The Vigilantes Of ’51

In 1851 the price for one commodity became too high. That commodity was lawlessness.

In two years the population of the city had vastly increased, until it now numbered over thirty thousand inhabitants. At an equal or greater pace the criminal and lawless elements had also increased. The confessedly criminal immigrants were paroled convicts from Sydney and other criminal colonies. These practiced men were augmented by the weak and desperate from other countries. Mexico, especially, was strongly represented. At first few in numbers and poverty-stricken in resources, these men acted merely as footpads, highwaymen, and cheap crooks. As time went on, however, they gradually became more wealthy and powerful, until they had established a sort of caste. They had not the social importance of many of the “higher-ups” of 1856, but they were crude, powerful, and in many cases wealthy. They were ably seconded by a class of lawyers which then, and for some years later, infested the courts of California. These men had made little success at law, or perhaps had been driven forth from their native haunts because of evil practices. They played the game of law exactly as the cheap criminal lawyer does today, but with the added advantage that their activities were controlled neither by a proper public sentiment nor by the usual discipline of better colleagues. Unhappily we are not yet far enough removed from just this perversion to need further explanation of the method. Indictments were fought for the reason that the murderer’s name was spelled wrong in one letter; because, while the accusation stated that the murderer killed his victim with a pistol, it did not say that it was by the discharge of said pistol; and so on. But patience could not endure forever. The decent element of the community was forced at last to beat the rascals. Its apparent indifference had been only preoccupation.

The immediate cause was the cynical and open criminal activity of an Englishman named James Stuart. This man was a degenerate criminal of the worst type, who came into a temporary glory through what he considered the happy circumstances of the time. Arrested for one of his crimes, he seemed to anticipate the usual very good prospects of escaping all penalties. There had been dozens of exactly similar incidents, but this one proved to be the spark to ignite a long gathering pile of kindling. One hundred and eighty-four of the wealthiest and most prominent men of the city formed themselves into a secret Committee of Vigilance. As is usual when anything of importance is to be done, the busiest men of the community were summoned and put to work. Strangely enough, the first trial under this Committee of Vigilance resulted also in a divided jury. The mob of eight thousand or more people who had gathered to see justice done by others than the appointed court finally though grumblingly acquiesced. The prisoners were turned over to the regular authorities, and were eventually convicted and sentenced.

So far from being warned by this popular demonstration, the criminal offenders grew bolder than ever. The second great fire, in May, 1851, was commonly believed to be the work of incendiaries. Patience ceased to be a virtue. The time for resolute repression of crime had arrived. In June the Vigilance Committee was formally organized. Our old and picturesque friend Sam Brannan was deeply concerned. In matters of initiative for the public good, especially where a limelight was concealed in the wing, Brannan was an able and efficient citizen. Headquarters were chosen and a formal organization was perfected. The Monumental Fire Engine Company bell was to be tolled as a summons for the Committee to meet.

Even before the first meeting had adjourned, this signal was given. A certain John Jenkins had robbed a safe and was caught after a long and spectacular pursuit. Jenkins was an Australian convict and was known to numerous people as an old offender in many ways. He was therefore typical of the exact thing the Vigilance Committee had been formed to prevent. By eleven o’clock the trial, which was conducted with due decorum and formality, was over. Jenkins was adjudged guilty. There was no disorder either before or after Jenkins’s trial. Throughout the trial and subsequent proceedings Jenkins’s manner was unafraid and arrogant. He fully expected not only that the nerve of the Committee would give out, but that at any moment he would be rescued. It must be remembered that the sixty or seventy men in charge were known as peaceful unwarlike merchants, and that against them were arrayed all the belligerent swashbucklers of the town. While the trial was going on, the Committee was informed by its officers outside that already the roughest characters throughout the city had been told of the organization, and were gathering for rescue. The prisoner insulted his captors, still unconvinced that they meant business; then he demanded a clergyman, who prayed for three-quarters of an hour straight, until Mr. Ryckman, hearing of the gathering for rescue, no longer contained himself. Said he: “Mr. Minister, you have now prayed three-quarters of an hour. I want you to bring this prayer business to a halt. I am going to hang this man in fifteen minutes.”

The Committee itself was by no means sure at all times. Bancroft tells us that “one time during the proceedings there appeared some faltering on the part of the judges, or rather a hesitancy to take the lead in assuming responsibility and braving what might be subsequent odium. It was one thing for a half-drunken rabble to take the life of a fellow man, but quite another thing for staid church-going men of business to do it. Then it was that William A. Howard, after watching the proceedings for a few moments, rose, and laying his revolver on the table looked over the assembly. Then with a slow enunciation he said, ‘Gentlemen, as I understand it, we are going to hang somebody.’ There was no more halting.”

While these things were going on, Sam Brannan was sent out to communicate to the immense crowd the Committee’s decision. He was instructed by Ryckman, “Sam, you go out and harangue the crowd while we make ready to move.” Brannan was an ideal man for just such a purpose. He was of an engaging personality, of coarse fiber, possessed of a keen sense of humor, a complete knowledge of crowd psychology, and a command of ribald invective that carried far. He spoke for some time, and at the conclusion boldly asked the crowd whether or not the Committee’s action met with its approval. The response was naturally very much mixed, but like a true politician Sam took the result he wanted. They found the lovers of order had already procured for them two ropes, and had gathered into some sort of coherence. The procession marched to the Plaza where Jenkins was duly hanged. The lawless element gathered at the street corners, and at least one abortive attempt at rescue was started. But promptness of action combined with the uncertainty of the situation carried the Committee successfully through. The coroner’s jury next day brought in a verdict that the deceased “came to his death on the part of an association styling themselves a Committee on Vigilance, of whom the following members are implicated.” And then followed nine names. The Committee immediately countered by publishing its roster of one hundred and eighty names in full.

The organization that was immediately perfected was complete and interesting. This was an association that was banded together and close-knit, and not merely a loose body of citizens. It had headquarters, company organizations, police, equipment, laws of its own, and a regular routine for handling the cases brought before it. Its police force was large and active. Had the Vigilance movement in California begun and ended with the Committee of 1851, it would be not only necessary but most interesting to follow its activities in detail. But, as it was only the forerunner and trail-blazer for the greater activities of 1856, we must save our space and attention for the latter. Suffice it to say that, with only nominal interference from the law, the first Committee hanged four people and banished a great many more for the good of their country. Fifty executions in the ordinary way would have had little effect on the excited populace of the time; but in the peculiar circumstances these four deaths accomplished a moral regeneration. This revival of public conscience could not last long, to be sure, but the worst criminals were, at least for the time being, cowed.

Spasmodic efforts toward coherence were made by the criminals, but these attempts all proved abortive. Inflammatory circulars and newspaper articles, small gatherings, hidden threats, were all freely indulged in. At one time a rescue of two prisoners was accomplished, but the Monumental bell called together a determined band of men who had no great difficulty in reclaiming their own. The Governor of the State, secretly in sympathy with the purposes of the Committee, was satisfied to issue a formal proclamation.

It must be repeated that, were it not for the later larger movement of 1856, this Vigilance Committee would merit more extended notice. It gave a lead, however, and a framework on which the Vigilance Committee of 1856 was built. It proved that the better citizens, if aroused, could take matters into their own hands. But the opposing forces of 1851 were very different from those of five years later. And the transition from the criminal of 1851 to the criminal of 1856 is the history of San Francisco between those two dates.

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