The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
This execution occasioned a great storm of indignation among the adherents of law and order. Serious-minded men, like Judge Shattuck, admitted the essential justice rendered, but condemned strongly the method.
"Of course they were murderers," cried the judge, "and of course they should have been hung, and of course the city is better off without either of them. I'm not afraid of their friends, and I don't care who knows what I think! And some very worthy citizens, wrongly, are involved in this, some citizens whom otherwise I greatly respect. It is better that a hundred criminals should escape than that the whole law of California should be outraged by an act that denies at once the value and the authority of our government. The energy, the talent for organization, that this committee has displayed in the exercise of usurped authority, might have been directed in aid of the courts, consistently with the constitution and the laws, with, equal if not greater efficiency."
But very few were able to see it in this calm spirit. The ruling class, the "chivalry," the best element of the city had been slapped in the face. And by whom? By a lot of "Yankee shopkeepers," assisted by renegades like Keith, Talbot Ward, and others. The committee was a lot of stranglers; they ought to be punished as murderers; they ought to be shot down, egad, as revolutionaries! It was realized that street shooting had temporarily become unsafe; otherwise, there is no doubt that the hotheads would have gone forth deliberately abrawling. There were many threats made against individuals, many condign--and lawless--punishments promised them.
As an undercurrent, nowhere expressed or even acknowledged, was a strong feeling of relief. Any Law and Order would have fought at the mere suggestion; but every one of them felt it. After all, the law had been surprised and overpowered. It had yielded only to overwhelming odds. With the execution of Cora and Casey accomplished, the committee might be expected to disband. And, of course, when it did disband, then the law would have its innings. Its forces would be better organized and consolidated, its power assured. It could then apprehend and bring to justice the ringleaders of this unwarranted undertaking. Like dogs at the heels of a retreating foe, the hotheads became bolder as this secret conviction gained strength. They were in favour of using an armed force to take Coleman and his fellow-conspirators into the custody of the law. Calmer spirits held this scheme in check.
"Let them have rope," advised Blatchford. "I know mobs. Now that they've hung somebody, their spirit will die down. Give them a few days."
But to the surprise, and indignation of these people, the Vigilantes showed no of an intention to disband. On the contrary, their activities extended and their organization tightened. The various companies drilled daily until they went through evolutions and the manual of arms with all the perfection of regular troops. The committee's books remained open; by the last of the week over seven thousand men had signed the rolls. Vanloads of furniture and various supplies were backed up before the doors of headquarters, and were carried within by members of the organization--no non-member ever saw the inside of the building while it was occupied by the Vigilantes. The character of these furnishings and supplies would seem to argue an intention of permanence. Stoves, cooking utensils, cot beds, provisions, blankets, bulletin boards, arms, chairs, tables, field guns, ammunition, were only some items. Doorkeepers were always in attendance. Sentinels patrolled the streets and the roof. The great warehouse took on an exceedingly animated appearance.
The Executive Committee was in session all of each day. It became known that a "black list" of some sort was in preparation. On the heels of this orders came for the Vigilante police, instructing them to arrest certain men and to warn certain others to leave town immediately. It was evident that a clean sweep was contemplated.
Among the first of those arrested was the notorious Yankee Sullivan, an ex- prize fighter, ward heeler, ballot-box staffer, and shoulder striker. He had always been a pillar of strength to those engaged in corrupt practices. This man went to pieces completely. He confessed the details of many of his own crimes but, what was more important, implicated many others as well. His testimony was invaluable, not necessarily as final proof against those whom he accused, but as indications for thorough investigations. Finally, unexpectedly, he committed suicide in his cell. It seems he had been accustomed to from sixty to eighty drinks of whiskey a day, and the sudden, complete deprivation had destroyed him. Warned by this, the committee henceforward issued regular rations of whiskey to its prisoners!
Trials in due order, with counsel for defence and ample opportunity to call witnesses, went on briskly. Those who anticipated more hangings were disappointed. It became known that the committee had set for itself the rule that capital punishment would be inflicted only for crimes so punishable by the regular law. But each outgoing ship carried crowds of those on whom had been passed the sentence of banishment. The majority of these were, of course, low thugs, "Sydney ducks," hangers on; but a very large proportion were taken from what had been known as the city's best. In the law courts these men would in many cases have been declared as white as the driven snow. But they were undesirable citizens; the committee so decided them; and bade them begone. Charles Duane, Wooley Kearney, William Carr, Edward Bulger, Philander Brace, William McLean, J.D. Musgrave, and Peter Wightman were well-known and influential names found on the "black list," Peter Wightman, James White, and our old friend, Ned McGowan, ran away. Hundreds of others left the city. A terror spread among the ignorant and vicious of the underworld. Some of the minor offenders brought in by the Vigilante police were by the Executive Committee turned over to the regular law courts. Every one of such cases was promptly convicted by those courts!
This did not look much like disbanding, nor did any opportunity for wholesale arrest of the anarchists seem imminent. The leaders of the Law and Order faction were at last aroused.
"This is more than anarchy; it is revolution," said Judge Caldwell. "It is a successful revolution because it is organized. The people of this city are scattered and powerless. They in turn should be organized to combat the forces of disorder."
In pursuance of this belief--that the public at large needed only to be called together in order to defend its institutions--handbills were printed and newspaper notices published calling a meeting for June and in Portsmouth Square. Elaborate secret preparations, involving certain distributions of armed men were made to prevent what was considered certain interference. This was useless. Immediately after the appearance of the notice the Committee of Vigilance issued orders that the meeting was in no manner to be disturbed, and hung out placards reading:
"Members of the Vigilance Committee: Order must be maintained."
"Friends of the Vigilance Committee: Keep out of the Square," etc.
The meeting was well attended. Enormous crowds gathered, not only in and around the square itself, but in balconies and windows and on housetops. It was a ribald, disrespectful crowd, evidently out for a good time, calling back and forth, shouting question or comment at the men gathered about the speaker's platform.
"What kind of a circus do you call this show, anyway?" roared a huge, bare- armed miner in red shirt.
"This is the Law and Murder meeting," instantly answered some one from a balcony.
This phrase tickled the crowd hugely. The words were passed from man to man. Eventually they became the stereotyped retort. "Stranglers!" sneered one faction. "Law and Murder!" flung back the other.
On the platform stood or sat the owners of many of the city's proud names-- judges, jurists, merchants, holders of high political office, men whose influence a month ago had been paramount and irresistible. Among them were famed orators, men who had never failed to hold and influence a crowd. But two hundred feet away little could be heard. It early became evident that, though there would be no interference, the sentiment of the crowd was against them. And, what was particularly maddening, the sentiment was good- humoured. Even the compliment of being taken seriously was denied them!
Colonel Ed Baker came forward to speak. The colonel's gift of eloquence was such that, in spite of his known principles, his lack of scruple, his insincerity, he won his way to a picturesque popularity and fame. Later he delivered a funeral oration over the remains of David Broderick that has gone far to invest the memory of that hard-headed, venal, unscrupulous politician with an aura of romance. But the crowd would have little of him this day. An almost continuous uproar drowned his efforts. Catch words such as liberty, constitution, habeas corpus, trial by jury, freedom, etc., occasionally became audible. The people were not interested.
"See Cora's defender!" cried someone, voicing the general suspicion that Baker had been one of the little gambler's hidden counsel. "Cora!" "Ed Baker!" "Ten thousand dollars!" "Out of that, you old reprobate!" jeered the audience. He spoke ten minutes against the storm, then yielded, red faced and angry. Others tried in vain. A Southerner named Benham, while deploring passionately the condition of the city which had been seized by a mob, robbed of its sacred rights, etc., happened inadvertently to throw back his coat, thus revealing the butt of a Colt's revolver. The bystanders caught the point at once.
"There's a pretty Law and Order man!" they shrieked. "Hey, Benham! Don't you know it's against the law to go armed?"
"I carry this weapon," shrieked Benham, passionately shaking his fist, "not as an instrument to overthrow the law, but to uphold it!"
A clear, steady voice from a nearby balcony made itself distinctly heard:
"In other words, sir, you break the law in order to uphold the law," it said. "What more are the Vigilantes doing?"
The crowd went wild over this repartee. The confusion became worse. Old Judge Campbell was thrust forward, in the hope that his age and his senior judgeship would command respect. He was unable to utter consecutive sentences.
"I once thought," he interrupted himself piteously, "that I was the free citizen of a free country, but recent occurrences have convinced me that I am a slave; a slave, gentlemen, more a slave than any on a Southern plantation for they know their masters, but I know not mine!"
But his auditors refused to be affected.
"Oh, yes, you do!" they informed him. "You know your masters as well as anybody--two of them were hung the other day!"
After this the meeting broke up. The most ardent Law and Order man could not deny that as a popular demonstration it had been a fizzle.
But if this attempt at home to gain coherence failed, up river the partisans had better luck. A hasty messenger with tidings for the ear of the Executive Committee only was followed by rapidly spreading rumours. Five hundred men with two pieces of artillery were coming down from Sacramento to liberate the prisoners, especially Billy Mulligan, or die in the attempt. They were reported to be men from the southeast: Texans, Carolinians, crackers from Pike County, all fire-eaters, reckless, sure to make trouble. Their numbers were not in themselves formidable, but every man knew the city still to be full of scattered warriors needing only leaders and a rallying point. The materials for a very pretty civil war were laid for the match. An uneasiness pervaded headquarters, not for the outcome, but for the unavoidable fighting and bloodshed.
Therefore, when Olney hastily entered the main hall early in the evening, and in a loud voice called for "two hundred men with side arms for especial duty," there was a veritable scramble to enlist. Olney picked out the required number, selecting, it was afterward noticed, only the big men physically. They fell in, and were marched quickly out Market Street. It was dark. Expectations were high. Just beyond Second Street, dimly visible against the sky or in the faint starlight, they saw a mysterious force opposing them, men on foot, horses, the wheels of guns. Each man gripped his revolver and set his teeth. Here, evidently, from this ordinarily deserted and distant part of town, a flanking attack was to have been delivered. As they drew nearer they made out wagons; and nearer still-bale upon bale of gunny sacks, and shovels!
The truth dawned on them, and a great laugh went up. "Sold! Sold! Sold!" they cried.
But they set to work with a will, filled the gunny sacks with sand, piled them on the wagons; and so by morning Fort Gunnybags, as headquarters was thenceforth called, came into existence. Cannon were mounted, breastworks piled, embrasures planned.
The five hundred fire-eaters were no myth. They disembarked, greeted the horde of friends who had come to meet them, marched to Fort Gunnybags, looked it over, thrust their hands in their pockets, and walked peacefully away to the nearest barrooms!
Wise men. By now the Vigilante dispositions were so complete that in the mere interest of examining so sudden yet so thorough an organization, a paragraph or so may profitably be spent on it. Behind headquarters was a long shed stable in which were to be found at all hours saddle horses and artillery horses, all saddled and bridled, ready for instant use. Twenty- six pieces of artillery, mostly sent in by captains of merchant vessels in the harbour, were here parked. Other cannon were mounted for the defence of Fort Gunnybags. Muskets, rifles, and sabres enough to arm 6,000 men had been accumulated--and there were 6,000 men to use them! A French portable barricade had been constructed in the event of possible street fighting, a sort of wheeled framework that could be transformed into litters or scaling ladders. Sutlers' offices and kitchens could feed a small army. Flags and painted signs carrying the emblematic open eye of vigilance decorated the rooms, A huge alarm bell had been mounted on the roof. The mattresses, beds, cots, blankets, and other furniture necessary to sleep four companies on the premises had been provided. A completely equipped armourer's shop and a hospital with all supplies occupied the third story. The forces were divided into four companies of artillery, one squadron and two troops of cavalry, four regiments, and thirty-two companies of infantry; besides the small but efficient police organization. A tap on the bell gathered these men in an incredibly short space of time. "As a rule," says Bancroft, "within fifteen minutes from the time the bell was tapped, on any occasion, seven-tenths of the entire Vigilante forces would be in their places armed ready for battle."
Another corps, not as heroic, but quite as necessary, it was found advisable to appoint. The sacking of which Fort Gunnybags was made was of very coarse texture. When dry, the sand filling tended to run out! Therefore, those bags had to be kept constantly wet, and somebody had to do it. Enemies sneeringly remarked that Fort Gunnybags consumed much more water without than within; but this joke lost its point when it became known that the committee, decades in advance of its period, had prohibited alcohol absolutely!
Realizing from the two lamentable fiascos just recounted that little could be accomplished by private initiative, the upholders of the law turned their attention to Sacramento. Here they had every reason to hope for success. No matter how well organized the Vigilantes might be, or how thoroughly they carried the sympathies of the local public, there could be no doubt that they were acting in defiance of the law, were, in fact, no better than rebels. It was not only within the power, it was the duty of the governor of the State to declare the city in a condition of insurrection.
This being accomplished, it followed logically that the State troops must put down the insurrection; and if they failed, there was still the immense power of the republic to call upon. After all, when you look at it that way, this handful of disturbers amounted to very little.
The first step was to win over the governor. Without him the next step could not be taken. Accordingly all the big guns of San Francisco took the Senator for Sacramento. There they met Terry, Volney Howard, and others of the same ilk. No governor of Johnson's sort could long withstand such pressure. He promised to issue the proclamation of insurrection as soon as it was "legally proved" that the committee had acted outside the law. The mere fact that it had already hanged two men and deported a great number of others meant nothing. That, apparently, was not legal proof.
In order that all things should be legal, then, Terry issued a writ of habeas corpus for the body of one William Mulligan, and gave it into the hands of Deputy-sheriff Harrison for service on the committee. Nobody expected the latter to deliver over Mulligan.
"But they'll deny the writ," said Terry, "and that will constitute a legal defiance of the State. The governor will then be legally justified in issuing his proclamation, and ordering out the State troops to enforce the writ."
If the State troops proved inadequate, the plan was then to call on the United States--as locally represented by General Wool and Captain David Farragut--for assistance. With this armed backing three times the Vigilante force could be quickly subdued. As it was all legal, it could not fail.
Harrison took the writ of habeas corpus and proceeded to San Francisco. He presented himself at headquarters, produced his writ, and had himself announced to the Executive Committee then in session.
"Tell him to go to hell!" growled someone.
But a half-dozen members saw through the ruse, and interposed vigorous objections.
"I move," said Dempster solemnly, "that our police be permitted to remove all prisoners for a few hours."
This was carried, and put into immediate effect. Deputy Harrison was then politely received, his writ fully acknowledged, and he was allowed to search the premises. Of course he found nothing, and departed much crestfallen. The scheme had failed. The committee had in no way denied his authority or his writ. Harrison was no fool. He saw clearly what he had been expected to do. On his way back to Sacramento he did some thinking. To Terry he unblushingly returned the writ endorsed: "Prevented from service by armed men." For the sake of the cause Harrison had lied!
Johnson immediately issued his proclamation. The leaders turned with confidence to the Federal authorities for assistance. To their blank dismay General Wool refused to furnish arms. His position was that he had no authority to do so without orders from Washington. The sympathies of this doughty old soldier were not with this attempt. Colonel Baker and Volney Howard waited on him, and after considerable conversation made the mistake of threatening to report him to Washington for refusing to uphold the law.
"I think, gentlemen," flashed back the veteran, "I know my duty, and in its performance dread no responsibility."
So saying he bowed them from the room. Farragut equally could not clearly see why he should train the guns of his ship on the city. With this fiasco the opposition for the moment died. The Executive Committee went on patiently working down through its black list. It announced that after June 24th no new cases would be taken, A few days later it proclaimed an "adjournment parade" on July 5th. It considered its work done. The city had become safe.