.

There was war between tlie Sunday Times and the Evening Bulletin, and Casey, finding himself no match for Mr. King with the pen, had recourse to the pistol.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 14, 1856, Mr. King left his office, about five o’clock, with the intention of going home to dinner. Casey was watching for him, and as King crossed the street at the intersection of Montgomery and Washington streets, Casey confronted him, and presenting a pistol shot him in the left breast. Mr. King exclaimed, “I am shot!” and was assisted into the office of the Pacific Express Company, which was close at hand. As soon as the shot was fired, Casey ran up Washington Street to the station-house, where he delivered himself into the hands of the police. The latter, knowing that Casey could easily be taken from them if a serious attack should be made on the station-house, were anxious to remove him to the county jail on Broadway. A carriage was brought to the entrance of Dunbar’s Alley on Washington Street, and Casey came from the rear of the station-house, attended by the city marshal and followed by a party of police. The carriage moved slowly on, and Casey with his escort came after, not wishing to attract attention by entering the carriage while in view of the crowd who were collected on the scene of the affray. Their movements were observed, however, and there was a rush of people from Montgomery Street in pursuit. The officers immediately hurried Casey into the coach, which was driven at full speed through Kearney Street to Broadway. The crowd on foot were quickly outstripped, and in a few minutes Casey was inside the jail.

The numerous incidents of this eventful afternoon, the shooting of Mr. King, the flight of Casey to the station-house, and his subsequent escape, had followed each other with such rapidity that it was yet daylight when the crowd surrounded the jail. The excitement was intense. It had been rumored that a large armed force was collecting for the purpose of taking Casey from the hands of the officers; when, therefore, a party of men with muskets and bayonets made their appearance, the crowd hailed them with enthusiasm, but they proved to be volunteers coining to protect the jail, and the popular tone changed at once.

Mr. Van Ness, the mayor of the city, addressed the crowd, warning them that their conduct was illegal. He told them that no action of theirs could lead to any good, but that it might lead to occurrences which they would all regret. He also assured them that the prisoner was safe, and that justice would be done.

While this was going on in front of the jail, Mr. King was lying in the office of the express company. The wound had been examined, and it was found that the ball had entered the left breast, had passed upward underneath the clavicle, and had gone out at the back of the shoulder. The surgeons could not say whether the wound would prove fatal.

Throughout the city there was great excitement; a number of violent speeches were made in the streets, and a meeting was held in the Plaza between nine and ten o'clock, but no leaders came forward. A large concourse of people remained in the vicinity of the jail. Several volunteer companies, mounted and on foot, came on the ground prepared to stand guard for the night. The crowd gradually dispersed, and by one o’clock in the morning the streets were perfectly quiet.

During the evening some of the members of the vigilance committee of 1851 came together for the purpose of reorganizing and forming another committee. The next day (the 15th) a set of rules and regulations were drawn up, which each member was obliged to sign. The committee took spacious rooms, and all citizens of San Francisco having the welfare of the city at heart were invited to join the association. Several thousands enrolled themselves in a few days.

The governor of California at this time was Mr. J. Neely Johnson; he lived at Sacramento, the seat of government. The major-general of the second division of state militia (which included the city and county of San Francisco) was Mr. William T. Sherman, who had resigned his commission in the United States army and had become a partner in the banking house of Lucas, Turner, & Co., in San Francisco. He had accepted the appointment as major-general at the urgent request of Governor Johnson.

Governor Johnson left Sacramento as soon as he heard of the shooting of Mr. King, and arrived in San Francisco on Thursday evening (the 15th); he was received at the wharf by General Sherman and one or two friends. They went first to a hotel, where they discussed the existing state of affairs, and then to the place where the vigilance committee were in session. The governor sent a message to the president of the committee, Mr. William T. Coleman, requesting an interview. After some delay Mr. Coleman appeared. It was not easy for the leader of a vigilance committee and the chief magistrate of the State to agree, but at last they came to an understanding which was satisfactory to Governor Johnson and his friends. The next day the anti-vigilance party were very indignant with the governor for “stooping to make terms with rebels,” and the vigilance committee said Mr. Coleman had no right to make important concessions without consulting the executive committee, so that matters remained very much as they were beforehand.

General Sherman had given orders to the police to take all the muskets ot the volunteer companies from the armories and to put them in the guard-rooms of the court-house and jail. This was a most ill-advised measure and was resented by the volunteers, who secured such arms and ammunition as they could, and then disbanding they joined the vigilance committee. The sheriff, finding himself left without assistance, issued a call for aid, addressed to all citizens of San Francisco. To this call nearly one hundred persons responded; they went with the sheriff to the jail, and were supplied by him with arms and ammunition taken from the armories.

Saturday (the 17th) was a very quiet day. Mr. King’s wound was said to be, not necessarily fatal. The vigilance committee had received many new members, but the selected few of the executive committee alone knew what course would be taken.

The members of the vigilance committee were divided into companies of one hundred, each company having a captain. Early on Sunday (the 18th) orders were sent to the different captains to appear with their companies ready for duty at the head-quarters of the committee, in Sacramento Street, at nine o’clock. When all the companies had arrived, they were formed into one body, in all about two thousand men. Sixty picked men were selected as a guard for the executive committee. At half-past eleven the whole force moved in the direction of the jail. A large number of spectators had collected, but there was no confusion, no noise. They marched through the city to Broadway, and there formed in the open space before the jail. After the different companies had been placed in the positions assigned to them, the houses opposite the jail were searched for men and arms secreted there, the committee wishing to prevent any chance of a collision which might lead to bloodshed. A cannon was then brought forward and placed in front of the jail, the muzzle pointed at the door. The executive committee were standing near the jail with their guard. Three of this committee ascended the steps of the jail, and addressing the sheriff through the wicket told him they had come for James Casey. The sheriff went to Casey’s cell and told him the vigilance committee had come for him, and that he had not force enough to resist them. At first Casey refused to be taken away, but the president of the committee having promised him that he should be treated with kindness and should have a fair trial, he consented, and was taken to a carriage in front of the jail.

Charles Cora was at this time confined in the jail on a charge of murder. Cora had killed Mr. Richardson, the United States marshal, outlie 7th of November, 1855. He bad been tried once, but the jury disagreed, and he was now waiting a second trial. The committee requested the sheriff to deliver Cora into their hands. He refused, and they gave him an hour to think of it. In the mean time Casey was taken to the rooms of the committee, and after much delay Cora was given up and was removed to Sacramento Street. Casey and Cora were placed in comfortable rooms prepared for them in the committee building, and the important work of the day being finished the members who were under arms were permitted to go, a sufficient guard being retained for the protection of the building.

The condition of Mr. King had been favorable, and there were hopes of his recovery until Monday night, when he began to sink rapidly, and on Tuesday, the 20th of May, he died. The announcement of his death produced a profound sensation in San Francisco, and every one wished to know what the committee would do.

Thursday the 22d was appointed as the day for the funeral of Mr. King. The committee had intended to execute Casey and Cora on Friday, both men having been tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. But information had been received of an intended attack upon the committee rooms during the funeral of Mr. King, when it was supposed that many of the members would he absent and the building would be only partially guarded. Orders were given, therefore, for full attendance on Thursday. The committee came together in the morning, nearly three thousand strong. The streets in the vicinity of the building were cleared, and a strong guard was placed to protect all approaches to the rooms.

Preparations had been made for hanging the prisoners from the front of the building on Sacramento Street. Casey and Cora were Catholics, and were attended by the Reverend Father Gallagher, a most worthy and excellent man. Shortly after one o’clock the prisoners came upon the platform, and were told that if they wished to make any statements time would be given them. Casey was very much agitated, and spoke for some time, exclaiming that he was not a murderer. Cora, on the contrary, was perfectly calm and did not utter a word, merely shaking his head when asked if he wished to say anything. After Casey stopped speaking, Father Gallagher said a few words to the prisoners, the fatal signal was given, and the two men died with scarcely a struggle.

This very decided action on the part of the committee quite disconcerted their opponents. The executive committee finding that the power they held was perfectly under control, and that there was no danger of any popular excesses, determined to continue their work and rid the country of the gang of ruffians which had for so long a time managed elections in San Francisco and its vicinity. These men were all well known, and were ordered to leave San Francisco. Many went away. Those who refused to go were arrested and taken to the rooms of the committee, where they were confined until opportunities offered for shipping them out, of the country.

General Sherman has given his recollections of the vigilance committee of 1856 in a letter addressed to Judge Stephen J. Field of the supreme court at Washington, and published in the Overland Monthly of February, 1874. He says: “ Everybody supposed that when this funeral was over [that is, the funeral of Mr. King] the matter was at an end; but to our surprise the vigilance committee maintained its organization, erected a silly fort in front of their rooms, kept a sentinel on the top of their buildings, and undertook the great of reforming things generally. They notified a good many people, to leave the country, and used force, when necessary, to give effect to their decrees. The same influence began to work inside their organization which perverts and poisons all our political organizations. While the better elements of society were at work intent, on their own personal affairs, the idle and vagabond sought the power in existence for an easy support, and through the vigilance committee they became what our ward politicians are at all times. Even Sydney convicts became judges and constables.”1

That a graduate of West Point should sneer at a party of merchants trying to make efficient troops out of a few thousand men who were almost entirely ignorant of military discipline is as natural as that a well-educated merchant should smile at the blunders of a retired captain of artillery who was trying to Carry on an extensive banking business. General Sherman was no banker, but simply from the payment of his household bills or the settlement of his mess accounts he should have learned enough of the value of money to know that men of business, who had leagued together for the avowed purpose of driving the idle and the vicious from their midst, would not keep up at a great expense an establishment like the committee rooms as a lounging place for political vagabonds. Nor, when they had bound themselves by oath to risk their lives and fortunes in endeavoring to purify the courts of law and in checking the corruption of the police, would they deliberately appoint, Sydney convicts to be their judges and constables.

Toward the end of May, Governor Johnson, who had returned to Sacramento, appealed to General Sherman for advice and assistance in putting a stop to the vigilance committee. At this time General Wool was in command of the United States troops, and Commodore Farragut had charge of the navy yard. Both were stationed at Benicia. General Sherman met the governor by appointment at Benicia, and on the 31st of May they applied to Commodore Farragut for a vessel of war to be anchored off San Francisco. The commodore refused, because the orders of the navy forbade his using a national vessel in any local trouble. They also applied to General Wool for arms and ammunition from the United States arsenal. General Sherman describes his visit to Benicia, and says that General Wool promised to supply arms and ammunition should they be required after Governor Johnson had endeavored to induce the vigilance committee to disband. General Wool denied having made any such promise, and said that he could not lend property of the United States without orders from Washington.

When Governor Johnson returned to Sacramento, a writ was issued, at his request, by Judge Terry of the supreme court, commanding the sheriff of San Francisco to bring before him one William Mulligan, who was then in the hands of the vigilance committee. This writ was presented at the committee rooms, but the deputy-sheriff who tried to serve it was refused admittance. Such a refusal had been expected, and Governor Johnson sent an order to General Sherman to call upon the militia and volunteer companies of his division to assist in enforcing the laws. On the 3d of June, the governor issued a proclamation declaring the city of San Francisco in a state of insurrection. On the 5th of June, General Sherman issued a general order to those subject to military duty, calling on them to enroll themselves according to law, and promising to provide them with arms and ammunition. He shortly afterward went to Benicia to see General Wool about the supply of arms, etc. General Wool handed him a sealed letter. “ It was inconclusive. He did not therein, in terms, deny having made the promise; but he referred to some old law and army regulation forbidding the issue of government arms to citizens without the orders of the war department. After this interview I returned to Governor Johnson’s room, and gave it as my opinion that it would be useless to attempt to move General Wool from his resolve not to help us with arms. I sat down, wrote my resignation, which he accepted, and he immediately appointed to my place Volney E. Howard, then present.”2

General Howard went on with the enrollment of militia, already begun by General Sherman, and obtained a number of recruits, who were drilled in the different armories in San Francisco.

It was well known that Governor Johnson and his friends at Sacramento were trying to remedy the refusal of General Wool by obtaining a supply of arms and ammunition elsewhere. About the middle of June, the vigilance committee received notice that a quantity of arms would be sent to San Francisco by orders of the governor and General Howard. It was supposed that these arms were on board the schooner Mariposa, and the committee sent a small vessel in charge of a member named Durkee, with instructions to seize the arms if possible. On the night of June 20th, Mr. Durkee overhauled the Mariposa, and removed all the arms and ammunition to his own vessel. The Mariposa was in charge of a man named Reuben Maloney, who bad with him some men to work the vessel. As Durkee had no instructions concerning prisoners, he allowed Maloney and his men to go their way, and in a few hours both vessels were at the wharf in San Francisco.

When the executive committee came together on Saturday morning (June 21st) and heard what had happened during the night, they decided to have Maloney up for examination, as they wished to know who had employed him to bring these weapons to San Francisco. One of the vigilance police, named Sterling A. Hopkins, was sent to look for Maloney. He was at the office of Dr. Richard Ashe, the United States navy agent. Hopkins, with two others of the committee, went to the office at about three o’clock in the afternoon, and there they met not only Dr. Ashe and Maloney, but Judge Terry and several of his friends.

When Hopkins announced his intention to arrest Maloney, Dr. Ashe said he would not permit him to take Maloney from the room, and Judge Terry said he would uot allow any arrest to be made in his presence. Hopkins, who was determined to make the arrest, went away to obtain more force. As soon as he left the room, Judge Terry and the others, taking such weapons as they could find, left the house with the intention of conducting Maloney for safekeeping to an armory at the corner of Dupont and Jackson streets. As they went up Jackson Street, they were followed by Hopkins and his party. Dr. Ashe and Judge Terry, who brought up the rear, leveled their muskets and bade the vigilance men keep back. Hopkins sprang forward to seize Terry’s musket. Terry had his finger on the trigger, when another vigilance man caught his hand. Terry immediately dropped the musket, and drawing a large knife he stabbed Hopkins in the neck. They all then ran to the armory, where they were admitted.

Hopkins was carried into the Pennsylvania engine house close by, and a physician was sent for, who pronounced the wound dangerous.

News of the affray was at once carried to the committee rooms. The signal for a general meeting under arms was sounded, and in a short time fifteen hundred men were reported readv for duty. In an hour four thousand men were under arms and prepared to act against, the so-called law-and-order party, who were collected in force at the different armories.

These armories were surrounded ; sentries were placed around the building where Judge Terry and his friends had taken refuge, with orders to let no one in or out until the will of the executive committee could be ascertained. In a short time two members of the executive committee came to the door and officially demanded the persons of Judge Terry and of Reuben Maloney. Carriages were brought, and Terry. Ashe, and Maloney were taken to the committee rooms, after which all the arms and ammunition were carried to Sacramento Street. The other armories were treated in the same manner.

In this way was settled the question of power between the vigilance committee, who wished to restore order and were working to establish an honest judiciary and a pure ballot, and their opponents, the law-and-order party, who wished to uphold the dignity of the law by means of a butcher’s knife in the bands of a judge of the supreme court.

Although the committee were masters in San Francisco, their position was made more precarious by the very fact of their having disarmed their opponents. The attention of the whole Union was attracted to the state of tilings in California, and it was rumored that instruetions had been sent from Washington to all the United States vessels in the Pacific to proceed at once to San Francisco; and that orders were on the way, placing the United States military force in California at the disposal of Governor Johnson.

The committee went on steadily with their work, of which it is not necessary to give a detailed account. All the important changes which they had undertaken had been carried out successfully, and they would gladly have given up the responsibility they had assumed had it not been for the case of Judge Terry.

Hopkins, the man who had been stabbed, remained in a very critical condition, and until he was out of danger they could not release Terry.

It was a most perplexing position. Should Hopkins die, it would be impossible for the committee to avoid hanging Judge Terry. If Hopkins recovered and Terry were released, no one could say what he would do in revenge; and to retain him in custody would be a sufficient excuse for his friend Governor Johnson to bombard the city.

At last the physicians announced that Hopkins was out of danger, and on the 7th of August Judge Terry was released. He returned immediately to Sacramento, but did not resume his seat on the supreme bench until after the vigilance committee had disbanded.

Having got rid of Judge Terry, the committee prepared to bring their labors to a close, and on the 18th of August the whole association, numbering over five thousand men, after marching through the principal streets of San Francisco, returned to their head-quarters in Sacramento Street, where after delivering up their arms they were relieved from further duty. This parade was spoken of by the opponents of the committee as “ insolent display,” “ foolish braggadocio,” " defiance of the existing authorities,” etc., but in reality it was merely an act of precaution on the part of the committee for their future protection. The men who took the arms from the schooner Mariposa were under heavy bail, waiting their trial for piracy: and who could tell what other arrests would be made, or what suits might be brought?

The committee as a body had undoubtedly acted contrary to law, and could be legally proved guilty of grave offenses. Of course, five thousand men could not be arrested and tried for these offenses; but the executive committee were men of mark and well known in San Francisco, and any one of them was liable to arrest and trial for false imprisonment, and even murder, unless it could be shown that the responsibility for his acts would be assumed by five thousand men ready and able to protect him.

This was considered to be a formal disbanding of the association. On the 18th of May, Casey and Cora were taken from the county jail, and for three months the members of the committee of vigilance had held themselves in readiness to come together at a moment’s warning, at any hour of the day or night, and obey the orders of the little band of resolute men whom they had selected as their leaders.

In the following November there was an election of city and county officers. Everything went off very quietly. A “ people’s ticket,” bearing the names of thoroughly trustworthy citizens, irrespective of party, was elected by a large majority, and for the last twenty years San Francisco has bad the reputation of being one of the best-governed cities in the United States.

Among other benefits derived from the action of the vigilance committee was the settlement of the title to real estate in the city and county of San Francisco. Suits had been brought before the United States land commissioners to prove the validity of two Mexican grants, one of which was in favor of José Limantour, and the other in favor of a person named Santillan. These two grants covered the whole city of San Francisco, except such portion as was built on made land along the water front; so that Limantour, for instance, could claim one half of a large warehouse, while the other half would belong to the owner who had filled in and built upon a water lot. The Limantour claim was confirmed by the land commissioners in February, 1856, and the Santillan claim was still under examination, when, early in May, the owners of real estate in San Francisco were startled by a statement made by Mr. Alfred A. Green, to the effect that he was in possession of original Mexican title-deeds which would prove the distinct secularization and establishment of the present site of San Francisco as a pueblo or incorporated town. If these papers were genuine, then the claims of Liimantour and Santillan were fraudulent. A public meeting was held, and a committee was appointed to examine the papers and report as to their genuineness and actual value. The committee reported that, the papers were undoubtedly genuine and were of great importance, because, in connection with other documents already known, the boundaries of San Francisco could be established beyond a doubt. When Mr. Green was asked to name a price for these papers, he demanded fifty thousand dollars, which was considered exorbitant. While the subject was still under discussion, there came the murder of Mr. King and the action of the vigilance committee. In the course of their investigations the committee had reason to think that these papers had not come into Green’s hands in a legitimate manner, but had been obtained either by force or fraud from one Tiburcio Vasquez, who had been an official of the pueblo in former times. Mr. Green and his two brothers were therefore requested to appear at the committee rooms, where it was represented to them that some irregularities of theirs might get them into trouble, and that they had much better take a reasonable sum for the “pueblo papers ’’ or they might be wanted for something more disagreeable than receiving money. On the 27th of September the vigilance committee paid twelve thousand dollars for these papers, and presented them to the city, thus settling a dispute which would have led to endless litigation, and have made all titles to real estate insecure. Limantour was afterward tried for forgery and found guilty, but he forfeited his bail and left the country.

Thomas G. Cary.

  1. See Overland Monthly for February, 1874, volume xii., page 111
  2. Letter to Judge Field, in Overland Monthly