A Committee of Vigilance

After the brutal robbery and assault on Charles Janson and the two trials that followed, it seemed that all of the outrage expressed by the good citizens of San Francisco should have served as a warning to the criminal elements that there was a line beyond which their activities would not be tolerated, but instead it had a contrary effect and made them bolder and even more defiant. Of the hundreds of men who had committed serious offenses not a single one had been executed and it still seemed that there was little likelihood that anyone would face justice. And so the unrest of the people grew. They continued to talk together calmly about the need to take some sort of effective action to remedy the situation and make their city a safer place.

San Francisco fire, May 4, 1851

Then, on May 4, 1851, the fifth great fire of San Francisco broke out exactly on the first anniversary of the second great fire. In less than ten hours eighteen blocks and two thousand buildings burned to the ground. Other fires had recently happened in Nevada City and Stockton. Threats had been made. For most in the city this was enough to convince them that the fire was a result of arson. Anger flashed as hot as the flames. Something had to be done. The people must protect themselves. The fire became the catalyst that finally united San Francisco with an iron bound will to clean out the undesirable vermin that infested the town. And so the honest, law abiding citizens agreed that their only course of action was to combine their collective power into one unique body, the first of it’s kind in the west, which would soon gain fame as the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco.

Map of the May 4, 1851 SF fire







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