So, reading the story of this numbskull (link found through Instapundit) bloviating on MSNBC about the fierce urgency of abolishing the police reminded me of a long post that I did some years ago about what happens in a lawless, politically corrupt, violence-plagued city when the otherwise upright and law-abiding citizens get fed to the teeth with lawlessness, corruption and violence, and decide to take matters into their own hands. Brittany Packnett Cunningham, apparently noted as an anti-police activist, likely would not like what happens when citizens are finally pushed an inch too far.
The resulting post of mine was originally in three parts, but reposted here in total, below the fold. The story of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 was one that I had originally researched as providing a turn of plot for my Gold Rush adventure, The Golden Road. The hero of that novel, young Fredi Steinmetz worked for a time in San Francisco with his friend Edwin, selling copies of James King’s Evening Daily Bulletin on the streets and delivering to subscribers late in 1855, but left for the diggings before the Vigilance Committee renewed itself. The situation in San Francisco, which finally boiled over, reminds me very much of current events; naked chicanery at the polls, political corruption, a high level of crony capitalism, and criminals terrorizing ordinary citizens and going unpunished.
The Committee of Vigilance, 1856: A Reprise Post from 2012
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.
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. The 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.
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 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!”