Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1979


California History Foundation of the University of the Pacific


Although most Americans would probably spontaneously associate the word --vigilante·· with the wild west, cattle theives, range wars, and the like. the largest vigilante movement in American history was urban in location and commercial in character. In San Francisco in the summer of 1856, six thousand vigilantes, led by the city's mercantile upper crust, established a de facto government. Claiming that crime was too often unpunished and politics too often corrupt, the importers and wholesale merchants of San Francisco organized a private police force which hanged four men and forced another thirty or so to leave the city. (Contemporary San Franciscans would doubtless agree that this was heavy punishment indeed!) The businessmen claimed that they were reluctant vigilantes, public-minded citizens forced by crisis to step outside the letter of the law to preserve its spirit. "The voice of a whole people," stated the vigilantes in a public address, ·'demanded union and organization as the only means of making our laws effective. " 1

For about a century, most historians tended to accept the vigilantes' version of events. Recently, however, a series of investigations has cast serious doubt on the vigilante picture of gold rush San Francisco as a crime-ridden and corrupt city. It is now fairly clear that, in fact, there was no crime wave which forced supposedly virtuous citizens to resort to lynch law. Nor does it seem that the political life of the city was terribly corrupt and venal, even by nineteenth century standards. Current scholars are therefore casting about for alternative explanations of San Francisco vigilantism. There is little agreement among them. Roger Lotchin, for instance, attempts to preserve a variant of the '·public interest" interpretation. In his view, San Francisco vigilantism was an effort of the self-perceived "legitimates" to impose stability and order on the "colorful, lawless metropolis." Peter Decker takes a more group-oriented view. He maintains that the businessmen-vigilantes were attempting to "maintain if not regain, occupational status." Richard Maxwell Brown, the leading historian of American vigilantism, somewhat combines the two approaches by arguing that the vigilantes were interested in restoring "confidence in San Francisco's municipal and financial stability." 2But there has been as yet little systematic effort to relate the structure of the market in which San Francisco businessmen operated to the phenomenon of organized violence. In my view, this is unfortunate, for the vigilantes' actions are largely explainable by the terms of such an investigation.

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