San Francisco, 1851, a den of thieves

By the spring of 1851 the situation in San Francisco had become intolerable. The blackguards were on the rise. Crimes from pick pocketing to murder were common and there were so many emboldened desperadoes that no man was secure either in his property or his life. Thefts, robberies, burglaries, arson and assassinations were daily events and happened more and more often. And the arrival of every ship from across the sea and each steamboat or express shipment that came down from the mines only increased the harvest of ill gotten gains for the scoundrels whose ranks reached from the petty thief to the highest officials. Politicians sought office just so that they might profit from the power of their position, while others attached themselves to their coattails in order to line their own pockets. But the great majority of riff-raff sought only the spoils of low lived plunder and the pleasures these spoils could buy.

The San Francisco Hounds

While it was well known that the purpose of these miscreants was to rob and steal, it began to be widely believed that in order to facilitate and at the same time distract from their nefarious deeds these men were responsible for setting some of the great fires that reduced large chunks of the city to ashes. Below Clark’s Point, near the lower ends of Pacific and Broadway Streets, was an area known as Sydneytown. Here thieves and ruffians from all over the world, but particularly from the British Penal Institutions in Australia’s New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land, congregated. Full of cheap saloons and dance halls, infamous for scenes of lewdness, drunkenness and strife, it was from here that bands of plunderers known as Sydney Ducks would issue forth when the great fires took place and grab whatever valuables they could before they fled back to their dens of inequity.

Sydney Ducks

Some of their number had even been seen attempting to start fires in various places, but any attempt to interfere with them would be met with a pistol or a knife. When, in those rare cases where one of these crooks was actually brought to trial, conviction was nearly impossible. With corrupt judges, dishonest jurors, legal technicalities, perjury and suppression of the evidence convictions were rare. There was no fear whatsoever among those with money or influence that they would ever be found guilty. Offenders came to regard criminal prosecution as a dull, dreary farce though perfectly harmless, and thought of the courts as their protection against private vengeance. Something had to be done.



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