1908a Celebration of admission of CA. Ch X Vigilance Committees p82

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[p. 82] Celebration of Admission of California, into the Union. Corner of Clay and Kearney Streets, San Francisco-18501908e, p. 82]

[p. 82] Chapter X. Vigilance Committees. Growth and Prosperity., p. 82

     The tales of the fabulous richness of the California gold fields were spread throughout the civilized world and drew to the state all classes and conditions of men-the bad as well as the good. They came from Europe, from South America and from Mexico; from far Australia and Tasmania came the ex-convict and the "ticket-of-leave" man; and from Asia came the "Chinee." In 1851 the criminal element became so dominant as to seriously threaten the existence of the chief city of the state-San Francisco. Terrible conflagrations swept over the city that year and destroyed the greater part of the business portion. The fires were known to be of incendiary origin. The bold and defiant attitude of the lawless classes led to the organization of the better element into a tribunal known as the "Vigilance Committee," which disregarded the legally constituted authorities, who were either too weak or too corrupt to control the law-defying element and took the power in its own hands. It tried and executed, by hanging, four notorious criminals-Jenkins, Stuart, Whitaker, and McKenzie. Such vigorous measures adopted by the Committee [p. 83] soon purified the city from the worst class that preyed upon it. Several of the smaller towns and some of the mining camps also form "vigilance committees" and a number of rascals who had fled San Francisco met a deserved fate in these places.

    During the early fifties the better elements in the population of San Francisco were too much engrossed in the rushing business affairs of that period of excitement, to give thought to political affairs and consequently the government of the city drifted into the hands of vicious and corrupt men. Many of the city authorities had obtained their offices by fraud and ballot stuffing and instead of protecting the community against scoundrels, they protected the scoundrels against the communiity. James King, an ex-banker and a man of great courage and persistence, started a small paper called the Daily Evening Bulletin. He vigorously asssailed the criminal elements and the county and city officials. His denunciations at last aroused public sentiment. The murder of United States Marshal Richardson by a gambler named Cora further inflamed the public mind. It was feared that, by the connivance of the county officials, Cora would escape punishment. The trial resulted in a hung jury and there were strong suspicions that some of the jury had been bribed. King continued through the Bulletin to hurl his most bitter invectives against the corrupt officials. He published the fact that James Casey, a supervisor from the twelfth ward, was an ex-convict from Sing Sing prison. Casey waylaid King, May 14th, 1856, at the corner of Montgomery and Washington streets, and in a cowardly manner shot him down. Casey immediately surrendered himself to a deputy sherff, Lafayette McByrne, who was near. King was not killed outright, but the physicians, after an examination, pronounced the case hopeless; Casey was confined in the city jail and as a mob began to gather there, he was taken to the county jail for greater safety. A crowd pursued him, crying, "Hang him, kill him." At the jail the mob was stopped by an array of deputy sheriffs, police officers and a number of Casey's personal friends-all armed. The excitement spread throughout the city. The old Vigilance Committee of 1851, or rather a new organization out of the remnants of the old one, was formed. Five thousand men were enrolled within a few days, arms were procured and headquarters secured on Sacramento street between Davis and Front. William T. Coleman, chairman of the old vigilantes, was made the president and Isaac Bluxon, Jr., was the secretary; Chas. Doane was elected chief marshal of the military division.

     The San Francisco Herald, edited by John Nugent, then the leading paper of the city, came out with a scathing editorial denouncing the vigilance committee. The merchants at once withdrew advertising patronage. The next morning the paper appeared reduced from forty columns to a single page, but still hostile to the committee. It finally died from lack of patronage. Sunday, May [p. 84] 18th, 1856, the military divison was ready to storm the jail if necessary to obtain possession of the prisoners, Casey and Cora. The different companies, 1500 strong and with two pieces of artillery marched from their headquarters and completely invested the jail. One of these guns was planted to command the door of the jail, and a demand was made on Sheriff Scannell for the prisoners. The prison guards made no resistance; the prisoners were surrendered at once and taken to the headquarters of the vigilantes. On May 20th, while the murderers were on trial the death of King was announced. Both men were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. King's funeral, the largest and most imposing ever seen in San Francisco, took place on the 23rd. While the funeral cortege was passing through the streets, Casey and Cora were hanged in front of the windows of the vigilante's headquarters. About an hour before his execution Cora was married to a notorious courtesan, Arabella Ryane, better known as Bell Cora.

     Governor J. Neely Johnson at first seemed inclined not to interfere with the vigilance committee; but afterward, acting under the advice the Volney E. Howard, David S. Terry and others of the dominant pro-slavery faction, he issued a proclamation commanding the committee to disband-to which no attention was paid. The governor then appointed William T. Sherman, major-general. Sherman called for recruits to suppress the uprising. Seventy-five or a hundred-mostly gamblers-respnded. Gen. Wool, in command of the troops in the Department of the Pacific, refused to loan Gov. Johnson arms to equip his "Law and Order" recruits and Gen. Sherman resigned. Volney E. Howard was then appointed major-general. A squad of vigilance committee was appointed to arrest a man named Maloney who was at the time in the company of David S. Terrey (then chief justice of the state) and several other members of the "Law and Order" party. They resisted the police and in the melee Terrey stabbed the sergeant of the party, Sterling A. Hopkins, and then he and his associates made their escape to the armory of the San Francisco Blues, one of their strongholds. When the report of the stabbing reached headquarters the great bell sounded the alarm and the vigilantes, in a very short space of time surrounded the armory and had their cannon planted to batter it down; Terrey, Maloney and the others of their party in the building, considering discretion the better part of valor, surrendered and were at once taken to Fort "Gunnybags," so known on account of a breastwork made of gunnybags filled with sand which the vigilantes had placed about the building used as headquarters. The arms of the "Law and Order" party at their various rendezvous were surrendered to the vigilantes and the companies disbanded.

     Terrey was closely confined in a cell at the headquarters of the committee. He was tried for assault upon Hopkins, who finally recovered, and upon sev- [p. 85] eral other parties and was found guilty; but after he had been held a prisoner for some time, he was released. He was forced to resign his office as chief justice, however, and joined Johnson and Howard in Sacramento, where he felt safer than in San Francisco.

     On July 29th, Hethrington and Brace were hanged from a gallows erected on Davis street between Sacramento and Commercial. Both of these men had committed murder. The committee transported from the state some thirty disreputable characters and a number of others deportedd themselves. A few, among them the notorious Ned McGowan, managed to keep concealed until the storm was over. A few of the exiles returning after the committee was disbanded and began suit for damages, but failed to secure anything. The committee finished its labors and dissolved with a grand parade, August 18th, 1856, after doing a most valuable work. For several years afterwards San Francisco was one of the best governed cities in the United States. It is a noticable fact that the vigilance committee was largely made up of men from the northern and western states, while the so-called "Law and order" party was composed mostly of the pro-slavery, office-holding faction which then ruled the state. The rush of gold-seekers to California in the early fifties had brought to the state a certain class of adventurerers-many of whom were too lazy or too proud to work. They were ready to engage in almost any lawless undertaking that promised plunder and adventure. The defeat of the pro-slavery politicians in their attempt to fasten their "peculiar institution" upon any part of the territory acquired from Mexico made them very bitter. The more unscrupulous among them began to look about for new fields over which slavery might be spread. As slavery could only be made profitable in southern lands, Cuba, Mexico and Central America became the arena for enacting that form of piracy known as "filibustering." Although the armed invasion of countries with which the United States was at peace was in direct violation of international laws, yet the federal office-holders in the southern states and in California, all of whom belonged to the pro-slavery element, made no attempt to prevent these invasions, but instead secretly aided them, or at least sympathized with them to the extent of allowing them to recruit men and depart without molestation. One of the leading filibusters from California was a Tennesseean by the name of Walker. His first attempt was against Lower California. He captured La Paz and established what he called the Republic of Lower California and proclaimed it slave territory. He and his army plundered and robbed wherever there was anything to be obtained. The country was so poor and his army so mutinous that he was compelled to abandon his so-called republic, after shooting several of his dupes for desertion. After this he had a varied career as a filibuster in Central America. He was captured in Honduras in 1860, court-martialed and shot.

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 Kelyn Roberts 2017