Vigilance Committee Criticized

By the Late James O’Mera, Pioneer Journalist [1]The late James O’Meara was a defender of the Law and Order party, which opposed the Vigilance Committee. The editor obtained the manuscript from a friend of the late James O’Meara, and … Continue reading

There have been two opinions of the work of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 ever since the days of its activity. Though Mr. Charles James King has presented the popular side quite fully it should be said, in justice to the memory of Cora, that one jury composed partly of high, reputable merchants, failed to find him guilty, and a second trial was hanging over his head at the time he was tried and convicted by the Vigilance Committee.

Mr. George K. Fitch, the venerable retired journalist, who was for many years editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, said to the author of this work in January, 1904: “The killing of United States Marshal Richardson was never clearly accounted for as to details. Of course Cora killed him, but whether the men had quarreled has always been unaccounted for and was a mystery during the trial.”

Mr. William M. Hinton, one of the venerable publishers of San Francisco, formerly a supervisor, and the man who brought out Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty,” said to the present writer in December, 1903: “The facts concerning Cora’s conviction by the Vigilance Committee have never been published. The late Auditor Thomas Smiley, of San Francisco, defended Cora before the Vigilance Committee, of which he was a member, and Smiley told me there was a tie vote as to the accused man’s guilt. A member of the committee said, ‘Suppose we settle it by the tossing of a half dollar,’ and Smiley is my authority for the statement that the committee flopped a half dollar. The throw went against the accused, and Cora was hanged on the chance verdict of the coin.”

George K. Fitch said he could not credit the story, because, “the Vigilance Committee was a body of very calm and temperate men of great deliberation and a high sense of justice. For ten successive years after their work the People’s Party won every election, the Democratic and Republican parties were side-tracked, and San Francisco was purified.”

Coming to Mr. O’Mear’s criticism, and preliminary to direct quotations from his manuscript, it should be said that he held that all published accounts of the committee’s work were by members or friends of that organization. As for himself, he was neither a member of the committee nor of their opponents,–the Law and Order Society, of which William T. Sherman (afterward a famous general) was the president. However, he endorsed and favored the work of the latter society. Here are Mr. O’Meara’s criticisms in his own words:

“First, as to the cause or pretense for the organization of the Vigilance Committee: It is declared by its ex-members and supporters, or apologists, that it was necessary for the reason that the law was not duly administered; that the courts, the fountains of justice, were either corrupted or neglectful of their duties; that juries were packed with unworthy men in important criminal cases, that there were gross frauds in elections, by which the will of the people was defied and defeated, and improper and dishonest men, some of them notorious rogues, were counted in and installed in public offices; and that there was a class of turbulent offenders who had the countenance, if not the support, of judges and officials in high places, and who, therefore, felt themselves to be above or exempt from the law.

“Tennyson has well remarked that there is no lie so baneful as one which is half truth. So it is in respect to these alleged reasons for the organization of that Vigilance Committee. It is not true that the courts were corrupt, neglectful or remiss. Judge Hager presided in the Fourth District Court, and his integrity and judicial qualifications, or judgments, have never been questioned or impeached. Judge Freelon presided as county judge; the same can be remarked of him. There was no material fault alleged against the Police Court. It is true, however, that in important criminal cases, and sometimes in civil suits, the juries were often packed. But why? I will state: Merchants and business men generally had great aversion to serve on juries, particularly in important criminal cases, which are usually protracted; and the jury were kept in comparative close condition, because their time was too valuable, and their business interests required their constant attention. They preferred, therefore, to pay the fine imposed, in case they were unable to prevail upon the judge to excuse them. Jury fees were inconsiderable in comparison with their daily profits; but it was the loss of time from their business which mainly actuated them.

“Yet these fees were sufficient to pay a day’s board and lodging, and to the many who were out of employment, serving on a jury was the means to both. there is, in every large community, the class known as professional jurymen–hangers about the court, eagerly waiting to be called. Thee were men of this kind then; there are more than enough of them still loitering about the courts, civil and criminal. San Francisco is not the only city in the United States in which defendants in grave criminal cases have recourse to every conceivable and possible means, without scruple, to procure their own acquittal, or the utmost modification of the penalty, by proving extenuating circumstances, or that the indictment magnifies the crimes. This was true of 1856, here, as elsewhere in the land; it is equally true now. Had the merchants and solid citizens then drawn as jurors, fulfilled their duty to the cause of justice, to the conservation and maintenance of law and order, they would have had no cause or pretense for the organization which they formed. The initial fault was attributable to themselves; the jury-packing they complained of was the direct consequence of their own neglect of that essential duty to the state, in the preservation of law and order; and they cannot reasonably or justly shift the onus from themselves upon the courts.

“Concerning the frauds in election: yes, there were frauds, outrageous frauds, at every election; repeaters, bullies, ballot-box stuffing, and false counts of the ballots to count out this candidate and count in the one favored of the ‘boys.’ More than one member of the Vigilance Executive Committee had thorough knowledge of all this, for the very conclusive reason that more than one of them had engaged in these frauds, had not only participated in them directly and indirectly, but had actually proposed them; employed the persons who had committed the frauds, and paid these tools round sums for the infamous service. The reward of these employers and accessories before, during and after the frauds, was the office that was coveted; and the ‘Hon.’ prefixed to their names was as the gilt which the watch-stuffer applies to the brass thing he imposes upon the greenhorn as a solid gold watch. Out of the committee, of the Executive Committee, the detectives of that body might have unearthed these honorable and virtuous purifiers and reformers; with them, perhaps others whose frauds were no less wicked and criminal; but in business transactions, and not in political affairs.

“One of the Executive Committee had served his term of two years in the Ohio state prison for forgery; here in San Francisco he had, during two city elections, been the trusted agent and disburser of a very heavy sack in the honest endeavor to secure the nomination, and promote the election, of his principal to high office; yet this pure man was honored by his associates of the committee, and became singularly active in pressing the expatriation of some of the very ‘ruffians and ballot-box stuffers’ he had patronized and paid. He had learned that ‘dead men told no tales.’ This pure character did not stand alone in his experience of penal servitude, as birds of a feather, and he was under no necessity of exemplifying Lord Dundreary’s bird, to go into a corner and flock by himself. That some turbulent offenders, and largely too many of them, defied the law, is likewise true. But that they were countenanced or favored by the judges, is utterly without truthful foundation. And it is remarkable that, of all the men hanged or expatriated by the committee, only two had ever been complained of or arraigned before the courts for any crime of violence; not one of them all had been accused or suspected of theft or robbery, or other felony. This is more, as I have just above stated, than can be said of some of the forty-one members of the Executive Committee. And among the members of the rank and file of the five thousand or six thousand enrolled upon the lists of the Committee–of natives and English-speaking citizens or residents–there were scores of scoundrels of every degree, bogus gold-dust operators, swindlers and fugitives from justice. Of the members of other nationalities–some of whom had not been in the country long enough to acquire English–I have no occasion to pass remark; but the fear of communism and disturbance, from the increase of its incendiary votaries in our country, east and here, cannot be lessened or composed by the recollection of the conduct of many of the same nationalities who then swelled the ranks of the Committee troops.

“Saturday, November 19, 1855, between 5 and 6 o’clock, the community was startled by the report that General Richardson, United State marshal, had been shot dead by a gambler. The shooting occurred on the south side of Clay street, about midway between Montgomery and Leidesdorff streets. the fatal shot was fired from a derringer pistol by Charles Cora. Cora was a gambler, yet he did not look the character. He was a low-sized, well-formed man; dressed in genteel manner, without display of jewelry or loudness; was reserved and quiet in his demeanor; and his manners and conversation were those of a refined gentleman. I first saw him at the Blue Wing, a popular rendezvous for politicians, on Montgomery street, east side, between Clay and Commercial streets, and my impression then was that he was a lawyer or a well-to-do merchant.

“General Richardson was a morose and at times a very disagreeable man. He was of low stature, thick set, dark complexion, black hair, and usually wore a bull-dog look. He was known by his intimate friends to be a dangerous man as a foe, and he always went armed with a pair of derringers. The Thursday night prior to the shooting General Richardson and Col. Jo. C. McKibben, afterward member of Congress, were at the Blue Wing in company. After midnight Richardson went out for a moment on the sidewalk. A man passed him, made a jocular remark and entered the saloon. Richardson followed him in, and asked of Perkins his name. He had been drinking heavily. McKibben prevailed upon him to start for his home. It was on Minna street, near Fred Woodworth’s, just above Jessie street. Jo. accompanied him most of the way. Richardson spoke to him of an ‘insult’ he had received from ‘that fellow Carter’–as he seemed to think the name to be–and declared his purpose to make him answer for it. McKibben knew Cora, and that Cora was the man to whom Richardson referred; but he likewise knew enough of Richardson to not correct him, and let him believe that ‘Carter’ was the name, in the hope that, in his condition, he would either not think of the occurrence the next day, or would not be able to recognize Cora if he did.

“The following Saturday afternoon a party of us–Jo. McKibben, John Monroe, clerk of Judge Hoffman’s Court, E. V. Joice, Pen. Johnston, Josh. Haven and myself–were in the Court Exchange, corner of Battery and Washington streets. Richardson came in while we were there, and was in drinking humor. he became sullen and, as we all know his nature, it was quietly agreed among ourselves that we would leave and try to get him away. He was devoted to his wife, whom he married in San Francisco. McKibben and myself accompanied him on his way home, as far as the old Oriental Hotel, within a few blocks of his residence. There he insisted on a ‘last drink,’ and we left him–he to go straight home.

“It turned out that he did not. He brooded over the ‘insult’ of Carter, as he still called him, and made his way to the Blue Wing to find him. Unfortunately he found Cora there. He called him out, and, as one man will lead another by his side, walked with him around the corner into Clay street, halting just in front of the store of a French firm–I do not remember the name–and so managed as to put Cora on the iron grating of the sidewalk inside, with his back to the brick wall of the store. Cora had not the slightest idea that Richardson had taken offence at his remark on Thursday night–for it was in no light offensive or insulting, but simply a bit of ordinary pleasantry, and therefore, he was not aware of Richardson’s object in asking him to come out from the saloon. But many of Richardson’s intimate friends, who felt his death keenly, and were at that time disposed to the extreme penalty of the law upon the man who shot him, after due reflection and deliberation came to the conclusion, that under the circumstances, standing as he was placed before Richardson, who stood with his hands in his pockets, and a derringer in each pocket, pressing his demand on Cora, the latter had one of two things to do; either to kill Richardson or allow Richardson to kill him.

“There were not many on Clay street, near the fatal scene, at that hour, but the discharge of Cora’s pistol soon brought several to the spot. Richardson’s body was carried through the side-door entrance on Clay street, into the drug store then on that corner of Montgomery street, and there hundred viewed it. Cora was taken in charge. Dave Scannell was sheriff. That excitement over, the feeling increased every hour, and many urged the summary hanging of Cora. Scannell had duly prepared for all this, and order was preserved, although several hundred men formed in line and proceeded to the county jail to force their way in, seize Cora and hang him forthwith. Sunday morning the excitement had diminished in spirit of violence, but had increased in volume and disposition to bring Cora to justice. Eminent lawyers, the personal friends of Richardson, had already volunteered to assist in the prosecution of the man who shot him.

“The application of Cora’s friends to several of the most noted criminal lawyers in the city, to defend him, was in many instances declined. Cora had one to his support, however, who proved more successful in engaging counsel in his behalf. This was the woman known as Belle Cora, the keeper of a notorious house, with whom Cora lived. She was rich and possessed of indomitable spirit. She was devoted to Cora. In this connection I will relate that which Governor Foote imparted to myself and J. Ross Browne, on a trip to Oregon, late in the summer of 1857. It was substantially this: Belle Cora had gone herself to the law office of Colonel E. D. Baker, to engage him as counsel for Cora, and had succeeded. The fee was to be $5,000; one-half this sum was immediately paid to him. She then applied to Governor Foote to engage him to assist in the case. He declined, but assured her that he should not appear for the prosecution. In a few days, on account of the intense popular feeling toward Cora, and also because the law partner of Colonel Baker had strenuously objected to his acting as counsel for Cora, as it would greatly damage their professional business and their personal standing the community, Baker called upon Governor Foote and requested him to see Belle Cora and apprise her that she must employ some other counsel; that he felt that he must withdraw from the case–the $2,500 already paid would be returned to her.

“To extricate his professional brother from his unpleasant situation, Governor Foote consented to undertake the disagreeable mission. The woman was immovable in her determination to keep Colonel Baker to his engagement. And she intimated in terms not to be misunderstood that she was determined that he should fulfill his obligation. Colonel Baker was a man of dauntless courage in facing dangers of human quality; but he was in constant fear at sea; and it seems there was another quality of peril which overmastered his intrepid spirit. When Governor Foote related to him the result of his mission, he advised the colonel to see the woman himself. Colonel Baker did go, Governor Foote accompanying him. The governor said he had never witnessed such a manifestation of a woman’s power and irresistible influence. Belle Cora was inspired to the height of heroism, in her devotion to Cora, her purpose to secure his acquittal and prevent his sacrifice. She first appealed, implored, begged Colonel Baker to stand by his engagement. He making no response, and seeming not to yield, she commanded that he must, that he should. She would double his fee. She would have him appear as Cora’s counsel, if he did no more than sit in court with Cora near him, and speak no work at all. But go on in court and have it known that he was Cora’s counsel, he must. She was inflexible in this. And when the day of trial came Colonel Baker did appear, together with General James A. McDougell, Colonel James and Frank Tilford–as counsel for Charles Cora, and it was on that trial that he made the most eloquent and extraordinary argument and plea for his life in a criminal case.

“It was not a packed jury in Cora’s case. Care had been taken to impanel only good respectable citizens, some of whom, a short time afterward, became members of the Vigilance Committee, and in great or less degree participated in the seizure of Cora from the county jail and in his condemnation and execution. Three of the jury were prominent Front street merchants. Notwithstanding all the feeling against Cora, the popular unrelenting prejudice, and the great preponderance of the foremost legal minds of the San Francisco bar, to his prosecution, Alex. Campbell, General Williams, and Colonel Sam Inge, U. S. District attorney, to assist the public prosecutor, the jury disagreed, and of the jurors who held out against a verdict of guilty of murder were three Front street merchants and others of equal high standing in the community. Cora was held for another trial, and it was while awaiting this that he was seized by the Vigilance Committee, taken to their rooms, and hanged.

“The excitement consequent upon the killing of Richardson did not culminate in the formation of a Vigilance Committee, similar to that of 1851, but it influenced the public mind in that direction. It was the piling of combustibles which required only the next spark from the electric battery to fire and heat to consuming flame. There were still in the city a round number of the early Vigilance Committee which had ridden San Francisco of the ‘Sidney theives;’ some who had also, in 1849, suppressed the ‘Hounds;’ and they were prepared again to meet violence and lawlessness with the stronger arm of organized force, and the quick, sharp vengeance of the lex talionis.

“The occasion soon came. May 14, 1856, between 4 and 5 o’clock, afternoon, James P. Casey shot James King of William on Montgomery street at the corner of Washington. He fired only one shot. King was facing Casey as he fired; he immediately staggered and fell. A crowd gathered in a very few moments. Casey was taken into custody and Sheriff Scannell hastened him to the county jail in a hack. The excited crowd followed and clamored for his life; they wanted to hang him at once. Then followed the organization of the Vigilance Committee, mailing directed by members of the committee of ’51.

“And the burning fact remains incredible that among the members of the Executive Committee were some who had themselves obtained office by bribery and corruption, by calling into play the stuffing of ballot-boxes and by all wicked and infamous means which were at that time practiced. Another member was, as I have stated before, a felon who had served his time in the Ohio state prison; another, still living and a highly respectable church member who professes holy horror of fraud, had in early ears colluded with his brother to get possession of valuable wharf property, of which the brother was agent and care-taker by appointment of the owner, who had returned to his home in the east, to be gone a year. The scheme of these brothers was a fraud of villainous conception, but it was clumsy, and therefore failed. On his return the courts restored the property to the rightful owner. I might go on and point out other members of the Executive Committee who had committed deeds which, had they been duly brought to answer in the courts, would have put upon them the felon’s brand and the convict’s stripes, in some instances; in others, pilloried them as rogues and swindlers, unworthy of trust, unfit for respectable association.

“But were one to trace the career of several others of that body the tracks would be through the sloughs and conduits of shame and turpitude, rascality and crime, and finally to self-murder. It was as bad–it could hardly have been worse, except in numbers, proportioned to the greater numerical force–as in the vigilance rank and file. It is against reason and sense to expect that in a body of five thousand men, there will be none who are not good and honorable; that there will be no base and disreputable characters, no rogues and scoundrels. Therefore, it is not strange that of the committee’s entire force, so many were of the vile stamp, notorious gold-dust ‘operators’ who robbed the honest miner of his ‘pile,’ by bare-faced fraud; mock auction sharpers, high-toned frauds and swindlers of low degree; and others who neither toiled nor spun, yet feasted and fattened. All these found in the ranks of the committee their own security from the incarceration and banishment enforced in the case of so many less culpable than themselves. But the onus rests upon the Executive Committee–they constituted the head and front of the grave offending of the very laws they usurped; they were the counselors and administrators, the accusers and arbiters, of the fate of their powerless victims. Theirs was a tribunal organized to convict–they were the prosecutors, the jurors, the judges, from whose fiat of condemnation there was no appeal; and defense was not allowed. Arrest meant death or banishment. The accused were prosecuted by the promoter or participant with them in the charged offense or crime, and convicted by the verdict in which some who had been accessories were most strenuous for conviction. It is a rule of law that the accuser shall come into court with clean hands.

“Ignoring this just rule and in defiance of law, in usurping the seat of justice, the Executive Committee gave opportunity to several of its members to ‘compound for sins they were inclined to, by damning those who had no mind to;’ to sit in judgment on those whose testimony or confession in a court of justice would have turned the tables and wrought the conviction of their accusers, prosecutors and judges. But these strictures do not apply to the greater number of the Executive Committee–to only about half a dozen of its members. The committee was composed mainly of honorable men, deservedly high in the community, in every walk and relation of life. They doubtless acted from a conscientious sense of duty, and neither intended usurpation of the law, violence to justice, nor any wrong whatever. They believed it incumbent upon them to reform what they regarded as the mal-administration of public affairs, and to cleanse the city of the corruption which existed–as it has existed and always will exist in populous communities, agreeably to the sentiment of Jefferson, that ‘cities are scabs upon the body politic.’ An with the best of motives, they believed that the organization of the Vigilance Committee was the better and surer remedial agent to these wholesome and commendable purposes. But their action was akin to that of the thousands of citizens who refrain from voting at primary elections, where the seed in planted which will produce its kind in the fruiting on the day of the final and determining election, and subsequently complain of the incompetency or dishonesty of the incumbents whose election is largely attributable to the neglect of these very citizens, to make it their special care that only good and qualified and worthy men shall be elected at the primaries.”

Concerning the character of Casey, Mr. O’Meara avers that the slayer of James King of William has been put in a false light. He thus describes the man and his record:

“Now, as to Casey; he has been described as a ruffian and villain of irredeemable depravity–desperate to the last degree. James P. Casey was a young man of bright, intelligent and rather prepossessing face, neat in his person, inclined to fine clothes, but not flashy or gaudy in his attire. He was of low stature, slender frame, lithe and compact, sinewy, nervous and very agile. His eyes were blue and large, of bold expression. His voice was full and sonorous. he had served as assistant county treasurer for two years, handled a large aggregate of money in that capacity, and his accounts squared to a cent when he handed over the books to his successor. He was twice supervisor. His record in that office will favorably compare with that of any who have succeeded him. During his lifetime in San Francisco he was never accused of crime; never suspected of criminal offense. Ballot-box stuffing was charged t his account; also fraudulent counting in elections. Doubtless there was foundation for each charge. But there were members of the Executive Committee who had been associated with him in these gross wrongs, and at least one of them had gained place and profit therefrom; and these equally or more guilty men voted to hang their former associate in evil deeds.”

“It will serve to state the offense for which Casey was sentenced to state prison in New York before he left for California. He had, the same as many other young men, taken up with a girl of loose character, whose chastity had been spoiled by another, and hired and furnished an apartment for her. The two lived as man and wife–much as too many live in that same relation, for they quarreled and separated. In his hot temper one day, he saw her upon the street, and instantly the thought flashed upon his mind that he would go to her apartment and have the furniture taken from it. He still kept a key to the door. He hired a wagon, and carried out his determination. The landlady supposed it to be all right. He had paid the rent in advance, and she was that much the gainer. He took the furniture to a second-hand furniture dealer, sold it and kept the money. As he bought it, he felt that it was his to sell. On the return of the girl, the landlady told her what had occurred. In taking the furniture he had also carried away some articles which belonged to the girl. She hurried to the police court, made charge against him, and he was arrested. He made no defense and was convicted. The sentence was eighteen months in Sing Sing Prison. He served his time and came to California. This was the damning record which James King of William had threatened to publish in his Bulletin. He did not publish the facts of the case; but only the fact of the indictment, the conviction, the sentence and the imprisonment. King had been told all this by a man who had been clerk to the district attorney, and was cognizant of all the facts. He was a prominent Broderick man, hated Casey for having left that wing of the party and joined the other wing, and adopted this means to blast him in reputation. Casey was morbidly sensitive on the subject. He had been apprised that King intended to publish the matter; and early in the afternoon of the day of the shooting he called upon Mr. King in his office, and warned him to desist from the publication. King gave no heed to the warning; the matter appeared in the Bulletin that day. Casey was exasperated to madness. He armed himself, watched for King on Montgomery street, but did not conceal himself. It was King’s invariable custom to leave his office in the small one-story brick building which so long obstructed Merchant street on the east side of Montgomery, soon after the Bulletin was issued, walk to the cigar store on the northwest corner of Washington and Montgomery streets, and thence out Washington street homeward. He usually wore a talma of coarse fabric, loose and reaching to his hips. it was sleeveless, concealing his arms and hands. As he came out of the cigar store, Casey hailed him. The distance between the two was about forty feet. Casey shouted to him, ‘Prepare yourself!’ and fired. King tottered and sunk upon the sidewalk. He had frequently made notice in his paper that any whom he denounced in its columns had the privilege of adopted their own mode of recourse; stated the route he usually took to and from his office, and with the significant hint, ‘Gold help any one who attacks me,’ defied that method of redress. Casey took him at his word. King was borne to the room in Montgomery Block, in which he died a few days afterward. The ball had penetrated his body from the left side of his breast, just below the line of the armpit, and ranging upward and outward to the back of the left shoulder. The surgeons pronounced it a dangerous but not a mortal wound. Dr. Beverly R. Cole was surgeon-general to the Committee Brigade, and a member of the committee. Months afterward he declared in a public statement of the case that King died from the unskillful treatment of the surgeons, and maintained that with proper treatment he would have recovered. Still it was the wound which super induced his death; and Casey had fired the ball which made it.”

O’Meara says there is ample evidence for the statement that the work of the famous committee of 1856 was not free from the bias, “pulls” and like weaknesses of mankind. Among other instances he cites the following:

“In the county jail at the time was Rod. Backus, a young man of good family, cousin of Phil Backus, an auctioneer of considerable prominence in mercantile and social circles. Rod. Backus had shot dead a man whose face he had never seen until the moment before he shot him, a dozen paces distant. It was in Stout’s Alley. It was a murder, a wanton murder, without provocation, excuse, extenuation or palliation whatever. Rod. Backus was a frequent visitor at a house of one Jennie French. As he came to visit her one evening, at dusk, she was standing in the doorway, at the head of the iron stairway which led to the entrance on the second floor. On the opposite side of the alley, walking slowly toward Jackson street was a man of ordinary appearance. As Rod. met her on the top platform, Jennie said to him: ‘Rod, that fellow has insulted me; shoot him!’ At the word, Backus drew his pistol and fired. The man fell. He had turned his face the moment Backus fired. It was instantly a fatal shot. Backus had influential friends among business men and politicians. The coroner held an inquest. A jury to hold Backus blameless had been secured, but they overshot their mark–the thing was too transparent, too bare-faced. The murdered man was a German, much respected by his countrymen. They determined to press the matter to justice.

“Backus was indicted, tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. None of just mind questioned the righteousness of the sentence. But his case was appealed, and at last he had his crime reduce in degree, and received sentence of a short term–three or five years in San Quentin prison. This easy let-off did not satisfy him; he wanted a verdict of acquittal, and expected still to get it. Accordingly he again appealed his case, and while in the county jail awaiting the action of the supreme court upon his appeal, the committee had seized and taken away Casey and Cora. He was not molested, nevertheless his fear of consequences impelled him to withdraw his appeal, submit to his sentence, and serve his term at San Quentin. He even begged to be taken there at once, and he was. The explanation made by the committee leaders for not taking Backus was that the law had already passed judgment in his case, and the committee was not disposed to interfere with the judgments of the courts. The explanation was puerile and inconsistent with their action in the case of Cora, who was also in the hands of the court, and awaiting another trial. A portion of the jury, among this portion Front street merchants and other respectable business men, had held him to be not guilty; and surely this was more than any juror had expressed in the case of Backus. Moreover Backus had himself demonstrated his dissatisfaction with the very mild verdict in his last trial, and was, the same as Cora, awaiting the issue of another trial. The common belief was that Backus owed his exemption from the grasp of the committee and from the dread penalty which Casey and Cora suffered, not to any doubt as to his guilt, but solely on account of his relationship and his social standing. He had been boon companion of many of the young men of the committee before he committed the murder in Stout’s alley.”

In conclusion Mr. O’Meara thus pays his respects to the committee:

“Colonel E. D. Baker had defended Charles Cora, at his trial, as I have related. He was positive and unreserved in his denunciation of the committee. Whether he was ever threatened with arrest I do not know; but he likewise left the city and went into the interior northern counties and there practiced his profession until September, when he entered into the presidential campaign as chief orator of the Republican party, for Fremont, and in November returned to his practice in San Francisco.

“The Vigilance Committee disbanded their military forces late in August. The Executive Committee held to them for future emergencies, but ceased their meetings. Fort Gunny Bags was dismantled. The rooms were abandoned; but as a closing scene a grand review of the military was held near South Park, and the rooms were thrown open to the public. Thousands, ladies and gentlemen and children went there, and looked at the stuffed ballot-box, at the nooses and ropes used in the hanging of Casey and Cora, of Hetherington and Brace, at the shackles and gyves, at all the other instruments and paraphernalia of the gallows and the cells, into the narrow cells and their scant furniture, and at all the ghastly curios of these haunted rooms of life and death, of mental torture and bodily suffering, of forced suicide and the mocking of the crazed victim of his own despair and desperation. It was a remarkable sight for women, an astounding treat to ladies, and such an example to children, boys and girls! But comment is not required.

“the city and county election was soon to follow. The committee men did not neglect the opportunity which their powerful organization had given them. The Executive Committee became practically a self-constituted nominating convention. Their rank and file were not forgotten. General Doane was nominated for sheriff. For every other office Vigilance men were named the candidates. None others had chance or hope. Their ticket was elected. They obtained the reward of their services in the organization, and profited accordingly. Thirty-one years have now passed since the existence of the committee. Many of its executive members are numbered with the dead. Some of them passed away in a manner to remain as an enduring sorrow to their kindred and connections. A few have prospered and occupy high places in the community. A very few enjoy office bestowed by the party they aided so much to destroy in 1856. On the monument erected over the ashes of Casey is the scriptural admonition for all mankind ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay.’ Retribution is with God alone. The generation of this period will best subserve the good of community by conformity to the divine injunction. And this would never have been written were it not for the many and frequent exparte, and incorrect publications which have been put forth as faithful and impartial accounts of the Vigilance Committee of 1856, of the character of those who suffered death and banishment at its hands, and of the causes which led to its organization. The task is done. May another similar to it never be required. The law of the land should suffice for every exigency. It sets no bad or dangerous example, but is always the conservator of the public welfare, the best protector of all, the voice of the people in accordance with the laws of God.”

In concluding this chapter it may be well to say that during the trail of Cora there was no definite reference to the nature of the dispute between General Richardson and his slayer. On the authority of Judge Oscar T. Shuck, a prominent legal author, Cora was a sober man, and General Richardson was drinking and in a quarrelsome mood the night before the killing.

The fame of Colonel E. D. Baker grew after his able defense of Cora. He was one of the greatest of California’s orators. Here are two extracts from his defense of Cora:

“The profession to which we belong is, of all others, fearless of public opinion. It has ever stood up against the tyranny of monarchs on the one hand, and the tyranny of public opinion on the other; and if, as the humblest among them, it becomes me to instance myself, I may say with a bold heart, and I do say it with a bold heart, that there is not in all this world a wretch, so humble, so guilty, so despairing, so torn with avenging furies, so pursued by the arm of the law, so hunted to cities of refuge, so fearful of life, so afraid of death;–there is no wretch so steeped in all the agonies of vice and crime, that I would not have a heart to listen to his cry, and a tongue to speak in his defense, though around his head all the wrath of public opinion should gather, and rage, and roar, and roll, as the ocean rolls around the rock. And if ever I forget, if I ever deny, that highest duty of my profession, may God palsy this arm and hush my voice forever.

[Colonel Baker here went into a long analysis of all the evidence].

“Mrs. Knight swears that Richardson had one arm raised. Two others, for the prosecution also, say he had not. Remember that the raising of his arm is life or death to us. If Cora killed him with his hands down, it is murder; if there was a struggle, it was different. I believe Richardson was brave. I don’t believe that the man who, twice in one day, could back Richardson up against a door, and put a pistol to his bosom and hold it there, while he, Richardson, cowered like a slave. Is there no moral law to be observed? Is there no correspondence in the nature of things? Did Richardson, as Mrs. Knight says, raise his arms? Did he, as Cotting says, have his arms pinioned? Now, before you go one step farther toward a conclusion, you must be satisfied on that point, and you must all agree upon it. Again, a pistol, cocked, was found near his hand. Now, I want to utter a word upon which eternal things may depend. I ask you, was that pistol drawn before Richardson was shot? Can you believe he stood up in that doorway for four minutes with a pistol cocked and say he was unarmed? Mr. Cook may have been mistaken, but whether he was or not the pistol was there, the knife was there. The were drawn; he drew them; they were drawn in combat; and being drawn, it justified the utmost extremity of arms, before men or angels.”

After further analysis of the evidence in his own matchless manner Colonel Baker reached his peroration. In part he said:

“That a woman should, in adversity and bitterness, and sorrow and crime, stand by her friend in the dungeon, on the scaffold, with her money, and tears, and defiance, and vengeance, all combined, is human and natural. This woman is bad; she has forgotten her chastity–fallen by early temptation from her high estate; and among the matronage of the land her name shall never be heard. She has but one tie, she acknowledges but one obligation, and that she performs in the gloom of the cell and the dread of death; nor public opinion, nor the passions of the multitude, nor the taunts of angry counsel, nor the vengeance of the judge, can sway her for a moment from her course. If any of you have it in your heart to condemn, and say ‘Stand back! I am holier than thou,’ remember Magdalene, name written in the Book of Life.

“I feel prouder of human nature. I have learned a new lesson. Hide him in the felon’s grave, with no inscription consecrated to the spot; and when you have forgotten it, and the memories of the day are past, there will be one bosom to heave a sigh in penitence and prayer, there will be one eye to weep a refreshing tear over the sod, one trembling hand to plant flowers above his head. Let them make the most of it. I scorn the imputation that infamy should rest on him for her folly and her faith. Let them make the most it, and when the great Judge of all shall condemn,–when, in that dread hour, you and I and she shall stand at the common tribunal for the deeds done or aimed to be done at this day,–if this be remembered against her at all, it will be lost in the record of a thousand crimes perpetrated by high and noble souls. Let a man who feels in his heart no responsive type of such traits of goodness, of truest courage in darkest destiny, let that man be the first to put his hand to the bloody verdict.

“There is public opinion now; there was no such thing as genuine public opinion at the time of the homicide–it was bastard. It is now calm, intelligent, reflecting, determined, and just. If you mean to be the oracles of this public opinion, in God’s name, speak! If you mean to be priests of the divinity which honest men may worship, answer! If you are the votaries of the other, you are but the inflamed Cassandra of a diseased imagination and of a prurient public mind. If of the former, I bow at your feet, in honor of the mysteries of your worship. Against this man the public press, so potent for good, so mighty for evil, inflames and convulses the public mind and judgment. There is not one thing they have said that is in accordance with truth and justice; there is not one version they have given that is based on testimony and facts.”

Now, that the reader has had a fair report of both sides of the great and world-famous Vigilance Committee he may judge whether San Francisco acted rightly or wrongly in her struggle for social order in the wonderful era that followed the discovery of gold.

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.


1 The late James O’Meara was a defender of the Law and Order party, which opposed the Vigilance Committee. The editor obtained the manuscript from a friend of the late James O’Meara, and quotations from it are frequent in this chapter.–Editor

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