The Storm Breaks

The Governor of the State at this time was J. Neely Johnson, a politician whose merits and demerits were both so slight that he would long since have been forgotten were it not for the fact that he occupied office during this excitement. His whole life heretofore had been one of trimming. He had made his way by this method, and he gained the Governor’s chair by yielding to the opinion of others. He took his color and his temporary belief from those with whom he happened to be. His judgment often stuck at trifles, and his opinions were quickly heated but as quickly cooled. The added fact that his private morals were not above criticism gave men an added hold over him.

On receipt of the request for the state militia by the law party, but not by the proper authorities. Governor Johnson hurried down from Sacramento to San Francisco. Immediately on arriving in the city he sent word to Coleman requesting an interview. Coleman at once visited him at his hotel. Johnson apparently made every effort to appear amiable and conciliatory. In answer to all questions Coleman replied:

“We want peace, and if possible without a struggle.”

“It is all very well,” said Johnson, “to talk about peace with an army of insurrection newly raised. But what is it you actually wish to accomplish?”

“The law is crippled,” replied Coleman. “We want merely to accomplish what the crippled law should do but cannot. This done, we will gladly retire. Now you have been asked by the mayor and certain others to bring out the militia and crush this movement. I assure you it cannot be done, and, if you attempt it, it will cause you and us great trouble. Do as Governor McDougal did in ’51. See in this movement what he saw in that–a local movement for a local reform in which the State is not concerned. We are not a mob. We demand no overthrow of institutions. We ask not a single court to adjourn. We ask not a single officer to vacate his position. We demand only the enforcement of the law which we have made.”

This expression of intention, with a little elaboration and argument, fired Johnson to enthusiasm. He gave his full support, unofficially of course, to the movement.

“But,” he concluded, “hasten the undertaking as much as you can. The opposition is stronger than you suppose. The pressure on me is going to be terrible. What about the prisoners in the jail?”

Coleman evaded this last question by saying that the matter was in the hands of the Committee, and he then left the Governor.

Coleman at once returned to headquarters where the Executive Committee was in session, getting rid of its routine business. After a dozen matters were settled, it was moved “that the Committee as a body shall visit the county jail at such time as the Executive Committee might direct, and take thence James P. Casey and Charles Cora, give them a fair trial, and administer such punishment as justice shall demand.”

This, of course, was the real business for which all this organization had been planned. A moment’s pause succeeded the proposal, but an instantaneous and unanimous assent followed the demand for a vote. At this precise instant a messenger opened the door and informed them that Governor Johnson was in the building requesting speech with Coleman.

Coleman found Johnson, accompanied by Sherman and a few others, lounging in the anteroom. The Governor sprawled in a chair, his hat pulled over his eyes, a cigar in the corner of his mouth. His companions arose and bowed gravely as Coleman entered the room, but the Governor remained seated and nodded curtly with an air of bravado. Without waiting for even the ordinary courtesies he burst out.

“We have come to ask what you intend to do,” he demanded.

Coleman, thoroughly surprised, with the full belief that the subject had all been settled in the previous interview, replied curtly.

“I agree with you as to the grievances,” rejoined the Governor, “but the courts are the proper remedy. The judges are good men, and there is no necessity for the people to turn themselves into a mob.”

“Sir!” cried Coleman. “This is no mob!–You know this is no mob!”

The Governor went on to explain that it might become necessary to bring out all the force at his command. Coleman, though considerably taken aback, recovered himself and listened without comment. He realized that Sherman and the other men were present as witnesses.

“I will report your remark to my associates,” he contented himself with saying. The question of witnesses, however, bothered Coleman. He darted in to the committee room and shortly returned with witnesses of his own.

“Let us now understand each other clearly,” he resumed. “As I understand your proposal, it is that, if we make no move, you guarantee no escape, an immediate trial, and instant execution?”

Johnson agreed to this.

“We doubt your ability to do this,” went on Coleman, “but we are ready to meet you half-way. This is what we will promise: we will take no steps without first giving you notice. But in return we insist that ten men of our own selection shall be added to the sheriff’s force within the jail.”

Johnson, who was greatly relieved and delighted, at once agreed to this proposal, and soon withdrew. But the blunder he had made was evident enough. With Coleman, who was completely outside the law, he, as an executive of the law, had no business treating or making agreements at all. Furthermore, as executive of the State, he had no legal right to interfere with city affairs unless he were formally summoned by the authorities. Up to now he had merely been notified by private citizens. And to cap the whole sheaf of blunders, he had now in this private interview treated with rebels, and to their advantage. For, as Coleman probably knew, the last agreement was all for the benefit of the Committee. They gained the right to place a personal guard over the prisoners. They gave in return practically only a promise to withdraw that guard before attacking the jail–a procedure which was eminently practical if they cared anything for the safety of the guard.

Johnson was thoroughly pleased with himself until he reached the hotel where the leaders of the opposition were awaiting him. Their keen legal minds saw at once the position in which he had placed himself. After a hasty discussion, it was decided to claim that the Committee had waived all right of action, and that they had promised definitely to leave the case to the courts. When this statement had been industriously circulated and Coleman had heard of it, he is said to have exclaimed:

“The time has come. After that, it is either ourselves or a mob.”

He proceeded at once to the Vigilance headquarters and summoned Olney, the appointed guardian of the jail. Him he commanded to get together sixty of the best men possible. A call was sent out for the companies to assemble. They soon began to gather, coming some in rank as they had gathered in their headquarters outside, others singly and in groups. Doorkeepers prevented all exit: once a man was in, he was not permitted to go out. Each leader received explicit directions as to what was to be done. He was instructed as to precisely when he and his command were to start; from what given point; along exactly what route to proceed; and at just what time to arrive at a given point–not a moment sooner or later. The plan for concerted action was very carefully and skillfully worked out. Olney’s sixty men were instructed to lay aside their muskets and, armed only with pistols, to make their way by different routes to the jail.

Sunday morning dawned fair and calm. But as the day wore on, an air of unrest pervaded the city. Rumors of impending action were already abroad. The jail itself hummed like a hive. Men came and went, busily running errands, and darting about through the open door. Armed men were taking their places on the flat roof. Meantime the populace gathered slowly. At first there were only a score or so idling around the square; but little by little they increased in numbers. Black forms began to appear on the rooftops all about; white faces showed at the windows; soon the center of the square had filled; the converging streets became black with closely packed people. The windows and doors and balconies, the copings and railings, the slopes of the hills round about were all occupied. In less than an hour twenty thousand people had gathered. They took their positions quietly and waited patiently. It was evident that they had assembled in the role of spectators only, and that action had been left to more competent and better organized men. There was no shouting, no demonstration, and so little talking that it amounted only to a low murmur. Already the doors of the jail had been closed. The armed forces on the roof had been increased.

After a time the congested crowd down one of the side-streets was agitated by the approach of a body of armed men. At the same instant a similar group began to appear at the end of another and converging street. The columns came steadily forward, as the people gave way. The men wore no uniforms, and the glittering steel of their bayonets furnished the only military touch. The two columns reached the convergence of the street at the same time and as they entered the square before the jail a third and a fourth column debouched from other directions, while still others deployed into view on the hills behind. They all took their places in rank around the square.

Among the well-known characters of the times was a certain Colonel Gift. Mr. Hubert H. Bancroft, the chronicler of these events, describes him as “a tall, lank, empty-boweled, tobacco-spurting Southerner, with eyes like burning black balls, who could talk a company of listeners into an insane asylum quicker than any man in California, and whose blasphemy could not be equaled, either in quantity or quality, by the most profane of any age or nation.” He remarked to a friend nearby, as he watched the spectacle below: “When you see these damned psalm-singing Yankees turn out of their churches, shoulder their guns, and march away of a Sunday, you may know that hell is going to crack shortly.”

For some time the armed men stood rigid, four deep all around the square. Behind them the masses of the people watched. Then at a command the ranks fell apart and from the side-streets marched the sixty men chosen by Olney, dragging a field gun at the end of a rope. This they wheeled into position in the square and pointed it at the door of the jail. Quite deliberately, the cannon was loaded with powder and balls. A man lit a slow match, blew it to a glow, and took his position at the breech. Nothing then happened for a full ten minutes. The six men stood rigid by the gun in the middle of the square. The sunlight gleamed from the ranks of bayonets. The vast multitude held its breath. The wall of the jail remained blank and inscrutable.

Then a man on horseback was seen to make his way through the crowd. This was Charles Doane, Grand Marshal of the Vigilantes. He rode directly to the jail door, on which he rapped with the handle of his riding-whip. After a moment the wicket in the door opened. Without dismounting, the rider handed a note within, and then, backing his horse the length of the square, came to rest.

Again the ranks parted and closed, this time to admit of three carriages. As they came to a stop, the muskets all around the square leaped to “present arms!” From the carriages descended Coleman, Truett, and several others. In dead silence they walked to the jail door, Olney’s men close at their heels. For some moments they spoke through the wicket; then the door swung open and the Committee entered.

Up to this moment Casey had been fully content with the situation. He was, of course, treated to the best the jail or the city could afford. It was a bother to have been forced to shoot James King of William; but the nuisance of incarceration for a time was a small price to pay. His friends had rallied well to his defense. He had no doubt whatever, that, according to the usual custom, he would soon work his way through the courts and stand again a free man. His first intimation of trouble was the hearing of the resonant tramp of feet outside. His second was when Sheriff Scannell stood before him with the Vigilantes’ note in his hand. Casey took one glance at Scannell’s face.

“You aren’t going to betray me?” he cried. “You aren’t going to give me up?”

“James,” replied Scannell solemnly, “there are three thousand armed men coming for you and I have not thirty supporters around the jail.”

“Not thirty!” cried Casey astonished. For a moment he appeared crushed; then he leaped to his feet flourishing a long knife. “I’ll not be taken from this place alive!” he cried. “Where are all you brave fellows who were going to see me through this?”

At this moment Coleman knocked at the door of the jail. The sheriff hurried away to answer the summons.

Casey took the opportunity to write a note for the Vigilantes which he gave to the marshal. It read:

“To the Vigilante Committee. GENTLEMEN:–I am willing to go before you if you will let me speak but ten minutes. I do not wish to have the blood of any man upon my head.”

On entering the jail door Coleman and his companions bowed formally to the sheriff.

“We have come for the prisoner Casey,” said Coleman. “We ask that he be peaceably delivered us handcuffed at the door immediately.”

“Under existing circumstances,” replied Scannell, “I shall make no resistance. The prison and its contents are yours.”

But Truett would have none of this. “We want only the man Casey at present,” he said. “For the safety of all the rest we hold you strictly accountable.”

They proceeded at once to Casey’s cell. The murderer heard them coming and sprang back from the door holding his long knife poised. Coleman walked directly to the door, where he stopped, looking Casey in the eye. At the end of a full minute he exclaimed sharply:

“Lay down that knife!”

As though the unexpected tones had broken a spell, Casey flung the knife from him and buried his face in his hands. Then, and not until then, Coleman informed him curtly that his request would be granted.

They took Casey out through the door of the jail. The crowd gathered its breath for a frantic cheer. The relief from tension must have been great, but Coleman, bareheaded, raised his hand and, in instant obedience to the gesture, the cheer was stifled. The leaders then entered the carriage, which immediately turned and drove away.

Thus Casey was safely in custody. Charles Cora, who, it will be remembered, had killed Marshal Richardson and who had gained from the jury a disagreement, was taken on a second trip.

The street outside headquarters soon filled with an orderly crowd awaiting events. There was noticeable the same absence of excitement, impatience, or tumult so characteristic of the popular gatherings of that time, except perhaps when the meetings were conducted by the partisans of Law and Order. After a long interval one of the Committee members appeared at an upper window.

“It is not the intention of the Committee to be hasty,” he announced. “Nothing will be done today.”

This statement was received in silence. At last someone asked:

“Where are Casey and Cora?”

“The Committee hold possession of the jail. All are safe,” said the Committee man.

With this simple statement the crowd was completely satisfied, and dispersed quietly and at once.

Of the three thousand enrolled men, three hundred were retained under arms at headquarters, a hundred surrounded the jail, and all the rest were dismissed. Next day, Monday, headquarters still remained inscrutable; but large patrols walked about the city, collecting arms. The gunshops were picketed and their owners were warned under no circumstances to sell weapons. Towards evening the weather grew colder and rain came on. Even this did not discourage the crowd, which stood about in its sodden clothes waiting. At midnight it reluctantly dispersed, but by daylight the following morning the streets around headquarters were blocked. Still it rained, and still apparently nothing happened. All over the city business was at a standstill. Men had dropped their affairs, even the most pressing, either to take part in this movement or to lend the moral support of their presence and their interest. The partisans of Law and Order, so called, were also abroad. No man dared express himself in mixed company openly. The courts were empty. Some actually closed down, with one excuse or another; but most of them pretended to go through the forms of business. Many judges took the occasion to leave town–on vacation, they announced. These incidents occasioned lively comment. As our chronicler before quoted tells us: “A good many who had things on their minds left for the country.” Still it rained steadily, and still the crowds waited.

The prisoners, Casey and Cora, had expected, when taken from the jail, to be lynched at once. But, since the execution had been thus long postponed, they began to take heart. They understood that they were to have a clear trial “according to law”–a phrase which was in those days immensely cheering to malefactors. They were not entirely cut off from outside communication. Casey was allowed to see several men on pressing business, and permitted to talk to them freely, although before a witness from the Committee. Cora received visits from Belle Cora, who in the past had spent thousands on his legal defense. Now she came to see him faithfully and reported every effort that was being made.

On Tuesday, the 20th, Cora was brought before the Committee. He asked for counsel, and Truett was appointed to act for him. A list of witnesses demanded by Cora was at once summoned, and a sub-committee was sent to bring them before the board of trial. All the ordinary forms of law were closely followed, and all the essential facts were separately brought out. It was the same old Cora trial over again with one modification; namely, that all technicalities and technical delays were eliminated. Not an attempt was made to confine the investigation to the technical trial. By dusk the case for the prosecution was finished, and that for the defense was supposed to begin.

During all this long interim the Executive Committee had sat in continuous session. They had agreed that no recess of more than thirty minutes should be taken until a decision had been reached. But of all the long list of witnesses submitted by Cora for the defense not one could be found. They were in hiding and afraid. The former perjurers would not appear.

It was now falling dusk. The corners of the great room were in darkness. Beneath the elevated desk, behind which sat Coleman, Bluxome, the secretary, lighted a single oil lamp, the better to see his notes. In the interest of the proceedings a general illumination had not been ordered. Within the shadow, the door opened and Charles Doane, the Grand Marshal of the Vigilantes, advanced three steps into the room.

“Mr. President,” he said clearly, “I am instructed to announce that James King of William is dead.”

The conviction of both men took place that night, and the execution was ordered, but in secret.

Thursday noon had been set for the funeral of James King of William. This ceremony was to take place in the Unitarian church. A great multitude had gathered to attend. The church was filled to overflowing early in the day. But thousands of people thronged the streets round about, and stood patiently and seriously to do the man honor. Historians of the time detail the names of many marching bodies from every guild and society in the new city. Hundreds of horsemen, carriages, and foot marchers got themselves quietly into the line. They also were excluded from the funeral ceremonies by lack of room, but wished to do honor to the cortege. This procession is said to have been over two miles in length. Each man wore a band of crepe around his left arm. All the city seemed to be gathered there. And yet the time for the actual funeral ceremony was still some hours distant.

Nevertheless the few who, hurrying to the scene, had occasion to pass near the Vigilante headquarters, found the silent square guarded on all sides by a triple line of armed men. The side-streets also were filled with them. They stood in the exact alignment their constant drill had made possible, with bayonets fixed, staring straight ahead. Three thousand were under arms. Like the vast crowd a few squares away, they, too, stood silent and patiently waiting.

At a quarter before one the upper windows of the headquarters building were thrown open and small planked platforms were thrust from two of them. Heavy beams were shoved out from the flat roof directly over the platforms. From the ends of the beams dangled nooses of rope. After this another wait ensued. Across the silence of the intervening buildings could be heard faintly from the open windows of the church the sound of an organ, and then the measured cadences of an oration. The funeral services had begun. As though this were a signal, the blinds that had closed the window openings were thrown back and Cora was conducted to the end of one of the little platforms. His face was covered with a white handkerchief and he was bound. A moment later Casey appeared. He had asked not to be blindfolded. Cora stood bolt upright, motionless as a stone, but Casey’s courage broke. If he had any hope that the boastful promises of his friends would be fulfilled by a rescue, that hope died as he looked down on the set, grim faces, on the sinister ring of steel. His nerve then deserted him completely and he began to babble.

“Gentlemen,” he cried at them, “I am not a murderer! I do not feel afraid to meet my God on a charge of murder! I have done nothing but what I thought was right! Whenever I was injured I have resented it! It has been part of my education during twenty-nine years! Gentlemen, I forgive you this persecution! O God! My poor Mother! O God!”

It is to be noted that he said not one word of contrition nor of regret for the man whose funeral services were then going on, nor for the heartbroken wife who knelt at that coffin. His words found no echo against that grim wall of steel. Again ensued a wait, apparently inexplicable. Across the intervening housetops the sound of the oration ceased. At the door of the church a slight commotion was visible. The coffin was being carried out. It was placed in the hearse. Every head was bared. There followed a slight pause; then from overhead the church-bell boomed out once. Another bell in the next block answered; a third, more distant, chimed in. From all parts of the city tolled the requiem.

At the first stroke of the bell the funeral cortege moved forward toward Lone Mountain cemetery. At the first stroke the Vigilantes as one man presented arms. The platforms dropped, and Casey and Cora fell into eternity.

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