History of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851

by Mary Floyd Williams Ph.D.

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BookCoverImage-9Mary Floyd Williams gives a detailed account of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance formed in 1851 (it was later reincarnated in 1856. Although the Committee, formed by a group of vigilantes, lasted only about three months, they were responsible for the hanging of at least eight accused and forced others to leave California. The offenses were not always grave—one person was hung by the Committee for stealing a safe from an office. The Committee circumvented due process by bringing suspects to their own offices instead of the police. Dr. Williams details the initial development of the organization and explains how rampant crime in San Francisco led to the formation of vigilante justice, and the societal repercussions.

W.T. Sherman, the militia commander at the time, subsequently a Civil War hero, wrote:

As [the vigilantes] controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but their success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community? Indeed, in San Francisco, as soon as it was demonstrated that the real power had passed from the City Hall to the committee room, the same set of bailiffs, constables, and rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the “Vigilantes.”