California’s First Experiment without Police

Execution in front of the vigilance committee rooms in San Francisco, Calif., 1856 (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper/Library of Congress)
Californians learned the hard way that vigilante justice and the demands of the mob are no substitute for police and courts of law.

The temporary collapse of authority in many American cities, and the proposals of “defund the police” advocates to make that collapse permanent, has illustrated a timeless truth: When government authority dissolves, people will form their own armed enforcers of order. You will not get a peace-and-love utopia: You will instead get vigilante justice, posses, and lynchings. It will not be pretty; in Kenosha, Wis., it has already led to one well-publicized shooting. More force still will be needed to retake control. Come back with me to San Francisco in the 1850s to see how Americans learned this lesson once before.

San Francisco grew quickly from a late start. Europeans only reached the Bay Area in 1769, and the first permanent, civilian, non-Native American settlement dates only to 1835. The American conquest of California in 1847, and the gold rush in 1848-49, changed that in a heartbeat, turning a ramshackle town of 150 people in 1846 into a boomtown city of 25,000 in 1849, then 50,000 in 1853.

Some of the new San Franciscans came in search of a fresh start. Convicts and Irish rebels absconded there, sometimes under assumed names. In 1850, California began the first of many turns in its history against controversial immigrants, passing an Importation of Criminals Act targeting ship captains who smuggled in convicts without papers. The law’s chief target was Australia; its reputation as a penal colony preceded it, and not always unfairly. In February 1851, as highway robbery, violent gangs, and disorder proliferated, citizens formed the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, with the scheming ex-Mormon newspaperman Sam Brannan manipulating events to put himself at its head. The Committee’s ad hoc “trials” and public hangings, which helped popularize the term “vigilante,” prominently targeted known or suspected Australians. In May 1851, the city was further devastated by the latest in a series of fires; suspected arsonists were arrested, strengthening the hand of the Vigilance Committee.

To regain control from both the criminals and the vigilantes, the city’s conservative law-and-order elements turned to San Francisco’s first mayor, a towering 31-year-old Pennsylvanian named John W. Geary. Geary had fought in the Mexican War and served as military governor of Mexico City and was not a man to be trifled with. But he had a soft spot for the Irish rebels: The first to arrive, T. J. McManus, was greeted as a hero by Geary, Brannan, and Lieutenant Governor David Broderick upon his arrival in 1851.

Not all new Californians were welcomed or protected by the law. There were only about 500 Chinese immigrants among the original gold rushers, even though Canton was as close as Sydney to San Francisco. The first Chinese arrivals were treated as a welcome curiosity and honored in San Francisco’s 1850 parade celebrating statehood. But some forty ships set sail in 1850 for the state the Chinese called Gum Shan, or “Gold Mountain.” By 1851, there were 25,000 Chinese in California, and between 1852 and 1860, about 6,000–7,000 Chinese immigrants arrived every year. Californians remained acutely aware of how quickly their sparsely populated state could become majority Chinese, given that China’s population at the time exceeded 400 million people after four centuries of rapid growth. A tax on foreign miners, repealed in 1851, was reinstated to discourage Chinese miners. In 1853, a Chinese miner named Ling Sing was gunned down in an armed robbery by George Hall, shot in the back at least 15 times. An 1850 California statute provided that “no black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a white man.” A divided California supreme court used the statute to throw out Hall’s conviction. Hundreds of murders such as Ling Sing’s would go unpunished before the statute was repealed in 1872. An unintended side effect was that justice was left, if at all, to vigilantes. In 1857, three white men were strung up by white vigilantes after a series of murders of Chinese victims.

In May 1856, the San Francisco vigilantes returned. By then, Geary had returned east; by midsummer, President Franklin Pierce appointed him territorial governor of “Bleeding Kansas.” While the 1851 Vigilance Committee had been formed to stamp out anarchy, the 1856 Committee arose more from public mistrust that a corrupt city government would adequately prosecute the murders of a crusading journalist and a U.S. Marshal. After the suspects were hanged by the vigilantes, the mayor appealed to J. Neely Johnson, California’s newly elected governor. Thirty years old and elected on the anti-immigrant American Party (or “Know-Nothing”) ticket, Johnson was stepping not only into a potentially explosive situation, but also into a political rupture in the state’s previously dominant Democratic Party. David Broderick, a pugilistic son of Irish immigrants who would be elected to the Senate that fall, was aligned with opponents of slavery but also stood atop the corrupt San Francisco machine. Broderick’s foes in the law-and-order faction were mainly pro-slavery men of Southern disposition (they styled themselves “the Chivalry”) and disdain for appeals to the mob. The Vigilance Committee’s populist anti-corruption stance was most closely in tune with Johnson’s political base, but he saw it as an intolerable challenge to civil authority.

With Geary gone from the scene, Johnson turned for advice and assistance to another tough-minded conservative Democrat, a 36-year-old banker and former Army officer: William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman had been sent to California as a 27-year-old lieutenant during the Mexican War, only to discover that the six-month trip around Cape Horn had delivered him too late for any fighting. A year later, Sherman was on hand when the first miners from Sutter’s Mill brought their discoveries to the military governor in Monterey. With more money than war to be made in California, he eventually left the Army for business, but his military background commanded respect in San Francisco and beyond. When the 1856 Vigilance Committee crisis erupted, Sherman had just been appointed Major General of the California militia.

Sherman’s sympathies at the time were decidedly Southern, but more importantly, throughout his career, Sherman always sided firmly with law and order and legitimate authority. In May 1856, he believed that a show of overwhelming force by the militia up front would head off bloodshed. Johnson and Sherman met with the commander of the Mare Island naval base, David Farragut, who insisted that he could not directly aid the militia without orders from Washington, but agreed to dispatch a ship “for moral effect.” Believing that General John Wool, the local Army commander, had agreed to supply arms and ammunition to Sherman’s militia, Johnson then declared San Francisco to be “in a state of insurrection.” Sherman met with members of the Vigilance Committee, who warned of “terrible” consequences, and he bluntly ordered them to “remove your fort; cease your midnight councils; and prevent your armed bodies from patrolling the streets.” But Wool got cold feet and informed Johnson and Sherman that he could offer no assistance without a direct order from President Franklin Pierce.

Wool noted that Pierce had pointedly failed, six months earlier, to authorize federal assistance to the militia in Kansas (an event that led to the resignation of the governor and his replacement with Geary). Wool read the Washington tea leaves correctly: Six weeks later, Pierce’s Secretary of State, William Marcy, responded in denial: “The President will not allow himself to believe that the prevalence of rash councils and lawless violence still continues in San Francisco. He confidently trusts that the Citizens of California, who have suffered themselves to be betrayed by whatever inducements, into violations of the public peace, of so dangerous a character, will already have resumed their obedience to the laws . . .” The Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, waited until early September to respond, and ordered Wool to stay out of state affairs but to concentrate his troops to protect federal forts “for the protection of the property and officers of the United States against lawless violence or revolutionary aggression.” (This would not be Davis’s view of federal forts five years later.)

A disgusted Sherman resigned, saying that he had been placed “in a false position” and decided “that I would thenceforth mind my own business and leave public affairs severely alone.” Sherman added that, after hearing “the extreme ideas of Judge Terry” and others around Johnson, he “felt my moderate ideas must stand in the way of those vigorous steps which you in your judgment deemed necessary.”

Extreme measures would be the hallmark of Judge David Terry’s long and stormy career. Terry, a hulking, six-foot-three, pro-slavery Texas Democrat who had fought at Monterey in the Mexican War, had risen to the California Supreme Court with Know-Nothing support. He went to San Francisco with Governor Johnson’s blessing to parley with the vigilantes, armed with a writ of habeas corpus for the two dead men and a double-barreled gun, pistol, and bowie knife. Unsurprisingly, this went badly, resulting in a melee that ended with Terry held captive by the Vigilance Committee and put on “trial” for stabbing one of the armed vigilantes, Sterling Hopkins, in the neck with the bowie knife. The city’s law-and-order forces, without militia support, were compelled to surrender and turn over their arsenal to the Vigilance Committee.

For nearly a month, as Hopkins’s survival hung in doubt, the governor and the Committee both faced the dreadful prospect that vigilantes acting outside the law would hang a sitting Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. The Sacramento business community begged Johnson to back down, in a letter signed by (among others) Leland Stanford and Wells, Fargo & Co. The Texas legislature passed a joint resolution asking Pierce to “restore the supremacy of the law in California,” which was presented in the Senate by Sam Houston. One of Johnson’s closest aides noted Terry’s uncompromising stance even in this extremity: “Judge Terry would infinitely prefer swinging from the window of the Committee Rooms, than resigning his office.” In time, Hopkins survived, Terry was allowed to escape to Farragut’s ship, and the state used the pretext of conflict with Native Americans to beg for its guns back.

The political fallout and animosity would linger. In 1859, after taking office as Chief Justice, Terry shot Senator Broderick dead in a duel outside San Francisco. Terry resigned from the bench, replaced as California’s Chief Justice by Stephen Field, another Gold Rush-era arrival in California. The Democratic coalition in the state cracked up, split hopelessly along lines that paralleled the national Democrats under Pierce and James Buchanan. Lincoln beat divided opposition to win California with just under a third of the vote in 1860, four years after California icon John C. Frémont drew just 19 percent as the Republican candidate. Stanford was elected California’s first Republican governor in 1861, after carrying just 9 percent of the vote in 1859. Sherman and Geary, by now Republicans, went on to serve as Union Army generals. Terry saw action as a colonel of Texas cavalry with the Confederate forces at Chickamauga. In 1889, Terry assaulted Justice Field and was gunned down by U.S. Marshals, an incident that brought the vigilante-era debates full circle when Field’s U.S. Supreme Court colleagues ruled in In re Neagle that the Marshals could not be tried in California state courts for acting on federal authority.

Californians learned the hard way that vigilante justice and the demands of the mob are no substitute for police and courts of law. Let us hope we do not need that lesson again.


The Latest