The vigilantes and Governor Johnson compromise

His talk with General Sherman had evidently changed Governor Johnson’s mind from what he’d thought after his earlier talk with William Coleman. When he arrived at the committee’s headquarters with his brother, Sherman and former mayor Garrison he immediately asked Coleman what the committee planned to do and whether the matter could be settled. Coleman replied that the people were tired of having citizens shot down as well as all the other outrages committed against them and were no longer inclined to endure them. Johnson agreed with him but was of the opinion that the courts could handle things. The two district court judges, Edward Norton and John Hager, were good men and there was no need in the people rising up as a mob and interfering with the execution of the law. Coleman countered that the committee was no mob but instead a deliberative body with elected officers pledged to do their duty. Their aim was not to subvert the law but purge the community of bad men who could not otherwise be reached. The law in San Francisco had not been executed for some time and the courts, with their packed juries, had become no use, but if they were to do their duty the committee would be the first to support them. It was, however, because of the failure of the courts that the people felt a sense of duty to act for their own safety.

William Coleman, SF vigilante leader

William Coleman

While Johnson seemed to have no objection to the Committee of Vigilance, he insisted that James Casey should be left to the courts. He then made a personal pledge that there would be a speedy and fair trial, and in the event of a conviction, a quick execution. He could not consent to anyone removing Casey from the custody of the sheriff but, since the committee felt uncertainty about Casey’s safety there, he would be willing to allow several members to be admitted as an extra guard provided that they would not attempt violence or cooperate with anyone outside to take the prisoner and that if taking Casey was contemplated by the committee this guard would be withdrawn and the governor notified. This was agreed to around one-thirty that evening and by two o’clock Coleman and the ten committeemen who would serve as guards arrived at the jail with Sherman and Governor Johnson.

Historical fiction by John Rose Putnam

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