The shooting of James King – political murder disguised as a justifiable response to a personal insult – inflamed the city of San Francisco immediately. King, shot in the chest but still clinging to life was taken to his house. Meanwhile, an enormous mob gathered at the police station, and the police realized almost at once that the accused James Casey could not be kept secure. He was removed under guard to the county jail. The indignant mob was not appeased, not even when the mayor of San Francisco attempted to address the crowd, pleading for them to disperse and assuring them that the law would run its proper course and justice would be done. The crowd jeered, “What about Richardson? Where is the law in Cora’s case?” The mayor hastily retreated, as the square – already guarded by armed marshals, soon filled with armed soldiers. The angry mob dispersed, still frustrated and furious. No doubt everyone in authority in the city breathed a sigh of relief, confident that this matter would blow over. After all, they controlled the political apparatus of the city, at least one newspaper, as well as the adjudicators and enforcers of the law … little comprehending that this shooting represented the last, the very last straw.

Several days later, a small advertisement appeared on the front pages of several morning papers: “The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at number 105 ½ Sacramento Street, this day, Thursday, fifteenth instant, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the Committee of Thirteen.”

The effect on the general public was electrifying. Crowds descended on the building at the designated address – a three-story hall which had been built for the short-lived local chapter of the Know-Nothings. The Vigilance Committee of five years before, which seemed to have been an age ago, so quickly had the city grown, had been brutally efficient in sorting out the criminal gang called the “Hounds.” And now, many members of the original committee – who had whipped and housebroken the Hounds – were taking up responsibility again. The image of a ‘vigilante’ most usually implies a disorganized mob; lawless, mindlessly violent, easily steered but ultimately uncontrollable. The Vigilance Committee was something much, much worse than that.

They were organized, they were in earnest, they would not compromise … and they would not back down.

And they proved to be very, very efficient. Immediate support for the Committee was overwhelming. A dozen members of the original committee reconstituted themselves, chose a leader and an executive committee, and began enlisting members. The line to enroll in the Committee was day-long: eventually there would be 6,000 – all of them vetted and vouched for, sworn to secrecy. Two thousand of the first-enrolled were assigned to military-styled companies of a hundred. The organization had to move operations to another building – swiftly fortified and eventually called Fort Gunnybags.

Almost immediately, the established political machine – which termed itself without irony as the “Law and Order Party” – demanded that the Governor of California call out the militia against this citizens’ insurrection. The Governor came hustling from Sacramento and requested an interview with the head of the Vigilance Committee, one William Tell Coleman. Coleman was polite, but firm; insisting that the Committee proposed no insurrection against civil authority – they merely wished to see that established laws were enforced. The Governor was mollified; he would not call out the state militia – but he was not yet aware that the Committee intended to take Charles Cora and James Casey into custody, give them a fair trial and administer such punishment as would be dictated by the verdict.

Which operation was carried out, with military precision and efficiency, on the following day, which was a Sunday morning. Of course, rumors and speculation ran wild, all over town that something was about to happen at the county jail building where Casey was being held. It couldn’t be denied that the Law and Order party might have been spoiling for a fight. Spectators gathered on the rooftops, at the windows of buildings around the square, and on every eminence which offered a view. Their patience was rewarded: a column of marching men – in civilian clothes, but carrying rifles with fixed bayonets appeared at the end of a street which emptied into the square – then another column, from another converging street. Then a third column, joined by a fourth: they marched into the square and took their places in regular ranks four-deep all around the square.  An observer, a Southerner remarked to a friend, “When you see those damned psalm-singing Yankees turn out of their churches, shoulder their guns and march away of a Sunday, you may know that hell is going to crack shortly.”

But there was more. The silent ranks of men stood, waiting … waiting for a command which came presently. From out of a side street came a body of sixty men – drawing a field gun by means of a long rope. The cannon was wheeled into the middle of the square, aimed at the front door of the jail. Slowly and deliberately, it was charged with powder and shot, while another man lit a slow-burning match and stood at attention. And there they all waited silently … until a Vigilante on horseback rode into the square, and up to the door of the jail. He leaned down, rapped on the door with the butt of his riding whip and passed a note to someone within the jail … Silence descended on the square, on the men standing at attention by the cannon, on those in ranks around the edge of the square, and watching from rooftop and window. An eerie silence, broken only by the sound of carriage wheels.

(To be continued, yet again. It’s an exciting story, isn’t it? And I’m not making anything up.)

03. February 2012 · Comments Off on Committee of Vigilance · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

California in the Gold Rush era was by all accounts a wild and woolly place for a good few years after discovery of gold, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Until that moment in 1848 when John Marshall found gold in a mill-race under construction at Coloma, California had dreamed away the decades as first a Spanish and then a Mexican colony, remote from practically everything, lightly settled, and with a small economy based on cattle ranching – not for beef, in those days before refrigeration and the railway, but rather for their hides.  Yerba Buena, which would soon be renamed San Francisco was a sleepy little village of at most about 800 residents.

But in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, everything changed. The world rushed in, both in a matter of speaking and literally. By 1851 some estimates put 25,000 people in and around San Francisco; those seeking gold and those seeking to make a living in various ways from those seeking gold. For a few mad months and years, even otherwise respectable and responsible citizens were more interested in gold than in attending to civic affairs. This was not at first much of a problem. Most gold-seekers, or Argonauts  as they were called, were basically inclined to be law-abiding – even in the absence of heavy law-enforcing authorities.

But there was a minority amongst them who were not so inclined. In the absence of  enthusiastic law enforcement, or even any law enforcement at all, they settled down to enjoy that happy (to them) situation to the fullest, forming a loosely-knit gang called the Hounds, which mainly targeted the non-Anglo, Hispanic miners and merchants, principally Mexicans and Chileans for bullying and general extortion.  When a riot by the Hounds resulted in the destruction a part of town called Chiletown on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, a coalition of businessmen headed by long-time resident Sam Brannon concluded that up with this situation they would not put. They established a tribunal to housebreak the Hounds, arresting and punishing or exiling the gang leaders. Almost as an afterthought they also established a police department, charging a recently arrived Argonaut named Malachi Fallon with establishing a police department. Fallon had some tenuous connection with police business in New York City, in that he had been a prison-keep at the Toombs. On the strength of that sketchy resume, he went to work, establishing a force of about thirty constables operating from a single flimsy building.

Thirty police officers pitted against a shifting population of over 25,000 did about what could have been expected; at best, well-intentioned but ineffectual. Given that most of those 25,000 were young males, from a hundred different nations, hungry for adventure, riches and strong drink, touchy about personal honor and mostly well-armed – Malachi Fallon’s little band would have had as much luck emptying the Bay with a teacup as they did of keeping order. When crime eventually began to surge again, it was whispered that the police force was in cahoots with the criminal elements. Whether it was corruption or incompetence, the solid and law-abiding citizens were long out of patience by 1856 and not feeling inclined to debate the difference. Another committee of vigilance was formed,  and when all the shouting was done, San Francisco had a reputation for being a place where lawbreaking was not tolerated. For long, anyway. And so it was, all across the West, especially in the mining towns, in the early years,  when towns sprang up like mushrooms, practically overnight.

The people who lived in them would have law, and security of their homes, their persons and their possessions. They would demand it of the governments they instituted for themselves. And if those governments could, or would not deliver it, for whatever reason, the citizens would go and deliver it for themselves, however ham-fistedly.