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Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco – 1851 and 1856

Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco – 1851 and 1856

In the Gold Rush days of San Francisco there was much law breaking and lawlessness.  Miners from around the world found themselves looking to find gold and make it rich.  The History.com  website shares a time in San Francisco history when vigilantes take matters into their own hands on two different occasions.  One occasion took place in 1851 and the other took place 1856.

San Francisco Vigilante Justice on February 19, 1851

The first vigilante committee had approximately 200 vigilantes in the ranks.  It was kind of like an on-call army that would jump into action if summoned by the cities fire bell.  They had their headquarters on Battery Street and would temporarily imprison the bad guys (criminals).  Those who committed serious crimes were hung.  Since many occupants of San Francisco were from other countries they were sent back to their home lands.

A man by the name of C.J. Jansen was working at his store when two Australian men beat him until he was unconscious and stole $2,000.  An angry mob gets their hands on the two villains and creates a makeshift court with a jury that was pulled together.

During the trial the Australian suspects “attorneys” were able to convince three members of the jury that the victim never got a good look at the men who hurt and robbed him.  Many members within the vigilante mob wanted to hang the two Australians despite not being able to convict them in the makeshift court.  Despite escaping the vigilante court the two Australians were later found guilty in a real courtroom.

San Francisco vigilantes were loved during that time in history and took over the Democratic Party in the 1850’s and became well respected politicians (if there is such a thing).

Vigilante Committee in San Francisco reorganizes on May 15, 1856

The need for another vigilante committee or group arose again on May 15, 1856 due to a shooting of a well known journalist to fight lawlessness.

After gold was found at Sutter’s Mill San Francisco exploded in population.  The local law enforcement found it extremely difficult to maintain law and order with over 200,000 people populating San Francisco so quickly.  The promise of gold helped populate the city quickly, and to keep the people happy saloons and gambling parlors popped up everywhere keeping the delinquency at a high.  Also during this time was a gang of Australians called the “Sydney Ducks.”  The Sydney Ducks robbed and extorted the citizens of San Francisco which made for a mob like environment.

In 1856 a rigged election put James P. Casey on the city board of supervisors.  A journalist named James King who the editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin was on to Casey and accused him of being a criminal.  On May 14, 1856 Casey confronted King and killed him with a Colt navy revolver.

The following day the citizens of San Francisco became extremely angry and created another vigilante committee.  The only problem with the committee they had formed is that they didn’t have the excuse that there wasn’t enough local law enforcement.  In fact the sheriff had already arrested Casey and put him in jail to await his trial.

A mob of more than 500 vigilantes were not interested in justice being carried out through the justice system.  Instead they wanted to take justice into their own hands.  The mob went to the jail and removed Casey from the Sheriffs custody. After a short trial put on by the vigilantes they found Casey guilty and hung him shortly thereafter.

According to some sources it is believed that the vigilantes were more upset about James Casey being a Irish Catholic Democrat and the recent change in political power (due to the rigged election).  Many of the vigilantes that took justice into their own hands were native-born Protestants.    The mob began arresting several of their political opponents and hung them.  In a short period of time many Irish Catholic leaders left the area and the Protestants regained control of the government. The vigilante committee eventually disbanded and was never heard from again.

A common theme seems to happen with vigilante justice enforced by vigilante groups.  They always seem to take things too far and abuse the power they give themselves.