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The Vigilance Committee

Among the immigrants to San Francisco were the most ruthless criminals in the world. A substantial number came from Van Dieman's Land and New South Wales where the British had sent their criminals in the mid-1800s. Once those criminals served their time, they sailed for California.

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California Vigilantes

The numbers grew and the "Sydney Coves" (Sydney Ducks) were almost impossible to control as witnesses and prosecutors were few. The offenders operated unchecked from late 1849 through early 1851 with robberies, midnight assaults ending in murder, gambling, and starting fires, during which they would plunder shops and homes. At one point, more than 100 murders had been committed within the space of a few months and not one criminal had been executed.

To regain order, two vigilance groups were formed between 1851 and 1856. Unfortunately, rather than stemmig crime, they were among the most notorious. The 1856 Committee was one of the most successful organizations in the vigilante tradition of America's Old West.

The Committee of Vigilance formed in 1851 and revived in 1856 lynched eight people, kidnapped hundreds of Irishmen and government militia members, and forced several elected officials to resign.

Sacramento Daily Union, May 22, 1851

Bogus Money.— Marshal White informs us that a gang of six or eight "Sydney birds" came up from the Bay, a night or two since, and immediately commenced entering upon their former vocations. One of them entered a barber's shop in 2d street, and after being shaved himself, shaved the knight of the razor by offering him a spurious lump of gold which he asserted was worth $5, in payment for services rendered. The poor hair dresser was gulled out of his money. But the career of this villian was suddenly ended by our efficient Marshal, who afterwards arrested him for being engaged in a row in J street. The emigrant of Newgate is now lodged in secure quarters on board the prison ship.

We can assure these Sydney gentry that their rascality in this city will speedily be put to an end, for they are marked, and our Marshal is ready to do his duty faithfully and promptly. We advise them to seek other localities for the perpetration of their infamous deeds, if they wish to escape that summary punishment which is certain to be visited upon them if they remain in this city.

The First Light Dragoons claimed to be the first legally organized militia company mustered in under the first Militia Law passed by the first session of the California Legislature held in San Jose in 1850. This claim was disputed by the Eureka Light Horse Guard which was organized about the same time. Whether the First Light Dragoons were first or not, they were destined to stay in the service for twenty-nine years, many of which were turbulent ones calling for loyalty to the cause of law and order.

One of the Vigilance Committee's (it's unclear as to which), was comprised of some of the richest, most influential, orderly and respectable citizens of San Francisco during the City's early days, and developed it's own writ of conduct:

The Constitution of the Association

A meeting of vigilantes in San Francisco.
San Francisco Vigilantes

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 unit 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.
  6. 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."

On the evening of June 10, 1851, the committee's charge was put to test when John Jenkins stole a safe from a store on Long Wharf. He was taken to the rooms of the Vigilance Committee, on Battery Street, near the corner of Pine Street. The bell sounded, and 80 members of the committee hurried to the site, gave the password, and examined evidence for two hours. The prisoner was found guilty and condemned to hanging. An armed committee proceeded to the plaza where a crowd of more than 1,000 people soon assembled to watch the first act of "justice" by the Vigilance Committee.

A coroner's inquest was held. The Jurors of a Jury of Inquest returned the following verdict:

"We, the Jurors . . . do find upon our oaths that the said Jenkins, alias Simpton, came to his death . . . by violent means, by strangulation, caused by being suspended by the neck . . . at the hands of, and in pursuance of a preconcerted action on the part of association of citizens, styling themselves a Committee of Vigilance, of whom the following members are implicated by direct testimony, to wit: Captain Edgar Wakeman, William H. Jones, James C. Ward, Edward A. King, T.K. Battelle, Benjamin Reynolds, John S. Eagan, J.C. Derby and

To give moral support to the parties singled out by the verdict of the jury, members of the Committee decided as a body to publish a list of members in attendance. Following is that list, which is only a portion of the people who made up the Vigilance Committee. Membership grew dramatically over the concerns of the lawlessness of San Francisco.

S.E. Woodworth 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 McDuffle
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 Jospeh 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
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 Joyh 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. Spadling
George Mellus S.J. Stabler Charles H. Vail A.J. Ellis
J.D. Stevenson Geo. Clifford Charles Minturn John M. Coughlin
Chas. R. Bond Charles Soule, 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. McPherson F.A. Atkinson George N. Blake A.H. Gildemeester
John S. Eagan Charles Miller Dewitt Brown Samuel S. Phillips
J.C.L. Wadsworth John O. Earle Edward F. Baker Chas. Del Vecchio
William Hart N.T. Thompson F. Argenti Joseph Post
R.S. Lanot Gabriel Winter C. Spring

The catalyst for the Committee was a political duel in which James P. Casey shot James King of William. The 1856 Committee was also much larger, claiming 6,000 in its ranks.

In June 1856 during the reign of the Vigilantes in San Francisco all the troops in that city were called to arms during the period of "Insurrection." Captain C. L. Taylor tendered his resignation to the Governor who refused to accept it, but the Captain ignored the refusal, and was reported to have joined the Vigilantes taking some of the unit with him. This act by the Captain, of renouncing his affiliations with the guard during a time of stress was looked upon unfavorably by the Adjutant General's Office.

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Execution of James Casey and Charles Cora
by San Francisco Vigilance Committee
1856

The 1856 lynchings of Charles Cora and James Casey, occurred towards the end of one Committee. Cora and Casey were lynched by the Committee of Vigilance as murderers, after killing men in duels. Cora had shot a U.S. Marshall, who had insulted Cora's mistress while drunk; Casey had murdered a rival newspaper editor, shortly after the man published an editorial exposing Casey's criminal record in New York.

One noted critic of the acts of the vigilantes was General W. T. Sherman who resigned from his position as major-general of the Second Division of Militia in San Francisco because the support and authority he required to put down the vigilante revolt through legitimate means was withdrawn.

The 1856 Committee of Vigilance dissolved on August 11, 1856, and marked the occasion with a “Grand Parade.”

Each Committee of Vigilance formally relinquished power after it decided the city had been "cleaned up," but the anti-immigrant aspects of its mob activity continued, later focusing on Chinese immigrants and leading to many race riots in the period leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

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