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San Francisco Vigilance Movement


San Francisco Vigilance Movement

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was a popular ad hoc organization formed in 1851 and revived in 1856 in response to rampant crime and corruption in the municipal government of San Francisco, California. It was one of the most successful organizations in the vigilante tradition of the American Old West.

These militias hanged eight people and forced several elected officials to resign. Each Committee of Vigilance formally relinquished power after three months.


The 1851 Committee of Vigilance was inaugurated on June 9 with the promulgation of a written doctrine declaring its aims[1] and hanged John Jenkins of Sydney, Australia on June 10 after he was convicted of stealing a safe from an office in a trial organized by the committee: grand larceny was punishable by death under California law at the time.[2] The June 13 Daily Alta California printed this statement:

It boasted a membership of 700 and claimed to operate in parallel to, and in defiance of, the duly constituted city government. Committee members used its headquarters for the interrogation and incarceration of suspects who were denied the benefits of due process. The Committee engaged in policing, investigating disreputable boarding houses and vessels, deporting immigrants, and parading its militia. Four people were hanged by the Committee; one was whipped (a common punishment at that time); fourteen were deported to Australia; fourteen were informally ordered to leave California; fifteen were handed over to public authorities; and forty-one were discharged. The 1851 Committee of Vigilance was dissolved during the September elections, but its executive members continued to meet into 1853.[3]

Among those killed were John Jenkens, an Australian from Sydney accused of burglary, who was hanged on June 10, 1851; James Stuart, also from Sydney and accused of murder, who was hanged on July 11, 1851; and Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, associates of Stuart accused of "various heinous crimes", who were hanged on August 24, 1851. The lynching of Whittaker and McKenzie occurred three days after a standoff between the Committee and the nascent police force trying to protect the prisoners; the Committee nabbed Whittaker and McKenzie after storming the jail during Sunday church services.[4]

The Committee offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of anyone found guilty of arson, and committee members patrolled the streets at night to watch for fires. After these actions were taken, fires in San Francisco diminished noticeably.[5]


The Committee of Vigilance was reorganized on 14 May 1856 by many of the leaders from the first one and adopted an amended version of the 1851 constitution.[3] Unlike the earlier Committee, and the vigilante tradition generally, the 1856 Committee was concerned with not only civil crimes but also politics and political corruption.[3] The catalyst for the Committee was a murder, in the guise of a political duel in which James P. Casey shot opposition newspaper editor James King of William. The 1856 Committee was also much larger, claiming 6,000 in its ranks. The 1856 Committee of Vigilance dissolved on 11 August 1856, and marked the occasion with a “Grand Parade.”[3]

Political power in San Francisco was transferred to a new political party established by the vigilantes, the People's Party, which ruled until 1867 and was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. The vigilantes had thus succeeded in their objective of usurping power from the Democratic Party machine that hitherto dominated civic politics in the city.[6] Notable people included William Tell Coleman, Martin J. Burke, San Francisco mayor Henry F. Teschemacher, and San Francisco's first chief of police James F. Curtis.

Vigilante headquarters in 1856 consisted of assembly halls, meeting rooms, a military kitchen and armoury, an infirmary, and prison cells, all of which were fortified with gunny sacks and cannons.[3] Four people were officially executed again in 1856, but the death toll also includes James “Yankee” Sullivan, an Irish immigrant and professional boxer who killed himself after being terrorized and detained in a Vigilante cell.[3][7]

The 1856 Committee also engaged in policing, investigations, and secret trials, but it far exceeded its predecessor in audacity and rebelliousness. Most notably, it seized three shipments of armaments intended for the state militia and tried the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.[3] The Committee’s authority, however, was bolstered by almost all militia units in the city, including the California Guards.[3]


There remains historical controversy about the vigilance movements. For example, both Charles Cora and James Casey were hanged in 1856 as murderers by the Committee of Vigilance: Cora shot and killed a U.S. Marshal William H. Richardson who had drunkenly insulted Cora's mistress, Belle Cora,[8] and Casey killed James King, editor of rival newspaper The Evening Bulletin, for publishing an editorial that exposed Casey's criminal record in New York.[9]

King had also denounced the corruption of City Officials who he believed had let Cora off the hook for the murder of William Richardson: Cora's first trial had ended in a hung jury, and there were rumors that the jury had been bribed. Casey's friends sneaked him into the jail precisely because they were afraid that he would be hanged. This hanging may have been a response by frustrated citizens to ineffectual law enforcement, or a belief that due process would result in acquittals. Popular histories have accepted the former view: that the illegality and brutality of the vigilantes was justified by the need to establish law and order in the city.

One prominent critic of the San Francisco vigilantes was General W. T. Sherman, who resigned from his position as Major-general of the Second Division of Militia in San Francisco. In his memoirs, Sherman wrote:

As [the vigilantes] controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but their success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community? Indeed, in San Francisco, as soon as it was demonstrated that the real power had passed from the City Hall to the committee room, the same set of bailiffs, constables, and rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes."[10]

Influence in British Columbian affairs

A former member of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, physician Max Fifer, moved to Yale, British Columbia at the time of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, and participated in the organization of a Vigilance Committee on the Fraser River in 1858 to address issues of lawlessness and a vacuum of effective governmental authority created by the sudden influx of goldseekers to the new British colony.[11] The Vigilance Committee, which in San Francisco had persecuted disgraced Philadelphia lawyer Ned McGowan, played a role in the bloodless McGowan's War on the lower Fraser in 1858-1859. At the end of the so-called 'War', McGowan was convicted by Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie of an assault against Fifer in British Columbia[12] but McGowan's defense statement, which described some of the activities of the San Francisco vigilantes and his own personal experience of vigilantism, impressed and disturbed Begbie who, like Colonial Governor James Douglas was determined to prevent conditions in the goldfields of British Columbia from deteriorating into mob rule.[13]

See also

San Francisco Bay Area portal



  • Hauka, Donald J., McGowan's War, Vancouver: New Start Books, 2003
  • Hittell, T.H. History of California, Vol. 3, 1897
  • Quinn, Arthur, The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-8032-8851-5
  • Myers, John Myers, San Francisco's Reign of Terror (1966)

External links

  • Hubert Howe Bancroft, Popular Tribunals Volume II. San Francisco: The History Company, 1887.
  • Kevin Mullen, "Malachi Fallon: First Chief of Police" from the Encyclopaedia of San Francisco.
  • Primary sources from the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.
  • Mary Floyd Williams, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1921.
  • Website critical of the Vigilantes
  • The Bancroft Library
  • The Bancroft Library
  • Discussion of 1856 vigilante activities in Memoirs of William T. Sherman
  • Edward McGowan, . McGowan's account of his persecution by the Committee of Vigilance, self-published, 1857, reprinted 1917.
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