Legends of America:
There were two major vigilante groups that operated in San Francisco, California one occurring in 1851 and the other in 1856, both of which arose during the California Gold Rush in response to avid crime, government corruption, and prejudice against the immigrants. These two militia style groups lynched 12 people, kidnapped hundreds of others, and forced several elected officials to resign. Each Committee of Vigilance formally relinquished power after it decided the city had been “cleaned up.”
1851 Vigilantes – California’s Gold Rush transformed the small Spanish settlement of San Francisco into a boomtown as thousands of men flocked to California to make their fortunes. The town grew from just about 800 residents in 1848 to nearly 25,00 in 1851, bringing with it murderers, swindlers, thieves, sporting girls and carpetbagger politicians.
When the young city was incapable of handling the disorder and mayhem taking place on what began to be called the “Barbary Coast,” San Francisco merchants established the “Committee of Vigilance” in 1851. Meeting in secret, the 700 member group drew up bylaws and soon announced that San Francisco’s elected government was incapable of protecting the life and property of the city’s citizens and claimed that role for itself.
The committee, believing that Australian immigrants were responsible for much of the city’s crime, immediately began to prevent them from landing in San Francisco and deporting more than two dozen others. Their justice was swift and certain, hanging four men accused of murder. Word of their deeds of lynching and excommunicating criminals spread fast and San Francisco’s crime rate declined rapidly. Their unprecedented success made them heroes throughout the west, spawning vigilante groups in numerous other locations. Their mission complete, the first organized group of San Francisco was formally disbanded by the end of 1852 and law enforcement returned to the elected authorities, all of which just happened to be former members of the committee.
1856 Vigilantes – In 1856, San Francisco was entirely under the control of its famous Vigilance Committee, a determined band of citizens that held the city under firm rule. At the time that the Vigilance Committee was formed, the conditions of the city’s outgrowth had caused widespread municipal corruption by a gang of organized political plunderers. Operating in their own individual best interests, the city government held control of San Francisco at the expense of the honest and respectable citizens of the city.
For years, some of the worst elements of San Francisco had held control of the political machine, stuffing ballot boxes, bribing voters, intimidating those that couldn’t be paid off, and electing their own judges. Going to any and every extreme to hold their offices, the politicians were raping the city, taking home bucket loads of money and enjoying their power.