When gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1848, it seemed as if most of the world rushed in to California – which, until then had been a sparsely-settled outpost of Mexico, dreaming the decades away. The climate was enchantingly mild, Mediterranean – warm enough for groves of olive trees and citrus to thrive, and the old missions crumbled away as if nothing had or would ever change. The old, proud Californio families with names like Verdugo, Vasquez, Pico and Vallejo kept vast cattle herds and lived in extensive but rather Spartan-plain estates. There were a few handfuls of American settlers who had come overland, or by sea; they tended to what little trade there was, and an energetic and slightly shady Swiss entrepreneur named Johann Sutter had a vast agricultural and establishment centered around a fortified holding in present-day Sacramento. It was on his property, and in the course of building a saw-mill that gold was discovered. And change came upon the enchanted land – and the place called Yerba Buena turned almost overnight from a hamlet of eight hundred souls on the shore of San Francisco Bay into a ramshackle metropolis of 25,000 and more in the space of two years.
The responsible citizens had once before resorted to a Committee of Vigilance, in response to a riot instigated by a criminal element known as the ‘Hounds’ in 1851. The Hounds were housebroken, following a judicious culling of the most notorious ring-leaders – either hung or exiled, but it was only a temporary solution. Five years, a couple of devastating fires, and who-knows-how-many thousand hopeful Argonauts later, the situation in San Francisco had degenerated to a point beyond the toleration of responsible and civic-minded citizens … again.
And this time, it was more than just a situation of sober citizens faced with obstreperous criminals – by 1856 it was a collective of sober citizens arrayed against a corrupt, criminal-allied, and crony-capitalist big-city machine. Several decades after the event, popular historian Stewart E. White wrote, “The elections of those days would have been a joke had they not been so tragically significant… the polls were guarded by bullies who did not hesitate at command to manhandle any decent citizen indicated by the local leaders. Such men were openly hired for the purposes of intimidation. Votes could be bought in the open market. ‘Floaters’ were shamelessly imported into districts that might prove doubtful; and, if things looked close, the election inspectors and the judges could be relied on to make things come out all right in the final count…” White also noted, “With the proper officials in charge of the executive end of the government and with a trained crew of lawyers making their own rules as they went along, almost any crime of violence, corruption, theft, or the higher grades of finance could be committed with absolute impunity…” White contributed a lot of the corruption to an influx of what he called low-grade Southerners, who were apt to use what he called ‘pseudo-chivalry’ in response to personal or political criticism, ‘battering down opposition by the simple expedient of claiming that he had been insulted.’
In the midst of all this, there were business reversals; a local and trusted financial and express firm failed. Its assets were taken over in what was suspected to be shady means which benefitted – of course – certain businessmen closely associated with the local machine. A crusading newspaper editor, James King of William and his Daily Evening Bulletin riveted and titillated the reading public as thoroughly as he angered those whom he targeted. King criticized various pillars of the city, in editorials and in straight news stories. He pulled no punches; he named names, explained methods and connections. About the same time a gambler, Charles Cora, shot and killed a well-known and well-liked US Marshal named William Richardson who was unarmed at the time. This was an unprovoked, cold-blooded shooting. Conviction seemed almost certain, although Cora was a good friend – a very good friend of both the local sheriff and the keeper of the jail, where he waited trial in considerable luxury and comfort. No expense was spared in Cora’s defense – and when the case came to trial, the jury couldn’t come to a decision and Cora was released. The law-abiding element in town seethed.
Several months later, King wrote another sizzling editorial – this one concerning an appointee to the position in the federal customs house. The appointee was the choice of one James P. Casey – a member of the board of county supervisors, and also a member in good standing of the political establishment. This, no doubt accounted for the curious circumstance of being elected to the board despite the fact that he didn’t live in the district, had not been on the ticket, nor been a candidate … and no one could be found who voted for him. Doubtless, Casey was already in King’s sights – for besides disparaging the customs-house appointee, King also noted that Casey had previously been an inmate in Sing-Sing. Casey accounted himself affronted, and paid a visit to the Daily Evening Bulletin offices to demand an apology – which was not forthcoming. After some hours drinking and fuming, Casey left the bar and waited just across the street for King to pass on his way home. At about 5 PM, King left the newspaper office, and as he passed by on his way home, Casey shot him. King fell, mortally wounded – while Casey’s friends hustled him off to safety in a nearby police station lock-up.
(to be continued – cross-posted at The Daily Brief, and at my book-blog)
9 thoughts on “Committee of Vigilance – 1856”
What a wonderful piece of writing! What happened next? It doesn’t say when it’s going to be continued. If it’s already written, please post soonest while the characters and venues are fresh in our minds.
In the next day or so, V. It’s one of those things that I am still writing…
And please don’t make us wait too long for the next installment.
My wife’s ancestor was deeply envolved in this period of SF history – he lead the restoration of civic government once the vigilanties cleaned up the city.
The city government had been taken over by a branch of Tammany Hall using techniques learned in NYC. One of the major gangs were the Sydney Dockers, part of the criminal exiles from Australia which had easier and quicker access to SF than those in Europe.
A great book, highly recommended (after you finish this set of posts of course!), is “The Barbary Coast” by Herbert Asbury.
Also learned a bit about my previous wife’s REAL family history from the book – her great-grandfather was co-owner of the big box store of whorehouses, the largest in the City, on Maiden Lane. 600 cribs! They always referred to the business as the “hat factory.” It burned down in the ’06 quake. After the earthquake, the grandfather shot and killed a man on Mission Street in defense against a strong arm robbery (he said.)
California has had quite a lawless history, to which it seems to be returning. The next chapter, no doubt includes the term” 3 by 7 by 77″. The attachment of a sheet of paper with those terms to a miscreant’s door was often followed by a hasty trip out of town.
The town of Placerville, in the foothills outside of Sacramento, is named for the Placer type of gold mining.
But in its early days it was known simply as Hangtown.
For those interested in California history I recommend
From West to East: California And the Making of the American Mind
by Stephen Schwartz
Sounds like the Democrats’ dream plan for the 2012 elections.
The paralells are … actually rather striking, Subotai. I’ve just posted part two.
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