The Triumph Of The Vigilantes

Judge Terry was still a thorny problem to handle. After all, he was a Judge of the Supreme Court. At first his attitude was one of apparent humility, but as time went on he regained his arrogant attitude and from his cell issued defiances to his captors. He was aided and abetted by his high-spirited wife, and in many ways caused the members of the Committee a great deal of trouble. If Hopkins were to die, they could do no less than hang Terry in common consistency and justice. But they realized fully that in executing a Justice of the Supreme Court they would be wading into pretty deep water. The state and federal authorities were inclined to leave them alone and let them work out the manifestly desirable reform, but it might be that such an act would force official interference. As one member of the Committee expressed it, “They had gone gunning for ferrets and had coralled a grizzly.” Nevertheless Terry was indicted before the Committee on the following counts, a statement of which gives probably as good a bird’s eye view of Terry as numerous pages of personal description:

Resisting with violence the officers of the Vigilance Committee while in the discharge of their duties.

Committing an assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill Sterling A. Hopkins on June 21, 1856.

Various breaches of the peace and attacks upon citizens while in the discharge of their duties, specified as follows:

  1. Resistance in 1853 to a writ of habeas corpus on account of which one Roach escaped from the custody of the law, and the infant heirs of the Sanchez family were defrauded of their rights.
  2. An attack in 1853 on a citizen of Stockton named Evans.
  3. An attack in 1853 on a citizen in San Francisco named Purdy.
  4. An attack at a charter election on a citizen of Stockton named King.
  5. An attack in the court house of Stockton on a citizen named Broadhouse.

Before Terry’s case came to trial it was known that Hopkins was not fatally wounded. Terry’s confidence immediately rose. Heretofore he had been somewhat, but not much, humbled. Now his haughty spirit blazed forth as strongly as ever. He was tried in due course, and was found guilty on the first charge and on one of the minor charges. On the accusation of assault with intent to kill, the Committee deliberated a few days, and ended by declaring him guilty of simple assault. He was discharged and told to leave the State. But, for some reason or other, the order was not enforced.

Undoubtedly he owed his discharge in this form to the evident fact that the Committee did not know what to do with him. Terry at once took the boat for Sacramento, where for some time he remained in comparative retirement. Later he emerged in his old role, and ended his life by being killed at the hands of an armed guard of Justice Stephen Field whom Terry assaulted without giving Field a chance to defend himself.

While these events were going forward, the Committee had convicted and hanged two other men, Hetherington and Brace. In both instances the charge was murder of the most dastardly kind. The trials were conducted with due regard to the forms of law and justice, and the men were executed in an orderly fashion. These executions would not be remarkable in any way, were it not for the fact that they rounded out the complete tale of executions by the Vigilance Committee. Four men only were hanged in all the time the Committee held its sway. Nevertheless the manner of the executions and the spirit that actuated all the officers of the organization sufficed to bring about a complete reformation in the administration of justice.

About this time also the danger began to manifest itself that some of the less conscientious and, indeed, less important members of the Committee might attempt through political means to make capital of their connections. A rule was passed that no member of the Committee of Vigilance should be allowed to hold political office. Shortly after this decision, William Rabe was suspended for “having attempted to introduce politics into this body and for attempting to overawe the Executive Committee.”

After the execution of the two men mentioned, the interesting trial of Durkee for piracy, the settlement by purchase of certain private claims against city land, and the deportation of a number of undesirable citizens, the active work of the Committee was practically over. It held complete power and had also gained the confidence of probably nine-tenths of the population. Even some of the erstwhile members of the Law and Order party, who had adhered to the forms of legality through principle, had now either ceased opposition, or had come over openly to the side of the Committee. Another date of adjournment was decided upon. The gunnybag barricades were taken down on the fourteenth of August. On the sixteenth, the rooms of the building were ordered thrown open to all members of the Committee, their friends, their families, for a grand reception on the following week. It was determined then not to disorganize but to adjourn sine die. The organization was still to be held, and the members were to keep themselves ready whenever the need should arise. But preparatory to adjournment it was decided to hold a grand military review on the eighteenth of August. This was to leave a final impression upon the public mind of the numbers and powder of the Committee.

The parade fulfilled its function admirably. The Grand Marshal and his staff led, followed by the President and the Military Commanding General with his staff. Then marched four companies of artillery with fifteen mounted cannon. In their rear was a float representing Fort Gunnybags with imitation cannon. Next came the Executive Committee mounted, riding three abreast; then cavalry companies and the medical staff, which consisted of some fifty physicians of the town. Representatives of the Vigilance Committee of 1851 followed in wagons with a banner; then four regiments of infantry, more cavalry, citizen guards, pistol men, Vigilante police. Over six thousand men were that day in line, all disciplined, all devoted, all actuated by the highest motives, and conscious of a job well done.

The public reception at Fort Gunnybags was also well attended. Every one was curious to see the interior arrangement. The principal entrance was from Sacramento Street and there was also a private passage from another street. The doorkeeper’s box was prominently to the front where each one entering had to give the pass-word. He then proceeded up the stairs to the floor above. The first floor was the armory and drill-room. Around the sides were displayed the artillery harness, the flags, bulletin-boards, and all the smaller arms. On one side was a lunch stand where coffee and other refreshments were dispensed to those on guard. On the opposite side were offices for every conceivable activity. An immense emblematic eye painted on the southeast corner of the room glared down on each as he entered. The front of the second floor was also a guard-room, armory, and drilling floor. Here also was painted the eye of Vigilance, and here was exhibited the famous ballot-box whose sides could separate the good ballots from the bad ballots. Here also were the meeting-rooms for the Executive Committee and a number of cells for the prisoners. The police-office displayed many handcuffs, tools of captured criminals, relics, clothing with bullet holes, ropes used for hanging, bowie-knives, burglar’s tools, brass knuckles, and all the other curiosities peculiar to criminal activities. The third story of the building had become the armorer’s shop, and the hospital. Eight or ten workmen were employed in the former and six to twenty cots were maintained in the latter. Above all, on the roof, supported by a strong scaffolding, hung the Monumental bell whose tolling summoned the Vigilantes when need arose.

Altogether the visitors must have been greatly impressed, not only with the strength of the organization, but also with the care used in preparing it for every emergency, the perfection of its discipline, and the completeness of its equipment. When the Committee of Vigilance of 1856 adjourned subject to further call, there must have been in most men’s minds the feeling that such a call could not again arise for years to come.

Yet it was not so much the punishment meted out to evil-doers that measures the success of the Vigilante movement. Only four villains were hanged; not more than thirty were banished. But the effect was the same as though four hundred had been executed. It is significant that not less than eight hundred went into voluntary exile.

“What has become of your Vigilance Committee?” asked a stranger naively, some years later.

“Toll the bell, sir, and you’ll see,” was the reply. [1]Bancroft, Popular Tribunals, 11, 695.


1Bancroft, Popular Tribunals, 11, 695.

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