San Francisco Vigilantes

Portsmouth Plaza SF 1850

San Francisco became the cultural and literary center of California early in the Gold Rush. From a miserable village of  adobe huts in 1845, three years before the gold discovery, the city swelled to nearly 40,000 inhabitants by 1850, boasting schools, churches, theaters, a public library, and a harbor filled with ships from all over the globe.  The city also had uncomfortable and unsavory aspects. Rents and real estate values skyrocketed. Commodity prices fluctuated wildly.  No one knew how many saloons, brothels, and gambling dens nested in its streets—but all knew that a notorious few streets called Sydney Town offered asylum to lawless elements of all kinds. To combat rising crime and corrupt politicians, the first Vigilance Committee, composed of prominent citizens of recognized integrity, was formed in 1851. The Committee set up a formal court and made arrests, hanging four and banishing 28. Hundreds of other criminals fled the city. A “safe” environment lasted until 1856, when reputable citizens were again forced to organize their own system of law enforcement, in a resurrected Vigilance movement that once again threatened the authority of California’s state government.


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