San Francisco reacts to rampant crime

Something had to be done to stop crime in San Francisco. Those who lived outside the law did so without fear of punishment and the situation was getting worse. Some people proposed a committee of vigilance while others cried out for a volunteer police force, but nothing was done. Pubic indignation had not yet reached the critical level needed for meaningful change to come about. Then an event that would become a major catalyst for reform occurred in February 1851 when a man came into Charles Janson’s store on Montgomery near Washington and asked about blankets. Then another man entered looking for canvas. While Janson was busy with the first man the second one slipped up behind him and clubbed him with a slung shot, a heavy weight attached to a line used in sailing ships to toss that line from one place to another. The two robbers then helped themselves to all the money they could lay their hands on, two thousand dollars, and fled.

Montgomery St. SF 1851

The boldness of the robbery, the daring of the robbers and the violence of their attack caused a great uproar among all who carried the interest of their community to heart. The next morning a man was arrested for the crime. He was identified as James Stuart, who had been arrested of the murder of Sheriff Moore of Auburn but had escaped from the Sacramento jail two months earlier. Stuart denied robbing Janson as well as killing the sheriff and gave his name as Thomas Burdue, but people who knew him were easily able to identify him through scars and marks on his face and ears. When Janson had recovered sufficiently from his wounds he was able to name Stuart and a second man, Joseph Windred, as the men who robbed him.


John W. Geary, 1st Mayor of San Francisco

Three days later, during an examination of the prisoners at city hall, then located at Kearny and Pacific, a huge crowd of at least five thousand people gathered in the streets outside. It was not a mob and there was no disorder, but the anger was growing. Some advocated violence, others passed out handbills calling attention to the long list of recent crimes and the apparent indifference of city management to them. The law was something the crooks merely scoffed at. There seemed to be no other course than Lynch law. A few hot heads managed to rush into the courtroom but Mayor John Geary had anticipated trouble and stationed a troop of soldiers, known as the Washington Guards, nearby. They quickly cleared the room and escorted the prisoners back to jail. Outside the speeches went on. Then, near evening, a committee of fourteen men was formed to consult with the authorities and prevent the escape of Stuart and Windred. This incident was not over, not by a long shot.



  1. Fascinating, the way people will tolerate crime until an event triggers an explosion of thinking that was there all the time. I’m looking forward to the next installment, John!

    • It is fascinating, Carol. San Francisco grew so fast, from a tiny village of a few hundred in 1848 to the major American port for the gold rush in 1851. Crooks are drawn to gold. I think it was much easier for them than for the good guys. No doubt things were out of control.

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