Vigilantes - Page 3
Francisco Vigilantes - There were two major
vigilante groups that operated in
Francisco, one occurring in
1851 and the other in 1856, both of which arose during the
Gold Rush in response to avid crime, government corruption and
prejudice against the immigrants. These two militia style groups
lynched 12 people, kidnapped hundreds of others, and forced several
elected officials to resign. Each Committee of Vigilance formally
relinquished power after it decided the city had been "cleaned up."
California's Gold Rush transformed the small Spanish settlement of
San Francisco into a boom town as thousands of men flocked to
California to make their fortunes. The town grew from just about 800
residents in 1848 to nearly 25,00 in 1851, bringing with it murderers,
swindlers, thieves, sporting girls and carpetbagger politicians.
When the young city was incapable of handling
the disorder and mahem taking place on what began to be called the
San Francisco merchants established the "Committee of
Vigilance" in 1851. Meeting in secret, the 700 member group drew up
bylaws and soon announced that
San Francisco's elected government was
incapable of protecting the life and property of the city's citizens and
claimed that role for itself.
Francisco Wharves. This image available for photographic
The committee, believing that Australian
immigrants were responsible for much of the city's crime, immediately
began to prevent them from landing in
San Francisco and deporting more
than two dozen others. Their justice was swift and certain, hanging four
men accused of murder. Word of their deeds of lynching and excommunicating
criminals spread fast and
San Francisco's crime rate declined rapidly.
Their unprecedented success made them heroes throughout the west, spawning
vigilante groups in numerous other locations. Their mission
complete, the first organized group of
San Francisco was formally
disbanded by the end of 1852 and law enforcement returned to the elected
authorities, all of which just happened to be former members of the
Vigilantes - In 1856,
San Francisco was entirely under the control
of its famous Vigilance Committee, a determined band of citizens that held
the city under firm rule. At the time that the Vigilance Committee was
formed, the conditions of the city's outgrowth had caused caused
widespread municipal corruption by a gang of organized political
plunderers. Operating in their own individual best interests, the city
government held control of
San Francisco at the expense of the honest and
respectable citizens of the city.
For years, some of the worst elements of
San Francisco had held control of the political machine, stuffing ballot
boxes, bribing voters, intimidating those that couldn't be paid off, and
electing their own judges. Going to any and every extreme to hold their
offices, the politicians were raping the city, taking home bucket loads of
money and enjoying their power.
However, on May 14, 1856, James King, the
editor of the Bulletin newspaper, who had persistently exposed the
misdeeds of the political powers, was murdered by a low life politician
and known ballot-box stuffer named James Casey. Trusting that the
political machine would take care of him, Casey surrendered himself,
partly for protection from King's friends.
Word of King's murder spread quickly and determined citizens were
ready to end the political corruption at any cost. Soon, a citizens
delegate approached William T. Coleman, who had belong to the Vigilance
Committee of 1851, asking him to form another vigilante group to take measures against the politicians. At
first, Coleman was reluctant but was soon convinced there was no
alternative. A call for arms was soon soon made signed by the "Committee
of Thirteen," the same title under which the Vigilance Committee of 1851
Weary of the corruption, response was
immediate and organization of a new vigilante group was rapid. Charles Doane, an experienced soldier
was given charge of the military details and soon took over a commercial
warehouse which he converted as an armory and drill hall. Sacramento
Street, it was popularly named Fort Gunnybags, was complete with cannons
mounted behind its walls and served as the vigilante group's headquarters.
The politicians were obviously dismayed at the
suddenness of the groups preparation. Resisting, they immediately
gathered up the police and a number of hoodlum constituents and began to
attack the vigilantes' headquarters. However, their efforts were
faint-hearted in the face of the determined attitude of the vigilantes.
The politicians then appealed to Governor J.
Neely Johnson, but when he failed to intervene, they requested help from
the federal forces, who also failed to assist.
The Sunday following King's murder, the well
armed Vigilance Committee overpowered the guards at the jail and removed
Casey and another prisoner named Charles Cora, returning them to the
warehouse. There, they were given a fair trial, found guilty, and
were publicly executed.
Though the political machine was
thoroughly cowed, the Committee continued its efforts to purify the
government by exiling politicians, criminals, and taking the reins of
government. Once the corrupted officials were replaced and their
"messes" cleaned up, the Vigilance Committee disbanded, thus ending
one of the most remarkable instances of a revolt by decent citizens
against a corrupt city government.
The exiled politicians subsequently sued Coleman for sums amounting to
a total of $1,500,000, but the suits were all defeated. Both Coleman and the Vigilance Committee were upheld by every court in both
the East and West which considered the cases.
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