The Committee of Vigilance black list

After the hanging of James Casey and Charles Cora the Committee of Vigilance, recognizing that they had assumed the highest functions of the law, set about to purge it’s roles of certain less than desirable characters that had joined the organization. Each company was instructed to scour it own membership and report to the executive committee on May twenty-third. Another matter deemed fit for immediate attention was the willingness of members to listen to idle stories and thus they were told to make no arrests unless authorized by the executive committee.

Edward McGowan, wanted by the vigilantes

Edward McGowan

A black list of decidedly bad characters was assembled that featured San Francisco jailer Billy Mulligan, Bill Lewis, Dan Aldrich, John Bagley, Martin Gallagher and Yankee Sullivan. Other names were reported for investigation, but it was determined that no action be taken against anyone without two-thirds approval of members present at any vote. At the same time efforts were made to arrest Edward McGowan and Peter Wrightman as accessories to James King’s murder. There was no doubt at the time that they knew Casey intended to attack King, but no evidence has ever been produced to prove this. Still, it seems both men learned they were wanted by the committee and fled.



  1. Great research as always! Always amazed at the images you get for your posts. Very interesting to learn about the Vigilance Committee and their list of undesirables. Their symbol with the big eye in the middle is quite telling. Edward McGowan’s name and picture popped out for me as he was a historical figure in Yale, BC during the Fraser River gold rush. After reading your posts I’m not surprised he fled. It would be interesting to know if some citizens felt pressured to become a member of this group. Have you come across the name of Dr. Max Fifer? Apparently he was a member of the Vigilance Committee and later became a prominent figure in Yale as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your interest in the Fraser River rush and Ned McGowan and Dr. Fifer. The second San Francisco vigilance committee, right from its onset in 1856, was a very popular movement. There were a few good people who were against it, like William T. Sherman, but most were the crooks and politicians who were leaching off the prosperity of the city. I haven’t heard of anyone forced to join. As things began to get serious a few men wanted to leave but were told they couldn’t. The little I know of Dr. Max Fifer comes from the Wikipedia article on Ned McGowan. It seems they had a set to up along the Fraser River and Fifer later died there in ’61. Many people in San Francisco thought McGowan was an accomplice to the shooting of James King, the incident that set the vigilantes in motion, and I guess that may have prompted the gun battle.

  2. Interesting to know that no one was compelled to join. It’s good reading your posts on the Vigilance Committee as the San Francisco politics came north – there were a few squirmishes between the Vigilance group who resided in Yale and McGowan et al who were across the Fraser River at Hill’s Bar. If you’re interested you might want to check out an excellent book called McGowan’s War by Donald Hauka.

  3. To write that “efforts were made to arrest Edward McGowan” is understating things a bit! The 1856 VC owned their own schooner, which they sent as far south as Santa Barbara to try and apprehend McGowan! But he never was and eventually made his way to into San Francisco years later.

    • Yes, Paul, the exploits of Ned McGowan are truly another saga. He caused quite a stir in Canada at the Fraser River gold rush and went on from there, an interesting character to say the least. Thanks for sharing your interest.

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