Vigilantes in San Francisco

From the start San Francisco was a rough, lawless town. Gambling and prostitution flourished. With the influx of gold hungry emigrants from across the world came many with an illegal bent. Some were known as Sidney Ducks, criminals shipped to Australia from Britain who had served time in prisons down under and now were in California.

St. Francis Hotel, 1849, Harrison Eastman

From 1849-51 robbery, mugging, and murder grew unchecked. Arson fires were purposely set and during the commotion businesses and homes would be looted. The situation got so out of control by June of 1851 that 700 of the more influential citizens of town organized the Committee of Vigilance, “determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice,” as they stated in their constitution.

Vigilance Headquarters, Ft. Gunnybags

When John Jenkins stole a safe from a store on Long Wharf he was captured, tried and convicted by the committee. Jenkins was hauled to Portsmouth Square where justice was done before a crowd of 1000 onlookers. The vigilantes then launched their campaign with diligence. At least four accused murderers were lynched after quick trials, more than two-dozen others deported and many more simply sent packing with the strong threat that a dire fate could soon be theirs. A reward of $5,000 was offered for arsonists and the committee patrolled the streets at night. Crime and fires in the city declined so rapidly that the vigilantes disbanded in September.

Portsmouth Square 1851

Yet political corruption in San Francisco continued, leading to the real estate scandal of 1854 and the panic of 1855. The political machine running the city had the support of some of the worst elements in town. They stuffed ballot boxes, bribed voters, and intimidated those who wouldn’t be bought. When the editor of one San Francisco paper, James King, was murdered by a rival editor and politician, James Casey, for revealing his criminal history in New York, the dormant Committee of Vigilance swung back into action.

Casey and Cora taken by the Vigilance Committee

The politicians, police and the thugs who backed them attacked the vigilantes’ headquarters on Sacramento Street. But cannon on the roof protected the building, known as Fort Gunnybags, and the politicians were beaten off. The committeemen then freed Casey and Charles Cora, a gambler who had killed a U. S. Marshal for insulting his prostitute mistress, from the jail, tried them and then hung them both from the eaves of their headquarters. After the corruption was cleaned up the Committee of Vigilance again disbanded.

The hanging of Casey and Cora


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