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Produced by David Schwan. HTML version by Al Haines.

The Vigilance Committee of '56.

By a Pioneer California Journalist

[James O'Meara]

Chapter I.

Many accounts of the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco have been
published, but all of them, so far as I have seen, were from the pen of
members of that organization, or else from persons who favored it. As a
consequence their accounts of it were either partial, to a greater or
less degree, or imperfect otherwise; and much has been omitted as well
as misstated and misrepresented otherwise. I was not a member of the
Vigilance Committee, nor was I a member of the opposing organization,
known as the Law and Order body, of which General Sherman was the head
and Volney E. Howard next in rank. I have never been in favor of mob or
lynch-law in any form, and, therefore, had neither sympathy with nor
disposition to join the Vigilance Committee. And while I was earnestly
in support of Law and Order, I did not feel that I could better subserve
that cause by joining the organization formed at that time, for the
avowed purpose of maintaining the one and enforcing the other. I had
many friends on each side, and I also knew many in each organization who
were unworthy of fellowship in any good or honorable cause or
association; and some of these bore prominent rank in each organization.
As was said of the Regulators of Texas, who directed their energies
chiefly against horse thieves and robbers, that some of the worst and
most guilty of them hastened to join the band, in order to save
themselves from arrest and the rope or bullet, likewise were there some
prominent in the Vigilance Committee of 1856, who undoubtedly joined it
for similar reasons - to escape the terrors of the organization; and the
Executive Committee was not exempt from these infamous characters.

The Executive Committee, forty-one in number, was thus composed in
membership: William T. Coleman, James Dows, Thomas J. L. Smiley, John P.
Monrow, Charles Doane, James N. Olney, Isaac Bluxome, Jr., William
Meyers, Charles Ludlow, - Christler, Richard M. Jessup, Charles J.
Dempster, George R. Ward, E. P. Flint, Wm. Rogers, Aaron M. Burns, Miers
F. Truitt, W. H. Tillinghast, W. Arrington, Charles L. Case, J. D.
Farwell, W. T. Thompson, Eugene Dellesert, J. K. Osgood, J. W. Brittan,
Jules David, C. V. Gillespie, Calvin Nutting, E. Gorham, N. O.
Arrington, F. W. Page, O. B. Crary, L. Bassange, D. Tubbs, Emile Grisar,
E. B. Goddard, Henry M. Hale, Chas. Ludlow, M. J. Burke, J. H. Fish, C.
P. Hutchings, J. Seligman.

W. T. Coleman was President, Thomas J. L. Smiley Vice-President and
Prosecuting Attorney, John P. Morrow, Judge Associate, James Dows,
Treasurer, Wm. Meyer, Deputy Treasurer, Isaac Bluxome, Jr. the notorious
"33" - Secretary. Charles Doane was Grand Marshall, James N. Olney,
Deputy Grand Marshall, R. T. Wallace was Chief of Police, John L.
Durkee, Deputy Chief.

The military organization of the Vigilance Committee, rank and file,
numbered nearly 5,000 men. Several of the Executive Committee were alien
residents who never became citizens; and in the Committee, serving as
troops, as police, and in other lines, were a large number of aliens,
not naturalized, many of whom had not acquired sufficient proficiency in
the English language to speak it or understand it. The military body
comprised four regiments - infantry and artillery - together with
battalions of cavalry, pistol companies and guard of citizens. A medical
staff was duly organized. The roster, as here given, is copied from a
recent publication in the Alta, stated to be authentic. The dashes which
mark omission of the names, appear as they are placed in the Alta:

Charles Doane, Major-General. Staff officers: N. W. Coles,
Quartermaster-General and Colonel of Cavalry; R. M. Jessup,
Commissary-General and Colonel of Infantry; Aaron M. Burns, Deputy
Commissary-General and Lieutenant-Colonel of Infantry; James Dows,
Paymaster-General and Lieutenant-Colonel of Infantry; William Meyer and
Eugene Dellesert, Paymaster-Generals and Majors of Infantry; Cyrus G.
Dwyer, Adjutant and Inspector-General and Major of Infantry: Henry
Baker, Quartermaster and Major of Infantry; R. R. Pearce and M. McManus,
Assistant Quartermasters and Captains of Infantry; J. W. Farrington,
Assistant Commissary and Captain of Infantry; R. Beverly Cole, Surgeon
of the staff and Major of Infantry; Geo. C. Potter, aid to Major-General
and Major of Cavalry; N. B. Stone, A. M. Ebbetts, T. M. Wood, O. P.
Blackman, George R. Morris, T. A. Wakeman, Felix Brissac, C. H. Vail and
George R. Ward, aids to Major-General and Majors of Infantry, James B.
Hubbell, John M. Schapp and B. F. Mores, aids and secretaries to
Major-General and Captains of Infantry, J. N. Olney, Jr., aid and
secretary to Major-General and First Lieutenant of Infantry; James N.
Olney, Brigadier-General; R. S. Tammot, Henry Jones and R. M. Cox, aids
and Captains of Infantry.

Artillery - Thomas D. Johns, Colonel; J. F. Curtis, Lieutenant-Colonel;
R. B. Hampton, Major; Company A, J. Mead Huxley, Captain; Company B,
James Richit, Captain; Company C, H. C. F. Behrens, Captain; Company D,
J. H. Hasty, Captain; James F. Curtiss, Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding
Reserved Artillery.

Battallion Cavalry - Frank Baker, Major; First Squadron, G. G. Bradt,
Captain; Second Squadron, J. Sewell Read, Captain.

Infantry - First Regiment, - Colonel; J. S. Ellis, Lieutenant-Colonel;
John A. Clark, Major; J. P. H., Wentworth, Quartermaster; H. H. Thrall,
Adjutant; L. S. Wilder, Commissary; R. M. Cox, Sergeant-Major; H. W. F.
Hoffman, Quartermaster's Sergeant and composed of eight companies, viz:
Company A, W. C. Allen, Lieutenant commanding; Company B, H. L. Twiggs,
Captain; Company C, A. L. Loring, Captain; Company D, J. V. McElwee,
Captain; Company One,, J. M. Taylor, Captain; Company Two (Riflemen), L.
W. Parks, Captain; Company Three, Jonathan Gavat, Captain, Company
Seven, Geo. H. Hossefros, Captain.

Battallion Citizens Guard - Belonging to First Regiment, composed of A,
B, C, and D, G. F. Watson, Major.

Second Regiment - J. B. Badger, Colonel; J. S. Hill, Lieutenant-Colonel;
A. H. Clark, Major, Giles H. Gray, Quartermaster; E. B. Gibbs, Adjutant;
F. A. Howe, Commissary; - Sergeant-Major; Judah Alden;
Quartermaster-Sergeant, and composed of eight companies, viz: Company
Six, W. R. Doty, Captain; Company Twelve, C. G. Bailey, Captain; Company
Eight, - Godfrey, Captain; Company Four, A. H. King, Captain; Company
Five, C. R. Bond, Captain; Company Ten, J. Wightman, Lieutenant
commanding; Company Eleven, George Gates, Captain; Company Nine, J.
Wood, Captain.

Third Regiment - H. S. Fitch, Colonel; Caleb Clapp Lieutenant Colonel; - ,
Major; - , Quartermaster; - , Adjutant; - , Commissary; - ,
Sergeant-Major; - , Quartermaster-Sergeant, and composed of eight
companies, viz: Company Thirteen, E. J. Smith, Lieutenant commanding;
Company Fourteen, W. E. Keyes, Captain; Company Fifteen, - , Lieutenant
commanding; Company Sixteen, B. S. Bryan, Captain; Company Seventeen
(Riflemen), C. E. S. McDonald, Captain; Company Eighteen, P. W.
Shepheard, Captain; Company Nineteen, R. H. Bennett, Captain; Company
Twenty, S. Gutte, Captain.

Fourth Regiment - Francis J. Lippitt, Colonel; John D. G. Quirk,
Lieutenant-Colonel, - - , Major; - - , Quartermaster; B. L. West,
Adjutant; - - , Commissary; - - , Sergeant-Major; - - , Quartermaster's
Sergeant, and composed of eight companies, viz: Company Twenty-five, J.
Sanfrignon, Captain; Company Twenty-eight, L. Armand, Captain; French
Legion, - - Villaseque, Major; Company Twenty-four, W. H. Patten,
Captain; Company Twenty-seven, C. H. Gough, Captain; Company Twenty-one,
S. Meyerbock Captain; Company Twenty-three, J. T. Little, Captain;
Company Thirty, W. O. Smith, Captain; Company Twenty-two, J. L. Folger,
Captain; Company Twenty-nine, S. L. Harrison, Captain; Company
Twenty-six, - - , Captain.

Pistol Battalion - Two companies, commanded respectively by Captains
Webb and E. S. Gibbs.

The roll of Division No. 4 is thus given:

J. A. Collins, Commander, Geo. G. Whitney, 1st Lieut. W. H. Parker, 2d
L't, J. H. Mallett, Orderly Sergeant, R. R. H. Rogers, Second Orderly
Sergeant, Wm. H. Wood, Third Orderly Sergeant, Charles D. Cushman,
Fourth Orderly Sergeant. Privates - D. Morgan, Jr., P. G. Partridge,
John Burns, E. W. Travers. Giles H. Gray, Martin Prag, John Wright,
James Wells, Jas. W. White, Judah Alden, Alfred Rix, J. W. Farrington,
W. L. Waters, W. F. Hall, J. T. Bowers, J. L. N. Shepard, Lucius Hoyt,
David Laville, H. A. Russell, E. Stevens, Theo. B. Cunningham, M.
McMannis, Wm. H. Gibson, Edmund Keyes, George T. Bohen, I. M. Bachelder,
R. T. Holmes, W. F. Shankland, B. Argyras, John R. Chute, John S.
Davies, James McCeny, Geo. H. Tay, Sohn Bensley, L. Bartlett, Joseph W.
Housley, Robert Wells, Samuel Fullerton, Newell Hosmer, J. J. Lomax, G.
K. Fitch, Wm. Hayes, Robert A. Parker, Samuel Soule, A. Wardwell, Isaac
E. Davis, M. McIntyre, F. E. Foote, Thomas A. Ayres, William K.
Blanchard, J. F. Eaton, J. Frank Swift, J. O. Rountree.

These names of Secretaries of the Committees of the Executive Committee
are added: On Evidence - J. H. Titcomb and D. McK Baker; on
Qualification - E. T. Beals.

First, as to the cause or pretence for the organization of the Vigilance
Committee: It is declared by its ex-members and supporters, or
apologists, that it was necessary for the reason that the law was not
duly administered; that the Courts, the fountains of justice, were
either corrupted or neglectful of their duties; that Juries were packed
with unworthy men in important criminal cases, that there were gross
frauds in elections, by which the will of the people was defied and
defeated, and improper and dishonest men, some of them notorious rogues,
were counted in and installed in public office; and that there was a
class of turbulent offenders who had the countenance, if not the support
of judges and officials in high places, and who, therefore, felt
themselves to be above or exempt from the law. Tennyson has well
remarked that there is no lie so baneful as one which is half truth. So
it is in respect to these alleged reasons for the organization of that
Vigilance Committee. It is not true that the Courts were corrupt,
neglectful or remiss. Judge Hager presided in the Fourth District Court,
and his integrity and judicial qualifications, or judgments, have never
been questioned or impeached. Judge Freelon presided as County judge;
the same can be remarked of him. There was no material fault alleged
against the Police Court. It is true, however, that in important
criminal cases, and sometimes in civil suits, the juries were often
packed. But why? I will state: Merchants and business men generally had
great aversion to serve on juries, particularly, in important criminal
cases, which are usually protracted; and the jury were kept in
comparative close condition, because their time was too valuable, and
their business interests required their constant attention. They
preferred, therefore, to pay the fine imposed, in case they were unable
to prevail upon the Judge to excuse them. Jury fees were inconsiderable
in comparison with their daily profits; but it was the loss of time from
their business which mainly actuated them. Yet these fees were
sufficient to pay a day's board and lodging, and to the many who were
out of employment, serving on a jury was the means to both. There is, in
every large community, the class known as professional jurymen - hangers
about the Court, eagerly waiting to be called. There were men of this
kind then; there are more than enough of them still loitering about the
Courts, civil and criminal. San Francisco is not the only city in the
United States in which defendants in grave criminal cases have recourse
to every conceivable and possible means, without scruple, to procure
their own acquittal, or the utmost modification of the penalty, by
proving extenuating circumstances, or that the indictment magnifies the
crimes. This was true of 1856; here, as elsewhere in the land; it is
equally true now. Had the merchants and solid citizens then drawn as
jurors, fulfilled their duty to the cause of justice, to the
conservation and maintenance of law and order, they would have had no
cause or pretence for the organization which they formed. The initial
fault was attributable to themselves; the jury-packing they complained
of was the direct consequence of their own neglect of that essential
duty to the State, in the preservation of law and order; and they cannot
reasonably or justly shift the onus from themselves upon the Courts.

Concerning the frauds in election: yes, there were frauds, outrageous
frauds, at every election; repeaters, bullies, ballot-box stuffing, and
false counts of the ballots to count out this candidate and count in the
one favored of the "boys." More than one member of the Vigilance
Executive Committee had thorough knowledge of all this, for the very
conclusive reason that more than one of them had engaged in these
frauds, had not only participated in them directly and indirectly, but
had actually proposed them; employed the persons who had committed the
frauds, and paid these tools round sums for the infamous service. The
reward of these employers and accessories before, during and after the
frauds, was the office that was coveted; and the "Hon." prefixed to
their names was as the gilt which the watch stuffer applies to the brass
thing he imposes upon the greenhorn as a solid gold watch. Out of the
Committee, of the Executive Committee, the detectives of that body might
have unearthed these honorable and virtuous purifiers and reformers;
with them, perhaps others whose frauds were no less wicked and criminal;
but in business transactions, and not in political affairs. One of the
Executive Committee had served his term of two years in the Ohio State
Prison for forgery; here in San Francisco he had, during two city
elections, been the trusted agent and disburser of a very heavy sack in
the honest endeavor to secure the nomination, and promote the election,
of his principal to high office, yet this pure man was honored by his
associates of the Committee, and became singularly active in pressing
the expatriation of some of the very "ruffians and ballot-box-stuffers"
he had patronized and paid. He had learned that "dead men told no
tales." This pure-character did not stand alone in his experience of
penal servitude, as birds of a feather, and he was under no necessity of
examplifying Lord Dundreary's bird, to go into a corner and flock by
himself. That some turbulent offenders, and largely too many of them,
defied the law, is likewise true. But that they were countenanced or
favored by the Judges, is utterly without truthful foundation. And it is
remarkable that, of all the men hanged or expatriated by the Committee,
only two had ever been complained of or arraigned before the Courts for
any crime of violence; not one of them all had been here accused or
suspected of theft or robbery, or other felony. This is more, as I have
just above stated, than can be said of some of the forty-one members of
the Executive Committee. And among the members of the rank and file of
the five thousand or six thousand enrolled upon the lists of the
Committee - of natives and English-speaking citizens or residents - there
were scores of scoundrels of every degree, bogus gold-dust
operators, swindlers and fugitives from justice. Of the members of other
nationalities - some of whom had not been in the country long enough to
acquire English - I have no occasion to pass remark; but the fear of
communism and disturbance, from the increase of its incendiary votaries
in our country, east and here, cannot be lessened or composed by the
recollection of the conduct of many of the same nationalities who then
swelled the ranks of the Committee troops.

Chapter II.

Saturday Nov. 19, 1855, between 5 and 6 o'clock, the community was
startled by the report that General Richardson, United States Marshal,
had been shot dead by a gambler. The shooting occurred on the south side
of Clay street, about midway between Montgomery and Leidesdorff streets.
The fatal shot was fired from a deringer pistol by Charles Cora. Cora
was a gambler, yet he did not look the character. He was a low-sized,
well-formed man; dressed in genteel manner, without display of jewelry
or loudness; was reserved and quiet in his demeanor; and his manners and
conversation were those of a refined gentleman. I first saw him at the
Blue Wing, a popular rendezvous for politicians, on Montgomery street,
east side, between Clay and Commercial streets, and my impression then
was that he was a lawyer or a well-to-do merchant. General Richardson
was a morose and at times a very disagreeable man. He was of low
stature, thick set, dark complexion, black hair, and usually wore a
bull-dog look. He was known by his intimate friends to be a dangerous
man as a foe, and he always went armed with a pair of deringers. The
Thursday night prior to the shooting General Richardson and Col. Jo. C.
McKibben, afterwards member of Congress, were at the Blue Wing in
company. After midnight Richardson went out for a moment on the
sidewalk. A man passed him, made a jocular remark and entered the
saloon. Richardson followed him in, and asked of Perkins his name. He
had been drinking heavily. McKibben prevailed upon him to start for his
home. It was on Minna street, near Fred Woodworth's, just above Jessie
street. Jo. accompanied him most of the way. Richardson spoke to him of
an "insult" he had received from "that fellow Carter" - as he seemed to
think the name to be - and declared his purpose to make him answer for
it. McKibben knew Cora, and that Cora was the man to whom Richardson
referred; but he likewise knew enough of Richardson to not correct him,
and let him believe that "Carter" was the name, in the hope that, in his
condition, he would either not think of the occurrence the next day, or
would not be able to recognize Cora if he did. The following Saturday
afternoon a party of us - Jo. McKibben, John Monroe, Clerk of Judge
Hoffman's Court, E. V. Joice, Pen. Johnston, Josh Haven and myself were
in the Court Exchange, corner of Battery and Washington streets.
Richardson came in while we were there, and was in drinking humor. He
became sullen and, as we all knew his nature, it was quietly agreed
among ourselves that we would leave and try to get him away. He was
devoted to his wife, whom he married in San Francisco. McKibben and
myself accompanied him on his way home, as far as the old Oriental
Hotel, within a few blocks of his residence. There he insisted on a
"last drink," and we left him - he to go straight home. It turned out
that he did not. He brooded over the "insult" of Carter, as he still
called him, and made his way to the Blue Wing to find him, Unfortunately
he found Cora there. He called him out, and, as one man wilt lead
another by his side, walked with him around the corner into Clay street,
halting just in front of the store of a French firm - I do not remember
the name - and so managed as to put Cora on the iron grating, of the
sidewalk inside, with his back to the brick wall of the store. Cora had
not the slightest idea that Richardson had taken offence at his remark
on Thursday night - for it was in no light offensive or insulting but
simply a bit of ordinary pleasantry, and therefore, he was not aware of
Richardson's object in asking him to come out from the saloon. But many
of Richardson's intimate friends, who felt his death keenly, and were at
that time disposed to the extreme penalty of the law upon the man who
shot him, after due reflection and deliberation came to the conclusion,
that under the circumstances, standing as he was placed before
Richardson, who stood with his hands in his pockets, and a deringer in
each pocket, pressing his demand on Cora, the latter had one of two
things to do: either to kill Richardson or allow Richardson to kill him.

There were not many on Clay street, near the fatal scene, at that hour,
but the discharge of Cora's pistol soon brought several to the spot.
Richardson's body was carried through the side-door entrance on Clay
street, into the drug store then on that corner of Montgomery street,
and there hundreds viewed it. Cora was taken in charge. Dave Scannell
was Sheriff. That excitement over, the feeling increased every hour, and
many urged the summary hanging of Cora. Scannell had duly prepared for
all this, and order was preserved, although several hundred men formed
in line and proceeded to the County Jail to force their way in, seize
Cora and hang him forthwith. Sunday morning the excitement had
diminished in spirit of violence, but had increased in volume and
disposition to bring Cora to justice. Eminent lawyers, the personal
friends of Richardson, had already volunteered to assist in the
prosecution of the man who shot him. The application of Cora's friends
to several of the most noted criminal lawyers in the city, to defend
him, was in many instances declined. Cora had one to his support,
however, who proved more successful in engaging counsel in his behalf.
This was the woman known as Belle Cora, the keeper of a notorious house,
with whom Cora lived. She was rich and possessed of indomitable spirit.
She was devoted to Cora. In this connection I will relate that which
Governor Foote imparted to myself and J. Ross Browne, on a trip to
Oregon, late in the summer of 1857. It was substantially this. Belle
Cora had gone herself to the law office of Colonel E. D. Baker, to
engage him as counsel for Cora, and had succeeded. The fee was to be
$5,000; one-half this sum was immediately paid to him. She then applied
to Governor Foote to engage him to assist in the case: He declined, but
assured her that he should not appear for the prosecution. In a few
days, on account of the intense popular feeling toward Cora, and also
because the law partner of Colonel Baker had strenuously objected to his
acting as counsel for Cora, as it would greatly damage their
professional business the community, Baker and their personal standing
in called upon Governor Foote and requested him to see Belle Cora and
apprise her that she must employ some other counsel; that he felt that
he must withdraw from the case - the $2,500 already paid would be
returned to her. To extricate his professional brother from his
unpleasant situation, Governor Foote consented to undertake the
disagreeable mission. The woman was immovable in her determination to
keep Colonel Baker to his engagement. And she intimated in terms not to
be misunderstood that she was determined that he should fulfill his
obligation. Colonel Baker was a man of dauntless courage in facing dangers
of human quality; but he was in constant fear at sea; and it seems there
was another quality of peril which overmastered his intrepid spirit.
When Governor Foote related to him the result of his mission, he advised
the Colonel to see the woman himself. Colonel Baker did go, Governor
Foote accompanying him. The Governor said he had never witnessed such a
manifestation of a woman's power and irresistible influence. Belle Cora
was inspired to the height of heroism, in her devotion to Cora, her
purpose to secure his acquittal and prevent his sacrifice. She first
appealed, implored, begged Colonel Baker to stand by his engagement. He
making no response, and seeming not to yield, she commanded that he
must, that he should. She would double his fee. She would have him
appear as Cora's counsel, if he did no more than sit in Court with Cora
near him, and speak no word at all. But go in Court and have it known
that he was Cora's counsel, he must. She was inflexible in this. And
when the day of trial came Colonel Baker did appear, together with
General James A. McDougall, Colonel James and Frank Tilford - as counsel
for Charles Cora, and it was on that trial that he made the most
eloquent and extraordinary argument and plea of his life in a criminal
case. It was not a packed jury in Cora's case. Care had been taken to
empanel only good, respectable citizens, some of whom, a short time
afterward, became members of the Vigilance Committee, and in great or
less degree participated in the seizure of Cora from the county jail and
in his condemnation and execution. Three of the jury were prominent
Front street merchants. Notwithstanding all the feeling against Cora,
the popular unrelenting prejudice, and the great preponderance of the
foremost legal minds of the San Francisco Bar, to his prosecution, Alex.

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