Categories: Yesterday's Crimes

Yesterday’s Crimes: The Gruesome Tug-of-War for the Soul of San Francisco

Missed Part One? Head over here for the previous Yesterday’s Crimes on the beginnings of the first Vigilance Committee.
The vigilantes failed to hang two innocent men in February 1851. By June 1851, the mob of February was organized into the Committee for Vigilance with its own secret signals and motto: “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.” With the bloodthirsty Sam Brannan at the helm, there would no longer be any trials.
On June 11, Brannan and his vigilantes were set to hang John Jenkins from a flagpole in Portsmouth Square given to the city by the people of Portland, Ore. Unlike the men mistaken for English Jim earlier in the year, Jenkins was caught fleeing a robbery, so his guilt was not ambiguous. However, the vigilantes had opposition by this time.
State Senator David E. Broderick, who made his fortune by selling $10 gold coins containing $8 worth of gold, was shocked to find what San Francisco had become when he returned from Sacramento. He went to the scene of the impending execution flanked by a team of his loyal bodyguards. With the rope around Jenkins’ neck, Broderick and his men grabbed onto Jenkins to try and wrest him free while Brannan and his men pulled at the other end of the rope in a macabre tug-of-war.
Fighting for due process, Broderick’s men were soon joined by actual city police and some concerned Australians, but there were too many angry men on the other side.
“A long pull and a strong pull and a pull together,” Brannan shouted to encourage the vigilantes. “Let every honest citizen be a hangman at once!”
Brannan’s cheerleading did the trick, and the vigilantes were finally able to hoist Jenkins’ body from an old adobe building although he had probably been strangled to death during the struggle.
Jenkins’ body dangled over Portsmouth Square for several hours until 7 a.m. when it was cut down. His corpse was taken to “the dead house in City Hall yard” where it was put on further display and “seen by a large number of persons” according to the Alta California.
“Rarely have we seen a finer, more muscular frame than his,” the paper reported, describing Jenkins’ physique.
Even with Broderick’s often bare-knuckled opposition to mob rule, the Vigilance Committee took control of the city’s streets. Vigilante patrols turned away ships with immigrants they deemed to be undesirable. A Frenchman was stomped to death by a mob for speaking with a foreign accent. Buildings and ships were searched with scant provocation.
The patrols finally caught English Jim Stewart and managed to hang him from the mast of a ship in the harbor on July 11, 1851. While this seemed like a great victory for the vigilantes at the time, it also confirmed that they had tried to hang the wrong men in the first place. Attendance at Vigilance Committee meetings declined after that, and Brannan had trouble collecting membership dues. The group disbanded after just 100 days.
Dissolving due to lack of interest was hardly the kind of moral reawakening that Broderick had hoped for. He feared that vigilantism would return to San Francisco. When it did, it hit closer to home than even Broderick had predicted.
But a future Vigilance Committee would not have Sam Brannan to lead it. Mormon elder Parley P. Pratt arrived in San Francisco around July 1851 and was horrified by Brannan’s involvement with the vigilante movement.
Pratt disfellowshipped Brannan from the Mormon Church for “unChristian like conduct, neglect of duty, and for combining with lawless assemblies that commit murder and other crimes.” Pratt later called Brannan “a corrupt and wicked man.”
Brannan founded the town of Calistoga in 1861 and hoped to make its hot springs into the tourist attraction they would eventually become. He failed at this however, and was even shot at by townspeople angered over his attempt at gentrification. He later moved to Mexico, battled alcoholism, and died penniless in Escondido, Calif. on May 5, 1889.
Bob Calhoun

Nuala Sawyer is the News Editor at SF Weekly. You can reach her at (415)-359-2644 or nsawyer@sfweekly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @TheBestNuala.

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