Committee of Vigilance Established in Wild West

On May 15, 1856, residents of San Francisco organized a Committee of Vigilance to combat crime in their rapidly growing town.

Like other gold rush boomtowns, San Francisco's population explosion raised crime levels and left residents feeling insecure. Although the Committee of Vigilance turned alleged criminals over to law enforcement officials, it is known to have taken matters into its own hands more than once.

Led by Republican businessmen, the eight-thousand-member committee attempted to clean up politics as well as the streets. Perhaps coincidentally, targets of these rehabilitation efforts tended to be Democrats.

The San Francisco Vigilance Movement consists of two popular ad hoc organizations formed during the Gold Rush period in 1851 and 1856. Their purpose was to rein in rampant crime and government corruption. They were the first and among the most successful organizations in the vigilante tradition of the American Old West.

The Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851, and revived in 1856. These militias hanged 8 people, and forced several elected officials to resign. Each Committee of Vigilance formally relinquished power after three months.

My arrangements to leave were all made, and I lay down on the bed, awaiting the arrival of my friends. Presently they came, four in number. I immediately put on a covered California hat, and accompanied them into the street, and high time it was that I did so. The bloodhounds had struck the scent, and were on my track. As I afterward learned, fifteen minutes after I left, the neighborhood was surrounded, and some ten or fifteen braves entered and searched the premises. They were armed with sabers and pistols, and ransacked every hole, nook, and corner, making a terrible to-do and clatter among pots, pans, and kettles, but the bird had flown.”

— Narrative of Edward McGowan, Part 1, 25, 26.