The Vigilantes Of ’56

This execution naturally occasioned a great storm of indignation among the erstwhile powerful adherents of the law. The ruling, aristocratic class, the so-called chivalry, the best element of the city, had been slapped deliberately in the face, and this by a lot of Yankee shopkeepers. The Committee were stigmatized as stranglers. They ought to be punished as murderers! They should be shot down as revolutionists! It was realized, however, that the former customary street-shooting had temporarily become unsafe. Otherwise there is no doubt that brawls would have been more frequent than they were.

An undercurrent of confidence was apparent, however. The Law and Order men had been surprised and overpowered. They had yielded only to overwhelming odds. With the execution of Cora and Casey accomplished, the Committee might be expected to disband. And when the Committee disbanded, the law would have its innings. Its forces would then be better organized and consolidated, its power assured. It could then safely apprehend and bring to justice the ringleaders of this undertaking. Many of the hotheads were in favor of using armed force to take Coleman and his fellow-conspirators into custody. But calmer spirits advised moderation for the present, until the time was more ripe.

But to the surprise and indignation of these people, the Vigilantes showed no intention of disbanding. Their activities extended and their organization strengthened. The various military companies drilled daily until they went through the manual with all the precision of regular troops. The Committee’s book remained opened, and by the end of the week over seven thousand men had signed the roll. Loads of furniture and various supplies stopped at the doors of headquarters and were carried in by members of the organization. No non-member ever saw the inside of the building while it was occupied by the Committee of Vigilance. So cooking utensils, cot-beds, provisions, blankets, bulletin-boards, arms, chairs and tables, field-guns, ammunition, and many other supplies seemed to indicate a permanent occupation. Doorkeepers were always in attendance, and sentinels patrolled in the streets and on the roof. Every day the Executive Committee was in session for all of the daylight hours. A blacklist was in preparation. Orders were issued for the Vigilante police to arrest certain men and to warn certain others to leave town immediately. A choice haul was made of the lesser lights of the ward-heelers and chief politicians. A very good sample was the notorious Yankee Sullivan, an ex-prize-fighter, ward-heeler, ballot-box stuffer, and shoulder-striker. He, it will be remembered, was the man who returned Casey as supervisor in a district where, as far as is known, Casey was not a candidate and no one could be found who had voted for him. This individual went to pieces completely shortly after his arrest. He not only confessed the details of many of his own crimes but, what was more important, disclosed valuable information as to others. His testimony was important, not necessarily as final proof against those whom he accused, but as indication of the need of thorough investigation. Then without warning he committed suicide in his cell. On investigation it turned out that he had been accustomed to from sixty to eighty drinks of whiskey each day, and the sudden and complete deprivation had unhinged his mind. Warned by this unforeseen circumstance, the Committee henceforth issued regular rations of whiskey to all its prisoners, a fact which is a striking commentary on the character of the latter. It is to be noted, furthermore, that liquor of all sorts was debarred from the deliberations of the Vigilantes themselves.

Trials went briskly forward in due order, with counsel for defense and ample opportunity to call witnesses. There were no more capital punishments. It was made known that the Committee had set for itself a rule that capital punishment would be inflicted by it only for crimes so punishable by the regular law. But each outgoing ship took a crowd of the banished. The majority of the first sweepings were low thugs–“Sydney Ducks,” hangers-on, and the worst class of criminals; but a certain number were taken from what had been known as the city’s best. In the law courts these men would have been declared as white as the driven snow; in fact, that had actually happened to some of them. But they were plainly undesirable citizens. The Committee so decided and bade them depart. Among the names of men who were prominent and influential in the early history of the city, but who now were told to leave, were Charles Duane, Woolley Kearny, William McLean, J.D. Musgrave, Peter Wightman, James White, and Edward McGowan. Hundreds of others left the city of their own accord. Terror spread among the inhabitants of the underworld. Some of the minor offenders brought in by the Vigilante police were turned over by the Executive Committee to the regular law courts. It is significant that, whereas convictions had been almost unknown up to this time, every one of these offenders was promptly sentenced by those courts.

But though the underworld was more or less terrified, the upper grades were only the further aroused. Many sincerely believed that this movement was successful only because it was organized, that the people of the city were scattered and powerless, that they needed only to be organized to combat the forces of disorder. In pursuance of the belief that the public at large needed merely to be called together loyally to defend its institutions, a meeting was set for June 2, in Portsmouth Square. Elaborate secret preparations, including the distribution of armed men, were made to prevent interference. Such preparations were useless. Immediately after the appearance of the notice the Committee of Vigilance issued orders that the meeting was to be in no manner discouraged or molested.

It was well attended. Enormous crowds gathered, not only in and around the Square itself, but in balconies and windows and on housetops. It was a very disrespectful crowd, evidently out for a good time. On the platform within the Square stood or sat the owners of many of the city’s proud names. Among them were well-known speakers, men who had never failed to hold and influence a crowd. But only a short distance away little could be heard. It early became evident that, though there would be no interference, the sentiment of the crowd was adverse. And what must have been particularly maddening was that the sentiment was good-humored. Colonel Edward Baker came forward to speak. The Colonel was a man of great eloquence, so that in spite of his considerable lack of scruples he had won his way to a picturesque popularity and fame. But the crowd would have little of him this day, and an almost continuous uproar drowned out his efforts. The usual catch phrases, such as “liberty.” “Constitution,” “habeas corpus,” “trial by jury,” and “freedom,” occasionally became audible, but the people were not interested. “See Cora’s defender!” cried someone, voicing the general suspicion that Baker had been one of the little gambler’s hidden counsel. “Cora!” “Ed. Baker!” “$10,000!” “Out of that, you old reprobate!” He spoke ten minutes against the storm and then yielded, red-faced and angry. Others tried but in vain. A Southerner, Benham, inveighing passionately against the conditions of the city, in throwing back his coat happened inadvertently to reveal the butt of a Colt revolver. The bystanders immediately caught the point. “There’s a pretty Law and Order man!” they shouted. “Say, Benham, don’t you know it’s against the law to go armed?”

“I carry this weapon,” he cried, shaking his fist, “not as an instrument to overthrow the law, but to uphold it.”

Someone from a balcony nearby interrupted: “In other words, sir, you break the law in order to uphold the law. What more are the Vigilantes doing?”

The crowd went wild over this response. The confusion became worse. Upholders of Law and Order thrust forward Judge Campbell in the hope that his age and authority on the bench would command respect. He was unable, however, to utter even two consecutive sentences.

“I once thought,” he interrupted himself piteously, “that I was the free citizen of a free country. But recent occurrences have convinced me that I am a slave, more a slave than any on a Southern plantation, for they know their masters, but I know not mine!”

But his auditors refused to be affected by pathos.

“Oh, yes you do,” they informed him. “You know your masters as well as anybody. Two of them were hanged the other day!”

Though this attempt at home to gain coherence failed, the partisans at Sacramento had better luck. They collected, it was said, five hundred men hailing from all quarters of the globe, but chiefly from the Southeast and Texas. All of them were fire-eaters, reckless, and sure to make trouble. Two pieces of artillery were reported coming down the Sacramento to aid all prisoners, but especially Billy Mulligan. The numbers were not in themselves formidable as opposed to the enrollment of the Vigilance Committee, but it must be remembered that the city was full of scattered warriors and of cowed members of the underworld waiting only leaders and a rallying point. Even were the Vigilantes to win in the long run, the material for a very pretty civil war was ready to hand. Two hundred men were hastily put to filling gunnybags with sand and to fortifying not only headquarters but the streets round about. Cannon were mounted, breastworks were piled, and embrasures were cut. By morning Fort Gunnybags, as headquarters was henceforth called, had come into existence.

The fire-eaters arrived that night, but they were not five hundred strong, as excited rumor had it. They disembarked, greeting the horde of friends who had come to meet them, marched in a body to Fort Gunnybags, looked it over, stuck their hands into their pockets, and walked peacefully away to the nearest bar-rooms. This was the wisest move on their part, for by now the disposition of the Vigilante men was so complete that nothing short of regularly organized troops could successfully have dislodged them.

Behind headquarters was a long shed and stable In which were to be found at all hours saddle horses and artillery horses, saddled and bridled, ready for instant use. Twenty-six pieces of artillery, most of them sent in by captains of vessels in the harbor, were here parked. Other cannon were mounted for the defense of the fort itself. Muskets, rifles, and sabers had been accumulated. A portable barricade had been constructed in the event of possible street fighting–a sort of wheeled framework that could be transformed into litters or scaling-ladders at will. Mess offices and kitchens were there that could feed a small army. Flags and painted signs carrying the open eye that had been adopted as emblematic of vigilance decorated the main room. A huge alarm bell had been mounted upon the roof. Mattresses, beds, cots, and other furniture necessary to accommodate whole companies on the premises themselves, had been provided. A completely equipped armorers’ shop and a hospital with all supplies occupied the third story. The forces were divided into four companies of artillery, one squadron and two troops of cavalry, four regiments and thirty-two companies of infantry, besides the small but very efficient police organization. A tap on the bell gathered these men in an incredibly short space of time. Bancroft says that, as a rule, within fifteen minutes of the first stroke seven-tenths of the entire forces would be on hand ready for combat.

The Law and Order people recognized the strength of this organization and realized that they must go at the matter in a more thorough manner. They turned their attention to the politics of the structure, and here they had every reason to hope for success. No matter how well organized the Vigilantes might be or how thoroughly they might carry the sympathies of the general public, there was no doubt that they were acting in defiance of constituted law, and therefore were nothing less than rebels. It was not only within the power, but it was also a duty, of the Governor to declare the city in a condition of insurrection. When he had done this, the state troops must put down the insurrection; and, if they failed, then the Federal Government itself should be called on. Looked at in this way, the small handful of disturbers, no matter how well armed and disciplined, amounted to very little.

Naturally the Governor had first to be won over. Accordingly all the important men of San Francisco took the steamer Senator for Sacramento where they met Judge Terry, of the Supreme Court of California, Volney Howard, and others of the same ilk. No governor of Johnson’s nature could long withstand such pressure. He promised to issue the required proclamation of insurrection as soon as it could be “legally proved” that the Vigilance Committee had acted outside the law. The small fact that it had already hanged two and deported a great many others, to say nothing of taking physical possession of the city, meant little to these legal minds.

In order that all things should be technically correct, then, Judge Terry issued a writ of habeas corpus for William Mulligan and gave it into the hands of Deputy Sheriff Harrison for service on the Committee. It was expected that the Committee would deny the writ, which would constitute legal defiance of the State. The Governor would then be justified in issuing the proclamation. If the state troops proved unwilling or inadequate, as might very well be, the plan was then to call on the United States. The local representatives of the central government were at that time General Wool commanding the military department of California, and Captain David Farragut in command of the navy-yard. Within their command was a force sufficient to subdue three times the strength of the Vigilance Committee. William Tecumseh Sherman, then in private life, had been appointed major-general of a division of the state militia. As all this was strictly legal, the plan could not possibly fail.

Harrison took the writ of habeas corpus and proceeded to San Francisco. He presented himself at headquarters and offered his writ. Instead of denying it, the Committee welcomed him cordially and invited him to make a thorough search of the premises. Of course Harrison found nothing–the Committee had seen to that–and departed. The scheme had failed. The Committee had in no way denied his authority or his writ. But Harrison saw clearly what had been expected of him. To Judge Terry he unblushingly returned the writ endorsed “prevented from service by armed men.” For the sake of his cause, Harrison had lied. However, the whole affair was now regarded as legal.

Johnson promptly issued his proclamation. The leaders, in high feather, as promptly turned to the federal authorities for the assistance they needed. As yet they did not ask for troops but only for weapons with which to arm their own men. To their blank dismay General Wool refused to furnish arms. He took the position that he had no right to do so without orders from Washington. There is no doubt, however, that this technical position cloaked the doughty warrior’s real sympathies. Colonel Baker and Volney Howard were instructed to wait on him. After a somewhat lengthy conversation, they made the mistake of threatening him with a report to Washington for refusing to uphold the law.

“I think, gentlemen,” flashed back the veteran indignantly, “I know my duty and in its performance dread no responsibility!” He promptly bowed them out.

In the meantime the Executive Committee had been patiently working down through its blacklist. It finally announced that after June 24 it would consider no fresh cases, and a few days later it proclaimed an adjournment parade on July 4. It considered its work completed and the city safe.

It may be readily imagined that this peaceful outcome did not in the least suit the more aristocratic members of the Law and Order party. They were a haughty, individualistic, bold, forceful, sometimes charming band of fire-eaters. In their opinion they had been deeply insulted. They wanted reprisal and punishment.

When therefore the Committee set a definite day for disbanding, the local authorities and upholders of law were distinctly disappointed. They saw slipping away the last chance for a clash of arms that would put these rebels in their places. There was some thought of arresting the ringleaders, but the courts were by now so well terrorized that it was by no means certain that justice as defined by the Law and Order party could be accomplished. And even if conviction could be secured, the representatives of the law found little satisfaction in ordinary punishment. What they wanted was a fight.

General Sherman had resigned his command of the military forces in disgust. In his stead was chosen General Volney Howard, a man typical of his class, blinded by his prejudices and his passions, filled with a sense of the importance of his caste, and without grasp of the broader aspects of the situation. In the Committee’s present attitude he saw not the signs of a job well done, but indications of weakening, and he considered this a propitious moment to show his power. In this attitude he received enthusiastic backing from Judge Terry and his narrow coterie. Terry was then judge of the Supreme Court; and a man more unfitted for the position it would be difficult to find. A tall, attractive, fire-eating Texan with a charming wife, he stood high in the social life of the city. His temper was undisciplined and completely governed his judgment. Intensely partisan and, as usual with his class, touchy on the point of honor, he did precisely the wrong thing on every occasion where cool decision was demanded.

It was so now. The Law and Order party persuaded Governor Johnson to order a parade of state troops in the streets of San Francisco. The argument used was that such a parade of legally organized forces would overawe the citizens. The secret hope, however, which was well founded, was that such a display would promote the desired conflict. This hope they shared with Howard, after the Governor’s orders had been obtained. Howard’s vanity jumped with his inclination. He consented to the plot. A more ill-timed, idiotic maneuver, with the existing state of the public mind, it would be impossible to imagine. Either we must consider Terry and Howard weak-minded to the point of an inability to reason from cause to effect, or we must ascribe to them more sinister motives.

By now the Law and Order forces had become numerically more formidable. The lower element flocked to the colors through sheer fright. A certain proportion of the organized remained in the ranks, though a majority had resigned. There was, as is usual in a new community, a very large contingent of wild, reckless young men without a care in the world, with no possible interest in the rights and wrongs of the case, or, indeed, in themselves. They were eager only for adventure and offered themselves just as soon as the prospects for a real fight seemed good. Then, too, they could always count on the five hundred Texans who had been imported.

There were plenty of weapons with which to arm these partisans. Contrary to all expectations, the Vigilance Committee had scrupulously refrained from interfering with the state armories. All the muskets belonging to the militia were in the armories and were available in different parts of the city. In addition, the State, as a commonwealth, had a right to a certain number of federal weapons stored in arsenals at Benicia. These could be requisitioned in due form.

But at this point, it has been said, the legal minds of the party conceived a bright plan. The muskets at Benicia on being requisitioned would have to cross the bay in a vessel of some sort Until the muskets were actually delivered they were federal property. Now if the Vigilance Committee were to confiscate the arms while on the transporting vessel, and while still federal property, the act would be piracy; the interceptors, pirates. The Law and Order people could legally call on the federal forces, which would be compelled to respond. If the Committee of Vigilance did not fall into this trap, then the Law and Order people would have the muskets anyway.[7]

[7: Mr. H.H. Bancroft, in his Popular Tribunals, holds that no proof of this plot exists.]

To carry out this plot they called in a saturnine, lank, drunken individual whose name was Hube Maloney. Maloney picked out two men of his own type as assistants. He stipulated only that plenty of “refreshments” should be supplied. According to instructions Maloney was to operate boldly and flagrantly in full daylight. But the refreshment idea had been rather liberally interpreted. By six o’clock Rube had just sense enough left to anchor off Pueblo Point. There all gave serious attention to the rest of the refreshments, and finally rolled over to sleep off the effects.

In the meantime news of the intended shipment had reached the headquarters of the Vigilantes.

The Executive Committee went into immediate session. It was evident that the proposed disbanding would have to be postponed. A discussion followed as to methods of procedure to meet this new crisis. The Committee fell into the trap prepared for it. Probably no one realized the legal status of the muskets, but supposed them to belong already to the State. Marshal Doane was instructed to capture them. He called to him the chief of the harbor police. “Have you a small vessel ready for immediate service?” he asked this man. “Yes, a sloop, at the foot of this street.” “Be ready to sail in half an hour.”

Doane then called to his assistance a quick-witted man named John Durkee. This man had been a member of the regular city police until the shooting of James King of William. At that time he had resigned his position and joined the Vigilance police. He was loyal by nature, steady in execution, and essentially quick-witted, qualities that stood everybody in very good stead as will be shortly seen. He picked out twelve reliable men to assist him, and set sail in the sloop.

For some hours he beat against the wind and the tide; but finally these became so strong that he was forced to anchor in San Pablo Bay until conditions had modified. Late in the afternoon he was again able to get under way. Several of the tramps sailing about the bay were overhauled and examined, but none proved to be the prize. About dark the breeze died, leaving the little sloop barely under steerageway. A less persistent man than Durkee would have anchored for the night, but Durkee had received his instructions and intended to find the other sloop, and it was he himself who first caught the loom of a shadow under Pueblo Point.

He bore down and perceived it to be the sloop whose discovery he desired. The twelve men boarded with a rush, but found themselves in possession of an empty deck. The fumes of alcohol and the sound of snoring guided the boarding-party to the object of their search and the scene of their easy victory. Durkee transferred the muskets and prisoners to his own craft; and returned to the California Street wharf shortly after daylight. A messenger was dispatched to headquarters. He returned with instructions to deliver the muskets but to turn loose the prisoners. Durkee was somewhat astonished at the latter order but complied.

“All right,” he is reported to have said. “Now, you measly hounds, you’ve got just about twenty-eight seconds to make yourselves as scarce as your virtues.”

Maloney and his crew wasted few of the twenty-eight seconds in starting, but once out of sight they regained much of their bravado. A few drinks restored them to normal, and enabled them to put a good face on the report they now made to their employers. Maloney and his friends then visited in turn all the saloons. The drunker they grew, the louder they talked, reviling the Committee collectively and singly, bragging that they would shoot at sight Coleman, Truett, Durkee, and several others whom they named. They flourished weapons publicly, and otherwise became obstreperous. The Committee decided that their influence was bad and instructed Sterling Hopkins, with four others, to arrest the lot and bring them in.

The news of this determination reached the offending parties. They immediately fled to their masters like cur dogs. Their masters, who included Terry, Bowie, and a few others, happened to be discussing the situation in the office of Richard Ashe, a Texan. The crew burst into this gathering very much scared, with a statement that a “thousand stranglers” were at their heels. Hopkins, having left his small posse at the foot of the stairs, knocked and entered the room. He was faced by the muzzles of half a dozen pistols and told to get out of there. Hopkins promptly obeyed.

If Terry had possessed the slightest degree of leadership he would have seen that this was the worst of all moments to precipitate a crisis. The forces of his own party were neither armed nor ready. But here, as in all other important crises of his career, he was governed by the haughty and headstrong passion of the moment.

Hopkins left his men on guard at the foot of the stairs, borrowed a horse from a passer-by, and galloped to headquarters. There he was instructed to return and stay on watch, and was told that reinforcements would soon follow. He arrived before the building in which Ashe’s office was located in time to see Maloney, Terry, Ashe, McNabb, Bowie, and Howe, all armed with shot-guns, just turning a far corner. He dismounted and called on his men, who followed. The little posse dogged the judge’s party for some distance. For a little time no attention was paid to them. But as they pressed closer, Terry, Ashe, and Maloney turned and presented their shot-guns. This was probably intended only as a threat, but Hopkins, who was always overbold, lunged at Maloney. Terry thrust his gun at a Vigilante who seized it by the barrel. At the same instant Ashe pressed the muzzle of his weapon against the breast of a man named Bovee, but hesitated to pull the trigger. It was not at that time as safe to shoot men in the open street as it had been formerly. Barry covered Rowe with a pistol. Rowe dropped his gun and ran towards the armory. The accidental discharge of a pistol seemed to unnerve Terry. He whipped out a long knife and plunged it into Hopkins’s neck. Hopkins relaxed his hold on Terry’s shot-gun and staggered back.

“I am stabbed! Take them, Vigilantes!” he said.

He dropped to the sidewalk. Terry and his friends ran towards the armory. Of the Vigilante posse only Bovee and Barry remained, but these two pursued the fleeing Law and Order men to the very doors of the armory itself. When the portals were slammed in their faces they took up their stand outside; and alone these two men held imprisoned several hundred men! During the next few minutes several men attempted entrance to the armory, among them our old friend Volney Howard. All were turned back and were given the impression that the armory was already in charge, of the Vigilantes. After a little, however, doubtless to the great relief of the “outside garrison” of the armory, the great Vigilante bell began to boom out its signals: one, two, three–rest; one, two, three–rest; and so on.

Instantly the streets were alive with men. Merchants left their customers, clerks their books, mechanics their tools. Draymen stripped their horses of harness, abandoned their wagons, and rode away to join their cavalry. Within an incredibly brief space of time everybody was off for the armory, the military companies marching like veterans, the artillery rumbling over the pavement. The cavalry, jogging along at a slow trot, covered the rear. A huge and roaring mob accompanied them, followed them, raced up the side-streets to arrive at the armory at the same time as the first files of the military force. They found the square before the building entirely deserted except for the dauntless Barry and Bovee, who still marched up and down singlehanded, holding the garrison within. They were able to report that no one had either entered or left the armory.

Inside the building the spirit had become one of stubborn sullenness. Terry was very sorry–as, indeed, he well might be–a Judge of the Supreme Court, who had no business being in San Francisco at all. Sworn to uphold the law, and ostensibly on the side of the Law and Order party, he had stepped out from his jurisdiction to commit as lawless and as idiotic a deed of passion and prejudice as could well have been imagined. Whatever chances the Law and Order party might have had heretofore were thereby dissipated. Their troops were scattered in small units; their rank and file had disappeared no one knew where; their enemies were fully organized and had been mustered by the alarm bell to their usual alertness and capability; and Terry’s was the hand that had struck the bell!

He was reported as much chagrined.

“This is very unfortunate, very unfortunate,” he said; “but you shall not imperil your lives for me. It is I they want. I will surrender to them.”

Instead of the prompt expostulations which he probably expected, a dead silence greeted these words.

“There is nothing else to do,” agreed Ashe at last.

An exchange of notes in military fashion followed. Ashe, as commander of the armory and leader of the besieged party, offered to surrender to the Executive Committee of the Vigilantes if protected from violence. The Executive Committee demanded the surrender of Terry, Maloney, and Philips, as well as of all arms and ammunition, promising that Terry and Maloney should be protected against persons outside the organization. On receiving this assurance, Ashe threw open the doors of the armory and the Vigilantes marched in.

“All present were disarmed,” writes Bancroft. “Terry and Maloney were taken charge of and the armory was quickly swept of its contents. Three hundred muskets and other munitions of war were carried out and placed on drays. Two carriages then drove up, in one of which was placed Maloney and in the other Terry. Both were attended by a strong escort, Olney forming round them with his Citizens’ Guard, increased to a battalion. Then in triumph the Committee men, with their prisoners and plunder enclosed in a solid body of infantry and these again surrounded by cavalry, marched back to their rooms.”

Nor was this all. Coleman, like a wise general, realizing that compromise was no longer possible, sent out his men to take possession of all the encampments of the Law and Order forces. The four big armories were cleaned out while smaller squads of men combed the city house by house for concealed arms. By midnight the job was done. The Vigilantes were in control of the situation.

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