San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco

PART THIRD.  The Vigilance Committee.

Hanging of Whittaker and McKenzie.THERE is probably no portion of the history of San Francisco which has more excited the attention, the mingled wonder and applause, scorn and indignation of the civilized world, than the proceedings of the famous “Vigilance Committee.” To law-loving, peaceable, worthy people in the Atlantic States and Europe, it did certainly seem surprising, that a city really of thirty thousand inhabitants,—though since the population was chiefly composed of male adults, of virtually the pretension, the riches, business and character of a city of twice that number,—should patiently submit to the improvised law and arbitrary will of a secret society among themselves, however numerous, honest and respectable the members might be reputed. Few people, abroad, who had been trained from infancy to revere “the majesty of the law,” and who had never seen any crime but what their own strong legal institutions and efficient police could detect and punish, could possibly conceive such a state of things as would justify the formation and independent action of an association which set itself above all formal law, and which openly administered summary justice, or what they called justice, in armed opposition and defiance to the regularly constituted tribunals of the country. Therefore, in other lands, it happened that the Vigilance Committee became often a term of reproach, and people pointed to it as a sign that society in California was utterly and perhaps irredeemably impure and disorganized. In San Francisco itself, while some citizens, it must be confessed, did condemn the proceedings of that body, by far the greater number cordially approved of them. The public press was almost unanimous in its support of the association. The officers of the law were often obliged to take cognizance of the existence and actions of the committee, and thought it a matter of public duty to denounce them; but many of even these parties, in private conversation, and still more in heart, applauded the course which had been adopted by their fellow-citizens.

We have already had occasion to mention the affair of the “hounds” in 1849. The summary measures taken at that period by the people had the effect, for a while, of keeping the blackguards who had been long infesting the city within some moderate bounds. But the great immigration in the fall of that year, and the confusion in San Francisco which followed, naturally encouraged new depredations, which in the bustle of the time and place were unnoticed and unfelt by any but the actual victims. Over all California it was the same. The inroad of nearly a hundred thousand strangers, who were likewise strangers to each other, scattered among a dozen newly established towns, and over the various mining districts, and who themselves knew not the laws of the land, and perhaps expected, as they could find, no protection from them, but trusted only to their own watchfulness and revolvers, produced a state of things which greatly favored the increase of crime. In 1850, a similar vast immigration took place. The legal institutions and executive, that just before had served the needs of a population of twenty or thirty thousand, now failed to secure safety to a quarter of a million, in which number were some of the most daring and clever rascals in the world. Among the immigrants were many of the same stamp with the older criminals of the country, and who readily aided in the lawless exploits of the latter. When the towns, or any particular localities, became too hot to hold them, the mining regions, over a length of seven hundred miles, were ready to receive and shelter the fugitives. After a few months, under a new garb and name, the rascals would boldly return to their former haunts, and with impunity commit new crimes. Society was every where continually changing; while disguised in every imaginable way, by dress and an alias, and not least by the growth and trimming of the beard, it was almost impossible that the old offenders could be recognized. The natural migration of honest diggers from mine to mine, often far distant from each other, and to the greater towns to spend their gains or recruit their health, was so great, that no notice could be taken, by the really few permanent residents in any place, of the arrival and departure of strangers, or of those traits in their behavior which might have seemed strange and suspicious, if witnessed by idle, inquisitive people of long settled lands. While this constant immigration favored the freedom of criminals from arrest, it also helped to extend their acquaintance among kindred rogues. Wherever they went, they knew there were one, two, or half a dozen noted haunts for fellows like themselves, upon whose aid they could always rely, to execute new outrages, to swear an alibi, or give any kind of false testimony that might be wished; to fee counsel or offer straw-bail, or to plan an escape from pursuit or prison of themselves, or some hotly pressed associate in crime. Thus there was gradually formed a secret combination among the chief thieves, burglars and murderers of the country, minute ramifications of which extended down to the pettiest pilferers. To occasionally cut off a single member of this class would do little good, so long as the grand gang was at large and in full operation. Nothing less than the complete extirpation of the whole body of miscreants, with their numerous supporters and sympathizers, aids and abettors, would relieve society from the fearful incubus that now oppressed it.

America no doubt supplied a number of these plunderers, while the different countries of Europe likewise contributed a proportion. But the most daring, and probably the most numerous class had come from Van Dieman’s Land and New South Wales, whither England had sent shiploads of her convicted felons. The voyage from Sydney to San Francisco was neither a very tedious nor an expensive one; and great numbers of “ticket-of-leave” men and old convicts who had “served their time,” early contrived to sail for California. There the field seemed so rich and safe for a resumption of their quondam pranks, that they yielded to the temptation, and forthwith began to execute villanies that in magnitude and violent character far exceeded those for which they had been originally convicted. Callous in conscience, they feared nothing save the gallows. But that they had little reason to dread in merciful, gentle, careless California, where prosecutors and witnesses were few, or too busy to attend to the calls of justice; where jurors, not knowing the law and eager to be at money-making again, were apt to take hasty charges from the bench as their sole rule of conduct where judges, chosen by popular election, were either grossly ignorant of law, or too timid or careless, corrupt or incapable, to measure out the full punishment of crime; and where the laws themselves had not yet been methodically laid down, and the forms and procedure of legal tribunals digested into a plain, unerring system. These “Sydney coves” therefore were comparatively safe in their attacks on society. They lost not the opportunity; and, unchecked, during the fall of 1849, the whole of 1850, and the early part of 1851, reaped a large harvest.

There was a district of San Francisco that was noted as being the rendezvous of the numerous rascals we have been describing; and from which perhaps at this time emanated as much villainy as at any period the “Seven Dials” or the “Five Points” produced. This quarter lay around Clark’s Point, in Broadway, Pacific street, and the immediate vicinity. It was the notorious Sydney-town of San Francisco. Low drinking and dancing houses, lodging and gambling houses of the same mean class, the constant scenes of lewdness, drunkenness and strife, abounded in the quarter mentioned. The daily and nightly occupants of these vile abodes had every one, more or less, been addicted to crime; and many of them were at all times ready, for the most trifling consideration, to kill a man or fire a town. During the early hours of night, when the Alsatia was in revel, it was dangerous in the highest degree for a single person to venture within its bounds. Even the police hardly dared to enter there; and if they attempted to apprehend some known individuals, it was always in a numerous, strongly-armed company. Seldom, however, were arrests made. The lawless inhabitants of the place united to save their luckless brothers, and generally managed to drive the assailants away. When the different fires took place in San Francisco, bands of plunderers issued from this great haunt of dissipation, to help themselves to whatever money or valuables lay in their way, or which they could possibly secure. With these they retreated to their dens, and defied detection or apprehension. Many of these fires were believed to have been raised by incendiaries, solely for the opportunity which they afforded for plundering. Persons were repeatedly seen in the act of kindling loose inflammable materials in out-houses and secret places; while the subsequent confessions of convicted criminals left no doubt of the fact, that not only had frequent attempts been made to fire the city, but that some of these had unfortunately been successful. Fire, however, was only one means of attaining their ends. The most daring burglaries were committed, and houses and persons rifled of their valuables. Where resistance was made, the bowie-knife or the revolver settled matters, and left the robber unmolested. Midnight assaults, ending in murder, were common. And not only were these deeds perpetrated under the shade of night; but even in daylight, in the highways and byways of the country, in the streets of the town, in crowded bars, gambling saloons and lodging houses, crimes of an equally glaring character were of constant occurrence. People at that period generally carried during all hours, and wherever they happened to be, loaded firearms about their persons; but these weapons availed nothing against the sudden stroke of the “slung shot,” the plunge and rip of the knife, or the secret aiming of the pistol. No decent man was in safety to walk the streets after dark; while at all hours, both of night and day, his property was jeopardized by incendiarism and burglary.

All this while, the law, whose supposed “majesty“ is so awful in other countries, was here only a matter for ridicule. The police were few in number, and poorly as well as irregularly paid. Some of them were in league with the criminals themselves, and assisted these at all times to elude justice. Subsequent confessions of criminals on the eve of execution, implicated a considerable number of people in various high and low departments of the executive. Bail was readily accepted in the most serious cases, where the security tendered was absolutely worthless; and where, whenever necessary, both principal and cautioner quietly disappeared. The prisons likewise were small and insecure and though filled to overflowing, could no longer contain the crowds of apprehended offenders. When these were ultimately brought to trial, seldom could a conviction be obtained. From technical errors on the part of the prosecutors, laws ill understood and worse applied, false swearing of the witnesses for the prisoners, absence often of the chief evidence for the prosecution, dishonesty of jurors, incapacity, weakness, or venality of the judge, and from many other causes, the cases generally broke down and the prisoners were freed. Not one criminal had yet been executed. Yet it was notorious, that, at this period, at least one hundred murders had been committed within the space of a few months; while innumerable were the instances of arson, and of theft, robbery, burglary, and assault with intent to kill. It was evident that the offenders defied and laughed at all the puny efforts of the authorities to control them. The tedious processes of legal tribunals had no terrors for them. As yet every thing had been pleasant and safe, and they saw no reason why it should not always be so. San Francisco had been just destroyed, a fifth time, by conflagration. The cities of Stockton and Nevada had likewise shared the same fate. That part of it was the doing of incendiaries no one doubted; and too, no one doubted but that this terrible state of things would continue, and grow worse, until a new and very different executive from the legally-constituted one should rise up in vengeance against those pests that worried and preyed upon the vitals of society. It was at this fearful time that the Vigilance Committee was organized. They knew they had no ordinary duty to perform. They foresaw not merely much time, labor, expense, and actual danger occasioned to themselves—these were trifles—but also grievous responsibility, and perhaps much misconception and undeserved personal obloquy thrown upon their motives and conduct. They were prepared for all; for what will not a man suffer to save life, limb, and property? They knew they might possibly open a gate to insubordination and general anarchy, thereby periling all future law, peace and happiness; but they did not think that a probable case, and at any rate the risk must be run. The chances were all calculated beforehand; and the result showed only a clear winning game.

The law of nature, which is the foundation of, and is Superior to, all civil law, justifies every means for self-preservation. An individual or a community attacked has a right to defend itself; and where that attack cannot be otherwise resisted, then is extermination of the offender proper. Where the constituted tribunals of a country fail to accomplish the ends for which they were created, society becomes resolved into its first elements, and some new method must be adopted to preserve its very existence. Opinions may differ as to the particular instant of time when formal law and legal courts become inoperative, and sanction a community in resorting to new and extraordinary measures for its own safety; but in regard to the general principle, all history, and what is better, common sense and moral feeling, abundantly establish it. The people of San Francisco,—and they of all the world could alone know their own troubles,—believed that the unhappy point of time had been reached; and they accordingly seized the occasion to make some terrible experiments, by which to check the growth of those crimes that were so rapidiy surrounding them.

In the case of Stuart alias Burdue, in February, 1851, the want of organization and previous arrangements on the part of the people, had been severely felt. As the popular demonstration of that period had failed to strike criminals with terror or lessen crime, a number of the leading citizens organized themselves into the Vigilance Committee. This was in June, 1851. The constitution of the association was as follows: —

“WHEREAS, it has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco, that there is no security for life and property, either under the regulations of society as it at present exists, or under the law as now administered; Therefore, the citizens, whose names are hereunto attached, do unite themselves into an association for the maintenance of the peace and good order of society, and the preservation of the lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco, and do bind ourselves, each unto the other, to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order, and to sustain the laws when faithfully and properly administered; but we are determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice. And to secure the objects of this association we do hereby agree:

“1. That the name and style of the association shall be the COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE; for the protection of the lives and property of the citizens and residents of the city of San Francisco.

“2. That there shall be a room selected for the meeting and deliberation of the committee, at which there shall be one or more members of the committee, appointed for that purpose, in constant attendance, at all hours of the day and night, to receive the report of any member of the association, or of any other person or persons whatsoever, of any act of violence done to the person or property of any citizen of San Francisco; and if in the judgment of the member or members of the committee present, it be such an act as justifies the interference of the committee, either in aiding in the execution of the laws, or the prompt and summary punishment of the offender, the committee shall be at once assembled for the purpose of taking such action as a majority of the committee when assembled shall determine upon.

“3. That it shall be the duty of any member or members of the committee on duty at the committee room, whenever a general assemblage of the committee is deemed necessary, to cause a call to be made by two strokes upon a bell, which shall be repeated with a pause of one minute between each alarm. The alarm to be struck until ordered to be stopped.

“4. That when the committee have assembled for action, the decision of a majority present shall be binding upon the whole committee, and that those members of the committee whose names are hereunto attached, do pledge their honor, and hereby bind themselves to defend and sustain each other in carrying out the determined action of this committee at the hazard of their lives and their fortunes.

“5. That there shall be chosen monthly a president secretary and treasurer, and it shall be the duty of the secretary to detail the members required to be in daily attendance at the committee room. A sergeant-at-arms shall be appointed, whose duty it shall be to notify such members of their details for duty. The sergeant-at-arms shall reside at and be in constant attendance at the committee room. There shall be a standing committee of finance, and qualification, consisting of five each, and no person shall be admitted a member of this association unless he be a respectable citizen, and approved of by the committee on qualification before admission.”

An occasion soon happened to test the character and uses of this most extraordinary association. On the evening of the 10th of June, 1851, a person of the name of John Jenkins feloniously entered a store on Long Wharf, and stole a safe. He was subsequently seen with a large burden slung across his back, and, an alarm being raised, was pursued. He then got into a boat, and sculled out into the bay, followed by a dozen other boats in keen pursuit. The fugitive was soon overtaken; but before his captors reached him he was seen to throw the burden into the water. This was soon drawn up, and proved to be the stolen safe. The prisoner was next taken to the rooms of the Vigilance Committee, in Battery street, near the corner of Pine street. About ten o’clock of the same night, a signal was given on the bell of the Monumental Engine Company; and shortly afterwards about eighty members of the committee hurried to the appointed place, and on giving the secret password were admitted. Meanwhile, knots of people, some of whom knew and all suspected what was going on, gathered about the premises, and impatiently awaited the farther progress of events. For two long hours, the committee were closely occupied in examining evidence; and soon they had no reason to doubt the prisoner’s guilt—though this he denied to the last. At midnight, the bell of the California Engine House was tolled, as sentence of death by hanging was passed upon the wretched man. The solemn sounds at that unusual hour filled the anxious crowds with awe. The condemned at this time was asked if he had any thing to say for himself, when he answered: “No, I have nothing to say, only I wish to have a cigar.” This was handed to him, and afterwards, at his request, a little brandy and water. He was perfectly cool, and seemingly careless, confidently expecting, it was believed, a rescue, up to the last moment.

A little before one o’clock, Mr. S. Brannan came out of the committee rooms, and ascending a mound of sand to the east of the Rassette House, addressed the people. He had been deputed he said, by the committee, to inform them that the prisoner’s case had been fairly tried, that he had been proved guilty, and was condemned to be hanged; and that the sentence would be executed within one hour upon the plaza. He then asked the people if they approved of the action of the committee, when great shouts of Ay! Ay! burst forth, mingled with a few cries of No! In the interval a clergyman had been sent for, who administered the last consolations of religion to the condemned.

Shortly before two o’clock, the committee issued from the building, bearing the prisoner (who had his arms tightly pinioned) along with them. The committee were all armed, and closely clustered around the culprit to prevent any possible chance of rescue. A procession was formed; and the whole party, followed by the crowd, proceeded to the plaza, through Sansome, California, Montgomery and Clay streets. Arrived at the flagstaff, some thoughtlessly suggested that it might serve to hang the condemned upon, but the proposal was indignantly overruled, as desecrating the liberty pole. Those in charge of the execution then proceeded to the south end of the adobe building, which then stood on the north-west corner of the plaza. The opposite end of the rope which was already about the neck of the victim was hastily thrown over a projecting beam. Some of the authorities attempted at this stage of affairs to interfere, but their efforts were unavailing. They were civilly desired to stand back, and not delay what was still to be done. The crowd, which numbered upwards of a thousand, were perfectly quiescent, or only applauded by look, gesture, and subdued voice the action of the committee. Before the prisoner had reached the building, a score of persons seized the loose end of the rope and ran backwards, dragging the wretch along the ground and raising him to the beam. Thus they held him till he was dead. Nor did they let the body go until some hours afterwards, new volunteers relieving those who were tired holding the rope. Little noise or confusion took place. Muttered whispers among the spectators guided their movements or betrayed their feelings. The prisoner had not spoken a word, either upon the march or during the rapid preparations for his execution. At the end he was perhaps strung up almost before he was aware of what was so immediately coming. He was a strong-built, healthy man, and his struggles, when hanging, were very violent for a few minutes.

This Jenkins was one of the notorious “Sydney coves,” and was believed to be a man of desperate and crime-stained character. The committee who tried him were generally people of respectability in San Francisco. Stern necessity had led them to make this first terrible example, and their conduct was almost unanimously applauded by the citizens. The public press, with one exception, likewise gave a hearty approval of their proceedings. That the execution was conducted during the dead of night, was simply owing to the fact that the criminal had been apprehended only late in the preceding evening. The crime, apprehension, trial, sentence and execution, all took place within a few consecutive hours. The latter steps were managed as swiftly as convenient to the ends of justice. If the crime had been committed in the morning, the result would have been the same, and the condemned would then only have been hanged in open day. That the trial took place in secret was owing to the constitution of the committee, which was devised to prevent the excesses and turbulence of a mere mob sitting in judgment upon offenders.

A coroner’s inquest was held, the 11th of June, upon the body of the hanged man. To illustrate further the constitution, real objects, and spirit of the Vigilance Committee, we give a portion of the testimony of Mr. Brannan before the jury on this occasion. After declining to answer some questions on the ground that his statements might implicate himself, the witness said:

“I believe the man had a fair and impartial trial. He was tried before from sixty to eighty men. I believe the verdict of guilty was unanimous, and they came to the conclusion unanimously to hang him. I don’t know how the jury was empanelled; think they empanelled themselves. The jury consisted of the Committee of Vigilance; they were all citizens of the town. I don’t know that the committee has by-laws. The declared object of the committee was to consider themselves constantly on duty, to protect the lives and property of their fellow-citizens; to see that they are not troubled by burglars, and incendiaries, and murderers; and to arrest and punish promptly parties caught in the act. The man was executed in accordance with the finding of the committee. I understood a record was kept of the evidence adduced on the trial; six or eight witnesses were examined. The prisoner had the privilege of bringing in evidence in his behalf. He said he had but one witness who came and testified that he did not know him. There was no counsel assigned him. I don’t know whether the man’s witness saw him. He said he did not know any such man before he reached the house. Don’t know that the witnesses were put under oath. I did not make any motion that the man should have a new trial. Don’t know whether any other persons than those of the committee were in the room. A man is admitted to the committee on a motion by a friend who vouches for his character, and that he will devote a portion of his time to watching for burglars and other scoundrels. I don’t know of any other secrecy than that of an honest man. There is no oath used. The object is to assist the law and administer justice. I do not believe the prisoner would have been hanged if the committee had not found him guilty. The committee are good citizens, and of good standing in society. I saw the prisoner’s witness out of doors; heard him say he did not know any such man as Jenkins; don’t know whether he went inside; did not see him; could not give the names of any of the witnesses. I object to give the names of any of the committee. I have understood that threats have been made against their property and lives; have heard threats made; have heard it said that my own house would be burned; threats have come to me from the prisoners in the county prison that I should not live ninety days. I know of nothing done by the Vigilance Committee that they would conceal from the officers of the law under proper circumstances. The avowed object of the committee is to protect the city, and punish crime. I know of no other purpose for which they are organized. I believe it was through the instrumentality of the committee that the man was hanged.”

Upon the above and much other evidence of a like nature, the jury on the 12th June, returned the following verdict:—

“We, the Jurors of a Jury of Inquest, empanelled by the Coroner of the County of San Francisco, to inquire into the death of one John Jenkins, alias Simpton, do find upon our oaths that the said Jenkins, alias Simpton, came to his death on the morning of the 11th of June, between the hours of two and three o’clock, by violent means, by strangulation, caused by being suspended by the neck, with a rope attached to the end of the adobe building on the plaza, at the hands of, and in pursuance of a preconcerted action on the part of an association of citizens, styling themselves a Committee of Vigilance, of whom the following members are implicated by direct testimony, to wit: Captam Edgar Wakeman, William H. Jones, James C. Ward, Edward A. King, T. K. Battelle, Benjamin Reynolds, John S. Eagan, J. C. Derby and Samuel Brannan; and the following members by their voluntary avowal of participation in the act.” [Here followed a list of the members of the Vigilance Committee.]

In consequence of this verdict (which, it may be just said in passing, was never attempted to be followed up by the authorities), the Vigilance Committee held a meeting on the 13th June, when a unanimous resolution to the following effect was passed, and ordered to be published. As the names appended to this resolution make a pretty complete roll of the original, or more prominent members of the Vigilance Committee, many of whom still reside in San Francisco and move among the most respectable circles, we give them at length. The curious and scandal-loving may spell over the list at their leisure, and discover some of the chief bankers, merchants and real estate proprietors now flourishing in this city. There is, however, a better reason for the present republication of these names, albeit some feebler-minded folk may fervently wish that their “unco guid” friends at a distance may never hear of their graceless connection with the Vigilance Committee. Since common fairness compelled the disclosure in 1851, to give moral support to the parties singled out by the verdict of the coroner’s jury; therefore, so long as these gentlemen continue well known, and while they must be specially designated in any history pretending to be full and accurate of the proceedings, the same spirit of fairness enforces the publication now. It would be doing gross injustice to a dozen worthy men, if the full list were omitted in the “Annals of San Francisco.” At the same time, there is no reason why any one of the whole number should be ashamed of his appearance in the list.

Resolved, That we, members of the Vigilance Committee, remark with surprise the invidious verdict rendered by the coroner’s jury, after their inquest upon the body of Jenkins, alias Simpton, after we have all notified to the said jury and the public that we were all participators in the trial and execution of said Jenkins. We desire that the public will understand that Capt. E. Wakeman, W. H. Jones, James C. Ward, Edward A. King, T. K. Battelle, Benjamin Reynolds, J. S. Eagan, J. C. Derby and Samuel Brannan, have been unnecessarily picked from our numbers, as the coroner’s jury have had full evidence of the fact, that all the undersigned have been equally implicated, and are equally responsible with their above-named associates.”
S. E. Woodsworth, Jesse Southam, James Shinaler, A. Wheelwright,
Fred. A. Woodworth, T. H. Robinson, J. W. Rickman, C. F. Fourgeaud,
Francis E. Webster, George R. Ward, W. S. Bromley, A. Jackson McDuffie,
Wm. N. Thompson, C. L. Wilson, A. Ottenheimer, P. D. Headley,
Clinton Winton, W. H. Taber, B. H. Davis, S. B. Marshall,
James B. Huie, Isaac Bluxome, jr., P. Frothingham, H. Hazeltine,
B. Frank Hillard, Lathrop L. Bullock, E. E. Schenck, W. Iken,
S. W. Haight, John W. Rider, Geo. Austinworn, George D. Lambert,
George H. Howard, Theodore Kuhlman, E. Botcher, John P. Half,
Caleb Hyatt, Joseph E. Dale, Samuel Marx, Joseph T. Harmer,
Samuel R. Curwen, Julius D. Shultz, Daniel J. Thomas, jr., J. Seligman,
James F. Curtis, J. P. Stevens, J. E. Farwell, H. F. Von Lenyerk,
L. Hulsemann, Thomas McCahill, Jacob P. Leese, J. E. Derby,
A. G. Randall, Wm. Peake, Edgar Wakeman, T. J. West,
S. Brannan, Jonas Minturn, A. Markwell, Wm. T. Coleman,
George J. Oakes, Lloyd Minturn, Samuel A. Sloane, J. S. Clark,
R. D. W. Davis, F. O. Wakeman, W. B. Lucas, C. H. Clark,
Wm. H. Jones, Wm. Forst, Henry M. Naglee, Herman R. Haste,
Edward A. King, John W. Jackson, J. Thompson Huie, H. F. Teschemacker,
William A. Howard, A. C. Tubbs, Otis P. Sawyer, Wm. J. Sherwood,
Henry Dreshchfeldt, J. R. Curtis, Wm. Meyer, W. L. Hobson,
James Ryan, A. H. Hill, W. N. Hostin, E. W. Travers,
Wm. Browne, Wm. H. Graham, John G. McKaraher, W. H. Tillinghast,
Robert Wells, B. E. Babcock, Eugene Hart, Wm. Langerman,
H. D. Evans, J. A. Fisher, John Raynes, J. F. Hutton,
John J. Bryant, Hartford Joy, J. C. Treadwell, Thos. K. Battelle,
E. Kirtus, Joshua Hilton, John H. Watson, Horace Morrison,
Thos. N. Deblois, John F. Osgood, Wm. Burling, Augustus Belknap,
E. Gorham, James Pratt, F. Quincey Coale, F. L. Dana,
Frank S. Mahoney, E. Kemp, Thomas N. Cazneau, Horatio S. Gates,
James C. Ward, Wm. G. Badger, Geo. W. Douglass, O. P. Sutton,
R. S. Watson, J. Mead Huxley, Wm. C. Graham, Jer. Spalding,
George Mellus, S. J. Stabler, Chas. H. Vail, A. J. Ellis,
J. D. Stevenson, Geo. Clifford, Charles Minturn, John M. Coughlin,
Chas. R. Bond, Charles Soulé, jr., Howard Cunningham, Samuel Moss, jr.,
B. B. Arrowsmith, Robert H. Belden, Charles L. Case, C. O. Brewster,
S. E. Teschemacker, N. Smith, Charles Moore, Charles L. Wood,
C. H. Brinley, Randolph M. Cooley, James R. Duff, William Tell,
J. W. Salmon, Chas. H. Hill, E. M. Earle, James Dow,
Benjamin Reynolds, J. Neal, jr., J. L. Van Bokkelen, E. W. Crowell,
A. W. Macpherson, F. A. Atkinson, George N. Blake A. H. Gildemeester,
John S. Eagan, Charles Miller, Dewitt Brown, Samuel S. Philipps,
J. C. L. Wadsworth, John O. Earle, Edward F. Baker, Chas. Del Vecchio,
William Hart, N. T. Thompson, F. Argenti, Joseph Post,
George M. Garwood, N. Reynolds Davis, Stephen Payran, Jas. King of William,
R. S. Lanot, Gabriel Winter, C. Spring.

These were signatures of some of the richest, most influential, orderly and respectable citizens of San Francisco. They show, however, only a small portion of the people who subsequently joined the Vigilance Committee, since every day was increasing its numbers by the accession of the best inhabitants of the place. At the time when the above resolution was formed and published the committee likewise put forth the following by-laws, as an address to the people:—

 “WHEREAS, The citizens of San Francisco, convinced that there exists within its limits a band of robhers and incendiaries, who have, several times, burned and attempted to burn their city, who nightly attack their persons and break into their buildings, destroy their quiet, jeopardize their lives and property, and generally disturb the natural order of society; AND WHEREAS many of those taken by the police have succeeded in escaping from their prisons by carelessness, by connivance, or from want of proper means or force to secure their confinement, therefore be it

“RESOLVED, That the citizens of this place be made aware that the Committee of Vigilance will be ever ready to receive information as to the whereabouts of any disorderly or suspicious person or persons, as well as the persons themselves when suspected of crime.

“That as it is the conviction of a large portion of our citizens, that there exists in this city a nucleus of convicts and disorderly persons, around which cluster those who have seriously disturbed the peace and affected the best interests of our city—such as are known to the police of the city, or to the members of the Committee of Vigilance, as felons by conduct or association, be notified to leave this port within five days from this date; and at the expiration of which time they shall be compelled to depart, if they have not done so voluntarily within the time specified.

“RESOLVED, That a safety committee of thirty persons be appointed, whose sacred duty it shall be to visit every vessel arriving with notorious or suspicious characters on board, and unless they can present to said committee evidences of good character and honesty, they shall be re-shipped to the places from whence they came, and not be permitted to pollute our soil.

“RESOLVED, That all good citizens be invited to join and assist the Committee of Vigilance in carrying out the above measures so necessary for the perfect restoration of the peace, safety, and good order of our community.”

These sweeping resolutions were not suffered to lie dormant but were instantly and effectively acted upon. The terrible example made of Jenkins, and the announcement of farther steps by the committee, had already succeeded in frightening many of the more fearful rogues away. The steamers to Sacramento and Stockton were crowded with the flying rascals. But such a partial exodus was not enough. The more desperate characters were left, and unless the work was thoroughly done, the city would be in as bad a state as before. An old Mexican law really forbade the immigration into California of such persons as had been convicted of crime in other countries; but this law, in the confusion of the vast immigration of 1849 and succeeding years had been disregarded. The committee, however, now proceeded to render it of use, and give a somewhat wider scope to its operation. So notices were forthwith served on all such persons as were known or reputed to be vicious characters, upon the different “Sydney Coves,” and upon all who harbored or kept close companionship with them, that they instantly leave the city, on pain of being forcibly expelled, and shipped to the place from whence they had last come. These notices were served always in presence of three members of the committee, and after due inquiry, although a secret one, had been made on the subject. If the party warned considered himself an innocent or ill-used person, he was at liberty to appeal to the committee, and have his cause reheard. He could produce all evidence within his power in regard to general character or to rebut specific charges; and upon that, or its absence, the committee altered or confirmed their former judgment. Repeated cases of rehearing took place; and where the parties appealing were “white-washed,” or turned out really “good citizens,” generally no malice was manifested by them against the committee; because they, like their judges, considered that the whole proceedings had been conducted in good faith and for the public benefit. A few actions of damages for false imprisonment and defamation of character were about this time and subsequently raised against members of the Vigilance Committee, by parties who considered themselves aggrieved by their proceedings. In the end, however, these actions were either quashed, nominal damages only awarded by the jury, or the plaintiffs indemnified. Meanwhile, the committee pursued “the even tenor of their way,” nowise daunted by the reproaches and threats of offended individuals, nor by the continual opposing action of mortified officials. When some of the warned were contumacious, and refused to depart, they were seized by force, in spite of their appeals to the courts of law, and imprisoned on board a safe ship in the bay until arrangements could be made for their transportation abroad. The legal authorities, with numerous practising lawyers in their train, meanwhile “fretted and fumed” at thus losing their own proper business; and denounced in angry language the sweeping action of the committee. Those personages did not deny the good result of this action, nor did they disguise the alarming increase of crime and the inability of the regular tribunals to cope with it; but still they harped upon the illegality,—the illegality of the whole proceedings. Illegality truly! People were abused, robbed and murdered on all sides, their houses set in flames, and their goods consumed or stolen, and yet they were to be forbidden the only remedy in their power, because form was to be observed, while the criminals escaped! The reproaches of mere lawyers were disregarded, and the work of purification went on.

Some individuals having chosen to throw obstacles in the way of the Vigilance Committee’s action, that body issued the following notice to the public. It is here given to show the spirit of their proceedings, and the ceaseless watchfulness with which they were conducted. Not a word need be said as to their illegality; that is confessed by all.

“VIGILANCE COMMITTEE ROOM :—It having become necessary to the peace and quiet of this community that all criminals and abettors in crime should be driven from among us, no good citizen, having the welfare of San Francisco at heart, will deny the Committee of Vigilance such information as will enable them to carry out the above object. Nor will they interfere with said committee when they may deem it best to search any premises for suspicious characters or stolen property. Therefore,

“RESOLVED, That we the Vigilance Committee do CLAIM to ourselves the right to enter any person or persons’ premises where we have good reason to believe that we shall find evidence to substantiate and carry out the object of this body; And further, deeming ourselves engaged in a good and just cause—WE INTEND TO MAINTAIN IT.

“By order of
No. 67, Secretary.”
San Francisco, July 5, 1851.”

The next striking occasion when the Vigilance Committee exercised its power was on the 11th of July following. A person of the name of James Stuart—the real party of that name, and for whom Burdue had been mistaken in the affair of the 19th of February preceding, had been for some days in the hands of the committee upon various charges. He had been regularly and fairly tried, found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged. Subsequently he made a full cenfession of his crimes, and acknowledged the justice of his punishment. He was an Englishman, and had many years before been transported from Great Britain to Australia for forgery. At that time he was only sixteen years of age. His whole life afterwards was one continued tissue of the most daring crimes. After wandering about various parts of the Pacific, he lighted at last upon California, and during his short residence there was supposed to have perpetrated more murders, burglaries, and other crimes of every dark and desperate description, than any other villain in California. His confession revealed an extraordinary state of social impurity, and showed, clearly and minutely, the alarming mass of villany which existed among the community, and the support it received from the lax and culpable behavior of the executive. This confession was immediately published, and the people warned against the many persons whom it named and implicated in the crimes acknowledged.

About nine o’clock on the morning of the 11th, the customary taps on the bell of the Monumental Engine House, which showed that a matter of life and death was under consideration, summoned together the Vigilance Committee. Immediately a numerous assemblage of members convened at their rooms, and proceeded to try the prisoner. Evidence was duly led and considered, and Stuart’s guilt being fully established, he was sentenced by a unanimous voice, to immediate death by hanging. Before the execution, Col. J. D. Stevenson went forth to the crowd of people waiting outside, and addressing them, stated the facts of the case briefly, as established by evidence, the subsequent confession of the prisoner himself, and the proposed judgment of the committee. He then inquired whether the people approved of their proceedings, and would confirm the sentence. A loud shout in the affirmative from a great crowd answered his inquiry, against which there were only several voices in the negative. During this time the committee were in consultation as to their further proceedings, while the prisoner remained manacled in an adjoining room. He appeared quite reckless of his fate, and only at times said that the business was “d——d tiresome.” He begged a piece of tobacco from one of the members, which he continued to chew until he heard his doom. When sentence was delivered, he was permitted to have a delay of two hours, to frame his mind to the solemnity of the occasion; and to that end the assistance of a clergyman was given, although the prisoner seemed very indifferent about religious duties. This clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Mines, was closeted with the condemned during the time granted. In the interval, the members present of the committee—some four hundred in number, sat grimly on their seats, silent and determined. They felt the responsibility and unpleasant nature of the task before them; but they did not hesitate. It was for the good of the community and their own safety that they had been laboring, and while conscience approved of their proceedings, they did not so much court, as they hoped and expected the confidence and applause of their fellow-citizens. The silence in that chamber of judgment was profound; a pin could have been heard to fall on the floor.

Hanging of James Stuart.After the two hours’ grace, the condemned was led forth, still manacled, and closely surrounded by those who had the direct charge of watching over him. The rest of the committee formed in a line behind. They were all well armed, and prepared to resist any attempted rescue, either by the prisoner’s friends, or the authorities themselves. In this order they marched, two by two, as in funeral procession, after Stuart and his guards, along Battery street to Market street wharf, down which they proceeded to its extremity. A great crowd of citizens followed. Hitherto the prisoner had preserved much coolness, but towards the close, fear was beginning to overcome him, and he was at last obliged to be supported by two of his guards. At the end of the wharf every thing had been hastily arranged for the execution. So soon as the procession reached the spot, the fatal rope was fastened, and the condemned quickly hoisted up with a jerk upon a derrick. He did not struggle much. After hanging a few seconds his hat fell off, and a slight breeze stirred and gently waved his hair. This was a sorry spectacle—a human being dying like a dog, while thousands of erring mortals, whose wickedness only had not yet been found out, looked on and applauded! But necessity, which dared not trust itself to feelings of compassion, commanded the deed, and unprofitable sentiment sunk abashed. Reason loudly declared—So perish every villain who would hurt his neighbor! and all the people said Amen!

About twenty-five minutes afterwards, when life was supposed to have fled, the body was lowered, and possession allowed to be taken on the part of the authorities. These had, previous to the execution, made some attempts to recover the person of the deceased; but were resolutely opposed, though no overt act of violence took place. The verdict of the coroner’s jury was as follows:— “We, the jury, find that the deceased came to his death by strangulation by hanging, at the hands of a body of men styling themselves the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco.” It is, perhaps, unnecessary to say that the authorities took no legal action on this verdict. The grand jury empanelled for the special July term by the court of sessions, towards the close of a long report on the state of crime in San Francisco, and in which they had made allusion to the Vigilance Committee, took occasion to say:—

“When we recall the delays and the inefficient, and we believe that with truth it may be said, the corrupt administration of the law, the incapacity and indifference of those who are its sworn guardians and ministers, the frequent and unnecessary postponement of important trials in the District Court, the disregard of duty and impatience while attending to perform it manifested by some of our judges, having criminal jurisdiction, the many notorious villains who have gone unwhipped of justice, lead us to believe, that the members of that association have been governed by a feeling of opposition to the manner in which the law has been administered and those who have administered it, rather than a determination to disregard the law itself.

“Under institutions so eminently popular as those under which we live, the power of correcting all these abuses is with the people themselves. If our officers are unfit for the stations they occupy, if the laws are not faithfully executed, if an arraigned criminal procures his own friends to be placed on the jury that tries him, where is the fault, and where the remedy? If those of our citizens who are most interested in having good and wholesome laws, and in seeing them well and purely administered, will not give sufficient attention to our elections to secure proper and sober legislators, judicial and other officers, and neglect to obey the mandates of our courts when summoned as jurors and witnesses, as has been too often the case, can they expect to see justice prevail or crime punished? And is it not in the neglect of their duties in these important particulars, that they may find the true fountains from whence have sprung many of the evils we have suffered? The Grand Jurors, believing, whilst they deplore their acts, that the association styling themselves the ‘Vigilance Committee,’ at a great personal sacrifice to themselves, have been influenced in their actions by no personal or private malice, but for the best interest of the whole, and at a time too when all other means of preventing crime and bringing criminals to direct punishment had failed, here dismiss the matter, as among those peculiar results of circumstances that sometimes startle communities, which they can neither justify, or by a presentment effect any benefit to individuals or the country; and with the assurance that there is a determination on the part of all well-disposed citizens to correct the abuses referred to by selecting proper officers to take the place of those who have violated their trusts, and by performing each his part in the administration of the laws. When this is done, the axe will have been laid at the root of the tree—the proper remedy applied for the correction of the grievous evils our city and country have so long suffered, and there will be no necessity for the further action of that committee. To them we are indebted for much valuable information and many important witnesses.”

The above testimony to the purity of motives and prudence of conduct in the Vigilance Committee is highly important; and shows the estimation in which they were held by some of the most enlightened members of the community, who themselves had a legal duty to perform respecting crime in the district. The public press, excepting as before, continued to give cordial and effective aid, and even from the pulpit was heard a sound of applause. As for the commonalty, it was almost unanimously in favor of the committee. In consequence of the examples made of Jenkins and Stuart, crime was now fast diminishing in San Francisco, and the number of notorious criminals was much reduced.

The next great occasion on which the committee figured was in August following. They had had in their custody for some time back, two persons of the names of Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, who were charged with the various crimes of burglary, robbery and arson. These persons had been fairly tried, had confessed their guilt, and were sentenced to be hanged. The particular time for the execution had not yet been fixed, although a rumor spread abroad, on the evening of the 20th August, that it would take place next day.

Meanwhile the governor of the State, the Hon. John McDougal, issued (on the 20th August,) a proclamation to the people in the County of San Francisco, directed against the Vigilance Committee by name, and which called upon “all good citizens of said county to unite for the purpose of sustaining public law and tranquillity, to aid the public officers in the discharge of their duty, and by all lawful means to discountenance any and every attempt which may be made to substitute the despotic control of a self-constituted association, unknown and acting in defiance of the laws, in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.” To this proclamation the following strange certificate was published in answer:—

San Francisco, August 20th, 1851.

“We, the undersigned, do hereby aver, that the present governor, McDougal, asked to be introduced to the Executive Committee of the Committee of Vigilance, which was allowed, and an hour fixed. The governor, upon being introduced, stated that he approved the acts of the committee, and that much good had taken place. He hoped that they would go on, and endeavor to act in concert with the authorities, and in case any judge was guilty of mal-administration, to hang him, and he would appoint others,” &c.

Comment upon the above document is unnecessary. It shows that although the governor, in prosecuting the duties of his office, felt bound to oppose the proceedings of the Vigilance Committee on the ground of their illegality, as an individual, he was willing to acknowledge their beneficial effects. Indeed, the private opinion and well-wishes of the “good citizens” upon whom he called for aid against the actions of the committee, were nearly unanimous in their favor.

On the morning of the 21st, before dawn, the Sheriff, Col. John C. Hayes, holding a warrant of habeas corpus, procured upon the affidavit of Governor McDougal himself, went with one of his deputies to the rooms of the committee, which he entered without experiencing any resistance. A party of policemen followed behind, to be ready in case of need. There were a sufficient number of the committee at hand to have forcibly and successfully resisted the authorities; but, taken by surprise, and unwilling to proceed to actual blows and bloodshed, they suffered the prisoners to be removed. Some of the committee, however, hastening from the apartment, immediately began to ring the bell of the California Engine House. This soon aroused the numerous members of the committee from slumber, and sent them quickly to the scene of action. By the time they arrived the sheriff had left with the prisoners. There was something strange and unexpected in the whole affair, and treachery on the part of some of the prisoners’ guards was suspected. The authorities had known for weeks that Whittaker and McKenzie had been in the hands of the committee, and during that time they had made no effort to procure their release. It was generally believed indeed that the authorities, knowing the good the committee had done in diminishing crime, took ready advantage of their situation in protesting that feebleness alone kept them quiet. Yet now they were perilling all the benefits that had already resulted from the action of the committee. The latter deeply deplored the hasty conduct of the officials, but resolved to be cool and proceed cautiously in their farther steps. Villany meanwhile looked stealthily on, and began to breathe more freely. The old tribunals, and old delays—perjury—quibbles and technical errors—corrupt and bribed prosecutors—ignorance and corruption among the jury—misunderstood and misapplied laws—ay, life itself, and freedom again to run a long course of rapine and murder, all were suddenly opened, by this legal stroke of the executive, to the astonished and delighted criminal! As for the authorities themselves, they were wonderstruck at, and almost afraid of their own boldness and success; and many could scarcely believe that they had managed, at last, to circumvent the formidable Vigilance Committee. So they made preparations to resist any attempt that might be tried to rescue the prisoners; while fear and trembling, arising from many different causes, filled the hearts of all “good citizens.”

About half-past two o’clock, on the afternoon of Sunday, the 24th of August, an armed party, consisting of thirty-six members of the Vigilance Committee, forcibly broke into the jail, at a time when the Rev. Mr. Williams happened to be engaged at devotional exercises with the prisoners, among whom were Whittaker and McKenzie. The slight defence of the jailers and guards was of no avail. The persons named were seized, and hurried to and placed within a coach, that had been kept in readiness a few steps from the prison. The carriage instantly was driven off at full speed, and nearly at the same moment the ominous bell of the Monumental Engine Company rapidly and loudly tolled for the immediate assemblage of the committee and the knell itself of the doomed. The whole population leaped with excitement at the sound; and immense crowds from the remotest quarter hurried to Battery street. There blocks, with the necessary tackle, had been hastily fastened to two beams which projected over the windows of the great hall of the committee. Within seventeen minutes after the arrival of the prisoners, they were both dangling by the neck from these beams. The loose extremities of the halters being taken within the building itself and forcibly held by members of the committee. Full six thousand people were present, who kept an awful silence during the short time these preparations lasted. But so soon as the wretches were swung off, one tremendous shout of satisfaction burst from the excited multitude; and then there was silence agaln.

After the bodies had hung about half an hour, the people were addressed by Mr. Brannan, Dr. Robinson and Mr. Peyran; and shortly afterwards they slowly dispersed. In the course of an hour later, the bodies were delivered over to the authorities, and the same evening a coroner’s jury returned the following verdict :—“In accordance with the foregoing testimony, the jury, after deliberate consideration, have come to the conclusion, and accordingly render their verdict, that Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie came to their death by being hanged by the neck, thereby producing strangulation, by the act of a body of citizens styling themselves the ‘Vigilance Committee of San Francisco,’ on the afternoon of Sunday, August 24th, instant, at about three o’clock, in front of the Vigilance Committee Rooms, on Battery street, near California street, from the second story thereof.” As heretofore, no steps were taken by the authorities to implement the verdict of the jury.

This was the last time the committee took or found occasion to exercise their functions. Henceforward the administration of justice might be safely left in the hands of the usual officials. The city now was pretty well cleansed of crime. The fate of Jenkins, Stuart, Whittaker and McKenzie showed that rogues and roguery, of whatever kind, could no longer expect to find a safe lurking-place in San Francisco. Many of the suspected, and such as were warned off by the committee, had departed, and gone, some to other lands, and some into the mining regions and towns of the interior. Those, however, who still clung to California, found no refuge any where in the State. Previously, different cases of Lynch Law had occurred in the gold districts, but these were solitary instances which had been caused by the atrocity of particular crimes. When, however, the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco had started up, fully organized, and began their great work, Sacramento, Stockton, San José, as well as other towns and the more thickly peopled mining quarters, likewise formed their committees of vigilance and safety, and pounced upon all the rascals within their bounds. These associations interchanged information with each other as to the movements of the suspected; and all, with the hundred eyes of an Argus and the hundred arms of a Briareus, watched, pursued, harassed, and finally caught the worst desperadoes of the country. Like Cain, a murderer and wanderer, as most of them were, they bore a mark on the brow, by which they were known. Some were hanged at various places, some were lashed and branded, but the greater number were simply ordered to leave the country, within a limited time, under penalty of immediate death if found after a stated period within its limits. Justice was no longer blind or leaden-heeled. With the perseverance and speed of a bloodhound, she tracked criminals to their lair, and smote them where they lay.

Thus by almost a universal—a national effort, was our beautiful country, which had so long contained and been deified by the sweepings from the prisons and the thieves’-alleys of other lands, once more made pure, sweet and safe. Hercules did no greater labor when he cleansed the Augean stable by turning a river through it. The people of California, and more particularly the people of San Francisco, had turned the great stream of justice, from its former slow, devious and uncertain course, and sent its waters headlong to overwhelm criminals and wash society clean from the stains that crime had left. For a long time afterwards, the whole of California remained comparatively free from outrages against person and property.

From all the evidence that can be obtained, it is not supposed that a single instance occurred in which a really innocent man suffered the extreme penalty of death. Those who were executed generally confessed their guilt, and admitted the punishment to have been merited. We have seen that it was so in the case of three of those hanged at San Francisco.

The Vigilance Committee has long ceased to act, but the association has never been formally dissolved. The original members are doubtless ready, if ever sad occasion should require, again to assert the right of self-preservation, and the supremacy of natural law over defective civil rules, tedious if not corrupt tribunals, mastery of scoundrels and the quirks of professional tricksters, if thereby the substantial ends of justice can be best or alone obtained, and society relieved from the horrors of unchecked and triumphant villany. Let rogues then beware! It is, however, to be sincerely hoped, that never again shall there need to be revived those terrible times of 1851. California is perhaps not yet quite so subject to the influence and strength of LAW as most of the Atlantic States or the more civilized countries in Europe; but she is fast being gently and securely broken in to its majestic and salutary sway. Her career has been unlike that of any other modern nation, and the many anomalies in her history must be peculiarly and leniently judged. GOD SAVE CALIFORNIA! 

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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