San Francisco’s Gold Rush – A Shining Example of Private Justice

vigilance committee

It is generally regarded that justice and security must be produced by the government with funds collected via taxation. During the gold rush in the early years of San Francisco, the inverse was actually more accurate. Not only did the government fail to provide an adequate level of safety, but public officials were commonly involved in criminal activity themselves.

During the gold rush, San Francisco’s population exploded from less than 100 in 1844 to over 20,000 within 5 years. The San Francisco Police Department was not founded until nearly 1850, and even then it was generally not a force which facilitated justice or order. Soule, Gihon, and Nisbet wrote in The Annals of San Francisco, “The [public] police were few in number and poorly, as well as irregularly paid. Some of them were in league with the criminals themselves, and assisted these at all times to elude justice.” Albert Russailh described the situation similarly writing in 1851, “The police force is largely made of ex-bandits, and naturally the members are interested above all in saving their old friends from punishment. Policemen here are quite as much to be feared as the robbers; if they know you have money, they will be the first to knock you on the head. You pay them to watch over your house, and they set it on fire.”

By 1849 criminals and gangs had become a severe problem. From The Annals of SF, “They invaded the stores, taverns, and houses of Americans themselves, and rudely demanded whatever they desired. They could not be refused, for their numbers were so great, while they were well armed, that nobody durst resist them.” The citizens of San Francisco, faced with a serious crime problem and a dysfunctional and corrupt government, needed to pursue an alternative means for the production of security. A system of private police was created. Business owners and neighborhoods hired men to patrol the streets and to ensure the safety of patrons. A form of the Patrol Special Police still operates today, though they are now sanctioned and regulated by the government.

Along with these patrols, private citizens held their own trials. In 1849 groups of citizens lead by notable merchants and businessmen captured a number of gang members. The suspects were given “all the usual forms of common law procedure” according to Theodore Hittel in History of California. In 1851 a committee of vigilance held their own trials which were separate from the sheriff’s authority. Over the span of 3 months, more than 90 arrests were made with varying verdicts.

vigilance committee
The Vigilance Committee meeting in 1856

These actions taken together proved to be successful in their goals. In 1853 Friedrich Gerstäcker remarked, “In consequence of our unwearied exertions, perfect peace and security exist now in San Francisco.” Writing of 1851 in the Annals of SF the authors commented that citizens, “could now lie down to rest at nights without feeling the old constant dread of having their houses robbed or burned before morning.”

The corruption of government officials had not been vanquished, however, and in the following years after the disbanding of the vigilance committee, private crime was also creeping back into San Francisco. Theodore Hittel wrote in A History of the City of San Francisco, “In fact, some of the boldest and most dangerous criminals in California were themselves, officials.” In 1855 a politician named Charles Cora shot and killed an unarmed man. Allegedly, Cora received numerous privileges during the trial which was orchestrated by a friendly political apparatus, including coached witnesses and blatant perjury. Predictably, Cora was released. A Vigilance Committee was again formed and they held their own full trial for Cora. The jury unanimously found him guilty of murder and he was hung. This committee continued dispensing justice for another 3 months, in opposition to both public and private criminals.

For some time, the city of San Francisco was at its most peaceful and orderly when the government’s monopoly on security and arbitration was challenged by competing forces.

You can read more from Andrew Kern On Think Liberty here.



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