In A Nutshell
In the 1850s, long before designs for the Golden Gate Bridge were even put down on paper, San Francisco was awash with crime. From murderers and thieves to corrupt politicians, it wasn’t a pleasant place. Spurred on by first a robbery and then the assassination of a newspaper editor, thousands of citizens, merchants, and businessmen banded together to form the Committee of Vigilance. Two committees—one in 1851 and the second in 1856—would take it upon themselves to clean up the city and prosecute and hang criminals. State militias were called in, but the committee ultimately disbanded voluntarily.
The Whole Bushel
The 1850s were a busy time in California. People from all over were descending on the West Coast in hopes of striking gold and becoming rich overnight. Unsurprisingly, it could be a pretty lawless place at times.
The residents of one city were so fed up with the crime rate that they decided to take matters (and hangings) into their own hands.
The first Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851, but it was fairly short-lived. A local paper claimed that the group had formed for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens against scum and villainy, and it was surprisingly well-organized.
Even though it was small, the committee had a group that was responsible for policing the streets and putting an end to criminal activity when they saw it. Their own justice system was responsible for handing out the punishments, which were then dispensed with enviable speed.
Part of the problem was the influence of the city’s politicians. Most were rather crooked and were more interested in using the official system to line their own pockets than fight the rash of unsolved murders that gripped the city from 1849 to 1851.
The committee formed in the face of a brazen theft on June 9, 1851. A man named John Jenkins walked into a store, picked up the safe, and walked away with it. Then he boarded a boat and headed out into the San Francisco Bay.
This proved to be something of a breaking point, and other merchants gave chase. Even though he threw the safe overboard, Jenkins completely failed to make the brilliant getaway that he so needed.
He was dragged back to the city, put before a hastily assembled jury, and hanged by 2:00 AM that same night.
The committee was re-convened in 1856 when matters were no better. This time, the trigger was a deadly disagreement between newspaper editor James King and the notoriously corrupt politician James Casey. After King called Casey’s well-known corruption out in the paper (along with spilling the beans about his previous stint at Sing Sing), Casey had had enough and shot the editor.
The reaction was immediate. Around 10,000 men took up arms and put the committee back together. They would make up San Francisco’s justice system for the next five months.
Casey was seized by the committee, as was a man named Charles Cora, who’d been jailed after shooting and killing a US Marshal a few months before. (The committee brought along a cannon to discourage actual law enforcement from arguing against their authority.)
An overnight trial was begun, and it happened at the same time that King succumbed to his wounds and died. The charges against both men were upgraded to murder, and they were declared guilty the next morning.
They were hanged that afternoon.
The message was clear, and it was directed at one man: David Broderick. Everyone knew he was a crooked root of the corruption and crime in the area. After making an example of some of his cronies, the committee discovered a false-bottom ballot box in the possession of one of Broderick’s Democratic committee members.
The committee deported around 25 of his party members, ushering them on ships and sending them on their way. About 800 others—from ballot-box stuffers to thieves, gamblers, and con men—were also sent packing.
However, the committee was opposed by a working-class gang called the Chivs, and conflict got so bad that the state militia was called in to stop the chaos.
Other plans were put into place, but with countless official government employees involved in the whole mess, no one knew quite what to do. On August 18, 1856, the Committee of Vigilance saved everyone the problem when they voluntarily disbanded, content that the worst messes in the city had been cleaned up.
Of course, a month later, things were back to normal.
Show Me The Proof
SF Gate: 1856 vigilantes changed corrupt political system
The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco: The 1851 Committee of Vigilance; Vigilance Committee of 1856
Online Archive of California: San Francisco Committee of Vigilance records
Found SF: Committee of Vigilance of San Francisco