The foundation of trouble in California at this time was formal legalism. Legality was made a fetish. The law was a game played by lawyers and not an attempt to get justice done. The whole of public prosecution was in the hands of one man, generally poorly paid, with equally underpaid assistants, while the defense was conducted by the ablest and most enthusiastic men procurable. It followed that convictions were very few. To lose a criminal case was considered even mildly disgraceful. It was a point of professional pride for the lawyer to get his client free, without reference to the circumstances of the time or the guilt of the accused. To fail was a mark of extreme stupidity, for the game was considered an easy and fascinating one. The whole battery of technical delays was at the command of the defendant. If a man had neither the time nor the energy for the finesse that made the interest of the game, he could always procure interminable delays during which witnesses could be scattered or else wearied to the point of non-appearance. Changes of venue to courts either prejudiced or known to be favorable to the technical interpretation of the law were very easily procured. Even of shadier expedients, such as packing juries, there was no end.
With these shadier expedients, however, your high-minded lawyer, moving in the best society, well dressed, proud, looked up to, and today possessing descendants who gaze back upon their pioneer ancestors with pride, had little directly to do. He called in as counsel other lawyers, not so high-minded, so honorable, so highly placed. These little lawyers, shoulder-strikers, bribe-givers and takers, were held in good-humored contempt by the legal lights who employed them. The actual dishonesty was diluted through so many agents that it seemed an almost pure stream of lofty integrity. Ordinary jury-packing was an easy art. Of course the sheriff’s office must connive at naming the talesmen; therefore it was necessary to elect the sheriff; consequently all the lawyers were in politics. Of course neither the lawyer nor the sheriff himself ever knew of any individual transaction! A sum of money was handed by the leading counsel to his next in command and charged off as “expense.” This fund emerged considerably diminished in the sheriff’s office as “perquisites.”
Such were the conditions in the realm of criminal law, the realm where the processes became so standardized that between 1849 and 1856 over one thousand murders had been committed and only one legal conviction had been secured! Dueling was a recognized institution, and a skillful shot could always “get” his enemy in this formal manner; but if time or skill lacked, it was still perfectly safe to shoot him down in a street brawl–provided one had money enough to employ talent for defense.
But, once in politics, the law could not stop at the sheriff’s office. It rubbed shoulders with big contracts and big financial operations of all sorts. The city was being built within a few years out of nothing by a busy, careless, and shifting population. Money was still easy, people could and did pay high taxes without a thought, for they would rather pay well to be let alone than be bothered with public affairs. Like hyenas to a kill, the public contractors gathered. Immense public works were undertaken at enormous prices. To get their deals through legally it was, of course, necessary that officials, councilmen, engineers, and others should be sympathetic. So, naturally, the big operators as well as the big lawyers had to go into politics. Legal efficiency coupled with the inefficiency of the bench, legal corruption, and the arrogance of personal favor, dissolved naturally into political corruption.
The elections of those days would have been a joke had they been not so tragically significant. They came to be a sheer farce. The polls were guarded by bullies who did not hesitate at command to manhandle any decent citizen indicated by the local leaders. Such men were openly hired for the purposes of intimidation. Votes could be bought in the open market. “Floaters” were shamelessly imported into districts that might prove doubtful; and, if things looked close, the election inspectors and the judges could be relied on to make things come out all right in the final count. One of the exhibits later shown in the Vigilante days of 1856 was an ingenious ballot box by which the goats could be segregated from the sheep as the ballots were cast. You may be sure that the sheep were the only ones counted. Election day was one of continuous whiskey drinking and brawling so that decent citizens were forced to remain within doors. The returns from the different wards were announced as fast as the votes were counted. It was therefore the custom to hold open certain wards until the votes of all the others were known. Then whatever tickets were lacking to secure the proper election were counted from the packed ballot box in the sure ward. In this manner five hundred votes were once returned from Crystal Springs precinct where there dwelt not over thirty voters. If some busybody made enough of a row to get the merry tyrants into court, there were always plenty of lawyers who could play the ultra-technical so well that the accused were not only released but were returned as legally elected as well.
With the proper officials in charge of the executive end of the government and with a trained crew of lawyers making their own rules as they went along, almost any crime of violence, corruption, theft, or the higher grades of finance could be committed with absolute impunity. The state of the public mind became for a while apathetic. After numberless attempts to obtain justice, the public fell back with a shrug of the shoulders. The men of better feeling found themselves helpless. As each man’s safety and ability to resent insult depended on his trigger finger, the newspapers of that time made interesting but scurrilous and scandalous reading. An appetite for personalities developed, and these derogatory remarks ordinarily led to personal encounters. The streets became battle-grounds of bowie-knives and revolvers, as rivals hunted each other out. This picture may seem lurid and exaggerated, but the cold statistics of the time supply all the details.
The politicians of the day were essentially fighting men. The large majority were low-grade Southerners who had left their section, urged by unmistakable hints from their fellow-citizens. The political life of early California was colored very largely by the pseudo-chivalry which these people used as a cloak. They used the Southern code for their purposes very thoroughly, and bullied their way through society in a swashbuckling manner that could not but arouse admiration. There were many excellent Southerners in California in those days, but from the very start their influence was overshadowed by the more unworthy. Unfortunately, later many of the better class of Southerners, yielding to prejudice and sectional feeling, joined the so-called “Law and Order” party.
It must be remembered, however, that whereas the active merchants and industrious citizens were too busy to attend to local politics, the professional low-class Southern politician had come out to California for no other purpose. To be successful, he had to be a fighting man. His revolver and his bowie-knife were part of his essential equipment. He used the word “honor” as a weapon of defense, and battered down opposition in the most high-mannered fashion by the simple expedient of claiming that he had been insulted. The fire-eater was numerous in those days. He dressed well, had good manners and appearance, possessed abundant leisure, and looked down scornfully on those citizens who were busy building the city, “low Yankee shopkeepers” being his favorite epithet.
Examined at close range, in contemporary documents, this individual has about him little of romance and nothing whatever admirable. It would be a great pity, were mistaken sentimentality allowed to clothe him in the same bright-hued garments as the cavaliers of England in the time of the Stuarts. It would be an equal pity, were the casual reader to condemn all who eventually aligned themselves against the Vigilance movement as of the same stripe as the criminals who menaced society. There were many worthy people whose education thoroughly inclined them towards formal law, and who, therefore, when the actual break came, found themselves supporting law instead of justice.
As long as the country continued to enjoy the full flood of prosperity, these things did not greatly matter. The time was individualistic, and every man was supposed to take care of himself. But in the year 1855 financial stringency overtook the new community. For lack of water many of the miners had stopped work and had to ask for credit in buying their daily necessities. The country stores had to have credit from the city because the miners could not pay, and the wholesalers of the city again had to ask extension from the East until their bills were met by the retailers. The gold of the country went East to pay its bills. Further to complicate the matter, all banking was at this time done by private firms. These could take deposits and make loans and could issue exchange, but they could not issue bank-notes. Therefore the currency was absolutely inelastic.
Even these conditions failed to shake the public optimism, until out of a clear sky came announcement that Adams and Company had failed. Adams and Company occupied in men’s minds much the same position as the Bank of England. If Adams and Company were vulnerable, then nobody was secure. The assets of the bankrupt firm were turned over to one Alfred Cohen as receiver, with whom Jones, a member of the firm of Palmer, Cook, and Company, and a third individual were associated as assignees. On petition of other creditors the judge of the district court removed Cohen and appointed one Naglee in his place. This new man, Naglee, on asking for the assets was told that they had been deposited with Palmer, Cook, and Company. The latter firm refused to give them up, denying Naglee’s jurisdiction in the matter. Naglee then commenced suit against the assignees and obtained a judgment against them for $269,000. On their refusal to pay over this sum, Jones and Cohen were taken into custody. But Palmer, Cook, and Company influenced the courts, as did about every large mercantile or political firm. They soon secured the release of the prisoners, and in the general scramble for the assets of Adams and Company they secured the lion’s share.
It was the same old story. An immense amount of money had disappeared. Nobody had been punished, and it was all strictly legal. Failures resulted right and left. Even Wells, Fargo, and Company closed their doors but reopened them within a few days. There was much excitement which would probably have died as other excitement had died before, had not the times produced a voice of compelling power. This voice spoke through an individual known as James King of William.
King was a man of keen mind and dauntless courage, who had tried his luck briefly at the mines, realized that the physical work was too much for him, and had therefore returned to mercantile and banking pursuits in San Francisco. His peculiar name was said to be due to the fact that at the age of sixteen, finding another James King in his immediate circle, he had added his father’s name as a distinguishing mark. He was rarely mentioned except with the full designation–James King of William. On his return he opened a private banking-house, brought out his family, and entered the life of the town. For a time his banking career prospered and he acquired a moderate fortune, but in 1854 unwise investments forced him to close his office. In a high-minded fashion, very unusual in those times and even now somewhat rare, he surrendered to his creditors everything on earth he possessed. He then accepted a salaried position with Adams and Company, which he held until that house also failed. Since to the outside world his connection with the firm looked dubious, he exonerated himself through a series of pamphlets and short newspaper articles. The vigor and force of their style arrested attention, so that when his dauntless crusading spirit, revolting against the carnival of crime both subtle and obvious, desired to edit a newspaper, he had no difficulty in raising the small sum of money necessary. He had always expressed his opinions clearly and fearlessly, and the public watched with the greatest interest the appearance of the new sheet.
The first number of the Daily Evening Bulletin appeared on October 8, 1855. Like all papers of that day and like many of the English papers now, its first page was completely covered with small advertisements. A thin driblet of local items occupied a column on the third and fourth pages, and a single column of editorials ran down the second. As a newspaper it seemed beneath contempt, but the editorials made men sit up and take notice. King started with an attack on Palmer, Cook, and Company’s methods. He said nothing whatever about the robberies. He dealt exclusively with the excessive rentals for postal boxes charged the public by Palmer, Cook, and Company. That seemed a comparatively small and harmless matter, but King made it interesting by mentioning exact names, recording specific instances, avoiding any generalities, and stating plainly that this was merely a beginning in the exposure of methods. Jones of Palmer, Cook, and Company–that same Jones who had been arrested with Cohen–immediately visited King in his office with the object of either intimidating or bribing him as the circumstances seemed to advise. He bragged of horsewhips and duels, but returned rather noncommittal. The next evening the Bulletin reported Jones’s visit simply as an item of news, faithfully, sarcastically, and in a pompous vein. There followed no comment whatever. The next number, now eagerly purchased by every one, was more interesting because of its hints of future disclosures rather than because of its actual information. One of the alleged scoundrels was mentioned by name, and then the subject was dropped. The attention of the City Marshal was curtly called to disorderly houses and the statutes concerning them, and it was added “for his information” that at a certain address, which was given, a structure was then actually being built for improper purposes. Then, without transition, followed a list of official bonds and sureties for which Palmer, Cook, and Company were giving vouchers, amounting to over two millions. There were no comments on this list, but the inference was obvious that the firm had the whip-hand over many public officials.
The position of the new paper was soon formally established. It possessed a large subscription list; it was eagerly bought on its appearance in the street; and its advertising was increasing. King again turned his attention to Palmer, Cook, and Company. Each day he explored succinctly, clearly, without rhetoric, some single branch of their business. By the time he had finished with them, he had not only exposed all their iniquities, but he had, which was more important, educated the public to the financial methods of the time. It followed naturally in this type of exposure that King should criticize some of the legal subterfuges, which in turn brought him to analysis of the firm’s legal advisers, who had previously enjoyed a good reputation. From such subjects he drifted to dueling, venal newspapers, and soon down to the ordinary criminals such as Billy Mulligan, Wooley Kearny, Casey, Cora, Yankee Sullivan, Ned McGowan, Charles Duane, and many others. Never did he hesitate to specify names and instances. He never dealt in innuendoes. This was bringing him very close to personal danger, for worthies of the class last mentioned were the sort who carried their pistols and bowie-knives prominently displayed and handy for use. As yet no actual violence had been attempted against him. Other methods of reprisal that came to his notice King published without comment as items of news.
Mere threats had little effect in intimidating the editor. More serious means were tried. A dozen men publicly announced that they intended to kill him–and the records of the dozen were pretty good testimonials to their sincerity. In the gambling resorts and on the streets bets were made and pools formed on the probable duration of King’s life. As was his custom, he commented even upon this. Said the Bulletin’s editorial columns: “Bets are now being offered, we have been told, that the editor of the Bulletin will not be in existence twenty days longer. And the case of Dr. Hogan of the Vicksburg paper who was murdered by gamblers of that place is cited as a warning. Pah!… War then is the cry, is it? War between the prostitutes and gamblers on one side and the virtuous and respectable on the other! Be it so, then! Gamblers of San Francisco, you have made your election and we are ready on our side for the issue!” A man named Selover sent a challenge to King. King took this occasion to announce that he would consider no challenges and would fight no duels. Selover then announced his intention of killing King on sight. Says the Bulletin: “Mr. Selover, it is said, carries a knife. We carry a pistol. We hope neither will be required, but if this rencontre cannot be avoided, why will Mr. Selover persist in imperiling the lives of others? We pass every afternoon about half-past four to five o’clock along Market Street from Fourth to Fifth Streets. The road is wide and not so much frequented as those streets farther in town. If we are to be shot or cut to pieces, for heaven’s sake let it be done there. Others will not be injured, and in case we fall our house is but a few hundred yards beyond and the cemetery not much farther.” Boldness such as this did not act exactly as a soporific.
About this time was perpetrated a crime of violence no worse than many hundreds which had preceded it, but occurring at a psychological time. A gambler named Charles Cora shot and killed William Richardson, a United States marshal. The shooting was cold-blooded and without danger to the murderer, for at the time Richardson was unarmed. Cora was at once hustled to jail, not so much for confinement as for safety against a possible momentary public anger. Men had been shot on the street before–many men, some of them as well known and as well liked as Richardson–but not since public sentiment had been aroused and educated as the Bulletin had aroused and educated it. Crowds commenced at once to gather. Some talk of lynching went about. Men made violent street-corner speeches. The mobs finally surged to the jail, but were firmly met by a strong armed guard and fell back. There was much destructive and angry talk.
But to swing a mob into action there must be determined men at its head, and this mob had no leader. Sam Brannan started to say something, but was promptly arrested for inciting riot. Though the situation was ticklish, the police seem to have handled it well, making only a passive opposition and leaving the crowd to fritter its energies in purposeless cursing, surging to and fro, and harmless threatenings. Nevertheless this crowd persisted longer than most of them.
The next day the Bulletin vigorously counseled dependence upon the law, expressed confidence in the judges who were to try the case–Hager and Norton–and voiced a personal belief that the day had passed when it would ever be necessary to resort to arbitrary measures. It may hence be seen how far from a contemplation of extra legal measures was King in his public attitude. Nevertheless he added a paragraph of warning: “Hang Billy Mulligan–that’s the word. If Mr. Sheriff Scannell does not remove Billy Mulligan from his present post as keeper of the County Jail and Mulligan lets Cora escape, hang Billy Mulligan, and if necessary to get rid of the sheriff, hang him–hang the sheriff!”
Public excitement died. Conviction seemed absolutely certain. Richardson had been a public official and a popular one. Cora’s action had been cold-blooded and apparently without provocation. Nevertheless he had remained undisturbed. He had retained one of the most brilliant lawyers of the time, James McDougall. McDougall added to his staff the most able of the younger lawyers of the city. Immense sums of money were available. The source is not exactly known, but a certain Belle Cora, a prostitute afterwards married by Cora, was advancing large amounts. A man named James Casey, bound by some mysterious obligation, was active in taking up general collections. Cora lived in great luxury at the jail. He had long been a close personal friend of the sheriff and his deputy, Mulligan. When the case came to trial, Cora escaped conviction through the disagreement of the jury.
This fiasco, following King’s editorials, had a profound effect on the public mind. King took the outrage against justice as a fresh starting-point for new attacks. He assailed bitterly and fearlessly the countless abuses of the time, until at last he was recognized as a dangerous opponent by the heretofore cynically amused higher criminals. Many rumors of plots against King’s life are to be found in the detailed history of the day. Whether his final assassination was the result of one of these plots, or simply the outcome of a burst of passion, matters little. Ultimately it had its source in the ungoverned spirit of the times.
Four months after the farce of the Cora trial, on May 14, King published an attack on the appointment of a certain man to a position in the federal custom house. The candidate had happened to be involved with James P. Casey in a disgraceful election. Casey was at that time one of the supervisors. Incidental to his attack on the candidate, King wrote as follows: “It does not matter how bad a man Casey had been, or how much benefit it might be to the public to have him out of the way, we cannot accord to any one citizen the right to kill him or even beat him, without justifiable provocation. The fact that Casey has been an inmate of Sing Sing prison in New York is no offense against the laws of this State; nor is the fact of his having stuffed himself through the ballot box, as elected to the Board of Supervisors from a district where it is said he was not even a candidate, any justification for Mr. Bagley to shoot Casey, however richly the latter may deserve to have his neck stretched for such fraud on the people.”
Casey read this editorial in full knowledge that thousands of his fellow-citizens would also read it. He was at that time, in addition to his numerous political cares, editor of a small newspaper called The Sunday Times. This had been floated for the express purpose of supporting the extremists of the legalists’ party, which, as we have explained, now included the gambling and lawless element. How valuable he was considered is shown by the fact that at a previous election Casey had been returned as elected supervisor, although he had not been a candidate, his name had not been on the ticket, and subsequent private investigations could unearth no man who would acknowledge having voted for him. Indeed, he was not even a resident of that district. However, a slick politician named Yankee Sullivan, who ran the election, said officially that the most votes had been counted for him; and so his election was announced. Casey was a handy tool in many ways, rarely appearing in person but adept in selecting suitable agents. He was personally popular. In appearance he is described as a short, slight man with a keen face, a good forehead, a thin but florid countenance, dark curly hair, and blue eyes; a type of unscrupulous Irish adventurer, with perhaps the dash of romantic idealism sometimes found in the worst scoundrels. Like most of his confreres, he was particularly touchy on the subject of his “honor.”
On reading the Bulletin editorials, he proceeded at once to King’s office, announcing his intention of shooting the editor on sight. Probably he would have done so except for the accidental circumstance that King happened to be busy at a table with his back turned squarely to the door. Even Casey could not shoot a man in the back, without a word of warning. He was stuttering and excited. The interview was overheard by two men in an adjoining office.
“What do you mean by that article?” cried Casey.
“What article?” asked King.
“That which says I was formerly an inmate of Sing Sing.”
“Is it not true?” asked King quietly.
“That is not the question. I don’t wish my past acts raked up. On that point I am sensitive.”
A slight pause ensued.
“Are you done?” asked King quietly. Then leaping from the chair he burst suddenly into excitement.
“There’s the door, go! And never show your face here again.”
Casey had lost his advantage. At the door he gathered himself together again.
“I’ll say in my paper what I please,” he asserted with a show of bravado.
King was again in control of himself.
“You have a perfect right to do so,” he rejoined. “I shall never notice your paper.”
Casey struck himself on the breast.
“And if necessary I shall defend myself,” he cried.
King bounded again from his seat, livid with anger.
“Go,” he commanded sharply, and Casey went.
Outside in the street Casey found a crowd waiting. The news of his visit to the Bulletin office had spread. His personal friends crowded around asking eager questions. Casey answered with vague generalities: he wasn’t a man to be trifled with, and some people had to find out! Blackmailing was not a healthy occupation when it aimed at a gentleman! He left the general impression that King had apologized. Bragging in this manner, Casey led the way to the Bank Exchange, the fashionable bar not far distant. Here he remained drinking and boasting for some time.
In the group that surrounded him was a certain Judge Edward McGowan, a jolly, hard-drinking, noisy individual. He had been formerly a fugitive from justice. However, through the attractions of a gay life, a combination of bullying and intrigue, he had made himself a place in the new city and had at last risen to the bench. He was apparently easy to fathom, but the stream really ran deep. Some historians claim that he had furnished King the document which proved Casey an ex-convict. It is certain that now he had great influence with Casey, and that he drew him aside from the bar and talked with him some time in a low voice. Some people insist that he furnished the navy revolver with which a few moments later Casey shot King. This may be so, but every man went armed in those days, especially men of Casey’s stamp.
It is certain, however, that after his interview with McGowan, Casey took his place across the street from the Bank Exchange. There, wrapped in his cloak, he awaited King’s usual promenade home.
That for some time his intention was well known is proved by the group that little by little gathered on the opposite side of the street. It is a matter of record that a small boy passing by was commandeered and sent with a message for Peter Wrightman, a deputy sheriff. Pete, out of breath, soon joined the group. There he idled, also watching,–an official charged with the maintenance of the law of the land!
At just five o’clock King turned the corner, his head bent. He started to cross the street diagonally and had almost reached the opposite sidewalk when he was confronted by Casey who stepped forward from his place of concealment behind a wagon.
“Come on,” he said, throwing back his cloak, and immediately fired. King, who could not have known what Casey was saying, was shot through the left breast, staggered, and fell. Casey then took several steps toward his victim, looked at him closely as though to be sure he had done a good job, let down the hammer of his pistol, picked up his cloak, and started for the police-station. All he wanted now was a trial under the law.
The distance to the station-house was less than a block. Instantly at the sound of the shot his friends rose about him and guarded him to the shelter of the lock-up. But at last the public was aroused. Casey had unwittingly cut down a symbol of the better element, as well as a fearless and noble man. Someone rang the old Monumental Engine House bell–the bell that had been used to call together the Vigilantes of 1851. The news spread about the city like wildfire. An immense mob appeared to spring from nowhere.
The police officials were no fools; they recognized the quality of the approaching hurricane. The city jail was too weak a structure. It was desirable to move the prisoner at once to the county jail for safe-keeping. A carriage was brought to the entrance of an alley next the city jail; the prisoner, closely surrounded by armed men, was rushed to it; and the vehicle charged out through the crowd. The mob, as yet unorganized, recoiled instinctively before the plunging horses and the presented pistols. Before anybody could gather his wits, the equipage had disappeared.
The mob surged after the disappearing vehicle, and so ended up finally in the wide open space before the county jail. The latter was a solidly built one-story building situated on top of a low cliff. North, the marshal, had drawn up his armed men. The mob, very excited, vociferated, surging back and forth, though they did not rush, because as yet they had no leaders. Attempts were made to harangue the gathering, but everywhere the speeches were cut short. At a crucial moment the militia appeared. The crowd thought at first that the volunteer troops were coming to uphold their own side, but were soon undeceived. The troops deployed in front of the jail and stood at guard. Just then the mayor attempted to address the crowd.
“You are here creating an excitement,” he said, “which may lead to occurrences this night which will require years to wipe out. You are now laboring under great excitement and I advise you to quietly disperse. I assure you the prisoner is safe. Let the law have its course and justice will be done.”
He was listened to with respect, up to this point, but here arose such a chorus of jeers that he retired hastily.
“How about Richardson?” they demanded of him. “Where is the law in Cora’s case? To hell with such justice!”
More and more soldiers came into the square, which was soon filled with bayonets. The favorable moment had passed and this particular crisis was, like all the other similar crises, quickly over. But the city was aroused. Mass meetings were held in the Plaza and in other convenient localities. Many meetings took place in rooms in different parts of the city. Men armed by the thousands. Vehement orators held forth from every balcony. Some of these people were, as a chronicler of the times quaintly expressed it, “considerably tight.” There was great diversity of opinion. All night the city seethed with ill-directed activity. But men felt helpless and hopeless for want of efficient organization.
The so-called Southern chivalry called this affair a “fight.” Indeed the Herald in its issue of the next morning, mistaking utterly the times, held boldly along the way of its sympathies. It also spoke of the assassination as an “affray,” and stated emphatically its opinion that, “now that justice is regularly administered,” there was no excuse for even the threat of public violence. This utter blindness to the meaning of the new movement and the far-reaching effect of King’s previous campaign proved fatal to the paper. It declined immediately. In the meantime, attended by his wife and a whole score of volunteer physicians, King, lying in a room in the Montgomery block, was making a fight for his life.
Then people began to notice a small advertisement on the first page of the morning papers, headed The Vigilance Committee.
“The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at number 105-1/2 Sacramento Street, this day, Thursday, fifteenth instant, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the COMMITTEE OF THIRTEEN.”
People stood still in the streets, when this notice met the eye. If this was actually the old Committee of 1851, it meant business. There was but one way to find out and that was to go and see. Number 105-1/2 Sacramento Street was a three-story barn-like structure that had been built by a short-lived political party called the “Know-Nothings.” The crowd poured into the hall to its full capacity, jammed the entrance ways, and gathered for blocks in the street. There all waited patiently to see what would happen.
Meantime, in the small room back of the stage, about a score of men gathered. Chief among all stood William T. Coleman. He had taken a prominent part in the old Committee of ’51. With him were Clancey Dempster, small and mild of manner, blue-eyed, the last man in the room one would have picked for great stamina and courage, yet playing one of the leading roles in this crisis; the merchant Truett, towering above all the rest; Farwell, direct, uncompromising, inspired with tremendous single-minded earnestness; James Dows, of the rough and ready, humorous, blasphemous, horse-sense type; Hossefross, of the Committee of ’51; Dr. Beverly Cole, high-spirited, distinguished-looking, and courtly; Isaac Bluxome, whose signature of “33 Secretary” was to become terrible, and who also had served well in 1851. These and many more of their type were considering the question dispassionately and earnestly.
“It is a serious business,” said Coleman, summing up. “It is no child’s play. It may prove very serious. We may get through quickly and safely, or we may so involve ourselves as never to get through.”
“The issue is not one of choice but of expediency,” replied Dempster. “Shall we have vigilance with order or a mob with anarchy?”
In this spirit Coleman addressed the crowd waiting in the large hall.
“In view of the miscarriage of justice in the courts,” he announced briefly, “it has been thought expedient to revive the Vigilance Committee. An Executive Council should be chosen, representative of the whole body. I have been asked to take charge. I will do so, but must stipulate that I am to be free to choose the first council myself. Is that agreed?”
He received a roar of assent.
“Very well, gentlemen, I shall request you to vacate the hall. In a short time the books will be open for enrollment.”
With almost disciplined docility the crowd arose and filed out, joining the other crowd waiting patiently in the street.
After a remarkably short period the doors were again thrown open. Inside the passage stood twelve men later to be known as the Executive Committee. These held back the rush, admitting but one man at a time. The crowd immediately caught the idea and helped. There was absolutely no excitement. Every man seemed grimly in earnest. Cries of “Order, order, line up!” came all down the street. A rough queue was formed. There were no jokes or laughing; there was even no talk. Each waited his turn. At the entrance every applicant was closely scrutinized and interrogated. Several men were turned back peremptorily in the first few minutes, with the warning not to dare make another attempt. Passed by this Committee, the candidate climbed the stairs. In the second story behind a table sat Coleman, Dempster, and one other. These administered to him an oath of secrecy and then passed him into another room where sat Bluxome behind a ledger. Here his name was written and he was assigned a number by which henceforth in the activities of the Committee he was to be known. Members were instructed always to use numbers and never names in referring to other members.
Those who had been enrolled waited for some time, but finding that with evening the applicants were still coming in a long procession, they gradually dispersed. No man, however, departed far from the vicinity. Short absences and hastily snatched meals were followed by hurried returns, lest something be missed. From time to time rumors were put in circulation as to the activities of the Executive Committee, which had been in continuous session since its appointment. An Examining Committee had been appointed to scrutinize the applicants. The number of the Executive Committee had been raised to twenty-six; a Chief of Police had been chosen, and he in turn appointed messengers and policemen, who set out in search of individuals wanted as door-keepers, guards, and so forth. Only registered members were allowed on the floor of the hall. Even the newspaper reporters were gently but firmly ejected. There was no excitement or impatience.
At length, at eight o’clock, Coleman came out of one of the side-rooms and, mounting a table, called for order. He explained that a military organization had been decided upon, advised that numbers 1 to 100 inclusive should assemble in one corner of the room, the second hundred at the first window, and so on. An interesting order was his last. “Let the French assemble in the middle of the hall,” he said in their language–an order significant of the great numbers of French who had first answered the call of gold in ’49, and who now with equal enthusiasm answered the call for essential justice. Each company was advised to elect its own officers, subject to ratification by the Executive Committee. It was further stated that arrangements had been made to hire muskets to the number of several thousands from one George Law. These were only flintlocks, but efficient enough in their way, and supplied with bayonets. They were discarded government weapons, brought out some time ago by Law to arm some mysterious filibustering expedition that had fallen through. In this manner, without confusion, an organization of two thousand men was formed–sixteen military companies.
By Saturday morning, May 17, the Committee rooms were overwhelmed by crowds of citizens who desired to be enrolled. Larger quarters had already been secured in a building on the south side of Sacramento Street. Thither the Committee now removed en masse, without interrupting their labors. These new headquarters soon became famous in the history of this eventful year.
In the meantime the representatives of the law had not been less alert. The regular police force was largely increased. The sheriff issued thousands of summonses calling upon citizens for service as deputies. These summonses were made out in due form of law. To refuse them meant to put oneself outside the law. The ordinary citizen was somewhat puzzled by the situation. A great many responded to the appeal from force of habit. Once they accepted the oath these new deputies were confronted by the choice between perjury, and its consequences, or doing service. On the other hand, the issue of the summonses forced many otherwise neutral men into the ranks of the Vigilantes. If they refused to act when directly summoned by law, that very fact placed them on the wrong side of the law. Therefore they felt that joining a party pledged to what practically amounted to civil war was only a short step further. Against these the various military companies were mustered, reminded of their oath, called upon to fulfill their sworn duty, and sent to various strategic points about the jail and elsewhere. The Governor was informally notified of a state of insurrection and was requested to send in the state militia. By evening all the forces of organized society were under arms, and the result was a formidable, apparently impregnable force.
Nor was the widespread indignation against the shooting of James King of William entirely unalloyed by bitterness. King had been a hard hitter, an honest man, a true crusader; but in the heat of battle he had not always had time to make distinctions. Thus he had quite justly attacked the Times and other venal newspapers, but in so doing had, by too general statements, drawn the fire of every other journal in town. He had attacked with entire reason a certain Catholic priest, a man the Church itself would probably soon have disciplined, but in so doing had managed to enrage all Roman Catholics. In like manner his scorn of the so-called “chivalry” was certainly well justified, but his manner of expression offended even the best Southerners. Most of us see no farther than the immediate logic of the situation. Those perfectly worthy citizens were inclined to view the Vigilantes, not as a protest against intolerable conditions, but rather as personal champions of King.
In thus relying on the strength of their position the upholders of law realized that there might be fighting, and even severe fighting, but it must be remembered that the Law and Order party loved fighting. It was part of their education and of their pleasure and code. No wonder that they viewed with equanimity and perhaps with joy the beginning of the Vigilance movement of 1856.
The leaders of the Law and Order party chose as their military commander William Tecumseh Sherman, whose professional ability and integrity in later life are unquestioned, but whose military genius was equaled only by his extreme inability to remember facts. When writing his Memoirs, the General evidently forgot that original documents existed or that statements concerning historical events can often be checked up. A mere mob is irresponsible and anonymous. But it was not a mob with whom Sherman was faced, for, as a final satisfaction to the legal-minded, the men of the Vigilance Committee had put down their names on record as responsible for this movement, and it is upon contemporary record that the story of these eventful days must rely for its details.