The Reign of Disorder

Much falsehood has gone abroad regarding the social life of California–particularly of San Francisco–during the first decade after the discovery of gold. It is known to all who have studied the question, even superficially, that lynch law now and then ruled mining camps, often with a reckless hand; that mobs dealt from suddenly improvised courts quick and summary judgments on the misdeeds and alleged misdeeds of men, but it is not known that the provocation was in some instances so great as to move the most conservative citizens to endorse the irregular proceedings of those perilous times.

That San Francisco startled the world with its vigilance committees of 1851 and 1856, also by its dealings with the ruffians of 1849, is likewise commonly known to the world. But the admitted facts have now and then been so grossly misrepresented as to put the early builders of the city and the state in the light of desperadoes, and it is to correct some of these impressions, as well as to hold the committees responsible for some delinquencies, that the subject is introduced at this time. Let it be a consolation to those members of the committees who still live and to their friends and defenders that the calm and far-away verdict of some of the world’s greatest newspapers–and this in the conservative newspaper days of half a century ago–inclined to justify much of that which was done off-hand, and while the people were suffering from gross evils.

In the pages following these explanations Mr. Charles James King gives a clear account of the Vigilance Committee of 1856, which was organized to avenge the felonious killing of his father, then editor of the Bulletin. Mr. King’s interpretation of the events that have long been of important historical value is the interpretation of a strong defender of the acts of the Committee. He could not, of course, argue otherwise than that so great an outrage as the murder of his father merited speedy punishment.

Following Mr. King’s graphic description of the stirring and unfortunate events that robbed him of his father is presented the other side of the shield, the case as set forth by the late James O’Meara, a pioneer journalist and a sharp critic of the Vigilance Committee. The double statement enables the reader to have an impartial presentation of the great story of San Francisco’s struggles to establish respect for the laws.

In advance of reading either account, however, the reader should know certain facts essential to an intelligent understanding of the situation that preceded the drama enacted in 1856. It is, therefore, necessary to go back nearly seven years–for the nucleus of later events found origin in pioneer days.

The first uprising of any important was in July, 1849. A band of ruffians called the Hounds (and they named themselves) organized, as they pretended, for self-protection in the mining districts. They announced that they were opposed to cheap foreign and native laborers. To carry out their alleged plans they established headquarters in San Francisco, where they assumed the task of “regulating” society. Now and then they committed deeds of violence, such as tearing down the tents of chileans, beating inoffensive people, and carrying away goods and merchandise by force. July 15, 1849, fell on Saunday, and that day the Hounds became unusually bold. Returning from a picnic in Contra Costa county, they boldly marched through the principal streets to the Chilean quarters at Clark’s Point. There they tore down tents, beat the owners and occupants, plundered them, and even fired upon their frightened victims.

The fair-minded public was fired to indignation, the alcalde called a public meeting at Portsmouth Square, a popular part of early San Francisco. At that meeting Samuel Brannan, a hot-tempered leader of those days, addressed the crowd. He urged that it was necessary to do something radical to suppress the Hounds. In truth everybody knew that the purpose of the meeting was to take vigorous measures against that organization, and the members had already begun to take flight or to prepare to leave on a moment’s notice. As an evidence of their humanity the audience subscribed a generous fund for the relief of the plundered Chileans, and thirty men enrolled themselves as special constables to make a sort of manhunt for the Hounds. Before night twenty of the miscreants had been arrested and locked up on the United States ship Warren, there to await trial by the Committee. The defendants were tried before a popular judge, ten of them were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, but the judgment of the court was never put into execution. The result of the raid and conviction was effective, however, for it broke up the organization of Hounds.

Just here one obtains a clear idea of the unsettled state of society when it is remembered that the Hounds, during the period of their unbridled strength, were in the habit of visiting stores and taking whatever they desired. Old citizens often have told me that these ruffians would walk away with merchandise, saying in an impudent tone, “Charge this to the Hounds.” It is not remarkable that there was a glad response to the call to suppress the organization. It is also of passing interest to say that these desperadoes were permitted to live in the sand dune region, thought they were known to be criminals from New York and various Australian ports. That they feared the popular verdict was shown by their cowardly flight toward San Jose when they realized that the public conscience had experienced an awakening and that retributive justice was likely to pursue them.

It should be said that there was a great fire in San Francisco in December, 1849. The burned district was soon rebuilt, however, and few people were sorry that the conflagration had come upon the city. There was a second fire on May 4, 1850. The losses were great, for the disaster destroyed three million dollars’ worth of stores and warehouses. A third fire occurred June 14, and on September 17, 1850, there was yet another serious blaze. By that time people were becoming suspicious of incendiaries. On June 22, 1851, there came a great fire that destroyed many residences. It is known in history as the poor man’s fire.

Now, from the outset many citizens believed that the fires were the work of desperate criminals. In addition to this fact, there were many mutterings that wretches were being allowed to go unwhipped of justice. All the pioneers with whom I have talked are free to say that conditions were bad. In a history published by the illustrious Anton Roman, though he was not the author of it, these statements were made:

“The rapid influx of immigrants, of which thirty-six thousand are estimated to have entered San Francisco in this single year, the loose state of public morals and of government–rendered San Francisco a perfect pandemonium. The sun rose upon vessels from every port discharging their cargoes of miscellaneous wares and of people. All day it beheld the masses of humanity crowding the long wharves, filling the streets, struggling, battling, drinking, and gambling wildly; looking with unpitying eyes on a corpse covered with blood, joking with the murderer, or hurrying him with frantic execration to the jail. And at night the scene was scarcely less strange. Men wandered up and down the sand hills, eagerly seeking shelter; or gathered in the brilliantly lighted saloons, or, perhaps beggared and forlorn, lay part thinking of home or breathing out their last sighs unheeded.

“This was the daily and nightly life of San Francisco and of the distant mining camps. Still, withal there was some good in California; her treasures were not all quandered in vice. Among so many, it would have been strange if no men of wisdom and worth could be found. There were a few; and these became the saviors of San Francisco.

“Early in 1851 the glaring abuses of the city government again attracted attention; and not even the excitement occasioned by rumors of discoveries of great value at ‘Gold Bluffs’ and elsewhere could turn the public from their local duties.

“Robberies and murders were far too frequent, and too openly winked at by those in authority, to admit of longer delay.

“Over five thousand people collected around the city hall, declaring that murder should no longer go unpunished. For thirty-six hours the excitement continued, and the mob continually increased in numbers. A jury was impaneled, and several men were arrested, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. They were, however, suffered to escape.

“Two or three months later, the Vigilance Committee again took the power into their own hands. Daily murders, robberies, and incendiarisms they considered demanded their interference with the slow and lenient process of the law.”

During this absence of justice from the courts crime held its own, and more than its own, in the city. On February 19, 1851, a merchant of the name of Jansen was assaulted, wounded, and robbed by two men. The public and the press were indignant, for the attempted murder was the culmination of a long train of like iniquities that had gone unpunished. The Alta, a leading newspaper, said editorially: “How many murders have been committed in this city within a year? And who has been hung or punished for the crime? Nobody. How many men shot and stabbed, knocked down and bruised; and who has been punished for it? How many thefts and arson, robberies and crimes of less note; and where are the perpetrators? Gentlemen at large, citizens, free to re-enact their outrages.”

When it is said that the Alta was considered a cool and very conservative publication one may understand somewhat of the temper of the times and the provocations endured by the people.

The agitation bore fruit. The arrest of two men–one supposed to be Stuart, one of the robbers–was the occasion of the organization of a mob that tried to seize the prisoners in the court room, drag them to a post, and hang them forthwith. The prisoners were saved by their guards, but not until after a stubborn fight. But the desire for popular justice grew fast, and by the next day a vigilance committee was formed. The episode of the Hounds was remembered, and it was believed that a stern organization would be able to banish criminals and suppress crime. The weakness of this committee’s cause at that moment lay in the fact that the supposed guilty Stuart was in truth an innocent man of the name of Bardue. He bore a striking resemblance to the real culprit, and the wounded merchant thought the suspect was the man that had assaulted him.

On June 8, 1851, a call for a committee of safety appeared in the Alta. It is now known that the letter–then published without any name–was from Mr. R. S. Watson, who has since admitted the authorship. On June 11 the movement for such an organization had become so popular as to have the quasi endorsement of the Alta and of many of the best citizens. The Alta remarked: “We understand that quite a large party banded themselves together at the California Engine House for the purpose of punishing incendiaries and other criminals.” There was no direct endorsement, but the editor took pains to explain that the meeting was not a mere mob.

A common thief, one Jenkins, ws tried and convicted by the committee, which consisted of more than one hundred and eighty-four prominent men. The trial took place between 10 and 12 o’clock one night. He had been discovered stealing a safe on Long Wharf on June 10, and the verdict to hang him–eighty or more men being on the jury–was unanimous. Two hours after the finding of the verdict the man was dead. On June 12 the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict that blamed two or three men of the committee, whereupon a statement was published and signed by one hundred and eighty-nine prominent citizens, and in this they freely confessed that all whose names were signed were equally implicated in the hanging of Jenkins. Nothing ever came of the confession, for there was no public sentiment that would have strongly blamed or convicted the members of the committee.

During June, July, and August, the committee was busy with similar work. It caught and hanged the true Stuart, and drove many ruffians and Sydney “coves” from the state. In August the organization barely missed an open collision with the authorities, but diplomacy averted this trouble and the object-lesson of the committee’s work is said to have been a deterrent to criminals. It certainly made a deep impression on the minds of the people at large. A study of the social evolution of San Francisco compels the conclusion that the work of the first vigilance committee made possible the organization and labors of the second, the famous committee of 1856. Many of the members of the first organization were leading spirits in the second–men like William T. Coleman, an active spirit in both organizations.

By the autumn of 1855 San Francisco began to realize that much of its social life was still crude, even wicked. During 1855 there had been, it is said, more than five hundred homicides in the city, and it is claimed that the law was powerless to punish those who had committed these crimes against life and society. Everywhere upright citizens denounced these deeds, though few were found with the courage to denounce the criminals by name.

Though it is probably true, as William H. Mills says, that any community that is obliged to establish a vigilance committee thereby indicts itself for many sins of omission, the other truth remains that, in the case at hand, ballot-box stuffing and other forms of corruption were exasperating beyond tolerance.

One should understand that the best business men were not in a mood to blame themselves for the existence of grave wrongs. They forgot that if juries were bad it was often because the eager desire to make money absorbed men of affairs, who dodged jury duty and made way for bribery. That there was much iniquity in high places, is doubtless true–and some of this the honest citizen would have been put to his wits to remedy, yet it can not be gainsaid that honest and able men like Judge Hager and District Attorney Byrne were in office–and one of the offenders that paid the penalty in 1856, under “popular justice” was awaiting trial in Judge Hager’s court at the time the committee seized him and assumed superior jurisdiction.

A clear-voiced call to rectify existing evils came through the San Francisco Bulletin, then edited by a former banker, James King, or James King “of William,” as he signed his name. He established his paper in October, 1855, and so vigorous was his policy that several enlargements were required within a few months. His paper was popular all over the state and he was looked upon as a brave deliverer of the people, one that spoke words already long overdue. Though he made himself popular with the best people, he was despised by the wicked.

The crisis that cost him his life and that plunged the community into the perplexities of the vigilance committee days, came in May, 1856, when King was shot down in the street by James Casey, then ad editor, a supervisor, and a man with much political power. Six days later King died, and soon thereafter the great Vigilance Committee of 1856 was organized. The story of its career, as told by Charles James King, surviving son of the martyred editor, is in the pages that follow. Mr. King has made a life-study of the events that culminated in the killing of his father, and the account is interesting.

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.

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