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The 1856 Committee of Vigilance

Next to 1848, when gold was discovered in California, 1856 was perhaps the most exciting year of the era by reason of the flood of crime into the city and brought about the organization of the famous Committee of Vigilance of that year, a form of direct action which attracted the attention of the world to a new style of summary justice, the result of extraordinary conditions in San Francisco.

Behind it were reasons and principles that radiated in diverse directions, some of them being influenced by the causes which eventually led to the Civil War, four years later.

As for local conditions, it is enough to note that in the first ten months of 1855 there were 489 murders in the state and only six legal executions. Stuffed ballot boxes were used to qualify the election of supervisors who did not reside in the districts voted. Ballot boxes with false bottoms were common.

In 1853, with the politicans and "Hounds" running the city, the expenditures amounted to $2,646,000. Under a reform management following the work of the Committee of Vigilance of 1856, the city got along in good shape with the expenditure of $353,000. The population was then estimated at 55,000.

The years 1854 and 1855 were tumultuous at best. No one had time for city business because of the rush to the gold fields. Politics and the government of the city and State were neglected by the residents, and naturally the offices and emoluments fell to the criminal elements who came west. Some of the worst characters driven from New York's Bowery and from Botany Bay, Australia, held office and wallowed in corruption and graft. photo of James King of William

Trials in the courts were a farce, and those in power made no pretense of shielding their friends when charged with crimes.

An honest man's vote was worthless at the polls, and ballot box stuffing was openly practiced.

James King of William (1822-1856), born of an old Virginia family, and who became a prominent banker in this city, only to lose his fortune later in the local panic of 1854-5, was the man who practically alone started the work of rousing honest residents to the struggle of cleaning out the criminal element in power. At that time the criminal element was closely affiliated with certain influential, wealthy people in sharing the profits of political corruption.

While in the banking business, King had discovered numbers of corrupt transactions of this character. His friends knew this, and realizing that he was a man competent in every way to meet the situation, they urged him to start a newspaper and voice his convictions on the corrupt conditions.

On October 8, 1855, he started the publication of the Evening Bulletin which contained 4 pages, 10x15 inches in size.

Many critics have said that no such paper, or anything like it, had appeared in any country. It was an ideal fighting journal, edited by a man who knew no fear, and dealt his iron clad blows impartially. lithograph of James King of William being shot

So, when Charles Cora, a notorious gambler, shot down U.S. Marshal Richardson, and was formally arrested by his friends in office, King, with his vigorous ardor, declared that if Cora was allowed to escape, the sheriff, David Scannell, must hang.

The fervor of King in his denunciations roused the feeling of the public to a high pitch. King widened his range of attack against the political element, and took on James P. Casey, one of the city supervisors, and showed that he had been an inmate of Sing Sing Prison in New York. On May 14th Casey shot King as the latter was coming from the editorial rooms of the Bulletin, on the west side of Montgomery Street, just north of Washington Street. He was carried to a room in the Montgomery Block [now the site of the Transamerica Pyramid], and treated by Dr. R. Beverly Cole. He died a few days later at his home.

Following the shooting, over ten thousand people crowded around the Montgomery Block to hear the latest on his condition. photo of William Tell Coleman

The crowd later retired to the Plaza, and soon a buzz went through the crowd that a Committee of Vigilance was forming.

Meanwhile, Casey was being guarded in the jail on Broadway by hundreds of his friends and a company of militia. Friends of King were allowed to enter the jail to assure themselves that the prisoner had not been spirited away.

At nine o’clock the next morning, members of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance began to assemble in an old lodge room at Sacramento and Leidesdorff streets. Among them was William T. Coleman, a prominent member of the old committee. He was urged to start the new movement. Coleman wrote out the oath of fealty, urged that membership be impersonal and that each man should be known by a number. Life, liberty, property and honor were pledged. Coleman was member No. 1, and the secretary, Isaac Bluxome, No. 33.

By the time King died of his gunshot wound on May 20th, the Committee of Vigilance had swelled to 3,500 members under arms. With a cannon to batter down the doors, they then marched to the jail, but Casey was delivered to them after a short protest.

Armed members of the Committee of Vigilance march near the WaterfrontThe committee later returned to the jail on Broadway and took Charles Cora to their headquarters. Both men were given advocates to defend them; both were tried before a jury composed of members of the Committee of Vigilance, were convicted and hanged from a platform extended from the second story windows of Fort Gunnybags.

An immense crowd filled Sacramento Street between Battery and Davis to watch the double hanging on May 22nd.

Entrance to the committee's headquarters was protected with coarse sacks filled with sand and piled up as seen in this picture, nearly six feet thick and ten feet high. Cannons were placed at each corner. Inside was a platform and openings, from which a scathing fire of musketry could be unleashed.

Fort Gunnybags on Sacramento StreetThere was a strong impression later that the rival Law and Order Party had obtained control of certain surrounding buildings from which they might fire on the makeshift "fort." To meet such an attack the Committee of Vigilance placed cannon on the roof of Fort Gunnybags. These defenses could have been raided readily by a strong force, but the show of ample defense seemingly attained the object of the organization.

The old stone building on the south side of Sacramento Street, near Davis, was destroyed during the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

San Francisco News Letter
1925 Diamond Jubilee Edition

See the San Francisco History Index for more about the Committee of Vigilance.