Vigilante Justice

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Jan 23, 2013 | By Maryam Shamlou

Today's San Francisco is tame, at least historically speaking.

Birthed in the aftermath of floods of new settlers infected with gold fever surrounding the 1849 Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast, as it was known, was the city’s center for vice and debauchery; the stomping grounds of the low and the vile. It was in this time and place when the art of shanghaiing was perfected, barkeeps used live bears as gimmicks, and an argument was settled with a duel.

Gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes, and thieves roamed the streets, imposing their will with impunity.

It was also during this time that the city saw the emergence of the San Francisco Vigilance Movement. In an effort to eradicate the mayhem and lawlessness of the Barbary Coast, its proprietors, and its patrons, the Vigilance Movement recruited roughly 700 members in 1851 to do the jobs they found government and law enforcement unable to carry out. Jobs that included public executions. 

On their renegade mission, the vigilantes policed and patrolled to capture dirty crooks and oust dirty politicians. They captured suspects, interrogated and incarcerated them on their own terms. The vigilantes' efforts led to the execution of four criminals, as well as the deportation and incarceration of several others.

The vigilantes' persistence and efficacy strengthened their influence. By their last year of underground operation in 1856, their movement boasted 6,000 members. With the movement disbanded, former members were absorbed into the Republican Party.

Photo credit: cover photo by Flickr user Rob Kroenert.