The vigilantes and the death of Yankee Sullivan

The men from the black list arrested and convicted by the Committee of Vigilance were kept in small rooms on the second floor of the headquarters. They were allowed visitors but no alcohol, which had a depressing effect on some of them. Perhaps the worst of these was Yankee Sullivan, whose real name seems to have been Francis Murray but he was also known as James Sullivan. Born in Ireland he’d lived mostly in England until he’d been shipped off to Australia for larceny. He then made his way to New York where his size and strength led him into prize fighting and he picked up the nickname of Yankee Sullivan.

Bare knuckle boxer Yankee Sullivan

Yankee Sullivan

While in New York he’d also learned some of the unscrupulous methods politicians used to influence elections in that city, so, after his arrival in San Francisco, Sullivan naturally found company with the likes of Billy Mulligan and Wooley Kearney. And as a street tough individual with experience in ballot box stuffing he found immediate employment as an officer of elections assigned to the Presidio district. Here he had a major role in the election of James Casey to the office of supervisor, although Casey had not even been a candidate and had, in fact, never given a thought to the office until several days after the election.

At the execution of Casey on May 22nd, Sullivan was seen walking up and down Sacramento Street behind the lines of the vigilante military and seemingly in great alarm. After his arrest on the following Monday he grew even more frightened, feeling that he would also soon be hanged. Several people were allowed to visit him and attempted to talk him out of this notion, including a woman with a child who claimed to be his wife. But Sullivan’s fear was so great that he made a confession of his election frauds and implicated a number of others in so doing. When the committee told him he was to be banished he begged not to be sent to Australia or anywhere else with those who he had exposed who he was sure would kill him.

Yankee Sullivan Card

A Yankee Sullivan fight card

By Friday night he became more gloomy than usual, convinced he would soon be killed. On Saturday morning he asked for water and after he drank it he told the guard of a frightening dream he had where he had been tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. He even heard the guards approach as they came to lead him to the gallows. He felt the rope drawn tight around his neck and just as his body made the final drop he awoke and called out. The guard assured him the committee would not kill him but a short time later, when his cell was opened for breakfast, Yankee Sullivan lay dead on his cot, his shirtsleeve rolled up exposing a jagged wound down to the bone in his arm, a bloody table knife near him. The street tough brawler Yankee Sullivan had taken his own life.


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