Yesterday’s Crimes: Fires + Fake News = Vigilantes

Anti-immigrant paranoia stoked by bad reporting created a vigilante movement in early San Francisco.

Seal of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, 1851

In 1850, San Francisco was built on wooden tobacco crates and lit by oil lamps. Not surprisingly, things burned down — a lot. But instead of seeking rational explanations, the city’s newspaper of record drummed up anti-immigrant conspiracy theories.

“It is a well-known fact that some of the most desperate scoundrels of England who have been serving the Queen in Sydney are in this city, and would stick at nothing in the attempt to obtain money by any diabolical crime,” The Daily Alta California decried in a Jan. 24, 1850 article blaming Australians for an alleged wave of “incendiarism,” or arson, that was blazing through the city. Yes. Aussies.

The Alta California continued to hammer on “the transported felons of Great Britain” for over a year. A Feb. 25, 1851 editorial warned, “Our citizens are at their mercy, and their mercy is such as the wolf gives the lamb.”

White American xenophobia went beyond the perceived racial lines of today, and extended to white people from anywhere but what was then the continental United States. Making the reporting of the time more confusing, the phrase “Native Americans” referred to white people from the East Coast and not the Ohlone or Miwok who were here first. Australians were often called English or British.

Even though only a few Australian immigrants coming to California were convicts from the Botany Bay penal colony, the dime store novels that passed for newspapers back then reported the Aussies had formed a secret society of thugs called the Sydney Ducks. In addition to almost every murder and robbery in Northern California, San Franciscans were led to believe the Sydney Ducks burned down buildings in order to loot the charred wreckage.

While this seems like a hard way to rob someone, American citizens who had only been in California for a year or two were moved to combat this foreign secret society that didn’t quite exist by forming an order of their own.

After the beating and robbery of Charles J. Jansen in his Montgomery Street store on Feb. 19, 1851, an angry mob of thousands assembled at the plaza in front of city hall. Police had two Australian men in custody that kind of met the description of the suspect in the case – an escaped convict called “English” Jim Stuart who killed the Sherriff of Auburn. The problem was, neither of these men were English Jim. Both of them were also totally innocent.

Sam Brannan, a Mormon elder who collected tithe money from Mormon miners without ever passing it along to his church, addressed the mob. Still pissed off about the light sentences handed out to the Hounds, Brannan didn’t care about the guilt or innocence of the accused in this case. Brannan reasoned that even if these Aussies didn’t rob Jansen, they had to be guilty of something.

“I am very much surprised to hear people talk about grand juries, or recorders, or mayors,” Brannan said. “I am tired of such talk. These men are murderers, I say, as well as thieves. I know it and I will die or see them hung by the neck.”

“I want no technicalities,” he added, calling for execution without a trial. “Such things are devised to shield the guilty.”

William Tell Coleman, a distant relative of George Washington blessed with the handsomeness of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans, managed to calm the crowd down from performing instant executions. He was still a-okay with doing away with the due process just as long as everyone was dignified and organized about it.

The resulting kangaroo court still ended up with a hung jury even without the meddlesome interference of defense attorneys. Enraged over so many jurors voting for acquittal, the mob bum-rushed the courthouse to get the prisoners.

“Benches, desks and railings were broken to pieces,” the Alta California reported.  “The prisoners would certainly have been taken from the room had not the company of Washington Guards, who had been parading during the day, rushed in with fixed bayonets, and mounting the desks and benches drove the people away.”

The two innocent men were left in the custody of the official city jail, and eventually set free. The vigilantes were denied this time, but they would be back.

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