The Shot Heard ’Round the City

Historical Essay

by Dr. Weirde


"Ft. Gunnybags," the headquarters on Portsmouth Square of the 2nd Vigilante Committee
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library, San Francisco, CA

May 14, 1856: The nation was gearing up for the Civil War, and San Francisco was divided between the secessionist and unionist factions. James King of William, editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin and a Union loyalist, wrote an editorial condemning James Casey, rival editor of the Weekly Sunday Times, a pro-South stalwart. King of William made a point of saying unflattering things about Casey--not a terribly difficult task, as Casey was a notorious hothead who had served eighteen months in Sing Sing. The same day the editorial was published, Casey approached King of William at the corner of Montgomery and Commercial Streets, whipped a concealed pistol from beneath his cloak, pressed it against his rival's chest, and squeezed the trigger.

The city fell into a frenzy. Tens of thousands of hard-drinking San Franciscans poured into the streets, frothing at the mouth and howling for lynch law. The cavalry charged through the streets, but was unable to scatter the swelling mob. Mayor Van Ness stood in front of the jail and spoke in favor of the rule of law, but was met by a torrent of verbal abuse and rotten vegetables. The mob threw its weight behind the Vigilance Committee, an extralegal paramilitary force that had been dispensing vigilante justice since 1851. In the next two days, 2,600 men joined the Vigilantes and were quickly organized into companies of 100 and armed with knives, pistols, shotguns, and cannons. On Sunday the 18th, as King of William lay dying, the Vigilante mob sur-rounded the jail and pointed a cannon at its door. Sheriff David Scannell and his outgunned deputies quickly handed over Casey. James King of William died on Tuesday. On Thursday, May 22, just as tolling bells signaled that funeral services for King of William had ended, the Vigilance Committee hanged James Casey at their homemade “Fort Gunnybags”.

Historical note: Despite the two Vigilance Committees' fearsome reputation, they only hanged eight men during their five years of existence. When the Vigilance Committee arrested a man, they would put on what now appears to have been a reasonably fair trial before meting out punishment. (Some of their detainees were acquitted or released for lack of evidence.)

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