By Charles James King
The history of the vigilance Committee of 1851 and that of 1856, organized in the City of San Francisco, has no parallel in american history.
It was composed of American citizens, imbued with the love of country, and with that crystallized idea of the centuries, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
To properly understand the state of affairs that in an American city demanded such action on the part of its citizens, we must look to the causes that brought about this uprising on the part of a people so loyal to all the traditions of their country.
I propose to show these, as seen by one who lived here through all those exciting times, as I arrived in San Francisco in May, 1851, when but seven years of age, and was a witness of the events that took place then, though those of 1856, when I was five years older, and because the committee’s formation was on account of my father’s (James King of William) assassination, were more deeply impressed on my mind and life.
All that I remember of my father is confined to those five years, extending through the history of both the committees of 1851 and 1856. I was so young in 1848, when he left for California, that I remember scarcely anything of him, until my arrival in San Francisco.
I could not have been with him more than I was, had I known how few the years were destined to be in which I was to see him on earth.
Every moment I could spare from school, I chose rather to be with him than elsewhere. When he was a banker, I rode on my pony, each afternoon after school, to meet him at his bank, on the corner of Commercial and Montgomery streets, and was beside his buggy as he drove home, which was then on Jones street, between Lombard and Chestnut.
When he was editor of the Bulletin, for seven months, until his assassination, I used to visit his editorial rooms as often as I could go, and he used to tell his friends who happened to be there, that I knew everything in the paper, editorials, news and even the advertisements. Every evening after dinner, when I had finished my recitation in Latin, to him, I was accustomed with all the ardor of a youthful enthusiast to discuss, after my own fashion, the subjects of his editorials, and thus knew and realized the good cause of pure government in which he was engaged and for which his life was sacrificed.
At the close the the Mexican war, California became a part of the United States, by purchase, in the treaty of peace between the two countries. It was a long and weary journey of months to reach it from the eastern portion of country, either by land or sea. Quite a number of Americans had already found their way here, so that in 1846 when the country was taken, they were able to give great assistance to Fremont and his men in its capture. The people readily acquiesced in the change of government, some like General M. G. Vallejo, contending that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose by becoming a part of the American Union.
The natives led a simple life, without much excitement. No steamer had ever yet ploughed the vast waters of the great Pacific Ocean. No transcontinental railroad had been built, and no lines of telegraph or ocean cable connected the Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, with any other part of the world.
The white wings of commerce had not turned, as they were soon destined to turn, toward the Golden Gate. One of our California poets thus describes them, in those days (from which they were so soon to be awakened), as follows:
Feeble and garrulous old men
Tell in the Spanish tongue
Of the good grand times of the Mission
And the hymns that the Fathers sung;
Of the oil and the wine and the plenty,
And the dance in the twilight gray.
Ah! these--and the head shakes sadly--
Were good old times in Monterey.
The discovery of gold by J. W. Marshall, on January 24, 1848, soon changed all this, and thousands of men from all parts of the world came here. The business which the necessity of these travelers caused gave an impetus to commerce everywhere, and suitable inventions and contrivances followed.
Ocean travel was improved by steam navigation, and the comfort of passengers became more imperative from the sudden demand for transportation to this state. The demand also for abundance of food led to the canning of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc., in larger quantities than had been required before, while eggs put down in lime, and butter, from the dairies of New York state, helped to supply those necessary articles for the home consumption.
Houses were built in sections, so as to be easily put together again, and shipped around Cape Horn, to this city, where many of them make comfortable residences for the accommodation of the early settlers.
While many good men of character and energy were here to make this state what it became, they were at first so engaged in their business as to take but little interest in politics. The drifting in of a large criminal class, who had served their terms in jails in all parts of the world, our own country included, soon became a menace to the peaceful business men.
They were called “the Hounds,” and had control of all the offices in their interest and for their protection. It thus soon became apparent that there was no redress in the courts. Crime unblushingly held up its head and was seldom punished because of the faithless administration of justice.
Matters had come to such a pass, that the better class of citizens on the 8th of June, 1851, organized the first vigilance Committee by adopting the following:
“Thereas, It has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco that there is no security for life and property, either under the regulations of society as it at present exists, or under the laws as now administered; therefore the citizens whose names are hereunto attached do unite themselves into an Association for the maintenance of the peace and the good order of society, and the preservation of the lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco, and do bind ourselves each unto the other to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order and to sustain the laws when faithfully and properly administered; but we are 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 the laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.”
The signal for assembling when necessary, was to give three taps on the bell of the California Fire Company.
The first alarm rang out in the night of June 10, 1851.
A man named Jenkins was caught stealing a safe containing a large amount of money. He looked for rescue at the hands of his confederates, but instead was arrested and found guilty of various charges and was hanged at half-past one o’clock the next morning.
Reverend T. Dwight Hunt, pastor of the First Congregational Church, in a sermon suggested by the execution, said:
“I cannot censure a people, if, having been long and needlessly outraged by a gang of villains, they rise in their sovereign majesty and quietly seize upon, try and condemn and execute one, even though they have to set aside the authority they dare not trust with the culprit. It is sometimes necessary to the existence of society thus to be its own lawyer, judge and executioneer.”
James Stuart was hanged on July 11, 1851, for murder and other crimes.
Whittaker and McKenzie, two other murderers, were hanged on August 24, 1851. The committee then disbanded, after having issued sentence of banishment against thirty desperadoes.
The Second Vigilance Committee
The second Vigilance committee of 1856, though in part composed of some of those who served in 1851, was a much larger body of citizens, and assumed a vaster importance at the time, wielding a greater influence in the years that followed, as the cause of its formation struck at the basic foundation of things, and the very existence of the city itself as a place in which to live and rear families.
It could not be called a revolution, as it was unlike any such that ever took place. All other revolutions were a separation from the governments, and because of oppression and wrongs inflicted upon the suffering people that caused them to absolve themselves completely from the yoke that oppressed, and form a new state or nation.
This was a movement of the citizens to enforce the laws, which those to whom this power was delegated utterly failed to carry out. It was, therefore, a transcendence of the law rather than a violation of it. To comprehend this situation, it may be stated that the judiciary of the state was held in too many instances by men from the criminal element, or in complete sympathy with them, as shown by their own unlawful acts.
A few illustrations will suffice: Ned McGowan, who had served a term in the Pennsylvania state prison, upon arrival here succeeded in being made one of the judges of the city.
Hugh C. Murray, a corrupt and immoral man, was another.
Wm. B. Almond, through his friends “the Hounds,” as the roughs and villains were called, secured another appointment.
One J. H. Hardy, judge of the 16th Judicial District, was indicted by the grand jury for the murder of Samuel T. Newell.
David S. Terry was another instance of how the judiciary of California was disgraced by the conduct of some of its leading members. He stabbed Stephen Hopkins of the Vigilance Committee, afterward killed David C. Broderick in a duel, and in later years followed Justice Stephen J. Field around the state in the determined attempt to kill him, which was frustrated by the United States marshall, who was too quick for him, and Terry met his fate. Then the most gigantic frauds were perpetrated upon the people at the polls.
The citizens voted, but their votes were not counted. The Vigilance Committee afterward discovered that the ballot boxes had secret drawers in them, in which votes that were counted were deposited, and it usually took several days to have all the returns in. It was always noticed that those from the twelfth ward were several days late in being handed in, and could always be depended upon to register sufficient votes to elect the party in power; although to do thi, it was necessary to record more votes cast than the resident population of that ward could number, including men, women and children.
The leader in manipulating the polls was James P. Casey, supervisor, and editor of the Sunday Times.
He had been elected supervisor without even going through the form of a nomination and through the method above shown. All officers, therefore, in the city and county of San Francisco, and all the appointees under them, owed their election to James P. Casey.
So long and shamelessly had this state of affairs continued, that he felt that he owned the city, and as will later appear, had no fear but that in an emergency he could count on the support of all those who were indebted to him for their places, together with their friends, who were numerous.
Crime, in the intervening years between the first and second Vigilance Committee, held high carnival, and the wrong doer easily secured immunity from his acts; so that the citizens soon learned that there was no protection for life or property. In walking the streets of the city, peaceful men usually took the middle of the road, instead of the sidewalk, in order to protect themselves as far as possible, from the unexpected attack of the assassin. And so year after year this state of affairs occurred, until it is stated that in the year 1855, the number of murders committed in this state was 535, and that only seven of the perpetrators were executed by the officers of the law. Arson, robbery, and other crimes were of constant occurrence, and so seldom was punishment inflicted, that the law was held in contempt, and men felt as they looked at each other, upon learning of some fresh outbreak, that the courts could offer them no protection at all; because they would not.
On the 8th day of October 1855, the Evening Bulletin appeared with James King of William as its editor. he attacked corruption in high places, and was in a short time, through the city and the mountains and valleys of California, recognized as the champion of the people’s rights. The Bulletin became eagerly sought for each day for tidings of the warfare it was waging on their behalf. On the other hand, the paper had not been three months in existence before it became universally understood that it was “war to the knife” between it and the shoulder strikers. One side or the other was now bound to go down. It was a struggle for the rights of the people that has had no counterpart in the history of our land.
On November 17, 1855, General William H. Richardson, the United States marshal, was murdered by a notorious gambler named Charles Cora, instigated by Belle Cora, a prostitute, whom he had taken to some place of amusement, and whom the virtuous Mrs. Richardson had offended, by simply conducting herself as a lday. Cora, after mutual friends had persuaded General Richardson to let the matter pass and take a drink with Cora as an evidence of settling the dispute, turned in a brutal manner and killed Richardson, as he unsuspectingly followed in the friendly act, which he presumed would close the affair.
The gifted Colonel Baker, who afterward lost his life at Ball’s Bluff, was severely censured in those days, for using his forensic eloquence in the defense of Cora, and succeeding in getting a disagreement of the jury on his first trial. Forty thousand dollars had been raised by Belle Cora and her associates to defend Charles Cora, and no hope was entertained by the people that his dastardly crime would be punished.
The party in power, flushed by their long continued success in cheating the people at the polls, and running the courts to suit themselves, felt no uneasiness about the final acquittal of Charles Cora. And now they determined to reach out for one more victim, and that was the editor of the Bulletin, James King of William. In council of these plotters, it was agreed to cast lots to see who should do the shooting, and the lot fell to James P. Casey. He thought he had an easy job. To the many who were indebted to him for office or place he felt he could confidently turn for support, and the courts gave him no concern.
He never dreamed of the uprising of the citizens, and felt with the people’s champion “under the sod” he would be free to continue his course with none to say him nay.
The patience of the people had, however, now reached its limit, as the events that followed the carrying out of the conspiracy to assassinate James King of William soon showed.
A man named Bagley, who had fallen out with Casey, sent on to New York and secured the documentary evidence which showed that James P. Casey had served out a term in Sing Sing prison. Armed with these, he carried them to the editorial rooms of the Bulletin.
James King of William, in commenting upon these papers, stated in the Bulletin of May 14, 1856, “that the fact that Casey had 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. These are acts against the public good, not against Mr. Bagley in particular, and however much we may detest Casey’s former character, or be convinced of the shallowness of his promised reformation, we cannot justify the assumption by Mr. Bagley to take upon himself the redressing of these wrongs.”
That was sufficient for Casey. He determined now upon the assassination of James King of William, and it was an open secret among his friends, that the shooting would come off that afternoon.
Thomas S. King, James King of William’s brother, who usually walked home with him, happened to be in Natchez Gallery on Clay street having his pistol cleaned, when he heard of it, and immediately started to prevent it, but arrived too late. The shot had been fired. Casey had called at the editorial rooms of the Bulletin to see James King of William. Instead of attacking him then, and giving him a fighting chance for his life, he simply found fault with what had been said in the Bulletin, and upon being asked if it were true, and retorting that he did not want such things printed about him, was shown the door and left muttering revenge.
Then in a cowardly manner he made all the arrangements for his attack and escape, and, hiding himself behind one of the wagons of the Pacific Express Company, standing at the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets, he waited for his victim to appear on the usual route he took going to his home. As he stepped on the sidewalk, Casey quickly approached him from the wagon and fired the fatal shot, without giving any warning. Seeing he had inflicted a mortal wound, he retreated to a convenient hack in attendance, with three of his chosen friends awaiting him, each of whom had his revolver drawn to defend the murderer from any attack that night be made by the crowd that soon gathered, and were driven to the jail where his friend, David Scannell, the sheriff, was ready to protect him with all that the city government could muster in his defense. Dr. W. O. Ayres states in his personal recollections of this occurrence: “A carriage was standing at the entrance to Dunbar alley, the rear of the police office. It was undoubtedly about to start. I sprang on the step and as I did so, Dave Scannel’s pistol was thrust directly in my face. I looked in, and saw Casey on the seat with Scannell with his pistol pointed out of the opposite window. The driver started his horses, and I was thrown to the ground, but was on my feet in an instant, and away with the crowd who were pursuing the carriage at full speed, yelling with every breath ‘Hang him! Kill him!’
“The horses were, of course, too light-footed for us, but we all, however, knew their destination, the county jail. The building in Broadway near Kearney was at an elevation, then, of about eight feet above the level of the street, which had been graded down to that extent. On the bank above stood every one of the most noted gamblers and shoulder strikers in the city. Their faces were well known to me, Charley Duane, Dan Aldrich and a host of others. There they stood; a dangerous looking company quietly looking down on the angry crowd that filled the street and surged back and forth in its intense excitement. How came those men to be there?
“I have no doubt they were there in position when the shot was fired, and James King of William fell. I was waiting for the first pistol shot which I well knew would be the prelude to a fearful scene of bloodshed, when a man rushed past me, and began scrambling up one of the posts of a balcony directly at my back. I saw it was Thomas S. King, the brother of James King of William. He at once began a harangue of almost delirious frenzy and after a few words only, he shouted out, who will go with me and drag the murderer of my brother from the jail? He could not utter another word. The fierce and savage yell, ‘I,’ ‘I,’ ‘I,’ from hundred of throats was perfectly deafening, and the revolvers came out like magic ready for sharp service.
“Thomas S. King leaped to the ground, and started with a rush, but he had not crossed half the breadth of Broadway, before he stopped, and at the same moment, the crowd began to grow quiet. Some one had touched them on the back and whispered, ‘The Vigilance Committee has organized.'”
On that afternoon I had gone out near the presidio to secure some shrubs to plant in our garden at the home, then on the corner of Mason and Pacific streets. While engaged in planting them, I noticed a number of people entering the house. They came in such unusual numbers that I hastened to see what could be the matter. Upon entering the house, I learned that my father had been shot.
Those who were trying to break the news to my mother did it so gently, that she at first did not realize how serious the situation was. Griffin Dobson, a colored man, who had been porter in my father’s bank, was telling my mother, when I entered, that my father had been shot in the arm. I immediately reasoned, that if my father had only been shot in the arm he would have been home then, so taking Dobson aside, I asked him where my father was, and he replied “at the office of the pacific Express Company.”
This was on the northwest corner of Washington and Montgomery streets, and without saying anything, I left the room and hurried down to the express office. As I reached the corner of Kearney and Washington streets I saw a large crowd blocking the street down to Montgomery.
A policeman, who recognized me, asked if I wished to see my father, and I told him I did. He then piloted me through the crowd, until I finally reached my father, who lay unconscious on a mattress, on the floors of the express company.
Here, among strangers, I waited anxiously by his side until the arrival of my mother, who in the meantime had been apprised of the true condition of affairs. After good counsel as to what to say to my brothers and sisters, and to some directions as to what to do in arranging some of the household business in her absence, she bade me go home. I did so, returning early the next morning, and was present when they removed my father to Montgomery block.
During the days that intervened I was in attendance to go upon any errand, and attend to such things as my mother needed.
The Vigilance Committee formed on the night of May 14th, 1856, temporarily in the rooms of the Society of California Pioneers on Washington street, opposite the old Plaza. Some two thousand signed the roll that night. The next morning larger rooms and accommodations were secured on Sacramento street, near Front, and the following notice appeared in the morning papers:
“THE VIGILANCE COMMITTEE.
“Members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at 105 1/2 Sacramento street this day at 9 o’clock a.m.
By order of the
COMMITTEE OF THIRTEEN.”
Here fortifications were erected by filling gunny bags with sand, and planting cannon to defend the place. It was called “Fort Gunnybags.” In less than three days five thousand names were enrolled as members.
These were men, drawn from the business community, and those who had the interest of the city at heart, and were as loyal a band of patriots as the world ever knew.
The London Times said of them, upon their disbandment, “that they had shown sufficient ability to found a state organization–a nation–if circumstances had demanded its exercise>”
On the enrollment of members, each man took his number, and was known by it, instead of his name. Wm. T. Coleman was No. 1 and was elected its president. No. 33 was Isaac Bluxome, the secretary.
Turn Verein Hall on Bush and Stockton streets served as an armory, and the members being divided into companies of 100 men each, were thoroughly drilled by competent officers.
A lot of 5,000 flint lock muskets in good order, belonging to Mr. George Law, and stored in a warehouse, were at once hired by the committee. The committee for convenience was divided into four departments, as follows: Grand marshal, commissary, medical and police, and was organized into four regiments of infantry numbering ten companies each, and two battalions of cavalry, three batteries of flying artillery, one marine battery, one pistol company. No one received any pay, except fifteen of the police force of 300.
Notwithstanding this, the expenses necessarily incurred in maintaining this organization were large, amounting to $250,000, which sum was raised by voluntary subscription from the members, and those who sympathized with them in the noble work in which they were engaged.
When the news of the assassination of James King of William was flashed all over the state, the strongest expressions against the outrage came from the mountains and valleys of California, with the offer of any help that might be needed by the committee in the way of more men and means.
James King of William was shot on Wednesday, May 14th, 1856, and lingered until Tuesday, the 20th, when he died.
In the days that followed the organization of the committee and during the three months it was in existence, the most exciting events followed in rapid succession.
Before the committee had taken any action, their scouts brought in word that “The Hounds” and their friends or sympathizers calling themselves “The Law and Order Party,” who many dubbed “The Law and Murder Party,” were determined to do all in their power to prevent Casey and Cora being taken by the Vigilance Committee, even going so far as to threaten to burn down the city if such a thing were attempted.
Fearing that they might be called upon for an accounting in case the committee should gain control of the affairs of the city and flushed by the success with which their party had managed so long to defy the administration of justice, these men were determined to do all they could to ruin San Francisco and keep it subject to their power.
On the next day, the 16th of May, it was discovered that a plot was formed to call out the state militia.
Governor J. Neeley Johnson was in town, stopping at the occidental Hotel, and word was sent to William T. Coleman that the governor wanted to see him.
An interview took place which seemed to settle matters, the governor at its close slapping Coleman on the back and saying “Go ahead, but get through as soon as you can.”
Later in the evening the governor called at the rooms of the committee, with William T. Sherman (afterwards famous in the Civil war). Coleman noticed from his actions that he ignored his previous interview and started in anew on the subject. The governor said that they had come to see if matters could be amicably settled. Coleman replied that outrages were of common occurrence, the people defrauded of their rights at the ballot box, and the citizens shot down in the streets; and no redress was afforded by the courts, and they would endure it no longer. The governor urged the laws taking its course, saying that there was no need of the people turning themselves into a mob.
Mr. Coleman emphatically stated that the governor himself knew that it was no mob. It was a government within a government pulsating under the poisonous effect of unrebuked villainy.
After a long discussion, it was finally agreed that the Vigilance Committee should have a special guard stationed in the county jail, which was to be withdrawn and due notice given the governor before any overt act should be taken by the committee.
W. T. Sherman was appointed major general of the militia, and governor issued a proclamation declaring San Francisco in a state of insurrection. Sherman soon resigned his commission in disgust, and in his memoirs distorts the truth so much, as to make his work as far as a history, to be so thoroughly unreliable as to be valueless. Besides endeavoring to enlist the state militia against the Vigilance Committee, the effort to get the United States troops at the presidio and Fort Point under General Wood, and the United States navy under Captain Farragut to interfere proved equally futile as did the appeal of Governor Johnson to President Pierce.
On Saturday, May 17th, the Vigilance Committee in force moved to their headquarters at Fort Gunnybags, and had a large bell placed in the top of their building to call the members together when wanted for an instant emergency.
They had hardly reached their quarters before the governor’s party circulated the statement that the committee had determined on no overt act.
This incensed the committee to that extent, that they determined to have no further communication with governor. The time for action had now come. Their guard in the county jail was removed and the governor was notified of the action taken.
Marshal Doane was notified to call out the entire membership and have them in attendance at 8 o’clock the next morning, which was Sunday, May 18th. Colonel Olney with a command of sixty men who had seen service, were delegated to watch the jail.
They came in at half past ten, in citizens dress, armed with pistols, and so scattered as not to attract attention.
The main body of the committee was maneuvered so as to march in different ways and upon reaching the block that surrounded the jail, to make the juncture so complete that at exactly ten minutes past twelve when the order to ground arms was given they should all come down at the same time. It was carried out exactly, and the cannon loaded to the muzzle was aimed at the door of the jail, the man with the lighted fuse, standing ready for the command to be given to “fire.”
The marshal then approached the jail and demanded first that James P. Casey be delivered up.
Upon this being reported to Casey with the added statement that if he were not delivered up, they proposed to fire upon the jail, he turned to Scannell and asked him if he could not defend it. Scannell replied that there were thousands of men in front of the jail and it was useless to oppose them. Coleman and Truett from the war committee then demanded the surrender of Casey.
Casey, fearing that he would be immediately executed, asked leave to speak ten minutes. Upon be assured that he would be protected, he was taken out, and placed in a carriage with Coleman and Truett. Upon his appearance, a murmur ran though the crowd, but the hand of Coleman raised produced a silence throughout the ranks unbroken in the march to the headquarters of the committee.
A force had been left at the jail, and notice was given the sheriff, that the committee would return for Cora.
This was done, and after some delay at the jail, Cora was also surrendered, and taken to Fort Gunnybags.
The New York Herald in commenting upon this event said “we cannot read the account of the taking of Casey and Cora from the scoundrels’ sanctuary–the county jail–without a thrill of admiration for the nerve and coolness of the armed citizens.”
It is stated that as the committee were marching to the jail that Sunday morning, a man on the sidewalk remarked to his companion, “When you see these Psalm-singing Yankees turn out on Sunday, you can just reckon there’s hell to pay.” The excitement, which became intenser each day, reached its climax when on Tuesday, May 20th, it was announced that James King of William had died. Thousands viewed his remains, which lay in Montgomery block, and the city was draped in mourning.
In the meantime Casey and Cora were each given a fair trial with counsel of their own selection, and had been found guilty as charged. Cora was somewhat of a fatalist, and from the moment Casey assassinated James King of William began to feel his doom was sealed. He, however, said if he had been as ably defended on his first trial, as he was before the committee, that he believed he would have been acquitted by the jury that then tried him.
The funeral services over James King of William were held Thursday, May 22d, and he was buried in Lone Mountain, now Laurel Hill Cemetery.
As the funeral procession left the Unitarian church then located in Stockton street between Clay and Sacramento, Casey and Cora were hanged from the rooms of the committee in Sacramento between Front and Davis. Cora made no remarks; but Casey was greatly agitated, and exclaimed several times “I am no murderer, I did not intend to commit murder; oh, my mother, my mother!”
There were a great many hard characters whom the Vigilance Committee were compelled to banish.
They had arrested some and taken them to Fort Gunnybags until they should have a convenient method of sending them away. Among these were Yankee Sullivan, who, being deprived of his usual rations of liquor, committed suicide on May 31, the cessation of his customary indulgence unseating his reason, and with a knife wound inflicted on his own arm he accomplished his exit from this life. Many persons were banished by order of the Vigilance Committee, upon penalty of being hanged should they ever return. The committee afterward, when good government was restored under the People’s Party, revoked their order of banishment.
Of these Billy Mulligan and Charles P. Duane created much trouble years afterward. Bill Mulligan was shot by policemen sent to arrest him at the old Francis Hotel in Dupont street. He proved so dangerous that they were compelled to shoot him. Charles P. Duane proved to be even a more desperate man. He killed one or two men more; but made the boast which he seemed to prove that he would never be hanged.
The so-called “Law and Order Party” were continually endeavoring to stir up all the feeling they could against the committee. They succeeded in securing at Sacramento some six cases of arms which were shipped on the schooner Julia to San Francisco. Two notorious scoundrels, members of the Law and Order Party, were deputized by that body to take charge of them on the passage. They were Maloney and Phelps. On the night of June 20, 1856, John L. Durkee of the Vigilance Committee with twelve chosen men succeeded in capturing the schooner and transferring her cargo to the headquarters of the Vigilance Committee.
In the meantime Maloney and Phelps, having been released, visited all the saloons in the city, making threats against certain members of the committee whom they swore to shoot on sight. Sterling A. Hopkins with four men was sent to arrest them, and meeting with more resistance than was anticipated, returned for reinforcements. In again approaching the headquarters of the “Law and Order Party,” a pistol was accidentally discharged and Judge D. S. Terry of the supreme court of the state, who had aided and abetted “The Hounds” and their followers, the “Law and Order Party,” all he could, turned suddenly upon Hopkins and stabbed him, with a large bowie knife, and then escaped with his friends to the rooms above.
The bell of the vigilantes sounded, and quickly the headquarters of the scoundrels was surrounded, and Terry captured and taken to the rooms of the Vigilance Committee.
Had Hopkins died, the murder of Broderick would have not afterward taken place, and the state would have not been further disgraced by the high-handed conduct of a judge who ought to have been a peaceful citizen, instead of the character he proved himself to be, as shown by the following sentence which the Vigilance Committee, after Hopkins’ full recovery and Terry’s trial, pronounced:
“That David S. Terry having been convicted after a full, fair, and impartial trial, of certain charges, before the Committee of Vigilance, and the usual punishment in their power to inflict not being applicable in the present instance,
“Therefore be it declared the decision of the Committee of Vigilance that the said David S. Terry be discharged from custody; and also resolved that in the opinion of the Committee of Vigilance the interests of the state imperatively demand that the said David S. Terry should resign his position as the judge of the supreme court.
“Resolved, that this resolution be read to David S. Terry, and he forthwith be discharged from the custody of the Committee of Vigilance on this being ratified by the Board of Delegates.”
The release of Terry created such intense excitement that for his safety the Executive Committee sent him to Sacramento on the steamer Adams, and thus closed the Terry incident.
One would have supposed that the most daring murderer would have hesitated to commit any other like crime, during the existence of the Vigilance Committee. It was reserved for Joseph Hetherington, who had killed other men, to deliberately kill Dr. Randall at this time. He was immediately arrested, as was also Philander Brace, a cold-blooded assassin who had made away with quite a number of men in the years preceding, and had never been punished for any of them. After a fair trial, in which these men were both convicted and found guilty, they were on July 29, 1856, hanged by the Vigilance Committee.
On August 14, 1856, just three months after their organizing, the committee disbanded and “Fort Gunnybags” disappeared from view. A public procession through the streets of the city was made by the members of the committee, in which there were nearly six thousand men in the ranks.
The New York Times on learning of this stated “It is due to these Vigilance Committees, both the first and second, to say that in no one instance have we discovered any abuse of their authority. We cannot learn that either of them hanged any person who did not richly deserve hanging.”
The Vigilance Committee of San Francisco is not to be compared with those sudden outbursts in frontier towns that have sometimes taken place in the history of our country. They are deserving of the highest praise for the manner in which they performed their work.
Nearly fifty years ago this noble band of men risked their lives, and pledged their honor one to the other to transmit to those who should follow them a pure government, and for several years succeeding, under the rule of the People’s Party, no city in all the Union was better governed than San Francisco. Later, beginning with the Civil war, and other events that followed, the two great national parties again managed to divide the attention of the voters, and the good work done by the committee was soon effaced by the success of one or the other of the political parties which held sway over elections throughout the land.
But these brave men have left an imperishable history, and have shown what the American–anglo-saxon–has done in this continent to settle the great issues that try men’s souls. It is doubtless true no other people could have done what they have accomplished. For nearly six thousand years the world has struggled for that true ideal of liberty which was only realized in the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.
The people who had to contend against the obstacles of nature, the wild beasts of the forests, and the wilder denizens of the howling wilderness, having wrenched liberty from their oppressors, pushed out as pioneers to people and settle the great heritage their prowess had secured to them.
In their struggles with wild beasts and the Indians, they learned to be expert marksmen, for it was often, if not always, their life or that of beast or Indian who came suddenly upon them. It was this that led them to be sure of their aim, and that told so fearfully under General Jackson at New Orleans when opposed to the flower of the British army who were almost annihilated in their onset against these yeomen. It was this that on sea and land has shown the superiority of the American as a fighter. The victories of Dewey and Schley can never be excelled, and before them fade away those of Nelson into comparative insignificance because of results. It was this spirit that led our California pioneers to overcome the obstacles in their way and to make this state the wonder of the world. These pioneers were instrumental in forming the Vigilance Committee, as it started in their rooms.
All honor then to these heroes who showed, only as an American population could show, how to pioneer a city out of the condition into which San Francisco had fallen, into that which to the student of history shall encircle them with imperishable glory, for the success that crowned their efforts. As we realize that in 1903 nearly a million emigrants came into New York harbor, that in the last month of that year thirty-five thousand came to San Francisco, let us echo the universal California sentiment relative to the class of men we desire to welcome to our Golden State, as expressed so eloquently in the halls of national legislation by one who lies buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery.
I would see its fertile plains, its sequestered vales, its deep blue canons, its furrowed mountains, dotted all over with American homes, the abodes of a free and happy people, with the sweet voices of flaxen-haired children, and ringing with the joyous laughter of the maiden fair, soft as our clime and sunny as our skies. Like the homes of New England, yea, better and brighter far, shall be the homes to be builded in the wonderland by the sunset sea. The homes of a race, from which shall spring the flower of men, to serve as models for the mighty world, and be the fair beginning of a better time.
Source: Leigh H. Irvine; A History of the New California Its Resources and People, 2 Volumes; New York and Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.