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The 1851 Committee of Vigilance

Drawing of the hanging of John Jenkins in San Francisco by the 1851 Committee of VigilanceThis drawing represents the outcome of the first trial and sentence of a criminal by indignant citizens who took the law into their own hands to suppress the crimes that flooded the state.

The courts were apparently in the hands of the politicians and riffraff of the city, who used the processes of the law for their own profit. There were many murders between 1849 and 1851, but the perpetrators readily escaped punishment and hangings were rare. The ballot box and the city administration of justice was a farce. The indignation of the better class of citizens was at fever heat.

On June 9, 1851, at Sydney cove, John Jenkins walked deliberately into a merchants store, picked up the small safe, carried it to a boat at a nearby wharf and coolly rowed out into the bay. The alarm was given, and a number of merchants pursued an overtook the man. He threw the safe overboard. Jenkins was brought back and taken to a building that occupied a corner at Sansome and Pine streets, the site on which the Royal Insurance Building is now located. The prisoner duly tried by a jury and condemned to be hanged.

The impromptu Vigilance Committee wasted no time, and the execution took place in the Plaza the same night at 2 a.m. This prompt action had its effect on the criminal class, and for a while they remained under cover.

San Francisco News Letter
September 1925

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