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Vigilante Committees

Historical Essay

by Ben Ratliff

Rulclas1$william-coleman.jpg

William Coleman, leader of 1856 Vigilance Committee, and the Pickhandle Brigade of 1877.

Image: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

1851: 1st Vigilante Committee

"Sometimes decent people have to take things in to their own hands!"

1856: 2nd Vigilante Committee

In May, 1856, the Second Committee of Vigilance formed in response to the assassination of James King of William, a local newspaper editor. James Casey was a corrupt politician who wasn't fond of all the dirt King's paper was digging up on him. Adopting a popular form of grievance resolution at the time, Casey shot King down in the street. Casey was summarily placed in prison with the infamous gambler Charles Cora, who had killed a U.S. Marshal. Town leaders Sam Brannan and William Coleman were afraid that the wrongdoers would beat the rap and quickly marshalled a posse and demanded that the prisoners be released to them. Cora and Casey were given an express trial and hung on the rafters of Fort Gunnybags.

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Fort Gunnybags at edge of Portsmouth Square, c. 1856.

Image: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

After hanging two more undesirables and running quite a few others out of town, the Vigilance Committee disbanded once more.

"These hooligans are deserters and shirkers, they deserve our scorn and punishment!"

1877: Committee of Safety/Pick-Handle Brigade

"Law and Order" citizens come together to defeat rioting mobs bent on destroying property related to Chinese labor. "This time the US Navy backed us when we imposed a temporary martial law."


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