Vigilante address to San Francisco

The address, directed to the people of California, stated that the Committee of Vigilance, while acting on the will of the vast majority of the people, desired to define the necessities that had forced them to organize. Great public emergencies demanded prompt, vigorous remedies. The people, long suffering under a despotism that had invaded their liberty, squandered their property, usurped their offices of trust, endangered their lives, prevented the expression of their will through their vote and corrupted the channels of justice, had now arisen by virtue of their inherent right and power. All political, religious and sectional differences had given way to a thorough and fundamental reform of the social and political body. The voice of the people demanded union and organization to make the laws effective and to regain the rights of free speech, free vote and public safety.

A burning ship in San Francisco, 1853

A burning ship in San Francisco harbor

For years the populace had tried in a peaceful manner to reform the abuses that made San Francisco infamous.  Fraud and violence foiled every effort and the laws people looked to for protection had been distorted to shield the vile and the criminal and then used as a powerful engine to control the community by tyranny and misrule. The tyranny and misrule, long regarded as a safe and sure remedy, had been nullified by votes cast at midnight or with false counts by judges and inspectors at noon, so that few doubted their government corrupt. Organized gangs of thugs parceled out political offices among themselves or sold them to the highest bidders who they provided with the tools to obey their will. Bullies and prizefighters stuffed ballot boxes with false votes, destroyed election tallies and prevented citizens from ascertaining the true number of votes polled.

San Francisco in 1855

San Francisco 1855

Felons and criminals from other countries and states controlled public money and lands and quickly amassed huge fortunes without ever doing an honest days work. The fair inheritance of a great city had thus been embezzled and squandered. The streets and wharves were in ruins and an enormous debt now saddled yet another generation with sorrow and poverty. Juries had been tampered with and trials used to shield the murderers and bullies who had cemented this tyranny by forcing the silence of an indignant free press and the shuddering rebuke of outraged citizens. To the shame of San Francisco corrupt men in public office, as well as gamblers, shoulder strikers and other henchmen of nefarious leaders, beat, maimed and shot down with impunity good, peaceful and unoffending citizens who sought to awaken an investigation to thwart this public plunder through honest and legal reform.



  1. As you said on Facebook, John, this truly resembles our current situation. History does repeat itself, perhaps because people don’t change as a rule. Thank you for writing about this piece of history.


    • The story of what happened in San Francisco has a number of scary elements to it. The idea of buying elected offices, no matter what the pundits say, is still in vogue. Whatever happened to Obama’s senate seat anyway? And that is only one small part of the story. I just hope we can work our way out of our problems. The solution the vigilantes offer at the end was interesting too. Elect honest men, it’s that simple. I hope that part of history does repeat.

  2. Here’s a short clip from the judge’s admonition to the three bad guys that were convicted for murdering five men in 1863:
    The more things change, the more they stay the same, it would appear.
    A few years since you left your homes all respectable, all with useful and honorable occupations, all with high hopes and all the objects of love of relatives and friends. You have more than ordinary energy and intelligence and might have made useful and influential men in your day and generation, been respected and upheld by all good citizens. How different is the picture you present today. You are degraded and abandoned outcasts, universally regarded as the implacable enemies of humanity

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