A fifth fire leads to the vigilantes

Almost all of San Francisco had been destroyed in the fire of May 4, 1851, yet the people of the town still had heart. The city was located on a beautiful bay and the enormous yield of the gold mines still flowed into the port on that bay. Nothing could hold back their rebuilding. The preparations for new buildings, many much more substantial than before, were started at once and soon a new San Francisco rose from the ashes. Building materials were brought in from across the world, granite from the east coast, lava rock from the Sandwich Islands and brick from the Atlantic states, Australia and England.

May 4, 1851 great fire in San Francisco

Charles J. Brenham

While this activity was going on people began to talk about their losses and the fires that caused them. Again the rumors of arson surfaced. Some said the large criminal element in the city had threatened to start this fire on the anniversary of the second fire on May 4 1850. While there was no proof that this was true, the obvious coincidence of the dates coupled with the great losses enflamed the mind of the public, and many believed the rumors to be true.

Col. Jonathan Stevenson

It was reported that one man, accused of arson, was beaten to death while the fire was burning. And when, on June 3rd, Benjamin Lewis was called before the City Magistrate on an arson charge a crowd of three to four thousand people massed outside. Loud cries of “lynch the villain” and “hang the fire-raising wretch” were heard, Colonel Jonathan Stevenson encouraged the unrest while Charles Brenham, the new Mayor, tried to calm things.

Alta California Building 1851

The crowd called for Sam Brannan, the publisher of the Alta newspaper, who came forward and proposed that the prisoner be given to what he termed as a volunteer police force of citizens. The issue was immediately put to a vote and unanimously accepted by the crowd. But when Lewis was looked for it was found the regular police had removed him and no one could, or would, tell where he had gone. A few days later, on June 9th, the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, the vigilantes, was organized and the action of the authorities spiriting Lewis away had as much to do with it as any other incident.


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