The execution of John Jenkins

Just one day after the formation of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance a man burglarized a store on the Commercial Street wharf and a small safe was taken. He was seen lugging a heavy sack down the street and pursued. He managed to jump into a boat but a dozen other boats set out after him and he was soon caught, but not before he tossed the sack overboard. Unfortunately for him the sack was found and hauled out of the water. Inside was the safe. He was taken to the committee room at Bush and Sansome Streets and the alarm was sounded on the bell of the Monumental Engine Company. Even though it was ten o’clock at night it only took a few minutes for eighty committeemen to show up while a large, raucous crowd gathered outside.

San Francisco harbor 1851

The committee set right to work and by midnight John Jenkins had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The bell was tolled again to announce the verdict and at one o’clock Sam Brannan addressed the crowd. He told them what had happened inside and that Jenkins would be hanged within the hour at Portsmouth Square. He then asked if there were any objections. A loud shout of approval came from those gathered, though it was noted that there were a few who voiced their opposition.

Samuel Brannan

At two o’clock a large, well-armed block of committeemen issued from the committee room with a well trussed Jenkins in their center and headed directly for the square. A rope was secured from the gable at the southern end of the old Mexican customs house, the noose slipped around Jenkins neck and before he ever had a chance to offer a protest a number of strong men pulled him aloft, strangling him. The body was left suspended for several hours and many of the committeemen took turns holding the rope. Although it was now very late in the night there were several thousand onlookers gathered around. The city authorities also watched from the sidelines but had been ordered not to interfere.

The execution of John Jenkins

The next day a coroner’s inquest was held. Their object was to assign blame to the committee for Jenkins death, and so at the end of the proceedings nine men, including Captain Edgar Wakeman and Sam Brannan, were named as members of the committee and responsible for the execution, while a number of other men were said to have assisted them. The committee was livid and the following day, in direct defiance of the coroner’s jury, a list of one hundred and eighty members’ names was published with a statement that all had been equally involved in Jenkins trial and death and all were equally responsible.



  1. Justice was swift but not always sure. I know it took a lot to create a society, but sometimes wonder at the cost. Fascinating post. Thanks

    • But what cost would there have been to do nothing? Already San Francisco had suffered 6 major fires that burned huge areas of the city and all in only a year and a half. Most were suspected as having been purposely set. During each fire robbery and burglary were rampant. Crime was out of control even more so than it is today. And like today the authorities did little. So what would have been the cost, Doris, if the people hadn’t acted? I’d say catastrophic.

  2. I agree, just I wonder how many were ‘convicted’ unjustly. Perhaps my background in criminology is what brings the cost to mind. The justice system can be a burden sometimes, but it is the best we have. I think back then, that was the system they had and it worked, but…

  3. Unfortunately it is still happening, at least while I was working in the system. So sad that it hasn’t changed that much. (Maybe I should write a book…smile)

  4. Sorry John, I was talking about buying your way out of trouble. The system today is so weighed down, that plea bargains and good lawyers will get you 0 time for your crime.

    • Now I see it, and the way it’s handled today is more legal than the out and out bribery of earlier days but it’s still not right. We have too many crooks. It’s that simple.

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