There were two major vigilante groups that operated in San Francisco, California one occurring in 1851 and the other in 1856, both of which arose during the California 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.”
1851 Vigilantes – California’s Gold Rush transformed the small Spanish settlement of San Francisco into a boomtown 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 mayhem taking place on what began to be called the “Barbary Coast,” 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.
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 committee.
1856 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 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 belonged 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 made signed by the “Committee of Thirteen,” the same title under which the Vigilance Committee of 1851 was disbanded.
Weary of the corruption, the response was immediate and the 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.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.