The 1851 Committee of Vigilance coalesced to fight arson and the general lawlessness of Gold Rush-era San Francisco. Their efforts successful, the committee disbanded after a mere 100 days.
Five years later, San Francisco suffered from a less flammable threat: stolen elections. The chief tool of voter fraud was “cunningly contrived ballot-boxes, with false sides and bottoms, so prepared that by means of a spring or slide, spurious tickets, concealed there previous to the election could be mingled with genuine votes.” The reported ringleader of the ballot-box-stuffing cartel was James P. Casey, editor of the Sunday Times newspaper. Casey’s political machine was powerful. He won a seat on the Board of Supervisors—in a district where he wasn’t even on the ballot.
In response to Casey’s election, James King of William (a fabulous moniker!), the crusader editor of the rival Daily Evening Bulletin, published articles showing that Casey had served time in New York State’s Sing Sing prison for grand larceny.
In the early evening of May 14, 1856, a furious Casey confronted King outside his offices on Montgomery Street. “Are you armed?” Casey demanded, then shot King without waiting for an answer. Six agonizing days later, King died. A crowd of over ten thousand waited on the street to learn the fate of the man who launched “the struggle of cleaning out the criminal element in power.”
Outraged by King’s death and the city’s political chaos, the second Committee of Vigilance formed. “We are determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary, assassin, ballot-box stuffer, or other disturbers of the peace, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law—insecurity of prisons—the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice…” Among the six thousand members of the reconstituted committee was Doctor Galen Burdell, a key player in Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal.
Galen’s summons drips with urgency, including “you are hereby commanded” and “fail not.” Still, the instructions end on a pleasant tone. “N. B. Please set your own hour if the present time be inconvenient to you.” Apparently, vigilance can still be civil.
This time, the committee closely aligned itself with the governments of San Francisco and California as well as with the state militia. Eventually, the rule of law was restored to the committee’s satisfaction and the membership disbanded on August 11, 1856, followed by a parade described by the Daily Alta California newspaper (August 19, 1856) as “the most magnificent and imposing demonstration ever beheld in California”.
Men, women, and children streamed to the parade route in carriages, on horseback, and on foot. Others waved from balconies and crowded the sidewalks. Sansome Street was festooned with “flags, banners, streamers, flowers, devices and mottos.” Flags lined Sacramento Street. A wagon drawn by six spirited gray horses carried ninety members of the original 1851 committee under the slogan: Do Right and Fear Not. The entire parade took thirty-three minutes to pass a single spot. In a display of flower power that would not be repeated until the Vietnam War protests, ladies planted flowers in committee members’ rifle muzzles.