Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Finale

(OK, everyone ready for the final chapter? Good!)

Three carriages entered the square, and as they halted before the jail door, the ranks of waiting men presented arms. Half a dozen men descended from the carriages – William Tell Coleman and the other leaders of the Committee. They talked for a few moments through the wicket-gate … and then they were admitted into the jail, to speak with Sheriff Scannell.
“We have come for the prisoner Casey,” Coleman told him. “We ask that he be peaceably delivered us, handcuffed at the door immediately.”
“Under existing circumstances,” replied Sheriff Scannell, “I shall make no resistance. The prison and it’s contents are yours.”
“We want only the man Casey at present,” One of the other Committee members added. “For the safety of all the rest, we hold you strictly accountable.”

Casey was taken to the Committee headquarters – later, Charles Cora was also added to the Committee’s bag. Three hundred men guarded Fort Gunnybags, another hundred the jail, while the rest were relieved for the moment. The next day, Vigilantes patrolled the streets, and warned merchants selling weapons not to sell any such … for now. James Casey and Charles Cora were allowed visitors. On Tuesday, Cora was brought before the Committee and informed that he would be tried for murder. All the forms of law would be observed, and he would be represented by a lawyer. Who was one of the Executive Committee … Cora provided a list of witnesses, who would testify in his defense, and they were all sent for; none could be found.

That evening, word arrived that James King of William had died. Sometime that evening, both Cora and Casey were convicted and sentenced.

Thursday at noon was the time set for King’s funeral to begin. The nearby Unitarian Church where it was to be held was jammed to overflowing by mid-morning, and the procession with the coffin was said to have been two miles long. Mourners stood in the streets to pay their respects … and in the street before the Vigilance Committee’s headquarters there were also men standing; men in three ranks, in the pose of attention as they had stood in the square before the county jail on Sunday morning.

Just before one o’clock, the tall windows on the second floor of the building were opened; from two of them, a pair of small wooden platforms were pushed out, and balanced on the edge of the window-sill. Above, from the flat roof of the building, a pair of heavy beams was set into place, just over the platforms; a noose of heavy rope dangled from the end of each beam. Then … silence again, although those who waited in the street below could hear the faint music of a church organ. The music seemed to be a cue of some kind. Charles Cora, his eyes covered by a white handkerchief blindfold was guided out of the window, to stand silently on the little platform. A few moments later, James Casey followed; he was not blindfolded at his request, but his nerve broke, looking down at the implacable faces below. He babbled, pleading that he was not a murderer, he had done nothing, he only responded to insult … the words fell into grim silence.

In that silence, the commotion at the door of the Unitarian Church could be heard clearly; James King’s coffin was being carried out by the pall-bearers. From the steeple above, the church bell tolled a single note. Another church bell joined, and then another and another, as those men in the street presented arms. The platforms beneath the Casey and Cora dropped … and justice as it had been declared by the Vigilantes was done.

Postscript: the Committee did not disband, immediately. They went on adding members, conducting military drill, and doing business – one item of which was the formation of a list. Those on it would either leave, or be charged and tried under the ordinary rules of law. Only two more miscreants were hanged, and thirty banished officially, although it was estimated that at least eight hundred left town voluntarily. The Committee formally dissolved in August of that year, with a grand parade and an open house of “Fort Gunnybags.”
Many years later, a curious visitor to the city asked, “What has become of your Vigilance Committee?” “Toll the bell, sir – and you will see!”

11 thoughts on “Committee of Vigilance – 1856 – Finale”

  1. You have to go through with it.

    There’s the rub.

    They have youtube in Russia too for instance.

    They just don’t play.

  2. What an incredible story, and compellingly told!

    The West could not have been won had there not been highly intelligent and brave men who took control and ran things. This is the history of the West that people do not know.

    Thanks, Sgt Mom.

  3. SGT. Mom,

    I had read that story before, but not nearly as well written. I especially liked the last lines.

    I am forcefully reminded of Alexander Hamilton’s FEDERALIST PAPER #28. Especially:

    “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government …”

    If the representatives of the people charged with preserving Liberty under the Law pervert their function …… That same original right of self defense collectively as a society can be exerted to restore the state of Liberty under Law.

    Once again, well written, and timely too.

    Subotai Bahadur

  4. Thanks – it is one of those stories that strangely seems very relevent at the current time. And … the kicker is that the San Francisco vigilante committee morphed into a kind of poilitical party, which more or less in the few years after the events related here merged with the Republican Party as it became at the end of that decade. Whereas, the Law & Order party, AKA the dirty political machine as it were … was the Democratic Party of the time. Interesting paralell, I thought.

    But dropping Cora and Casey at the exact same moment that the funeral was over and the church bells began to ring … now that was theatrical. Someone on the Committee had a well-developed sense of drama!

  5. Michael – I am not sure with the level of today’s education – if that would be understood ;-)

    Another thought just came to me – and please understand – I am not comparing The Committee to The Mafia – but a great line in the movie Goodfellas – a movie based on the memoirs of a mafia man turned informant and in the witness protection program – anyway the line was “ That’s what people never understood about the Mafia – it was simply a police dept for people who couldn’t…..go to the police”

  6. Bill Brandt – The big difference is that such institutions degenerate over time. The great example of Cincinnatus, Washington, the 1 year dictatorship of Rome, it worked because it was always a temporary thing, done to handle extraordinary times, and then voluntarily dissolved. The Mafia sticks around and thus needs regular income, and that’s the heart of all the rest of the problems associated with it.

  7. TMLutas – I knew that when I gave the analogy of the Mafia – with its basis in crime – that it would probably be an inflammatory comparison. And as a comparison (with that aspect) that of course would be bad.

    But from what I have read of it – in its early days – 20’s – ’30’s – it also served as an arbitrator between neighbors – and able to “get things done” with city hall – settle fights between neighbors – I think that aspect is why it was tolerated and accepted for the most parts in the neighborhoods – if you weren’t into crime and competed with them they left you alone.

    Of course I could be completely off but that is my impression.

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