The shooting of James King – political murder disguised as a justifiable response to a personal insult – inflamed the city of San Francisco immediately. King, shot in the chest but still clinging to life was taken to his house. Meanwhile, an enormous mob gathered at the police station, and the police realized almost at once that the accused James Casey could not be kept secure. He was removed under guard to the county jail. The indignant mob was not appeased, not even when the mayor of San Francisco attempted to address the crowd, pleading for them to disperse and assuring them that the law would run its proper course and justice would be done. The crowd jeered, “What about Richardson? Where is the law in Cora’s case?” The mayor hastily retreated, as the square – already guarded by armed marshals, soon filled with armed soldiers. The angry mob dispersed, still frustrated and furious. No doubt everyone in authority in the city breathed a sigh of relief, confident that this matter would blow over. After all, they controlled the political apparatus of the city, at least one newspaper, as well as the adjudicators and enforcers of the law … little comprehending that this shooting represented the last, the very last straw.
Several days later, a small advertisement appeared on the front pages of several morning papers: “The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at number 105 ½ Sacramento Street, this day, Thursday, fifteenth instant, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the Committee of Thirteen.”
The effect on the general public was electrifying. Crowds descended on the building at the designated address – a three-story hall which had been built for the short-lived local chapter of the Know-Nothings. The Vigilance Committee of five years before, which seemed to have been an age ago, so quickly had the city grown, had been brutally efficient in sorting out the criminal gang called the “Hounds.” And now, many members of the original committee – who had whipped and housebroken the Hounds – were taking up responsibility again. The image of a ‘vigilante’ most usually implies a disorganized mob; lawless, mindlessly violent, easily steered but ultimately uncontrollable.
This Vigilance Committee was something much, much worse than that.
They were organized, they were in earnest, they would not compromise … and they would not back down.
And they proved to be very, very efficient. Immediate support for the Committee was overwhelming. A dozen members of the original committee reconstituted themselves, chose a leader and an executive committee, and began enlisting members. The line to enroll in the Committee was day-long: eventually there would be 6,000 – all of them vetted and vouched for, sworn to secrecy. Two thousand of the first-enrolled were assigned to military-styled companies of a hundred. The organization had to move operations to another building – swiftly fortified and eventually called Fort Gunnybags.
Almost immediately, the established political machine – which termed itself without irony as the “Law and Order Party” – demanded that the Governor of California call out the militia against this citizens’ insurrection. The Governor came hustling from Sacramento and requested an interview with the head of the Vigilance Committee, one William Tell Coleman. Coleman was polite, but firm; insisting that the Committee proposed no insurrection against civil authority – they merely wished to see that established laws were enforced. The Governor was mollified; he would not call out the state militia – but he was not yet aware that the Committee intended to take Charles Cora and James Casey into custody, give them a fair trial and administer such punishment as would be dictated by the verdict.
Which operation was carried out, with military precision and efficiency, on the following day, which was a Sunday morning. Of course, rumors and speculation ran wild, all over town that something was about to happen at the county jail building where Casey was being held. It couldn’t be denied that the Law and Order party might have been spoiling for a fight. Spectators gathered on the rooftops, at the windows of buildings around the square, and on every eminence which offered a view. Their patience was rewarded: a column of marching men – in civilian clothes, but carrying rifles with fixed bayonets appeared at the end of a street which emptied into the square – then another column, from another converging street. Then a third column, joined by a fourth: they marched into the square and took their places in regular ranks four-deep all around the square. An observer, a Southerner remarked to a friend, “When you see those 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.”
But there was more. The silent ranks of men stood, waiting … waiting for a command which came presently. From out of a side street came a body of sixty men – drawing a field gun by means of a long rope. The cannon was wheeled into the middle of the square, aimed at the front door of the jail. Slowly and deliberately, it was charged with powder and shot, while another man lit a slow-burning match and stood at attention. And there they all waited silently … until a Vigilante on horseback rode into the square, and up to the door of the jail. He leaned down, rapped on the door with the butt of his riding whip and passed a note to someone within the jail … Silence descended on the square, on the men standing at attention by the cannon, on those in ranks around the edge of the square, and watching from rooftop and window. An eerie silence, broken only by the sound of carriage wheels.
(To be continued, yet again. It’s an exciting story, isn’t it? And I’m not making anything up.)
9 thoughts on “Committee of Vigilance – Part 2”
Sgt – you would have been a good writer for the old 30s serial radio programs!
What made this committee unique was its military style discipline.
And I was surprised that they met to form – publicly – the opposition could have sent some spies to report. But then there is strength in numbers.
Reading this reminded me of the miners camps – absent any formal law – they made their own I think.
They were … I would say almost inhumanely focused and self-disciplined, which is what the true vigilante organizations were. They were anything but an angry mob, acting on an impulse. They also were selective when they enrolled members – believe it or not, they had set up a selections board to quickly vet them! They maintained tight security at their HQ – and members were to refer to each other by their membership number, rather than a name.
They frightened the ever-loving-snot out of the local political machine, who had been basically running San Francisco Tammanay Hall style … until they went a step too far. It was amazing to read about it. Stay tuned for part 3. I promise, I’ll wrap it up there.
Yes please do wrap it up, also provide source histories on the Vigilantes. I believe you, I’m just fascinated by the history.
Sarnt, yer a tease…
Part of my happy, inconsequent charm … ;-)
Most of this is drawn from an 1918 account by a historian named Steward E. White, called “The Forty-Niners”, plus some other bits pulled in from my memory of other books … and my own imagination.
William T. Sherman was also present at these festivites – he was an officer in the state militia at the time, and he did not think much of the Vigilantes. Interesting times …
A bit of backstory on Sherman.
He had been second in command of the military government of California following the Mexican War and wrote the official report on the first gold finds to send back to Washington DC. Inflation in the state almost ruined him financially though and he eventually resigned his commission. An old friend in St. Louis offered him a job as bank president in SF, to start a branch of the St. Louis trading house there.
Returning to San Francisco, his ship hit Duxberry reef off the entrance to San Francisco Bay and capsized. He lead evacuation operations and got everyone to shore safely. He later that day hopped a ride with a lumber boat from Bolinas, where the reef was located, into the port of San Francisco.
Once inside the Bay, THAT ship sank too!
So his return to the City by the Bay was marked by TWO ship wrecks in a single day.
He never did like the place.
Very good, thanks.
Can’t wait! I’m bedazzled!
Sherman’s companion in evaluating the gold strike was an officer named Ord, later a general for whom Fort Ord is named. Ord was one of Grant’s favorite subordinates.
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