Part 2 out of 3
All this was merely adventure for the young, strong, and healthy; but
the terrible part of the Panama Trail was the number of victims claimed
by cholera and fever. The climate and the unwonted labor brought to the
point of exhaustion men unaccustomed to such exertions. They lay flat by
the trail as though dead. Many actually did die either from the jungle
fever or the yellow-jack. The universal testimony of the times is that
this horseback journey seemed interminable; and many speak of being
immensely cheered when their Indian stopped, washed his feet in a
wayside mudhole, and put on his pantaloons. That indicated the
proximity, at last, of the city of Panama.
It was a quaint old place. The two-story wooden houses with corridor
and verandah across the face of the second story, painted in bright
colors, leaned crazily out across the streets. Narrow and mysterious
alleys led between them. Ancient cathedrals and churches stood gray with
age before the grass-grown plazas. In the outskirts were massive masonry
ruins of great buildings, convents, and colleges, some of which had
never been finished. The immense blocks lay about the ground in
confusion, covered by thousands of little plants, or soared against the
sky in broken arches and corridors. But in the body of the town, the old
picturesque houses had taken on a new and temporary smartness which
consisted mostly of canvas signs. The main street was composed of
hotels, eating-houses, and assorted hells. At times over a thousand men
were there awaiting transportation. Some of them had been waiting a long
time, and had used up all their money. They were broke and desperate. A
number of American gambling-houses were doing business, and of course
the saloons were much in evidence. Foreigners kept two of the three
hotels; Americans ran the gambling joints; French and Germans kept the
restaurants. The natives were content to be interested but not entirely
idle spectators. There was a terrible amount of sickness aggravated by
American quack remedies. Men rejoiced or despaired according to their
dispositions. Every once in a while a train of gold bullion would start
back across the Isthmus with mule-loads of huge gold bars, so heavy that
they were safe, for no one could carry them off to the jungle. On the
other hand there were some returning Californians, drunken and wretched.
They delighted in telling with grim joy of the disappointments of the
diggings. But probably the only people thoroughly unhappy were the
steamship officials. These men had to bear the brunt of disappointment,
broken promises, and savage recrimination, if means for going north were
not very soon forthcoming. Every once in a while some ship, probably an
old tub, would come wallowing to anchor at the nearest point, some
eleven miles from the city. Then the raid for transportation took place
all over again. There was a limited number of small boats for carrying
purposes, and these were pounced on at once by ten times the number they
could accommodate. Ships went north scandalously overcrowded and
underprovisioned. Mutinies were not infrequent. It took a good captain
to satisfy everybody, and there were many bad ones. Some men got so
desperate that, with a touching ignorance of geography, they actually
started out in small boats to row to the north. Others attempted the
overland route. It may well be believed that the reaction from all this
disappointment and delay lifted the hearts of these argonauts when they
eventually sailed between the Golden Gates.
This confusion, of course, was worse at the beginning. Later the journey
was to some extent systematized. The Panama route subsequently became
the usual and fashionable way to travel. The ship companies learned how
to handle and treat their patrons. In fact, it was said that every
jewelry shop in San Francisco carried a large stock of fancy silver
speaking-trumpets because of the almost invariable habit of presenting
one of these to the captain of the ship by his grateful passengers. One
captain swore that he possessed eighteen of them!
The two streams of immigrants, by sea and overland, thus differed, on
the average, in kind. They also landed in the country at different
points. The overlanders were generally absorbed before they reached San
Francisco. They arrived first at Fort Sutter, whence they distributed
themselves; or perhaps they even stopped at one or another of the
diggings on their way in.
Of those coming by sea all landed at San Francisco. A certain proportion
of the younger and more enthusiastic set out for the mines, but only
after a few days had given them experience of the new city and had
impressed them with at least a subconscious idea of opportunity. Another
certain proportion, however, remained in San Francisco without
attempting the mines. These were either men who were discouraged by
pessimistic tales, men who had sickened of the fever, or more often men
who were attracted by the big opportunities for wealth which the city
then afforded. Thus at once we have two different types to consider, the
miner and the San Franciscan.
The mines were worked mostly by young men. They journeyed up to the
present Sacramento either by river-boats or afoot. Thence they took
their outfits into the diggings. It must have seemed a good deal like a
picnic. The goal was near; rosy hope had expanded to fill the horizon;
breathless anticipation pervaded them--a good deal like a hunting-party
starting off in the freshness of the dawn.
The diggings were generally found at the bottoms of the deep river-beds
and ravines. Since trails, in order to avoid freshets and too many
crossings of the water-courses, took the higher shoulder of the hill,
the newcomer ordinarily looked down upon his first glimpse of the mines.
The sight must have been busy and animated. The miners dressed in
bright-colored garments, and dug themselves in only to the waist or at
most to the shoulders before striking bed rock, so that they were
visible as spots of gaudy color. The camps were placed on the hillsides
or little open flats, and occasionally were set in the bed of a river.
They were composed of tents, and of rough log or bark structures.
The newcomers did not spend much time in establishing themselves
comfortably or luxuriously. They were altogether too eager to get at the
actual digging. There was an immense excitement of the gamble in it all.
A man might dig for days without adequate results and then of a sudden
run into a rich pocket. Or he might pan out an immense sum within the
first ten minutes of striking his pick to earth. No one could tell. The
fact that the average of all the days and all the men amounted to very
little more than living wages was quite lost to sight. At first the
methods were very crude. One man held a coarse screen of willow branches
which he shook continuously above an ordinary cooking pot, while his
partner slowly shovelled earth over this impromptu sieve. When the pots
were filled with siftings, they were carried to the river, where they
were carefully submerged, and the contents were stirred about with
sticks. The light earth was thus flowed over the rims of the pots. The
residue was then dried, and the lighter sand was blown away. The result
was gold, though of course with a strong mixture of foreign substance.
The pan miners soon followed; and the cradle or rocker with its
riffle-board was not long delayed. The digging was free. At first it was
supposed that a new holding should not be started within fifteen feet of
one already in operation. Later, claims of a definite size were
established. A camp, however, made its own laws in regard to this and
Most of the would-be miners at first rather expected to find gold lying
on the surface of the earth, and were very much disappointed to learn
that they actually had to dig for it. Moreover, digging in the boulders
and gravel, under the terrific heat of the California sun in midsummer,
was none too easy; and no matter how rich the diggings averaged--short
of an actual bonanza--the miner was disappointed in his expectations.
One man is reported saying: "They tell me I can easily make there eleven
hundred dollars a day. You know I am not easily moved by such reports. I
shall be satisfied if I make three hundred dollars per day." Travelers
of the time comment on the contrast between the returning stream of
discouraged and disgruntled men and the cheerfulness of the lot actually
digging. Nobody had any scientific system to go on. Often a divining-rod
was employed to determine where to dig. Many stories were current of
accidental finds; as when one man, tiring of waiting for his dog to get
through digging out a ground squirrel, pulled the animal out by the
tail, and with it a large nugget. Another story is told of a sailor who
asked some miners resting at noon where he could dig and as a joke was
directed to a most improbable side hill. He obeyed the advice, and
uncovered a rich pocket. With such things actually happening, naturally
it followed that every report of a real or rumored strike set the miners
crazy. Even those who had good claims always suspected that they might
do better elsewhere. It is significant that the miners of that day, like
hunters, always had the notion that they had come out to California just
one trip too late for the best pickings.
The physical life was very hard, and it is no wonder that the stragglers
back from the mines increased in numbers as time went on. It was a true
case of survival of the fittest. Those who remained and became
professional miners were the hardiest, most optimistic, and most
persistent of the population. The mere physical labor was very severe.
Any one not raised as a day laborer who has tried to do a hard day's
work in a new garden can understand what pick and shovel digging in the
bottoms of gravel and boulder streams can mean. Add to this the fact
that every man overworked himself under the pressure of excitement; that
he was up to his waist in the cold water from the Sierra snows, with his
head exposed at the same time to the tremendous heat of the California
sun; throw in for good measure that he generally cooked for himself, and
that his food was coarse and badly prepared; and that in his own mind he
had no time to attend to the ordinary comforts and decencies of life. It
can well be imagined that a man physically unfit must soon succumb. But
those who survived seemed to thrive on these hardships.
California camps by their very quaint and whimsical names bear testimony
to the overflowing good humor and high spirits of the early miners. No
one took anything too seriously, not even his own success or failure.
The very hardness of the life cultivated an ability to snatch joy from
the smallest incident. Some of the joking was a little rough, as when
some merry jester poured alcohol over a bully's head, touched a match to
it, and chased him out of camp yelling, "Man on fire--put him out!" It
is evident that the time was not one for men of very refined or
sensitive nature, unless they possessed at bottom the strong iron of
character. The ill-balanced were swept away by the current of
excitement, and fell readily into dissipation. The pleasures were rude;
the life was hearty; vices unknown to their possessors came to the
surface. The most significant tendency, and one that had much to do with
later social and political life in California, was the leveling effect
of just this hard physical labor. The man with a strong back and the
most persistent spirit was the superior of the man with education but
with weaker muscles. Each man, finding every other man compelled to
labor, was on a social equality with the best. The usual superiority of
head-workers over hand-workers disappeared. The low-grade man thus felt
himself the equal, if not the superior, of any one else on earth,
especially as he was generally able to put his hand on what were to him
comparative riches. The pride of employment disappeared completely. It
was just as honorable to be a cook or a waiter in a restaurant as to
dispense the law,--where there was any. The period was brief, but while
it lasted, it produced a true social democracy. Nor was there any
pretense about it. The rudest miner was on a plane of perfect equality
with lawyers, merchants, or professional men. Some men dressed in the
very height of style, decking themselves out with all the minute care of
a dandy; others were not ashamed of, nor did they object to being seen
in, ragged garments. No man could be told by his dress.
The great day of days in a mining-camp was Sunday. Some
over-enthusiastic fortune-seekers worked the diggings also on that day;
but by general consent--uninfluenced, it may be remarked, by religious
considerations--the miners repaired to their little town for amusement
and relaxation. These little towns were almost all alike. There were
usually two or three combined hotels, saloons, and gambling-houses,
built of logs, of slabs, of canvas, or of a combination of the three.
There was one store that dispensed whiskey as well as dryer goods, and
one or two large places of amusement. On Sunday everything went full
blast. The streets were crowded with men; the saloons were well
patronized; the gambling games ran all day and late into the night.
Wrestling-matches, jumping-matches, other athletic tests, horse-races,
lotteries, fortune-telling, singing, anything to get a pinch or two of
the dust out of the good-natured miners--all these were going strong.
The American, English, and other continentals mingled freely, with the
exception of the French, who kept to themselves. Successful Germans or
Hollanders of the more stupid class ran so true to type and were so
numerous that they earned the generic name of "Dutch Charley." They have
been described as moon-faced, bland, bullet-headed men, with walrus
moustaches, and fatuous, placid smiles. Value meant nothing to them.
They only knew the difference between having money and having no money.
They carried two or three gold watches at the end of long home-made
chains of gold nuggets fastened together with links of copper wire. The
chains were sometimes looped about their necks, their shoulders, and
waists, and even hung down in long festoons. When two or three such
Dutch Charleys inhabited one camp, they became deadly rivals in this
childlike display, parading slowly up and down the street, casting
malevolent glances at each other as they passed. Shoals of
phrenologists, fortune-tellers, and the like, generally drunken old
reprobates on their last legs, plied their trades. One artist, giving
out under the physical labor of mining, built up a remarkably profitable
trade in sketching portraits. Incidentally he had to pay two dollars
and a half for every piece of paper! John Kelly, a wandering minstrel
with a violin, became celebrated among the camps, and was greeted with
enthusiasm wherever he appeared. He probably made more with his fiddle
than he could have made with his shovel. The influence of the "forty-two
caliber whiskey" was dire, and towards the end of Sunday the sports
became pretty rough.
This day was also considered the time for the trial of any cases that
had arisen during the week. The miners elected one of their number to
act as presiding judge in a "miners' meeting." Justice was dealt out by
this man, either on his own authority with the approval of the crowd, or
by popular vote. Disputes about property were adjudicated as well as
offenses against the criminal code. Thus a body of precedent was slowly
built up. A new case before the _alcalde_ of Hangtown was often decided
on the basis of the procedure at Grub Gulch. The decisions were
characterized by direct common sense. It would be most interesting to
give adequate examples here, but space forbids. Suffice it to say that a
Mexican horse-thief was convicted and severely flogged; and then a
collection was taken up for him on the ground that he was on the whole
unfortunate. A thief apprehended on a steamboat was punished by a heavy
fine for the benefit of a sick man on board.
Sunday evening usually ended by a dance. As women were entirely lacking
at first, a proportion of the men was told off to represent the fair
sex. At one camp the invariable rule was to consider as ladies those who
possessed patches on the seats of their trousers. This was the
distinguishing mark. Take it all around, the day was one of noisy,
good-humored fun. There was very little sodden drunkenness, and the
miners went back to their work on Monday morning with freshened spirits.
Probably just this sort of irresponsible ebullition was necessary to
balance the hardness of the life.
In each mining-town was at least one Yankee storekeeper. He made the
real profits of the mines. His buying ability was considerable; his
buying power was often limited by what he could get hold of at the coast
and what he could transport to the camps. Often his consignments were
quite arbitrary and not at all what he ordered. The story is told of one
man who received what, to judge by the smell, he thought was three
barrels of spoiled beef. Throwing them out in the back way, he was
interested a few days later to find he had acquired a rapidly increasing
flock of German scavengers. They seemed to be investigating the barrels
and carrying away the spoiled meat. When the barrels were about empty,
the storekeeper learned that the supposed meat was in reality
The outstanding fact about these camps was that they possessed no
solidarity. Each man expected to exploit the diggings and then to depart
for more congenial climes. He wished to undertake just as little
responsibility as he possibly could. With so-called private affairs
other than his own he would have nothing to do. The term private affairs
was very elastic, stretching often to cover even cool-blooded murder.
When matters arose affecting the whole public welfare in which he
himself might possibly become interested, he was roused to the point of
administering justice. The punishments meted out were fines, flogging,
banishment, and, as a last resort, lynching. Theft was considered a
worse offense than killing. As the mines began to fill up with the more
desperate characters who arrived in 1850 and 1851, the necessity for
government increased. At this time, but after the leveling effect of
universal labor had had its full effect, the men of personality, of
force and influence, began to come to the front. A fresh aristocracy of
ability, of influence, of character was created.
THE URBAN FORTY-NINER
In popular estimation the interest and romance of the Forty-niners
center in gold and mines. To the close student, however, the true
significance of their lives is to be found even more in the city of San
At first practically everybody came to California under the excitement
of the gold rush and with the intention of having at least one try at
the mines. But though gold was to be found in unprecedented abundance,
the getting of it was at best extremely hard work. Men fell sick both in
body and spirit. They became discouraged. Extravagance of hope often
resulted, by reaction, in an equal exaggeration of despair. The prices
of everything were very high. The cost of medical attendance was almost
prohibitory. Men sometimes made large daily sums in the placers; but
necessary expenses reduced their net income to small wages. Ryan gives
this account of an interview with a returning miner: "He readily entered
into conversation and informed us that he had passed the summer at the
mines where the excessive heat during the day, and the dampness of the
ground where the gold washing is performed, together with privation and
fatigue, had brought on fever and ague which nearly proved fatal to him.
He had frequently given an ounce of gold for the visit of a medical man,
and on several occasions had paid two and even three ounces for a single
dose of medicine. He showed us a pair of shoes, nearly worn out, for
which he had paid twenty-four dollars." Later Ryan says: "Only such men
as can endure the hardship and privation incidental to life in the mines
are likely to make fortunes by digging for the ore. I am unequal to the
task ... I think I could within an hour assemble in this very place from
twenty to thirty individuals of my own acquaintance who had all told the
same story. They were thoroughly dissatisfied and disgusted with their
experiment in the gold country. The truth of the matter is that only
traders, speculators, and gamblers make large fortunes." Only rarely did
men of cool enough heads and far enough sight eschew from the very
beginning all notion of getting rich quickly in the placers, and
deliberately settle down to make their fortunes in other ways.
This conclusion of Ryan's throws, of course, rather too dark a tone over
the picture. The "hardy miner" was a reality, and the life in the
placers was, to such as he, profitable and pleasant. However, this point
of view had its influence in turning back from the mines a very large
proportion of those who first went in. Many of them drifted into
mercantile pursuits. Harlan tells us: "During my sojourn in Stockton I
mixed freely with the returning and disgusted miners from whom I learned
that they were selling their mining implements at ruinously low prices.
An idea struck me one day which I immediately acted upon for fear that
another might strike in the same place and cause an explosion. The
heaven-born idea that had penetrated my cranium was this: start in the
mercantile line, purchase the kits and implements of the returning
miners at low figures and sell to the greenhorns en route to the mines
at California prices." In this manner innumerable occupations supplying
the obvious needs were taken up by many returned miners. A certain
proportion drifted to crime or shady devices, but the large majority
returned to San Francisco, whence they either went home completely
discouraged, or with renewed energy and better-applied ability took hold
of the destinies of the new city. Thus another sort of Forty-niner
became in his way as significant and strong, as effective and as
romantic as his brother, the red-shirted Forty-niner of the diggings.
But in addition to the miners who had made their stakes, who had given
up the idea of mining, or who were merely waiting for the winter's rains
to be over to go back again to the diggings, an ever increasing
immigration was coming to San Francisco with the sole idea of settling
in that place. All classes of men were represented. Many of the big
mercantile establishments of the East were sending out their agents.
Independent merchants sought the rewards of speculation. Gamblers also
perceived opportunities for big killings. Professional politicians and
cheap lawyers, largely from the Southern States, unfortunately also saw
their chance to obtain standing in a new community, having lost all
standing in their own. The result of the mixing of these various
chemical elements of society was an extraordinary boiling and bubbling.
When Commander Montgomery hoisted the American flag in 1846, the town of
Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was called, had a population of about two
hundred. Before the discovery of gold it developed under the influence
of American enterprise normally and rationally into a prosperous little
town with two hotels, a few private dwellings, and two wharves in the
process of construction. Merchants had established themselves with
connections in the Eastern States, in Great Britain, and South America.
Just before the discovery of gold the population had increased to eight
hundred and twelve.
The news of the placers practically emptied the town. It would be
curious to know exactly how many human souls and chickens remained after
Brannan's _California Star_ published the authentic news. The commonest
necessary activities were utterly neglected, shops were closed and
barricaded, merchandise was left rotting on the wharves and the beaches,
and the prices of necessities rose to tremendous altitudes. The place
looked as a deserted mining-camp does now. The few men left who would
work wanted ten or even twenty dollars a day for the commonest labor.
However, the early pioneers were hard-headed citizens. Many of the
shopkeepers and merchants, after a short experience of the mines,
hurried back to make the inevitable fortune that must come to the
middleman in these extraordinary times. Within the first eight weeks of
the gold excitement two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in gold dust
reached San Francisco, and within: the following eight weeks six hundred
thousand dollars more came in. All of this was to purchase supplies at
any price for the miners.
This was in the latter days of 1848. In the first part of 1849 the
immigrants began to arrive. They had to have places to sleep, things to
eat, transportation to the diggings, outfits of various sorts. In the
first six months of 1849 ten thousand people piled down upon the little
city built to accommodate eight hundred. And the last six months of the
year were still more extraordinary, as some thirty thousand more dumped
themselves on the chaos of the first immigration. The result can be
imagined. The city was mainly of canvas either in the form of tents or
of crude canvas and wooden houses. The few substantial buildings stood
like rocks in a tossing sea. No attempt, of course, had been made as
yet toward public improvements. The streets were ankle-deep in dust or
neck-deep in mud. A great smoke of dust hung perpetually over the city,
raised by the trade winds of the afternoon. Hundreds of ships lay at
anchor in the harbor. They had been deserted by their crews, and, before
they could be re-manned, the faster clipper ships, built to control the
fluctuating western trade, had displaced them, so that the majority were
fated never again to put to sea.
Newcomers landed at first on a flat beach of deep black sand, where they
generally left their personal effects for lack of means of
transportation. They climbed to a ragged thoroughfare of open sheds and
ramshackle buildings, most of them in the course of construction.
Beneath crude shelters of all sorts and in great quantities were goods
brought in hastily by eager speculators on the high prices. The four
hundred deserted ships lying at anchor in the harbor had dumped down on
the new community the most ridiculous assortment of necessities and
luxuries, such as calico, silk, rich furniture, mirrors, knock-down
houses, cases and cases of tobacco, clothing, statuary,
mining-implements, provisions, and the like.
The hotels and lodging houses immediately became very numerous. Though
they were in reality only overcrowded bunk-houses, the most enormous
prices were charged for beds in them. People lay ten or twenty in a
single room--in row after row of cots, in bunks, or on the floor.
Between the discomfort of hard beds, fleas, and overcrowding, the entire
populace spent most of its time on the street or in the saloons and
gambling, houses. As some one has pointed out, this custom added greatly
to the apparent population of the place. Gambling was the gaudiest, the
best-paying, and the most patronized industry. It occupied the largest
structures, and it probably imported and installed the first luxuries.
Of these resorts the El Dorado became the most famous. It occupied at
first a large tent but soon found itself forced to move to better
quarters. The rents paid for buildings were enormous. Three thousand
dollars a month in advance was charged for a single small store made of
rough boards. A two-story frame building on Kearny Street near the Plaza
paid its owners a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year rent. The
tent containing the El Dorado gambling saloon was rented for forty
thousand dollars a year. The prices sky-rocketed still higher. Miners
paid as high as two hundred dollars for an ordinary gold rocker, fifteen
or twenty dollars for a pick, the same for a shovel, and so forth. A
copper coin was considered a curiosity, a half-dollar was the minimum
tip for any small service, twenty-five cents was the smallest coin in
circulation, and the least price for which anything could be sold. Bread
came to fifty cents a loaf. Good boots were a hundred dollars.
Affairs moved very swiftly. A month was the unit of time. Nobody made
bargains for more than a month in advance. Interest was charged on money
by the month. Indeed, conditions changed so fast that no man pretended
to estimate them beyond thirty days ahead, and to do even that was
considered rather a gamble. Real estate joined the parade of advance.
Little holes in sand-hills sold for fabulous prices. The sick,
destitute, and discouraged were submerged beneath the mounting tide of
vigorous optimism that bore on its crest the strong and able members of
the community. Every one either was rich or expected soon to be so.
Opportunity awaited every man at every corner. Men who knew how to take
advantage of fortune's gifts were assured of immediate high returns.
Those with capital were, of course, enabled to take advantage of the
opportunities more quickly; but the ingenious mind saw its chances even
with nothing to start on.
One man, who landed broke but who possessed two or three dozen old
newspapers used as packing, sold them at a dollar and two dollars apiece
and so made his start. Another immigrant with a few packages of ordinary
tin tacks exchanged them with a man engaged in putting up a canvas house
for their exact weight in gold dust. Harlan tells of walking along the
shore of Happy Valley and finding it lined with discarded pickle jars
and bottles. Remembering the high price of pickles in San Francisco, he
gathered up several hundred of them, bought a barrel of cider vinegar
from a newly-arrived vessel, collected a lot of cucumbers, and started a
bottling works. Before night, he said, he had cleared over three hundred
dollars. With this he made a corner in tobacco pipes by which he
realized one hundred and fifty dollars in twenty-four hours.
Mail was distributed soon after the arrival of the mail-steamer. The
indigent would often sit up a day or so before the expected arrival of
the mail-steamer holding places in line at the post-office. They
expected no letters but could sell the advantageous positions for high
prices when the mail actually arrived. He was a poor-spirited man indeed
who by these and many other equally picturesque means could not raise
his gold slug in a reasonable time; and, possessed of fifty dollars, he
was an independent citizen. He could increase his capital by interest
compounded every day, provided he used his wits; or for a brief span of
glory he could live with the best of them. A story is told of a new-come
traveler offering a small boy fifty cents to carry his valise to the
hotel. The urchin looked with contempt at the coin, fished out two
fifty-cent pieces, handed them to the owner of the valise, saying
"Here's a dollar; carry it yourself."
One John A. McGlynn arrived without assets. He appreciated the
opportunity for ordinary teaming, and hitching California mules to the
only and exceedingly decrepit wagon to be found he started in business.
Possessing a monopoly, he charged what he pleased, so that within a
short time he had driving for him a New York lawyer, whom he paid a
hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. His outfit was magnificent.
When somebody joked with him about his legal talent, he replied, "The
whole business of a lawyer is to know how to manage mules and asses so
as to make them pay." When within a month plenty of wagons were
imported, McGlynn had so well established himself and possessed so much
character that he became _ex officio_ the head of the industry. He was
evidently a man of great and solid sense and was looked up to as one of
the leading citizens.
Every human necessity was crying out for its ordinary conveniences.
There were no streets, there were no hotels, there were no
lodging-houses, there were no warehouses, there were no stores, there
was no water, there was no fuel. Any one who could improvise anything,
even a bare substitute, to satisfy any of these needs, was sure of
immense returns. In addition, the populace was so busy--so
overwhelmingly busy--with its own affairs that it literally could not
spare a moment to govern itself. The professional and daring politicians
never had a clearer field. They went to extraordinary lengths in all
sorts of grafting, in the sale of public real estate, in every
"shenanigan" known to skillful low-grade politicians. Only occasionally
did they go too far, as when, in addition to voting themselves salaries
of six thousand dollars apiece as aldermen, they coolly voted
themselves also gold medals to the value of one hundred and fifty
dollars apiece "for public and extra services." Then the determined
citizens took an hour off for the council chambers. The medals were cast
into the melting-pot.
All writers agree, in their memoirs, that the great impression left on
the mind by San Francisco was its extreme busyness. The streets were
always crammed full of people running and darting in all directions. It
was, indeed, a heterogeneous mixture. Not only did the Caucasian show
himself in every extreme of costume, from the most exquisite top-hatted
dandy to the red-shirted miner, but there were also to be found all the
picturesque and unknown races of the earth, the Chinese, the Chileno,
the Moor, the Turk, the Mexican, the Spanish, the Islander, not to speak
of ordinary foreigners from Russia, England, France, Belgium, Germany,
Italy, and the out-of-the-way corners of Europe. All these people had
tremendous affairs to finish in the least possible time. And every once
in a while some individual on horseback would sail down the street at
full speed, scattering the crowd left and right. If any one remarked
that the marauding individual should be shot, the excuse was always
offered, "Oh, well, don't mind him. He's only drunk," as if that
excused everything. Many of the activities of the day also were
picturesque. As there were no warehouses in which to store goods, and as
the few structures of the sort charged enormous rentals, it was cheaper
to auction off immediately all consignments. These auctions were then,
and remained for some years, one of the features of the place. The more
pretentious dealers kept brass bands to attract the crowd. The returning
miners were numerous enough to patronize both these men and the cheap
clothing stores, and having bought themselves new outfits, generally
cast the old ones into the middle of the street. Water was exceedingly
scarce and in general demand, so that laundry work was high. It was the
fashion of these gentry to wear their hair and beards long. They sported
red shirts, flashy Chinese scarves around their waists, black belts with
silver buckles, six-shooters and bowie-knives, and wide floppy hats.
The business of the day over, the evening was open for relaxation. As
the hotels and lodging-houses were nothing but kennels, and very crowded
kennels, it followed that the entire population gravitated to the
saloons and gambling places. Some of these were established on a very
extensive scale. They had not yet attained the magnificence of the
Fifties, but it is extraordinary to realize that within so few months
and at such a great distance from civilization, the early and
enterprising managed to take on the trappings of luxury. Even thus
early, plate-glass mirrors, expensive furniture, the gaudy, tremendous
oil paintings peculiar to such dives, prism chandeliers, and the like,
had made their appearance. Later, as will be seen, these gambling dens
presented an aspect of barbaric magnificence, unique and peculiar to the
time and place. In 1849, however gorgeous the trappings might have
appeared to men long deprived of such things, they were of small
importance compared with the games themselves. At times the bets were
enormous. Soule tells us that as high as twenty thousand dollars were
risked on the turn of one card. The ordinary stake, however, was not so
large, from fifty cents to five dollars being about the usual amount.
Even at this the gamblers were well able to pay the high rents. Quick
action was the word. The tables were always crowded and bystanders many
deep waited to lay their stakes. Within a year or so the gambling
resorts assumed rather the nature of club-rooms, frequented by every
class, many of whom had no intention of gambling. Men met to talk, read
the newspapers, write letters, or perhaps take a turn at the tables. But
in 1849 the fever of speculation held every man in its grip.
Again it must be noted how wide an epoch can be spanned by a month or
two. The year 1849 was but three hundred and sixty-five days long, and
yet in that space the community of San Francisco passed through several
distinct phases. It grew visibly like the stalk of a century plant.
Of public improvements there were almost none. The few that were
undertaken sprang from absolute necessity. The town got through the
summer season fairly well, but, as the winter that year proved to be an
unusually rainy time, it soon became evident that something must be
done. The streets became bottomless pits of mud. It is stated, as plain
and sober fact, that in some of the main thoroughfares teams of mules
and horses sank actually out of sight and were suffocated. Foot travel
was almost impossible unless across some sort of causeway. Lumber was so
expensive that it was impossible to use it for the purpose. Fabulous
quantities of goods sent in by speculators loaded the market and would
sell so low that it was actually cheaper to use bales of them than to
use planks. Thus one muddy stretch was paved with bags of Chilean flour,
another with tierces of tobacco, while over still another the wayfarers
proceeded on the tops of cook stoves. These sank gradually in the soft
soil until the tops were almost level with the mud. Of course one of the
first acts of the merry jester was to shy the stove lids off into space.
The footing especially after dark can be imagined. Crossing a street on
these things was a perilous traverse watched with great interest by
spectators on either side. Often the hardy adventurer, after teetering
for some time, would with a descriptive oath sink to his waist in the
slimy mud. If the wayfarer was drunk enough, he then proceeded to pelt
his tormentors with missiles of the sticky slime. The good humor of the
community saved it from absolute despair. Looked at with cold appraising
eye, the conditions were decidedly uncomfortable. In addition there was
a grimmer side to the picture. Cholera and intermittent fever came,
brought in by ships as well as by overland immigrants, and the
death-rate rose by leaps and bounds.
The greater the hardships and obstacles, the higher the spirit of the
community rose to meet them. In that winter was born the spirit that has
animated San Francisco ever since, and that so nobly and cheerfully met
the final great trial of the earthquake and fire of 1906.
About this time an undesirable lot of immigrants began to arrive,
especially from the penal colonies of New South Wales. The criminals of
the latter class soon became known to the populace as "Sydney Ducks."
They formed a nucleus for an adventurous, idle, pleasure-loving,
dissipated set of young sports, who organized themselves into a loose
band very much on the order of the East Side gangs in New York or the
"hoodlums" in later San Francisco, with the exception, however, that
these young men affected the most meticulous nicety in dress. They
perfected in the spring of 1849 an organization called the Regulators,
announcing that, as there was no regular police force, they would take
it upon themselves to protect the weak against the strong and the
newcomer against the bunco man. Every Sunday they paraded the streets
with bands and banners. Having no business in the world to occupy them,
and holding a position unique in the community, the Regulators soon
developed into practically a band of cut-throats and robbers, with the
object of relieving those too weak to bear alone the weight of wealth.
The Regulators, or Hounds, as they soon came to be called, had the great
wisdom to avoid the belligerent and resourceful pioneer. They issued
from their headquarters, a large tent near the Plaza, every night. Armed
with clubs and pistols, they descended upon the settlements of harmless
foreigners living near the outskirts, relieved them of what gold dust
they possessed, beat them up by way of warning, and returned to
headquarters with the consciousness of a duty well done. The victims
found it of little use to appeal to the _alcalde_, for with the best
disposition in the world the latter could do nothing without an adequate
police force. The ordinary citizen, much too interested in his own
affairs, merely took precautions to preserve his own skin, avoided dark
and unfrequented alleyways, barricaded his doors and windows, and took
the rest out in contemptuous cursing.
Encouraged by this indifference, the Hounds naturally grew bolder and
bolder. They considered they had terrorized the rest of the community,
and they began to put on airs and swagger in the usual manner of bullies
everywhere. On Sunday afternoon of July 15, they made a raid on some
California ranchos across the bay, ostensibly as a picnic expedition,
returning triumphant and very drunk. For the rest of the afternoon with
streaming banners they paraded the streets, discharging firearms and
generally shooting up the town. At dark they descended upon the Chilean
quarters, tore down the tents, robbed the Chileans, beat many of the men
to insensibility, ousted the women, killed a number who had not already
fled, and returned to town only the following morning.
This proved to be the last straw. The busy citizens dropped their own
affairs for a day and got together in a mass meeting at the Plaza. All
work was suspended and all business houses were closed. Probably all the
inhabitants in the city with the exception of the Hounds had gathered
together. Our old friend, Sam Brannan, possessing the gift of a fiery
spirit and an arousing tongue, addressed the meeting. A sum of money was
raised for the despoiled foreigners. An organization was effected, and
armed _posses_ were sent out to arrest the ringleaders. They had little
difficulty. Many left town for foreign parts or for the mines, where
they met an end easily predicted. Others were condemned to various
punishments. The Hounds were thoroughly broken up in an astonishingly
brief time. The real significance of their great career is that they
called to the attention of the better class of citizens the necessity
for at least a sketchy form of government and a framework of law. Such
matters as city revenue were brought up for practically the first time.
Gambling-houses were made to pay a license. Real estate, auction sales,
and other licenses were also taxed. One of the ships in the harbor was
drawn up on shore and was converted into a jail. A district-attorney was
elected, with an associate. The whole municipal structure was still
about as rudimentary as the streets into which had been thrown armfuls
of brush in a rather hopeless attempt to furnish an artificial bottom.
It was a beginning, however, and men had at last turned their eyes even
momentarily from their private affairs to consider the welfare of this
unique society which was in the making.
ORDEAL BY FIRE
San Francisco in the early years must be considered, aside from the
interest of its picturesqueness and aside from its astonishing growth,
as a crucible of character. Men had thrown off all moral responsibility.
Gambling, for example, was a respectable amusement. People in every
class of life frequented the gambling saloons openly and without thought
of apology. Men were leading a hard and vigorous life; the reactions
were quick; and diversions were eagerly seized. Decent women were
absolutely lacking, and the women of the streets had as usual followed
the army of invasion. It was not considered at all out of the ordinary
to frequent their company in public, and men walked with them by day to
the scandal of nobody. There was neither law nor restraint. Most men
were drunk with sudden wealth. The battle was, as ever, to the strong.
There was every inducement to indulge the personal side of life. As a
consequence, many formed habits they could not break, spent all of their
money on women and drink and gambling, ruined themselves in pocket-book
and in health, returned home broken, remained sodden and hopeless
tramps, or joined the criminal class. Thousands died of cholera or
pneumonia; hundreds committed suicide; but those who came through formed
the basis of a race remarkable today for its strength, resourcefulness,
and optimism. Characters solid at bottom soon come to the inevitable
reaction. They were the forefathers of a race of people which is
certainly different from the inhabitants of any other portion of the
The first public test came with the earliest of the big fires that,
within the short space of eighteen months, six times burned San
Francisco to the ground. This fire occurred on December 4, 1849. It was
customary in the saloons to give negroes a free drink and tell them not
to come again. One did come again to Dennison's; he was flogged, and
knocked over a lamp. Thus there started a conflagration that consumed
over a million dollars' worth of property. The valuable part of the
property, it must be confessed, was in the form of goods, is the light
canvas and wooden shacks were of little worth. Possibly the fire
consumed enough germs and germ-breeding dirt to pay partially for
itself. Before the ashes had cooled, the enterprising real estate owners
were back reerecting the destroyed structures.
This first fire was soon followed by others, each intrinsically severe.
The people were splendid in enterprise and spirit of recovery; but they
soon realized that not only must the buildings be made of more
substantial material, but also that fire-fighting apparatus must be
bought. In June, 1850, four hundred houses were destroyed; in May, 1851,
a thousand were burned at a loss of two million and a half; in June,
1851, the town was razed to the water's edge. In many places the wharves
were even disconnected from the shore. Everywhere deep holes were burned
in them, and some people fell through at night and were drowned. In this
fire a certain firm, Dewitt and Harrison, saved their warehouse by
knocking in barrels of vinegar and covering their building with blankets
soaked in that liquid. Water was unobtainable. It was reported that they
thus used eighty thousand gallons of vinegar, but saved their warehouse.
The loss now had amounted to something like twelve million dollars for
the large fires. It became more evident that something must be done.
From the exigencies of the situation were developed the volunteer
companies, which later became powerful political, as well as
fire-fighting, organizations. There were many of these. In the old
Volunteer Department there were fourteen engines, three hook-and-ladder
companies, and a number of hose companies. Each possessed its own house,
which was in the nature of a club-house, well supplied with reading and
drinking matter. The members of each company were strongly partisan.
They were ordinarily drawn from men of similar tastes and position in
life. Gradually they came to stand also for similar political interests,
and thus grew to be, like New York's Tammany Hall, instruments of the
On an alarm of fire the members at any time of the day and night ceased
their occupation or leaped from their beds to run to the engine-house.
Thence the hand-engines were dragged through the streets at a terrific
rate of speed by hundreds of yelling men at the end of the ropes. The
first engine at a fire obtained the place of honor; therefore every
alarm was the signal for a breakneck race. Arrived at the scene of fire,
the water-box of one engine was connected by hose with the reservoir of
the next, and so water was relayed from engine to engine until it was
thrown on the flames. The motive power of the pump was supplied by the
crew of each engine. The men on either side manipulated the pump by
jerking the hand-rails up and down. Putting out the fire soon became a
secondary matter. The main object of each company was to "wash" its
rival; that is, to pump water into the water box of the engine ahead
faster than the latter could pump it out, thus overflowing and eternally
disgracing its crew. The foremen walked back and forth between the
rails, as if on quarter-decks, exhorting their men. Relays in uniform
stood ready on either side to take the place of those who were
exhausted. As the race became closer, the foremen would get more
excited, begging their crews to increase the speed of the stroke,
beating their speaking trumpets into shapeless and battered relics.
In the meantime the hook-and-ladder companies were plying their glorious
and destructive trade. A couple of firemen would mount a ladder to the
eaves of the house to be attacked, taking with them a heavy hook at the
end of a long pole or rope. With their axes they cut a small hole in the
eaves, hooked on this apparatus, and descended. At once as many firemen
and volunteers as could get hold of the pole and the rope began to pull.
The timbers would crack, break; the whole side of the house would come
out with a grand satisfying smash. In this way the fire within was laid
open to the attack of the hose-men. This sort of work naturally did
little toward saving the building immediately affected, but it was
intended to confine or check the fire within the area already burning.
The occasion was a grand jubilation for every boy in the town--which
means every male of any age. The roar of the flames, the hissing of the
steam, the crash of the timber, the shrieks of the foremen, the yells of
applause or of sarcastic comment from the crowd, and the thud of the
numerous pumps made a glorious row. Everybody, except the owners of the
buildings, was hugely delighted, and when the fire was all over it was
customary for the unfortunate owner further to increase the amount of
his loss by dealing out liquid refreshments to everybody concerned. On
parade days each company turned out with its machine brought to a high
state of polish by varnish, and with the members resplendent in uniform,
carrying pole-axes and banners. If the rivalries at the fire could only
be ended in a general free fight, everybody was the better satisfied.
Thus by the end of the first period of its growth three necessities had
compelled the careless new city to take thought of itself and of public
convenience. The mud had forced the cleaning and afterwards the planking
of the principal roads; the Hounds had compelled the adoption of at
least a semblance of government; and the repeated fires had made
necessary the semiofficial organization of the fire department.
By the end of 1850 we find that a considerable amount of actual progress
has been made. This came not in the least from any sense of civic pride
but from the pressure of stern necessity. The new city now had eleven
wharves, for example, up to seventeen hundred feet in length. It had
done no little grading of its sand-hills. The quagmire of its streets
had been filled and in some places planked. Sewers had been installed.
Flimsy buildings were being replaced by substantial structures, for
which the stones in some instances were imported from China.
Yet it must be repeated that at this time little or no progress sprang
from civic pride. Each man was for himself. But, unlike the native
Californian, he possessed wants and desires which had to be satisfied,
and to that end he was forced, at least in essentials, to accept
responsibility and to combine with his neighbors.
The machinery of this early civic life was very crude. Even the fire
department, which was by far the most efficient, was, as has been
indicated, more occupied with politics, rivalry, and fun, than with its
proper function. The plank roads were good as long as they remained
unworn, but they soon showed many holes, large and small, jagged,
splintered, ugly holes going down into the depths of the mud. Many of
these had been mended by private philanthropists; many more had been
labeled with facetious signboards. There were rough sketches of
accidents taken from life, and various legends such as "Head of
Navigation," "No bottom," "Horse and dray lost here," "Take sounding,"
"Storage room, inquire below," "Good fishing for teal," and the like. As
for the government, the less said about that the better. Responsibility
was still in embryo; but politics and the law, as an irritant, were
highly esteemed. The elections of the times were a farce and a holiday;
nobody knew whom he was voting for nor what he was shouting for, but he
voted as often and shouted as loud as he could. Every American citizen
was entitled to a vote, and every one, no matter from what part of the
world he came, claimed to be an American citizen and defied any one to
prove the contrary. Proof consisted of club, sling-shot, bowie, and
pistol. A grand free fight was a refreshment to the soul. After "a
pleasant time by all was had," the populace settled down and forgot all
about the officers whom it had elected. The latter went their own sweet
way, unless admonished by spasmodic mass-meetings that some particularly
unscrupulous raid on the treasury was noted and resented. Most of the
revenue was made by the sale of city lots. Scrip was issued in payment
of debt. This bore interest sometimes at the rate of six or eight per
cent a month.
In the meantime, the rest of the crowd went about its own affairs. Then,
as now, the American citizen is willing to pay a very high price in
dishonesty to be left free for his own pressing affairs. That does not
mean that he is himself either dishonest or indifferent. When the price
suddenly becomes too high, either because of the increase in dishonesty
or the decrease in value of his own time, he suddenly refuses to pay.
This happened not infrequently in the early days of California.
THE VIGILANTES OF '51
In 1851 the price for one commodity became too high. That commodity was
In two years the population of the city had vastly increased, until it
now numbered over thirty thousand inhabitants. At an equal or greater
pace the criminal and lawless elements had also increased. The
confessedly criminal immigrants were paroled convicts from Sydney and
other criminal colonies. These practiced men were augmented by the weak
and desperate from other countries. Mexico, especially, was strongly
represented. At first few in numbers and poverty-stricken in resources,
these men acted merely as footpads, highwaymen, and cheap crooks. As
time went on, however, they gradually became more wealthy and powerful,
until they had established a sort of caste. They had not the social
importance of many of the "higher-ups" of 1856, but they were crude,
powerful, and in many cases wealthy. They were ably seconded by a class
of lawyers which then, and for some years later, infested the courts of
California. These men had made little success at law, or perhaps had
been driven forth from their native haunts because of evil practices.
They played the game of law exactly as the cheap criminal lawyer does
today, but with the added advantage that their activities were
controlled neither by a proper public sentiment nor by the usual
discipline of better colleagues. Unhappily we are not yet far enough
removed from just this perversion to need further explanation of the
method. Indictments were fought for the reason that the murderer's name
was spelled wrong in one letter; because, while the accusation stated
that the murderer killed his victim with a pistol, it did not say that
it was by the discharge of said pistol; and so on. But patience could
not endure forever. The decent element of the community was forced at
last to beat the rascals. Its apparent indifference had been only
The immediate cause was the cynical and open criminal activity of an
Englishman named James Stuart. This man was a degenerate criminal of
the worst type, who came into a temporary glory through what he
considered the happy circumstances of the time. Arrested for one of his
crimes, he seemed to anticipate the usual very good prospects of
escaping all penalties. There had been dozens of exactly similar
incidents, but this one proved to be the spark to ignite a long
gathering pile of kindling. One hundred and eighty-four of the
wealthiest and most prominent men of the city formed themselves into a
secret Committee of Vigilance. As is usual when anything of importance
is to be done, the busiest men of the community were summoned and put to
work. Strangely enough, the first trial under this Committee of
Vigilance resulted also in a divided jury. The mob of eight thousand or
more people who had gathered to see justice done by others than the
appointed court finally though grumblingly acquiesced. The prisoners
were turned over to the regular authorities, and were eventually
convicted and sentenced.
So far from being warned by this popular demonstration, the criminal
offenders grew bolder than ever. The second great fire, in May, 1851,
was commonly believed to be the work of incendiaries. Patience ceased
to be a virtue. The time for resolute repression of crime had arrived.
In June the Vigilance Committee was formally organized. Our old and
picturesque friend Sam Brannan was deeply concerned. In matters of
initiative for the public good, especially where a limelight was
concealed in the wing, Brannan was an able and efficient citizen.
Headquarters were chosen and a formal organization was perfected. The
Monumental Fire Engine Company bell was to be tolled as a summons for
the Committee to meet.
Even before the first meeting had adjourned, this signal was given. A
certain John Jenkins had robbed a safe and was caught after a long and
spectacular pursuit. Jenkins was an Australian convict and was known to
numerous people as an old offender in many ways. He was therefore
typical of the exact thing the Vigilance Committee had been formed to
prevent. By eleven o'clock the trial, which was conducted with due
decorum and formality, was over. Jenkins was adjudged guilty. There was
no disorder either before or after Jenkins's trial. Throughout the trial
and subsequent proceedings Jenkins's manner was unafraid and arrogant.
He fully expected not only that the nerve of the Committee would give
out, but that at any moment he would be rescued. It must be remembered
that the sixty or seventy men in charge were known as peaceful unwarlike
merchants, and that against them were arrayed all the belligerent
swashbucklers of the town. While the trial was going on, the Committee
was informed by its officers outside that already the roughest
characters throughout the city had been told of the organization, and
were gathering for rescue. The prisoner insulted his captors, still
unconvinced that they meant business; then he demanded a clergyman, who
prayed for three-quarters of an hour straight, until Mr. Ryckman,
hearing of the gathering for rescue, no longer contained himself. Said
he: "Mr. Minister, you have now prayed three-quarters of an hour. I want
you to bring this prayer business to a halt. I am going to hang this man
in fifteen minutes."
The Committee itself was by no means sure at all times. Bancroft tells
us that "one time during the proceedings there appeared some faltering
on the part of the judges, or rather a hesitancy to take the lead in
assuming responsibility and braving what might be subsequent odium. It
was one thing for a half-drunken rabble to take the life of a fellow
man, but quite another thing for staid church-going men of business to
do it. Then it was that William A. Howard, after watching the
proceedings for a few moments, rose, and laying his revolver on the
table looked over the assembly. Then with a slow enunciation he said,
'Gentlemen, as I understand it, we are going to hang somebody.' There
was no more halting."
While these things were going on, Sam Brannan was sent out to
communicate to the immense crowd the Committee's decision. He was
instructed by Ryckman, "Sam, you go out and harangue the crowd while we
make ready to move." Brannan was an ideal man for just such a purpose.
He was of an engaging personality, of coarse fiber, possessed of a keen
sense of humor, a complete knowledge of crowd psychology, and a command
of ribald invective that carried far. He spoke for some time, and at the
conclusion boldly asked the crowd whether or not the Committee's action
met with its approval. The response was naturally very much mixed, but
like a true politician Sam took the result he wanted. They found the
lovers of order had already procured for them two ropes, and had
gathered into some sort of coherence. The procession marched to the
Plaza where Jenkins was duly hanged. The lawless element gathered at the
street corners, and at least one abortive attempt at rescue was started.
But promptness of action combined with the uncertainty of the situation
carried the Committee successfully through. The coroner's jury next day
brought in a verdict that the deceased "came to his death on the part of
an association styling themselves a Committee on Vigilance, of whom the
following members are implicated." And then followed nine names. The
Committee immediately countered by publishing its roster of one hundred
and eighty names in full.
The organization that was immediately perfected was complete and
interesting. This was an association that was banded together and
close-knit, and not merely a loose body of citizens. It had
headquarters, company organizations, police, equipment, laws of its own,
and a regular routine for handling the cases brought before it. Its
police force was large and active. Had the Vigilance movement in
California begun and ended with the Committee of 1851, it would be not
only necessary but most interesting to follow its activities in detail.
But, as it was only the forerunner and trail-blazer for the greater
activities of 1856, we must save our space and attention for the latter.
Suffice it to say that, with only nominal interference from the law, the
first Committee hanged four people and banished a great many more for
the good of their country. Fifty executions in the ordinary way would
have had little effect on the excited populace of the time; but in the
peculiar circumstances these four deaths accomplished a moral
regeneration. This revival of public conscience could not last long, to
be sure, but the worst criminals were, at least for the time being,
Spasmodic efforts toward coherence were made by the criminals, but these
attempts all proved abortive. Inflammatory circulars and newspaper
articles, small gatherings, hidden threats, were all freely indulged in.
At one time a rescue of two prisoners was accomplished, but the
Monumental bell called together a determined band of men who had no
great difficulty in reclaiming their own. The Governor of the State,
secretly in sympathy with the purposes of the Committee, was satisfied
to issue a formal proclamation.
It must be repeated that, were it not for the later larger movement of
1856, this Vigilance Committee would merit more extended notice. It
gave a lead, however, and a framework on which the Vigilance Committee
of 1856 was built. It proved that the better citizens, if aroused, could
take matters into their own hands. But the opposing forces of 1851 were
very different from those of five years later. And the transition from
the criminal of 1851 to the criminal of 1856 is the history of San
Francisco between those two dates.
SAN FRANCISCO IN TRANSITION
By the mid-fifties San Francisco had attained the dimensions of a city.
Among other changes of public interest within the brief space of two or
three years were a hospital, a library, a cemetery, several churches,
public markets, bathing establishments, public schools, two
race-courses, twelve wharves, five hundred and thirty-seven saloons, and
about eight thousand women of several classes. The population was now
about fifty thousand. The city was now of a fairly substantial
character, at least in the down-town districts. There were many
structures of brick and stone. In many directions the sand-hills had
been conveniently graded down by means of a power shovel called the
Steam Paddy in contradistinction to the hand Paddy, or Irishman with a
shovel. The streets were driven straight ahead regardless of contours.
It is related that often the inhabitants of houses perched on the sides
of the sand-hills would have to scramble to safety as their dwellings
rolled down the bank, undermined by some grading operation below. A
water system had been established, the nucleus of the present Spring
Valley Company. The streets had nearly all been planked, and private
enterprise had carried the plank toll-road even to the Mission district.
The fire department had been brought to a high state of perfection. The
shallow waters of the bay were being filled up by the rubbish from the
town and by the debris from the operations of the Steam Paddies. New
streets were formed on piles extended out into the bay. Houses were
erected, also on piles and on either side of these marine thoroughfares.
Gradually the rubbish filled the skeleton framework. Occasionally old
ships, caught by this seaward invasion, were built around, and so became
integral parts of the city itself.
The same insistent demand that led to increasing the speed of the
vessels, together with the fact that it cost any ship from one hundred
to two hundred dollars a day to lie at any of the wharves, developed an
extreme efficiency in loading and unloading cargoes. Hittell says that
probably in no port of the world could a ship be emptied as quickly as
at San Francisco. For the first and last time in the history of the
world the profession of stevedore became a distinguished one. In
addition to the overseas trade, there were now many ships, driven by
sail or steam, plying the local routes. Some of the river steamboats had
actually been brought around the Horn. Their free-board had been raised
by planking-in the lower deck, and thus these frail vessels had sailed
their long and stormy voyage--truly a notable feat.
It did not pay to hold goods very long. Eastern shippers seemed, by a
curious unanimity, to send out many consignments of the same scarcity.
The result was that the high prices of today would be utterly destroyed
by an oversupply of tomorrow. It was thus to the great advantage of
every merchant to meet his ship promptly, and to gain knowledge as soon
as possible of the cargo of the incoming vessels. For this purpose
signal stations were established, rowboat patrols were organized, and
many other ingenious schemes was applied to the secret service of the
mercantile business. Both in order to save storage and to avoid the
possibility of loss from new shipments coming in, the goods were
auctioned off as soon as they were landed.
These auctions were most elaborate institutions involving brass bands,
comfortable chairs, eloquent "spielers," and all the rest. They were a
feature of the street life, which in turn had an interest all its own.
The planking threw back a hollow reverberating sound from the various
vehicles. There seemed to be no rules of the road. Omnibuses careered
along, every window rattling loudly; drays creaked and strained;
non-descript delivery wagons tried to outrattle the omnibuses; horsemen
picked their way amid the melee. The din was described as something
extraordinary--hoofs drumming, wheels rumbling, oaths and shouts, and
from the sidewalk the blare and bray of brass bands before the various
auction shops. Newsboys and bootblacks darted in all directions. Cigar
boys, a peculiar product of the time, added to the hubbub. Bootblacking
stands of the most elaborate description were kept by French and
Italians. The town was full of characters who delighted in their own
eccentricities, and who were always on public view. One individual
possessed a remarkably intelligent pony who every morning, without
guidance from his master, patronized one of the shoe-blacking stands to
get his front hoofs polished. He presented each one in turn to the
foot-rest, and stood like a statue until the job was done.
Some of the numberless saloons already showed signs of real
magnificence. Mahogany bars with brass rails, huge mirrors in gilt
frames, pyramids of delicate crystal, rich hangings, oil paintings of
doubtful merit but indisputable interest, heavy chandeliers of glass
prisms, the most elaborate of free lunches, skillful barkeepers who
mixed drinks at arm's length, were common to all the better places.
These things would not be so remarkable in large cities at the present
time, but in the early Fifties, only three years after the tent stage,
and thousands of miles from the nearest civilization, the enterprise
that was displayed seemed remarkable. The question of expense did not
stop these early worthies. Of one saloonkeeper it is related that,
desiring a punch bowl and finding that the only vessel of the sort was a
soup-tureen belonging to a large and expensive dinner set, he bought the
whole set for the sake of the soup-tureen. Some of the more pretentious
places boasted of special attractions: thus one supported its ceiling on
crystal pillars; another had dashing young women to serve the drinks,
though the mixing was done by men as usual; a third possessed a large
musical-box capable of playing several very noisy tunes; a fourth had
imported a marvelous piece of mechanism run by clockwork which exhibited
the sea in motion, a ship tossing on the waves, on shore a windmill in
action, a train of cars passing over a bridge, a deer chased by hounds,
and the like.
But these bar-rooms were a totally different institution from the
gambling resorts. Although gambling was not now considered the entirely
worthy occupation of a few years previous, and although some of the
better citizens, while frequenting the gambling halls, still preferred
to do their own playing in semi-private, the picturesqueness and glory
of these places had not yet been dimmed by any general popular
disapproval. The gambling halls were not only places to risk one's
fortune, but they were also a sort of evening club. They usually
supported a raised stage with footlights, a negro minstrel troop, or a
singer or so. On one side elaborate bars of rosewood or mahogany ran the
entire length, backed by big mirrors of French plate. The whole of the
very large main floor was heavily carpeted. Down the center generally
ran two rows of gambling tables offering various games such as faro,
keeno, roulette, poker, and the dice games. Beyond these tables, on the
opposite side of the room from the bar, were the lounging quarters, with
small tables, large easy-chairs, settees, and fireplaces. Decoration was
of the most ornate. The ceilings and walls were generally white with a
great deal of gilt. All classes of people frequented these places and
were welcomed there. Some were dressed in the height of fashion, and
some wore the roughest sort of miners' clothes--floppy old slouch hats,
flannel shirts, boots to which the dried mud was clinging or from which
it fell to the rich carpet. All were considered on an equal plane. The
professional gamblers came to represent a type of their own,--weary,
indifferent, pale, cool men, who had not only to keep track of the game
and the bets, but also to assure control over the crowd about them.
Often in these places immense sums were lost or won; often in these
places occurred crimes of shooting and stabbing; but also into these
places came many men who rarely drank or gambled at all. They assembled
to enjoy each other's company, the brightness, the music, and the
On Sunday the populace generally did one of two things: either it
sallied out in small groups into the surrounding country on picnics or
celebrations at some of the numerous road-houses; or it swarmed out the
plank toll-road to the Mission. To the newcomer the latter must have
been much the more interesting. There he saw a congress of all the
nations of the earth: French, Germans, Italians, Russians, Dutchmen,
British, Turks, Arabs, Negroes, Chinese, Kanakas, Indians, the gorgeous
members of the Spanish races, and all sorts of queer people to whom no
habitat could be assigned. Most extraordinary perhaps were the men from
the gold mines of the Sierras. The miners had by now distinctly
segregated themselves from the rest of the population. They led a
hardier, more laborious life and were proud of the fact. They attempted
generally to differentiate themselves in appearance from all the rest of
the human race, and it must be confessed that they succeeded. The miners
were mostly young and wore their hair long, their beards rough; they
walked with a wide swagger; their clothes were exaggeratedly coarse, but
they ornamented themselves with bright silk handkerchiefs, feathers,
flowers, with squirrel or buck tails in their hats, with long heavy
chains of nuggets, with glittering and prominently displayed pistols,
revolvers, stilettos, knives, and dirks. Some even plaited their beards
in three tails, or tied their long hair under their chins; but no matter
how bizarre they made themselves, nobody on the streets of _blase_ San
Francisco paid the slightest attention to them. The Mission, which they,
together with the crowd, frequented, was a primitive Coney Island. Bear
pits, cockfights, theatrical attractions, side-shows, innumerable hotels
and small restaurants, saloons, races, hammer-striking, throwing balls
at negroes' heads, and a hundred other attractions kept the crowds busy
and generally good-natured. If a fight arose, "it was," as the Irishman
says, "considered a private fight," and nobody else could get in it.
Such things were considered matters for the individuals themselves to
The great feature of the time was its extravagance. It did not matter
whether a man was a public servant, a private and respected citizen, or
from one of the semi-public professions that cater to men's greed and
dissipation, he acted as though the ground beneath his feet were solid
gold. The most extravagant public works were undertaken without thought
and without plan. The respectable women vied in the magnificence and
ostentation of their costumes with the women of the lower world.
Theatrical attractions at high prices were patronized abundantly. Balls
of great magnificence were given almost every night. Private carriages
of really excellent appointment were numerous along the disreputable
planked roads or the sandy streets strewn with cans and garbage.
The feverish life of the times reflected itself domestically. No live
red-blooded man could be expected to spend his evenings reading a book
quietly at home while all the magnificent, splendid, seething life of
down-town was roaring in his ears. All his friends would be out; all the
news of the day passed around; all the excitements of the evening
offered themselves. It was too much to expect of human nature. The
consequence was that a great many young wives were left alone, with the
ultimate result of numerous separations and divorces. The moral nucleus
of really respectable society--and there was a noticeable one even at
that time--was overshadowed and swamped for the moment. Such a social
life as this sounds decidedly immoral but it was really unmoral, with
the bright, eager, attractive unmorality of the vigorous child. In fact,
in that society, as some one has expressed it, everything was condoned
It was the era of the grandiose. Even conversation reflected this
characteristic. The myriad bootblacks had grand outfits and stands. The
captain of a ship offered ten dollars to a negro to act as his cook. The
negro replied, "If you will walk up to my restaurant, I'll set you to
work at twenty-five dollars immediately." From men in such humble
stations up to the very highest and most respected citizens the spirit
of gambling, of taking chances, was also in the air.
As has been pointed out, a large proportion of the city's wealth was
raised not from taxation but from the sale of its property. Under the
heedless extravagance of the first government the municipal debt rose to
over one million dollars. Since interest charged on this was thirty-six
per cent annually, it can be seen that the financial situation was
rather hopeless. As the city was even then often very short of funds, it
paid for its work and its improvements in certificates of indebtedness,
usually called "scrip." Naturally this scrip was held below par--a
condition that caused all contractors and supply merchants to charge two
or three hundred per cent over the normal prices for their work and
commodities in order to keep even. And this practice, completing the
vicious circle, increased the debt. An attempt was made to fund the city
debt by handing in the scrip in exchange for a ten per cent obligation.
This method gave promise of success; but a number of holders of scrip
refused to surrender it, and brought suit to enforce payment. One of
these, a physician named Peter Smith, was owed a considerable sum for
the care of indigent sick. He obtained a judgment against the city,
levied on some of its property, and proceeded to sell. The city
commissioners warned the public that titles under the Smith claim were
not legal, and proceeded to sell the property on their own account. The
speculators bought claims under Peter Smith amounting to over two
millions of dollars at merely nominal rates. For example, one parcel of
city lots sold at less than ten cents per lot. The prices were so absurd
that these sales were treated as a joke. The joke came in on the other
side, however, when the officials proceeded to ratify these sales. The
public then woke up to the fact that it had been fleeced. Enormous
prices were paid for unsuitable property, ostensibly for the uses of the
city. After the money had passed, these properties were often declared
unsuitable and resold at reduced prices to people already determined
upon by the ring.
Nevertheless commercially things went well for a time. The needs of
hundreds of thousands of newcomers, in a country where the manufactures
were practically nothing, were enormous. It is related that at first
laundry was sent as far as the Hawaiian Islands. Every single commodity
of civilized life, such as we understand it, had to be imported. As
there was then no remote semblance of combination, either in restraint
of or in encouragement of trade, it followed that the market must
fluctuate wildly. The local agents of eastern firms were often
embarrassed and overwhelmed by the ill-timed consignments of goods. One
Boston firm was alleged to have sent out a whole shipload of women's
bonnets--to a community where a woman was one of the rarest sights to be
found! Not many shipments were as silly as this, but the fact remains
that a rumor of a shortage in any commodity would often be followed by
rush orders on clipper ships laden to the guards with that same article.
As a consequence the bottom fell out of the market completely, and the
unfortunate consignee found himself forced to auction off the goods much
During the year 1854, the tide of prosperity began to ebb. A dry season
caused a cessation of mining in many parts of the mountains. Of course
it can be well understood that the immense prosperity of the city, the
prosperity that allowed it to recover from severe financial disease, had
its spring in the placer mines. A constant stream of fresh gold was
needed to shore up the tottering commercial structure. With the miners
out of the diggings, matters changed. The red-shirted digger of gold had
little idea of the value of money. Many of them knew only the difference
between having money and having none. They had to have credit, which
they promptly wasted. Extending credit to the miners made it necessary
that credit should also be extended to the sellers, and so on back.
Meanwhile the eastern shippers continued to pour goods into the flooded
market. An auction brought such cheap prices that they proved a
temptation even to an overstocked public. The gold to pay for purchases
went east, draining the country of bullion. One or two of the supposedly
respectable and polished citizens such as Talbot Green and "honest Harry
Meiggs" fell by the wayside. The confidence of the new community began
to be shaken. In 1854 came the crisis. Three hundred out of about a
thousand business houses shut down. Seventy-seven filed petitions in
insolvency with liabilities for many millions of dollars. In 1855 one
hundred and ninety-seven additional firms and several banking houses
There were two immediate results of this state of affairs. In the first
place, every citizen became more intensely interested and occupied with
his own personal business than ever before; he had less time to devote
to the real causes of trouble, that is the public instability; and he
grew rather more selfish and suspicious of his neighbor than ever
before. The second result was to attract the dregs of society. The
pickings incident to demoralized conditions looked rich to these men.
Professional politicians, shyster lawyers, political gangsters, flocked
to the spoil. In 1851 the lawlessness of mere physical violence had come
to a head. By 1855 and 1856 there was added to a recrudescence of this
disorder a lawlessness of graft, of corruption, both political and
financial, and the overbearing arrogance of a self-made aristocracy.
These conditions combined to bring about a second crisis in the
precarious life of this new society.
THE STORM GATHERS
The foundation of trouble in California at this time was formal
legalism. Legality was made a fetish. The law was a game played by
lawyers and not an attempt to get justice done. The whole of public
prosecution was in the hands of one man, generally poorly paid, with
equally underpaid assistants, while the defense was conducted by the
ablest and most enthusiastic men procurable. It followed that
convictions were very few. To lose a criminal case was considered even
mildly disgraceful. It was a point of professional pride for the lawyer
to get his client free, without reference to the circumstances of the
time or the guilt of the accused. To fail was a mark of extreme
stupidity, for the game was considered an easy and fascinating one. The
whole battery of technical delays was at the command of the defendant.
If a man had neither the time nor the energy for the finesse that made
the interest of the game, he could always procure interminable delays
during which witnesses could be scattered or else wearied to the point
of non-appearance. Changes of venue to courts either prejudiced or known
to be favorable to the technical interpretation of the law were very
easily procured. Even of shadier expedients, such as packing juries,
there was no end.
With these shadier expedients, however, your high-minded lawyer, moving
in the best society, well dressed, proud, looked up to, and today
possessing descendants who gaze back upon their pioneer ancestors with
pride, had little directly to do. He called in as counsel other lawyers,
not so high-minded, so honorable, so highly placed. These little
lawyers, shoulder-strikers, bribe-givers and takers, were held in
good-humored contempt by the legal lights who employed them. The actual
dishonesty was diluted through so many agents that it seemed an almost
pure stream of lofty integrity. Ordinary jury-packing was an easy art.
Of course the sheriff's office must connive at naming the talesmen;
therefore it was necessary to elect the sheriff; consequently all the
lawyers were in politics. Of course neither the lawyer nor the sheriff
himself ever knew of any individual transaction! A sum of money was
handed by the leading counsel to his next in command and charged off as
"expense." This fund emerged considerably diminished in the sheriff's
office as "perquisites."
Such were the conditions in the realm of criminal law, the realm where
the processes became so standardized that between 1849 and 1856 over one
thousand murders had been committed and only one legal conviction had
been secured! Dueling was a recognized institution, and a skillful shot
could always "get" his enemy in this formal manner; but if time or skill
lacked, it was still perfectly safe to shoot him down in a street
brawl--provided one had money enough to employ talent for defense.
But, once in politics, the law could not stop at the sheriff's office.
It rubbed shoulders with big contracts and big financial operations of
all sorts. The city was being built within a few years out of nothing by
a busy, careless, and shifting population. Money was still easy, people
could and did pay high taxes without a thought, for they would rather
pay well to be let alone than be bothered with public affairs. Like
hyenas to a kill, the public contractors gathered. Immense public works
were undertaken at enormous prices. To get their deals through legally
it was, of course, necessary that officials, councilmen, engineers, and
others should be sympathetic. So, naturally, the big operators as well
as the big lawyers had to go into politics. Legal efficiency coupled
with the inefficiency of the bench, legal corruption, and the arrogance
of personal favor, dissolved naturally into political corruption.
The elections of those days would have been a joke had they been not so
tragically significant. They came to be a sheer farce. The polls were
guarded by bullies who did not hesitate at command to manhandle any
decent citizen indicated by the local leaders. Such men were openly
hired for the purposes of intimidation. Votes could be bought in the
open market. "Floaters" were shamelessly imported into districts that
might prove doubtful; and, if things looked close, the election
inspectors and the judges could be relied on to make things come out all
right in the final count. One of the exhibits later shown in the
Vigilante days of 1856 was an ingenious ballot box by which the goats
could be segregated from the sheep as the ballots were cast. You may be
sure that the sheep were the only ones counted. Election day was one of
continuous whiskey drinking and brawling so that decent citizens were
forced to remain within doors. The returns from the different wards were
announced as fast as the votes were counted. It was therefore the custom
to hold open certain wards until the votes of all the others were known.
Then whatever tickets were lacking to secure the proper election were
counted from the packed ballot box in the sure ward. In this manner five
hundred votes were once returned from Crystal Springs precinct where
there dwelt not over thirty voters. If some busybody made enough of a
row to get the merry tyrants into court, there were always plenty of
lawyers who could play the ultra-technical so well that the accused were
not only released but were returned as legally elected as well.
With the proper officials in charge of the executive end of the
government and with a trained crew of lawyers making their own rules as
they went along, almost any crime of violence, corruption, theft, or the
higher grades of finance could be committed with absolute impunity. The
state of the public mind became for a while apathetic. After numberless
attempts to obtain justice, the public fell back with a shrug of the
shoulders. The men of better feeling found themselves helpless. As each
man's safety and ability to resent insult depended on his trigger
finger, the newspapers of that time made interesting but scurrilous and
scandalous reading. An appetite for personalities developed, and these
derogatory remarks ordinarily led to personal encounters. The streets
became battle-grounds of bowie-knives and revolvers, as rivals hunted
each other out. This picture may seem lurid and exaggerated, but the
cold statistics of the time supply all the details.
The politicians of the day were essentially fighting men. The large
majority were low-grade Southerners who had left their section, urged by
unmistakable hints from their fellow-citizens. The political life of
early California was colored very largely by the pseudo-chivalry which
these people used as a cloak. They used the Southern code for their
purposes very thoroughly, and bullied their way through society in a
swashbuckling manner that could not but arouse admiration. There were
many excellent Southerners in California in those days, but from the
very start their influence was overshadowed by the more unworthy.
Unfortunately, later many of the better class of Southerners, yielding
to prejudice and sectional feeling, joined the so-called "Law and Order"
It must be remembered, however, that whereas the active merchants and
industrious citizens were too busy to attend to local politics, the
professional low-class Southern politician had come out to California
for no other purpose. To be successful, he had to be a fighting man. His
revolver and his bowie-knife were part of his essential equipment. He
used the word "honor" as a weapon of defense, and battered down
opposition in the most high-mannered fashion by the simple expedient of
claiming that he had been insulted. The fire-eater was numerous in those
days. He dressed well, had good manners and appearance, possessed
abundant leisure, and looked down scornfully on those citizens who were
busy building the city, "low Yankee shopkeepers" being his favorite
Examined at close range, in contemporary documents, this individual has
about him little of romance and nothing whatever admirable. It would be
a great pity, were mistaken sentimentality allowed to clothe him in the
same bright-hued garments as the cavaliers of England in the time of the
Stuarts. It would be an equal pity, were the casual reader to condemn
all who eventually aligned themselves against the Vigilance movement as
of the same stripe as the criminals who menaced society. There were many
worthy people whose education thoroughly inclined them towards formal
law, and who, therefore, when the actual break came, found themselves
supporting law instead of justice.
As long as the country continued to enjoy the full flood of prosperity,
these things did not greatly matter. The time was individualistic, and
every man was supposed to take care of himself. But in the year 1855
financial stringency overtook the new community. For lack of water many
of the miners had stopped work and had to ask for credit in buying their
daily necessities. The country stores had to have credit from the city
because the miners could not pay, and the wholesalers of the city again
had to ask extension from the East until their bills were met by the
retailers. The gold of the country went East to pay its bills. Further
to complicate the matter, all banking was at this time done by private
firms. These could take deposits and make loans and could issue
exchange, but they could not issue bank-notes. Therefore the currency
was absolutely inelastic.
Even these conditions failed to shake the public optimism, until out of
a clear sky came announcement that Adams and Company had failed. Adams
and Company occupied in men's minds much the same position as the Bank
of England. If Adams and Company were vulnerable, then nobody was
secure. The assets of the bankrupt firm were turned over to one Alfred
Cohen as receiver, with whom Jones, a member of the firm of Palmer,
Cook, and Company, and a third individual were associated as assignees.
On petition of other creditors the judge of the district court removed
Cohen and appointed one Naglee in his place. This new man, Naglee, on
asking for the assets was told that they had been deposited with Palmer,
Cook, and Company. The latter firm refused to give them up, denying
Naglee's jurisdiction in the matter. Naglee then commenced suit against
the assignees and obtained a judgment against them for $269,000. On
their refusal to pay over this sum, Jones and Cohen were taken into
custody. But Palmer, Cook, and Company influenced the courts, as did
about every large mercantile or political firm. They soon secured the
release of the prisoners, and in the general scramble for the assets of
Adams and Company they secured the lion's share.
It was the same old story. An immense amount of money had disappeared.
Nobody had been punished, and it was all strictly legal. Failures
resulted right and left. Even Wells, Fargo, and Company closed their
doors but reopened them within a few days. There was much excitement
which would probably have died as other excitement had died before, had
not the times produced a voice of compelling power. This voice spoke
through an individual known as James King of William.
King was a man of keen mind and dauntless courage, who had tried his
luck briefly at the mines, realized that the physical work was too much
for him, and had therefore returned to mercantile and banking pursuits
in San Francisco. His peculiar name was said to be due to the fact that
at the age of sixteen, finding another James King in his immediate
circle, he had added his father's name as a distinguishing mark. He was
rarely mentioned except with the full designation--James King of
William. On his return he opened a private banking-house, brought out
his family, and entered the life of the town. For a time his banking
career prospered and he acquired a moderate fortune, but in 1854 unwise
investments forced him to close his office. In a high-minded fashion,
very unusual in those times and even now somewhat rare, he surrendered
to his creditors everything on earth he possessed. He then accepted a
salaried position with Adams and Company, which he held until that house
also failed. Since to the outside world his connection with the firm
looked dubious, he exonerated himself through a series of pamphlets and
short newspaper articles. The vigor and force of their style arrested
attention, so that when his dauntless crusading spirit, revolting
against the carnival of crime both subtle and obvious, desired to edit a
newspaper, he had no difficulty in raising the small sum of money
necessary. He had always expressed his opinions clearly and fearlessly,
and the public watched with the greatest interest the appearance of the
The first number of the _Daily Evening Bulletin_ appeared on October 8,
1855. Like all papers of that day and like many of the English papers
now, its first page was completely covered with small advertisements. A
thin driblet of local items occupied a column on the third and fourth
pages, and a single column of editorials ran down the second. As a
newspaper it seemed beneath contempt, but the editorials made men sit up
and take notice. King started with an attack on Palmer, Cook, and
Company's methods. He said nothing whatever about the robberies. He
dealt exclusively with the excessive rentals for postal boxes charged
the public by Palmer, Cook, and Company. That seemed a comparatively
small and harmless matter, but King made it interesting by mentioning
exact names, recording specific instances, avoiding any generalities,
and stating plainly that this was merely a beginning in the exposure of
methods. Jones of Palmer, Cook, and Company--that same Jones who had
been arrested with Cohen--immediately visited King in his office with
the object of either intimidating or bribing him as the circumstances
seemed to advise. He bragged of horsewhips and duels, but returned
rather noncommittal. The next evening the _Bulletin_ reported Jones's
visit simply as an item of news, faithfully, sarcastically, and in a
pompous vein. There followed no comment whatever. The next number, now
eagerly purchased by every one, was more interesting because of its
hints of future disclosures rather than because of its actual
information. One of the alleged scoundrels was mentioned by name, and
then the subject was dropped. The attention of the City Marshal was
curtly called to disorderly houses and the statutes concerning them, and
it was added "for his information" that at a certain address, which was
given, a structure was then actually being built for improper purposes.
Then, without transition, followed a list of official bonds and sureties
for which Palmer, Cook, and Company were giving vouchers, amounting to
over two millions. There were no comments on this list, but the
inference was obvious that the firm had the whip-hand over many public
The position of the new paper was soon formally established. It
possessed a large subscription list; it was eagerly bought on its
appearance in the street; and its advertising was increasing. King again
turned his attention to Palmer, Cook, and Company. Each day he explored
succinctly, clearly, without rhetoric, some single branch of their
business. By the time he had finished with them, he had not only exposed
all their iniquities, but he had, which was more important, educated the
public to the financial methods of the time. It followed naturally in
this type of exposure that King should criticize some of the legal
subterfuges, which in turn brought him to analysis of the firm's legal
advisers, who had previously enjoyed a good reputation. From such
subjects he drifted to dueling, venal newspapers, and soon down to the
ordinary criminals such as Billy Mulligan, Wooley Kearny, Casey, Cora,
Yankee Sullivan, Ned McGowan, Charles Duane, and many others. Never did
he hesitate to specify names and instances. He never dealt in
innuendoes. This was bringing him very close to personal danger, for
worthies of the class last mentioned were the sort who carried their
pistols and bowie-knives prominently displayed and handy for use. As yet
no actual violence had been attempted against him. Other methods of
reprisal that came to his notice King published without comment as items
Mere threats had little effect in intimidating the editor. More serious
means were tried. A dozen men publicly announced that they intended to
kill him--and the records of the dozen were pretty good testimonials to
their sincerity. In the gambling resorts and on the streets bets were
made and pools formed on the probable duration of King's life. As was
his custom, he commented even upon this. Said the _Bulletin's_ editorial
columns: "Bets are now being offered, we have been told, that the editor
of the _Bulletin_ will not be in existence twenty days longer. And the
case of Dr. Hogan of the Vicksburg paper who was murdered by gamblers of
that place is cited as a warning. Pah!... War then is the cry, is it?
War between the prostitutes and gamblers on one side and the virtuous
and respectable on the other! Be it so, then! Gamblers of San Francisco,
you have made your election and we are ready on our side for the issue!"
A man named Selover sent a challenge to King. King took this occasion to
announce that he would consider no challenges and would fight no duels.
Selover then announced his intention of killing King on sight. Says the
_Bulletin_: "Mr. Selover, it is said, carries a knife. We carry a
pistol. We hope neither will be required, but if this rencontre cannot
be avoided, why will Mr. Selover persist in imperiling the lives of
others? We pass every afternoon about half-past four to five o'clock
along Market Street from Fourth to Fifth Streets. The road is wide and
not so much frequented as those streets farther in town. If we are to be
shot or cut to pieces, for heaven's sake let it be done there. Others
will not be injured, and in case we fall our house is but a few hundred
yards beyond and the cemetery not much farther." Boldness such as this
did not act exactly as a soporific.
About this time was perpetrated a crime of violence no worse than many
hundreds which had preceded it, but occurring at a psychological time.
A gambler named Charles Cora shot and killed William Richardson, a
United States marshal. The shooting was cold-blooded and without danger
to the murderer, for at the time Richardson was unarmed. Cora was at
once hustled to jail, not so much for confinement as for safety against
a possible momentary public anger. Men had been shot on the street
before--many men, some of them as well known and as well liked as
Richardson--but not since public sentiment had been aroused and educated
as the _Bulletin_ had aroused and educated it. Crowds commenced at once
to gather. Some talk of lynching went about. Men made violent
street-corner speeches. The mobs finally surged to the jail, but were
firmly met by a strong armed guard and fell back. There was much
destructive and angry talk.
But to swing a mob into action there must be determined men at its head,
and this mob had no leader. Sam Brannan started to say something, but
was promptly arrested for inciting riot. Though the situation was
ticklish, the police seem to have handled it well, making only a passive
opposition and leaving the crowd to fritter its energies in purposeless
cursing, surging to and fro, and harmless threatenings. Nevertheless
this crowd persisted longer than most of them.
The next day the _Bulletin_ vigorously counseled dependence upon the
law, expressed confidence in the judges who were to try the case--Hager
and Norton--and voiced a personal belief that the day had passed when it
would ever be necessary to resort to arbitrary measures. It may hence be
seen how far from a contemplation of extra legal measures was King in
his public attitude. Nevertheless he added a paragraph of warning: "Hang
Billy Mulligan--that's the word. If Mr. Sheriff Scannell does not remove
Billy Mulligan from his present post as keeper of the County Jail and
Mulligan lets Cora escape, hang Billy Mulligan, and if necessary to get
rid of the sheriff, hang him--hang the sheriff!"
Public excitement died. Conviction seemed absolutely certain. Richardson
had been a public official and a popular one. Cora's action had been
cold-blooded and apparently without provocation. Nevertheless he had
remained undisturbed. He had retained one of the most brilliant lawyers
of the time, James McDougall. McDougall added to his staff the most able
of the younger lawyers of the city. Immense sums of money were
available. The source is not exactly known, but a certain Belle Cora, a
prostitute afterwards married by Cora, was advancing large amounts. A
man named James Casey, bound by some mysterious obligation, was active
in taking up general collections. Cora lived in great luxury at the
jail. He had long been a close personal friend of the sheriff and his
deputy, Mulligan. When the case came to trial, Cora escaped conviction
through the disagreement of the jury.
This fiasco, following King's editorials, had a profound effect on the
public mind. King took the outrage against justice as a fresh
starting-point for new attacks. He assailed bitterly and fearlessly the
countless abuses of the time, until at last he was recognized as a
dangerous opponent by the heretofore cynically amused higher criminals.
Many rumors of plots against King's life are to be found in the detailed
history of the day. Whether his final assassination was the result of
one of these plots, or simply the outcome of a burst of passion, matters
little. Ultimately it had its source in the ungoverned spirit of the
Four months after the farce of the Cora trial, on May 14, King published
an attack on the appointment of a certain man to a position in the
federal custom house. The candidate had happened to be involved with
James P. Casey in a disgraceful election. Casey was at that time one of
the supervisors. Incidental to his attack on the candidate, King wrote
as follows: "It does not matter how bad a man Casey had been, or how
much benefit it might be to the public to have him out of the way, we
cannot accord to any one citizen the right to kill him or even beat him,
without justifiable provocation. The fact that Casey has been an inmate
of Sing Sing prison in New York is no offense against the laws of this
State; nor is the fact of his having stuffed himself through the ballot
box, as elected to the Board of Supervisors from a district where it is
said he was not even a candidate, any justification for Mr. Bagley to
shoot Casey, however richly the latter may deserve to have his neck
stretched for such fraud on the people."
Casey read this editorial in full knowledge that thousands of his
fellow-citizens would also read it. He was at that time, in addition to
his numerous political cares, editor of a small newspaper called _The
Sunday Times_. This had been floated for the express purpose of
supporting the extremists of the legalists' party, which, as we have
explained, now included the gambling and lawless element. How valuable
he was considered is shown by the fact that at a previous election Casey
had been returned as elected supervisor, although he had not been a
candidate, his name had not been on the ticket, and subsequent private
investigations could unearth no man who would acknowledge having voted
for him. Indeed, he was not even a resident of that district. However, a
slick politician named Yankee Sullivan, who ran the election, said
officially that the most votes had been counted for him; and so his
election was announced. Casey was a handy tool in many ways, rarely
appearing in person but adept in selecting suitable agents. He was
personally popular. In appearance he is described as a short, slight man
with a keen face, a good forehead, a thin but florid countenance, dark
curly hair, and blue eyes; a type of unscrupulous Irish adventurer, with
perhaps the dash of romantic idealism sometimes found in the worst
scoundrels. Like most of his confreres, he was particularly touchy on
the subject of his "honor."
On reading the _Bulletin_ editorials, he proceeded at once to King's
office, announcing his intention of shooting the editor on sight.
Probably he would have done so except for the accidental circumstance
that King happened to be busy at a table with his back turned squarely
to the door. Even Casey could not shoot a man in the back, without a
word of warning. He was stuttering and excited. The interview was
overheard by two men in an adjoining office.
"What do you mean by that article?" cried Casey.
"What article?" asked King.
"That which says I was formerly an inmate of Sing Sing."
"Is it not true?" asked King quietly.
"That is not the question. I don't wish my past acts raked up. On that
point I am sensitive."
A slight pause ensued.
"Are you done?" asked King quietly. Then leaping from the chair he burst
suddenly into excitement.
"There's the door, go! And never show your face here again."
Casey had lost his advantage. At the door he gathered himself together
"I'll say in my paper what I please," he asserted with a show of
King was again in control of himself.
"You have a perfect right to do so," he rejoined. "I shall never notice
Casey struck himself on the breast.
"And if necessary I shall defend myself," he cried.
King bounded again from his seat, livid with anger.
"Go," he commanded sharply, and Casey went.
Outside in the street Casey found a crowd waiting. The news of his visit
to the _Bulletin_ office had spread. His personal friends crowded around
asking eager questions. Casey answered with vague generalities: he
wasn't a man to be trifled with, and some people had to find out!
Blackmailing was not a healthy occupation when it aimed at a gentleman!
He left the general impression that King had apologized. Bragging in
this manner, Casey led the way to the Bank Exchange, the fashionable bar
not far distant. Here he remained drinking and boasting for some time.
In the group that surrounded him was a certain Judge Edward McGowan, a
jolly, hard-drinking, noisy individual. He had been formerly a fugitive
from justice. However, through the attractions of a gay life, a
combination of bullying and intrigue, he had made himself a place in the
new city and had at last risen to the bench. He was apparently easy to
fathom, but the stream really ran deep. Some historians claim that he
had furnished King the document which proved Casey an ex-convict. It is
certain that now he had great influence with Casey, and that he drew him
aside from the bar and talked with him some time in a low voice. Some
people insist that he furnished the navy revolver with which a few
moments later Casey shot King. This may be so, but every man went armed
in those days, especially men of Casey's stamp.
It is certain, however, that after his interview with McGowan, Casey
took his place across the street from the Bank Exchange. There, wrapped
in his cloak, he awaited King's usual promenade home.
That for some time his intention was well known is proved by the group
that little by little gathered on the opposite side of the street. It is
a matter of record that a small boy passing by was commandeered and sent
with a message for Peter Wrightman, a deputy sheriff. Pete, out of
breath, soon joined the group. There he idled, also watching,--an
official charged with the maintenance of the law of the land!
At just five o'clock King turned the corner, his head bent. He started
to cross the street diagonally and had almost reached the opposite
sidewalk when he was confronted by Casey who stepped forward from his
place of concealment behind a wagon.
"Come on," he said, throwing back his cloak, and immediately fired.
King, who could not have known what Casey was saying, was shot through
the left breast, staggered, and fell. Casey then took several steps
toward his victim, looked at him closely as though to be sure he had
done a good job, let down the hammer of his pistol, picked up his cloak,
and started for the police-station. All he wanted now was a trial under
The distance to the station-house was less than a block. Instantly at
the sound of the shot his friends rose about him and guarded him to the
shelter of the lock-up. But at last the public was aroused. Casey had
unwittingly cut down a symbol of the better element, as well as a
fearless and noble man. Someone rang the old Monumental Engine House
bell--the bell that had been used to call together the Vigilantes of
1851. The news spread about the city like wildfire. An immense mob
appeared to spring from nowhere.
The police officials were no fools; they recognized the quality of the
approaching hurricane. The city jail was too weak a structure. It was
desirable to move the prisoner at once to the county jail for
safe-keeping. A carriage was brought to the entrance of an alley next
the city jail; the prisoner, closely surrounded by armed men, was rushed
to it; and the vehicle charged out through the crowd. The mob, as yet
unorganized, recoiled instinctively before the plunging horses and the
presented pistols. Before anybody could gather his wits, the equipage
The mob surged after the disappearing vehicle, and so ended up finally
in the wide open space before the county jail. The latter was a solidly
built one-story building situated on top of a low cliff. North, the
marshal, had drawn up his armed men. The mob, very excited, vociferated,
surging back and forth, though they did not rush, because as yet they
had no leaders. Attempts were made to harangue the gathering, but
everywhere the speeches were cut short. At a crucial moment the militia
appeared. The crowd thought at first that the volunteer troops were
coming to uphold their own side, but were soon undeceived. The troops
deployed in front of the jail and stood at guard. Just then the mayor
attempted to address the crowd.
"You are here creating an excitement," he said, "which may lead to
occurrences this night which will require years to wipe out. You are now
laboring under great excitement and I advise you to quietly disperse. I
assure you the prisoner is safe. Let the law have its course and justice
will be done."
He was listened to with respect, up to this point, but here arose such a
chorus of jeers that he retired hastily.
"How about Richardson?" they demanded of him. "Where is the law in
Cora's case? To hell with such justice!"
More and more soldiers came into the square, which was soon filled with
bayonets. The favorable moment had passed and this particular crisis
was, like all the other similar crises, quickly over. But the city was
aroused. Mass meetings were held in the Plaza and in other convenient
localities. Many meetings took place in rooms in different parts of the
city. Men armed by the thousands. Vehement orators held forth from
every balcony. Some of these people were, as a chronicler of the times
quaintly expressed it, "considerably tight." There was great diversity
of opinion. All night the city seethed with ill-directed activity. But
men felt helpless and hopeless for want of efficient organization.
The so-called Southern chivalry called this affair a "fight." Indeed the
_Herald_ in its issue of the next morning, mistaking utterly the times,
held boldly along the way of its sympathies. It also spoke of the
assassination as an "affray," and stated emphatically its opinion that,
"now that justice is regularly administered," there was no excuse for
even the threat of public violence. This utter blindness to the meaning
of the new movement and the far-reaching effect of King's previous
campaign proved fatal to the paper. It declined immediately. In the
meantime, attended by his wife and a whole score of volunteer
physicians, King, lying in a room in the Montgomery block, was making a
fight for his life.
Then people began to notice a small advertisement on the first page of
the morning papers, headed _The Vigilance Committee_.
"The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please
meet at number 105-1/2 Sacramento Street, this day, Thursday, fifteenth
instant, at nine o'clock A.M. By order of the COMMITTEE OF THIRTEEN."
People stood still in the streets, when this notice met the eye. If this
was actually the old Committee of 1851, it meant business. There was but
one way to find out and that was to go and see. Number 105-1/2
Sacramento Street was a three-story barn-like structure that had been
built by a short-lived political party called the "Know-Nothings." The
crowd poured into the hall to its full capacity, jammed the entrance
ways, and gathered for blocks in the street. There all waited patiently
to see what would happen.
Meantime, in the small room back of the stage, about a score of men
gathered. Chief among all stood William T. Coleman. He had taken a
prominent part in the old Committee of '51. With him were Clancey
Dempster, small and mild of manner, blue-eyed, the last man in the room
one would have picked for great stamina and courage, yet playing one of
the leading roles in this crisis; the merchant Truett, towering above
all the rest; Farwell, direct, uncompromising, inspired with tremendous
single-minded earnestness; James Dows, of the rough and ready, humorous,
blasphemous, horse-sense type; Hossefross, of the Committee of '51; Dr.
Beverly Cole, high-spirited, distinguished-looking, and courtly; Isaac
Bluxome, whose signature of "33 Secretary" was to become terrible, and
who also had served well in 1851. These and many more of their type were
considering the question dispassionately and earnestly.
"It is a serious business," said Coleman, summing up. "It is no child's
play. It may prove very serious. We may get through quickly and safely,
or we may so involve ourselves as never to get through."
"The issue is not one of choice but of expediency," replied Dempster.
"Shall we have vigilance with order or a mob with anarchy?"
In this spirit Coleman addressed the crowd waiting in the large hall.
"In view of the miscarriage of justice in the courts," he announced
briefly, "it has been thought expedient to revive the Vigilance
Committee. An Executive Council should be chosen, representative of the
whole body. I have been asked to take charge. I will do so, but must
stipulate that I am to be free to choose the first council myself. Is
He received a roar of assent.
"Very well, gentlemen, I shall request you to vacate the hall. In a
short time the books will be open for enrollment."
With almost disciplined docility the crowd arose and filed out, joining
the other crowd waiting patiently in the street.
After a remarkably short period the doors were again thrown open. Inside
the passage stood twelve men later to be known as the Executive
Committee. These held back the rush, admitting but one man at a time.
The crowd immediately caught the idea and helped. There was absolutely
no excitement. Every man seemed grimly in earnest. Cries of "Order,
order, line up!" came all down the street. A rough queue was formed.
There were no jokes or laughing; there was even no talk. Each waited his
turn. At the entrance every applicant was closely scrutinized and
interrogated. Several men were turned back peremptorily in the first few
minutes, with the warning not to dare make another attempt. Passed by
this Committee, the candidate climbed the stairs. In the second story
behind a table sat Coleman, Dempster, and one other. These administered
to him an oath of secrecy and then passed him into another room where
sat Bluxome behind a ledger. Here his name was written and he was
assigned a number by which henceforth in the activities of the Committee
he was to be known. Members were instructed always to use numbers and
never names in referring to other members.
Those who had been enrolled waited for some time, but finding that with
evening the applicants were still coming in a long procession, they
gradually dispersed. No man, however, departed far from the vicinity.
Short absences and hastily snatched meals were followed by hurried
returns, lest something be missed. From time to time rumors were put in
circulation as to the activities of the Executive Committee, which had
been in continuous session since its appointment. An Examining Committee
had been appointed to scrutinize the applicants. The number of the
Executive Committee had been raised to twenty-six; a Chief of Police had
been chosen, and he in turn appointed messengers and policemen, who set
out in search of individuals wanted as door-keepers, guards, and so
forth. Only registered members were allowed on the floor of the hall.
Even the newspaper reporters were gently but firmly ejected. There was
no excitement or impatience.
At length, at eight o'clock, Coleman came out of one of the side-rooms
and, mounting a table, called for order. He explained that a military
organization had been decided upon, advised that numbers 1 to 100
inclusive should assemble in one corner of the room, the second hundred
at the first window, and so on. An interesting order was his last. "Let
the French assemble in the middle of the hall," he said in their
language--an order significant of the great numbers of French who had
first answered the call of gold in '49, and who now with equal
enthusiasm answered the call for essential justice. Each company was
advised to elect its own officers, subject to ratification by the
Executive Committee. It was further stated that arrangements had been
made to hire muskets to the number of several thousands from one George
Law. These were only flintlocks, but efficient enough in their way, and
supplied with bayonets. They were discarded government weapons, brought
out some time ago by Law to arm some mysterious filibustering expedition
that had fallen through. In this manner, without confusion, an
organization of two thousand men was formed--sixteen military companies.
By Saturday morning, May 17, the Committee rooms were overwhelmed by
crowds of citizens who desired to be enrolled. Larger quarters had
already been secured in a building on the south side of Sacramento
Street. Thither the Committee now removed _en masse_, without
interrupting their labors. These new headquarters soon became famous in
the history of this eventful year.
In the meantime the representatives of the law had not been less alert.
The regular police force was largely increased. The sheriff issued
thousands of summonses calling upon citizens for service as deputies.
These summonses were made out in due form of law. To refuse them meant
to put oneself outside the law. The ordinary citizen was somewhat
puzzled by the situation. A great many responded to the appeal from
force of habit. Once they accepted the oath these new deputies were
confronted by the choice between perjury, and its consequences, or doing
service. On the other hand, the issue of the summonses forced many
otherwise neutral men into the ranks of the Vigilantes. If they refused
to act when directly summoned by law, that very fact placed them on the
wrong side of the law. Therefore they felt that joining a party pledged
to what practically amounted to civil war was only a short step further.
Against these the various military companies were mustered, reminded of
their oath, called upon to fulfill their sworn duty, and sent to various