Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Frontier Justice Started In California

Frontier Justice is also called "Vigilante Justice," or "Western Justice," and it was the was the way of the West for many years. It was what it was, mostly because there simply were no laws other than an unwritten code and of course the Golden Rule. And yes, in many cases Frontier Justice was born out of dissatisfaction with a corrupt Justice System.

The Justice System of the Old West was right and wrong. There was no such thing as a grey area. One was either guilty or not. And as for punishment, if found guilty there were either banishment or hangings, and it was swift.

It started out here out of necessity! 

Some say frontier justice started in Texas. But for me, I really believe it started out West in what was called the "Far West" of California. And yes, I really believe it started in the small mining camps were law was made up as they went.

The official state flag of California, called the Bear Flag, was first used on June 14, 1846 during the Bear Flag Rebellion. The flag pictures a grizzly bear and a star. The first Californian flag was quickly made by a group of American settlers who had just captured the town of Sonoma from Mexico. They needed a flag to replace the Mexican banner.

It happened during the war with Mexico, United States troops seized power. Captain John C. Fremont, western explorer and engineer, led an uprising of American settlers and Californios - Spanish ranching families in Alta California - who supported American annexation.

The name "California" comes from a mythical Spanish island ruled by Amazon women and a queen called "Calafia." It was first mentioned in Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) which is Spanish chivalric romance novel written by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo in 1510.

The Spanish explorers originally thought that California was an island. That irony is not lost on the fact that in the 1850s California was considered an island state - far removed from the other states back East or down South.

Yes, the settlers here made up laws as they went along. Frontier justice was born out of necessity because the land was massive and wide and law sparse.

Later known as the "Island State" because of its remote location to the other states, frontier justice started here in California long before it was ever a State. It was started to keep order the flood of people coming in from all over the world. It was a flood of people never seen by any American state before.

Here in California, after gold was discovered in 1849, many vigilance groups were born as a result of the Miners' Courts that sprang up throughout California's Gold Country from one camp to another. In many areas of the West, the absence of established law and order led the local communities literally taking law into its own hands and dispense justice through Vigilante Committees.

In San Francisco, for example, the news of the discovery of gold to its north depleted its police force while simultaneously triggering an explosion in its population. The resulting increase in crime and violence prompted the establishment of a Vigilante Committee to maintain law and order.

The Committee was made up of 600 local volunteers, most of whom were prominent members of the business community. During the year 1851, the Committee hanged four law breakers, whipped one, deported 20 and released 41 after trial. As a result, violent crime was reduced in the city. The Committee was disbanded within a year after its creation. It was revived five years later and disbanded the same year.

The remoteness of mining camps put men beyond the reach of the organized law. But because man needs laws, laws were made by miners and others who volunteered to form Vigilance Committees that established basic rules of conduct and assured at least a minimum level of order.

The mining camps, small weigh stations, landings, and other communities entrusted the Vigilante Committee with the combined responsibilities of acting as judge, jury and executioner.

Mrs. Louise Clappe was the wife of a physician and lived in the mining camp known as Indian Bar that bordered the Feather River up here in Northern California.

From 1851 to 1852, she wrote letters home to Massachusetts. In a letter written on December 14, 1851, Louise describes how the mining community established its own form of law and order: number of letters to her sister in Massachusetts describing her experience. Her letters were originally published in Pioneer Magazine (1854-55), and then in a book in 1922. A copy of her book resides in the Library of Congress.

She wrote:

"The facts in this sad case are as follows. Last fall, two men were arrested by their partners on suspicion of having stolen from them eighteen hundred dollars in gold-dust. The evidence was not sufficient to convict them, and they were acquitted. They were tried before a meeting of the miners, as at that time the law did not even pretend to wave its scepter over this place.

The prosecutors still believed them guilty, and fancied that the gold was hidden in a coyote-hole near the camp from which it had been taken. They therefore watched the place narrowly while the suspected men remained on the Bar. They made no discoveries, however, and soon after the trial the acquitted persons left the mountains for Marysville.

A few weeks ago, one of these men returned, and has spent most of the time since his arrival in loafing about the different barrooms upon the river. He is said to have been constantly intoxicated. As soon as the losers of the gold heard of his return, they bethought themselves of the coyote-hole, and placed about its entrance some brushwood and stones in such a manner that no one could go into it without disturbing the arrangement of them. In the mean while the thief settled at Rich Bar, and pretended that he was in search of some gravel-ground for mining purposes.

A few mornings ago he returned to his boarding-place, which he had left some hour earlier, with a spade in his hand, and, as he laid it down, carelessly observed that he had been out prospecting. The losers of the gold went, immediately after breakfast, as they had been in the habit of doing, to see if all was right at the coyote-hole.

On this fatal day they saw that the entrance had been disturbed, and going in, they found upon the ground a money-belt which had apparently just been cut open.

Armed with this evidence of guilt, they confronted the suspected person and sternly accused him of having the gold in his possession. Singularly enough, he did not attempt a denial, but said that if they would not bring him to a trial (which of course they promised) he would give it up immediately.

He then informed them that they would find it beneath the blankets of his bunk, as those queer shelves on which miners sleep, ranged one above another somewhat like the berths of a ship, are generally called. There, sure enough, were six hundred dollars of the missing money, and the unfortunate wretch declared that his partner had taken the remainder to the States.

By this time the exciting news had spread all over the Bar. A meeting of the miners was immediately convened, the unhappy man taken into custody, a jury chosen, and a judge, lawyer, etc., appointed.

Whether the men who had just regained a portion of their missing property made any objections to the proceedings which followed, I know not. If they had done so, however, it would have made no difference, as the people had taken the matter entirely out of their hands.

At one o'clock, so rapidly was the trial conducted, the judge charged the jury, and gently insinuated that they could do no less than to bring in with their verdict of guilty a sentence of death!

Perhaps you know that when a trial is conducted without the majesty of the law, the jury are compelled to decide not only upon the guilt of the prisoner, but the mode of his punishment also.

After a few minutes' absence, the twelve men, who had consented to burden their souls with a responsibility so fearful, returned, and the foreman handed to the judge a paper, from which he read the will of the people, as follows: That William Brown, convicted of stealing, etc., should, in one hour from that time, be hung by the neck until he was dead.

By the persuasions of some men more mildly disposed, they granted him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden entrance into eternity. He employed the time in writing, in his native language (he is a Swede), to some friends in Stockholm.

God help them when that fatal post shall arrive, for, no doubt, he also, although a criminal, was fondly garnered in many a loving heart.

He had exhibited, during the trial, the utmost recklessness and nonchalance, had drank many times in the course of the day, and when the rope was placed about his neck, was evidently much intoxicated. All at once, however, he seemed startled into a consciousness of the awful reality of his position, and requested a few moments for prayer.

The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of the prisoner, across the limb of a tree standing outside of the Rich Bar graveyard, when all who felt disposed to engage in so revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the most awkward manner possible.

The whole affair, indeed, was a piece of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional, but arose from the ignorance of those who made the preparations.

In truth, life was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and down, several times in succession, by the rope, which was wound round a large bough of his green-leaved gallows.

Almost everybody was surprised at the severity of the sentence, and many, with their hands on the cord, did not believe even then that it would be carried into effect, but thought that at the last moment the jury would release the prisoner and substitute a milder punishment.

It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion, but many of the drunkards, who form a large part of the community on these bars, laughed and shouted as if it were a spectacle got up for their particular amusement.

A disgusting specimen of intoxicated humanity, struck with one of those luminous ideas peculiar to his class, staggered up to the victim, who was praying at the moment, and, crowding a dirty rag into his almost unconscious hand, in a voice broken by a drunken hiccough, tearfully implored him to take his "hankercher," and if he were innocent (the man had not denied his guilt since first accused), to drop it as soon as he was drawn up into the air, but if guilty, not to let it fall on any account.

The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of the evening, and when those whose business it was to inter the remains arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft white shroud of feathery snow-flakes, as if pitying nature had tried to hide from the offended face of Heaven the cruel deed which her mountain-children had committed."

One gold camp called "Dry Diggings" had its name changed to "Hangtown" right after miners there hung three bandits from a tree in the center of camp. The name "Hangtown" stuck quite a while until it was later changed to Placerville. And yes, I believe the tree is still there. And no, they didn't need lawyers to screw with their justice system.

The miners were forced out of need to set up their own courts to settle their disputes over claims and to punish criminals. Everything from thieves to man-killers had to be dealt with, and since only a few camps had make-shift jails public floggings or hangings became the most common way of dealing with bad men.

Yes, banishments were done but that option was only used for the least of serious crimes. Most knew that if someone did do something major here in their camp and they were subsequently banished, than it was most likely that he'd try it again in another camp.

So all in all, to kick someone out of camp and banish them ended up being used for petty problems instead of big ones. And remember, back then there weren't a lot of lawyers with their technicalities and their backroom sorts of plea deals.

Maybe there were lawyers in the big cities of Boston, New York, Chicago, and St.Louis, but not in the gold camps in the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains. In the Gold Country in those days, justice was swift with not a lot of fuss. It really was a matter of guilty or not.

Not that many miles from where I live now, back during the Gold Rush, a Frenchman who was the local butcher was stabbed by a Chinese man when the butcher turned to get what the Chinese man had ordered. When the butcher didn't immediately die, the Chinese man stabbed him again.

During the attack the butcher was able to reach a pistol he kept nearby, and he quickly took a shot at his attacker. The bullet grazed the Chinese man across the side of his face, but that was enough to send his attacker running out the door.

A man passing the shop heard the shot and saw the Chinese man run away. He followed him, and after a fight of his own, he led the Chinese man back to the butcher shop where others were there treating the Frenchman's wounds.

The Chinese man was brought back to town and waited with others to see if the butcher would live. After the Frenchman died, the Chinese man was taken to a tree and hung.

And why was punishment so swift and deliberate back then? Well in most cases there were no jails. And second, they didn't feel a need to grind out justice in a slow manner as done today.

It was swift, and swift back then didn't mean after a psychologist gets through examining the criminal and all of the other bull spit sort of what have you in today's world. No one really cared why a criminal did something. It was a simple matter of did he do the crime or not? If he did the crime, he was either banished or got a hangman's noose around his neck.

All of the bull spit sociological perspectives, theories, or paradigms that make justice complex, none were a factor in the Old West of Old California. The study of human social behavior and its positives and negatives did not amount to a hill of beans when deciding whether or not someone killed a man or not.

If it was self-defense then the man was innocent, but if it wasn't self-defense then most likely the man would walk the steps to the gallows or dance on the end of a rope from a nearby tree.

There wasn't a lot of gray area back then. Most in Old California were newcomers heading to the gold country from every nation of the world. They came here to get rich. In reality they worked from sun up to sun down, and in many cases had little to show for it. Some did get rich, but most did not.

Most folks today don't really realize that a mining claim was usually only a 16 foot by 16 foot square. And yes, many barely scratched out enough money to get by. The hills crawled with people everywhere. There were thousands and thousands here speaking every language known to man.

And when the population swelled, so did crime, and there was no law other than Miners' Court and Vigilante Justice. Yes, there were all sorts, who came West to California. And yes, some who were here to get rich did not want to dig for it either.

They say that for every one honest miner working a claim that there were six to eight people trying to get his gold one way or another, honest or not.

Knowing the miners needed "everything," there were those honest man who came to the Gold Country selling pots, pans, shovels, stoves, shoes, hats, pins, buttons, and of course clothing just as Levi Strauss did. And yes, there were confidence-men, Snake Oil salesmen, highwaymen, the robbers, thieves, claim jumpers, and all sorts of other desperadoes. There was always someone who wanted that miner's gold. And when it came to con men and desperadoes, the Old West had its share.

Allow me to me make something clear. It was the Old West, the real Old West, the West of Old California. This was the Old West of the pioneers and the Westward migration.

In 1850, California attracted thousands of American migrants. California applied for admission to the United States as a Free State. And yes, that refueled the controversy over the expansion of slavery, triggering a decade of compromise and contention that saw widespread violence between migrants on either side of that debate.

The violence escalated into the Civil War. But the California Frontier was long before the American Civil War or the long Cattle Drives from Texas that followed it.

It was the Old West prior to the Pony Express, the trail-heads in places like Dodge City, and yes indeed, it was the Old West almost 30 years before Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It was a time in our country when so-called legends like Wild Bill Hickok was still just an unheard of boy not yet in his teens in Illinois. It was the Old West before Easterners the likes of Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, or Jesse James were ever heard of.

This was the Old West of the Vaquero and the Californio. This was the American Frontier where American Frontier Justice was born. This is where it worked out the kinks and the snags, and the people coming here saw the Miners' Courts in action. And yes, they respected it for its swiftness but also for its fairness. Many witnessed the fairness and the informal ways, and saw firsthand that it was just.

Was it brutal? No. It was more like law in its more pure form. It was either guilty or not, and it did its job and did in fact deter crime.

To enforce the Miners' Courts, vigilante groups began to spring up in the mining camps. Later vigilante groups took hold and really blossomed in the city of San Francisco when it went from a small city of about 800 people to a huge city in the thousands.

People from everywhere around the world were coming to California. And yes, more and more were coming in with every ship. And why not, it was the gateway to the California gold fields.

Early Spanish explorers named California after a mythical island from a children's fairytale, and California was finally coming into her own. Ships that pulled into port delivering goods were notorious for having lost all hands to Gold Fever. Soon the port of San Francisco was stacked with abandoned vessels and no crews to sail them. In some cases not even Ship's Captains stuck around.

Many of the Ship's Captains who still had partial crews were still in need of more men to outfit their vessels. Some of the Captains found creative ways of getting men to fill their crews. But it wasn't by putting an ad in the local paper or call a Union Hall. No, instead they found a way through the saloons and taverns, and on the streets of San Francisco's Barbary Coast.

It was called “Shanghaiing”, or “being Shanghaied”, and it was done as a way to find crews and man ships. To "shanghai" a man for service aboard a ship refers to the practice of conscripting him as sailors by coercive techniques such as drugs, trickery, intimidation, or even through violent methods.

And yes, it was a form of kidnapping, and believe it or not all the way up until 1915, its "unfree labor" as it was called was still widely used aboard American merchant ships. No kidding!

Unfree labor in America is a generic term for those people who are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence including threat of death, or other extreme hardship to themselves or to members of their families. This was "forced labor," but the man that was "shanghaied" did usually get some form of money once he was released. Though it wasn't a lot, and it certainly didn't cover his being taken against his will.

And of course, it was usually a lot less than the regular sailors and crew. But imagine your family seeing you off to San Francisco to sell cattle or maybe buy needed goods, and maybe never hearing from you again. It was done!

Ships Captains who would "shanghai" a man were mostly on the West Coast of the United States. And yes, many knew there way around the seedier side of the city of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast.

By 1850, besides filling ships with shanghaied crews, San Francisco with its population in the thousands gave way to all sorts of crime and lawlessness. With the miners, came those wanting to get rich off of the miners, and of course like in the small gold camps, came the criminals. From petty thieves and pickpockets, to hoods and thugs, and of course highwaymen to man-killers, desperadoes had come along with those honest hard working men looking for a chance to get rich.

And yes, San Francisco eventually had a vast underworld that included many released prisoners from Australia. They were called the Sydney Ducks. Many of the Sydney Ducks lived on the old shake down scheme of selling protection to merchants, robbing, saloon brawls, and rolling drunks and picking them clean.

They were also accused of setting fires of merchants who didn't pay up and subsequently they destroyed huge parts of the city when the fires got out of control. More than a hundred murders occurred in a few months and many citizens feared to go out at night. It's said that often the desperadoes who were arrested had to be released, all because no one dared testify against them. People in the city were frightened of reprisal.

Then in the spring of 1851, Sam Brannan with a few other businessmen decided to form the 1851 Committee of Vigilance. It was designed to protect the people and property of San Francisco. And don't make any mistake in thinking this group wasn't serious. This was a formal organization with a Constitution and By-Laws signed by about 200 men, including some of the most prominent men in the city at the time.

The 1851 Committee of Vigilance had a goal to “rein in rampant crime and government corruption,” and it was among the most successful organizations in the vigilante tradition of the American Old West. Unlike most other Vigilance Committes, in San Francisco the membership was not secret. People knew if you were a vigilante.

In fact each member had a medallion that he carried identifying him as a member of the Committee of Vigilance. And on that medallion was that man's number, sort of like a badge number.

And yes, when it was time, they gave notice through the newspapers that it would take direct action to punish criminals. It was very above board.

In essence, the vigilantes were the local militia. And what they did was to call attention to the corruption of public officials, the lack of security of the city's jails, and the technicalities that were being used by shifty lawyers. Yup, it was even happening back then!

The Committee's members announced that they would meet in emergency session whenever they heard one of the Fire Station bells toll twice, and then repeat itself at intervals of one minute.

The story goes that with ink barely dry on their member signatures, the bell toll and they were summoned to a night session to try John Jenkins who was one of the Sydney Ducks for stealing a safe. Jenkins was convicted on indisputable evidence and punished before a street crowd by hanging.

Then the Committee's next action was to deport some of the Sydney Ducks back to Australia. They had been terrorizing the city for too long. Soon the Committee was keeping a vigil on the people landing in San Francisco, and actually refused landing permits to some unwanted individuals on incoming ships.

In July of 1851, the Committee tried James Stuart who had been banished from England to Australia and who while in California had made a record for himself as a horse thief, a burglar, and the murderer of a merchant in a mining camp.

Knowing that banishing doesn't work, and this being a perfect example, Stuart was hanged on the Market Street wharf as men in the crowd duffed their hats and ships in the harbor raised their flags and fired their cannons if they had one.

A city judge asked a grand jury to indict the 1851 Committee of Vigilance members, but the jury which included vigilante members and sympathizers with the Committee, openly refused to do it. And following that incident, the Committee of Vigilance apprehended Sam Whittaker who was an ex-convict from Australia, and Robert McKenzie who was an Englishman who had come from New Orleans.

Both were sentenced by the Committee to be hanged. But before their execution, however, the sheriff took these prisoners from the 1851 Committee of Vigilance and placed them in the city jail. On the following Sunday, when all prisoners came out of their cells for Sunday religious services, the Committee invaded the jail. They took the two men and threw them into a carriage, then hurried away with a crowd following them.

Once the two criminals were secure, Sam Brannan appeared and announced that both men had confessed to their crimes. The two were both hung that day. This double hanging caused many of the Sydney Ducks and other criminal types of the same ilk to leave San Francisco for easier pickings. It also spurred city officials into being more forceful against crime. As a result, the 1851 Committee of Vigilance gradually became less active and was discontinued early in 1853.

When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, about 800 Mexican and American settlers lived in San Francisco. By 1855, nearly 50,000 immigrants from China, Chile, Mexico, Ireland, Australia, France, and especially the United States had arrived in the city. Men outnumbered women by as many as ten to one.

And yes, the problem was that the criminals kept coming as well. By 1855, not only did crime become prevalent again for the citizenry but City Hall was corrupt.

In November of 1855, a known criminal by the name of Charles Cora shot and killed an unarmed man outside the Cosmopolitan Saloon. The unarmed man was U.S. Marshal William Richardson.

Charles Cora was taken to jail, but his mistress who was a wealthy prostitute, hired able lawyers and Cora’s January trial resulted in a hung jury. Newspapers in the city protested, claiming corruption of the courts. To everyone it looked like a "rigged" court with bribed jurors. The fix was in, and some called for a reorganization of the vigilance committee to put a stop to this.

Meanwhile, Charles Cora was arrested again and set to be retried for the murder of Richardson. This time he remained in jail for his own protection.

The next disturbance came in May of the following year in 1856. The editor of the Bulletin printed that William Casey, a city supervisor and political machine boss, had been an inmate of Sing Sing Prison in New York. Although this fact had been admitted by Casey and reported in the papers, the Bulletin editor had been more outspoken than others in his attacks on San Francisco's corrupt City Hall.

William Casey, feeling as if he had the backing of City Hall, took things into his own hands and shot and killed the editor as he walked home.

During the night there were great crowds gathering on downtown San Francisco's streets. People started appearing everywhere and the city was alive with rumors that the 1851 Committee of Vigilance would be revived. It was the strain on justice that awoke the citizenry.

The rumors proved true. Several who had been members of that Committee drafted one of their own to reorganize the Committee. Then the Fire Station bell toll twice, and it was repeated at intervals of one minute. Citizens were called to meet in a vacant hall the next evening to form the Committee. Their membership reached 5,500 in two days.

Then on Sunday morning in May 1856, Charles Doane, chief marshal of the Committee, rode a white horse at the head of 500 marching vigilantes with rifles and bayonets. They stopped in front of the jail, and they pointed a small cannon at the jail entrance.

Charles Doane gave the Jailers a message that the Committee would destroy the jail if the sheriff did not hand over both Charles Cora and William Casey within five minutes. The cannon was made ready and the gunner waved his fuse, but then the sheriff ordered the door opened.

Coleman and another vigilante entered and brought out the two murderers. The prisoners were taken to the vigilante court as the City Mayor and the State Governor watched.

Two days later the defendants received as dignified a trial as the legal one Cora had received earlier. Both men were condemned to hang. And yes, with many people there to watch, both were dropped from hinged wooden platforms extended from windows of the Committee's second-story quarters.

The Committee decided to remain active for a few more months, increasing its membership to more than 8,000 members. But, although on July 29, it hanged two murderers, Joseph Hetherington and Philander Brace, it did not have much other work beyond giving criminals, either tar and feather or one-way tickets on outbound ships.

The Committee of Vigilance accomplished what they wanted to do. Murders which had numbered more than a hundred during the six months prior to the Committee's reformation practically ceased. In fact there were only two during the three month jurisdiction of the last Vigilance Committee.

The Committee of Vigilance of 1856 adjourned its activities the second time on August 18, 1856, although it was not formally disbanded until November 3, 1859. By that time, City Hall had been pretty much cleaned out and a new group of elected officials were able to enforce the law.

Today the Vigilance Committee of 1856 is remembered mostly for its role in reshaping San Francisco politics and attacking rampant crime and political corruption.

There are some out there who do not approve of the Vigilance Committee saying that in addition to attacking political corruption and crime, that the Vigilance Committees also conducted illegal searches, violated the law of habeas corpus, confiscated federal arms, sought to oust elected city officials, and even imprisoned a justice of the State Supreme Court.

And yes, in response to the vigilantes, the governor of California did in fact declare the city of San Francisco to be in a state of insurrection and attempted to crush the Committee by force. He failed because the local militia was already part of the Committee.

Fact is, in 1856, the Committee was needed to stem the tide of lawlessness and government corruption. What is lost on those nay sayers is that the citizens were the Committee, and it was them that took up arms to cure the ills that plagued their home.

Those who ousted those elected officials did so knowing that the voters did not elect them, and as for imprisoning a justice of the State Supreme Court - well he shouldn't have been a crook. All in all, the vigilantes in San Francisco did give city politicians one huge incentive to live with after 1856.

Their incentive was their knowing that if city officials didn't uphold the law and do it above board and in the right way, that yes there would be another Committee of Vigilance again formed to set things straight.

There is a story about a man who supposedly visited San Francisco three years after the Vigilance Committee had disbanded. The visitor asked a local resident what had become of the vigilantes?

His answer came quickly, "Toll the bell, Sir, and you shall see."

Tom Correa



  1. Exсellent poѕt! We ωill be lіnkіng to thіs gre&X61;t post on our we&X62;site.

    Ke&X65;ρ &X75;p the g&X6f;od writing.

    My sіte;

  2. Beautifully written. Thank you for this history lesson!


Thank you for your comment.