California’s First Experiment without Police

Alcatraz Treasure by Nikkorz is licensed under Flickr CC BY 2.0
The temporary collapse of authority in many American cities, and the proposals of “defund the police” advocates to make that collapse permanent, has illustrated a timeless truth: When government authority dissolves, people will form their own armed enforcers of order. You will not get a peace-and-love utopia: You will instead get vigilante justice, posses, and lynchings. It will not be pretty; in Kenosha, Wis., it has already led to one well-publicized shooting. More force still will be needed to retake control. Come back with me to San Francisco in the 1850s to see how Americans learned this lesson once before.

San Francisco grew quickly from a late start. Europeans only reached the Bay Area in 1769, and the first permanent, civilian, non-Native American settlement dates only to 1835. The American conquest of California in 1847, and the gold rush in 1848-49, changed that in a heartbeat, turning a ramshackle town of 150 people in 1846 into a boomtown city of 25,000 in 1849, then 50,000 in 1853.

Some of the new San Franciscans came in search of a fresh start. Convicts and Irish rebels absconded there, sometimes under assumed names. In 1850, California began the first of many turns in its history against controversial immigrants, passing an Importation of Criminals Act targeting ship captains who smuggled in convicts without papers. The law’s chief target was Australia; its reputation as a penal colony preceded it, and not always unfairly. In February 1851, as highway robbery, violent gangs, and disorder proliferated, citizens formed the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, with the scheming ex-Mormon newspaperman Sam Brannan manipulating events to put himself at its head. The Committee’s ad hoc “trials” and public hangings, which helped popularize the term “vigilante,” prominently targeted known or suspected Australians. In May 1851, the city was further devastated by the latest in a series of fires; suspected arsonists were arrested, strengthening the hand of the Vigilance Committee.

To regain control from both the criminals and the vigilantes, the city’s conservative law-and-order elements turned to San Francisco’s first mayor, a towering 31-year-old Pennsylvanian named John W. Geary. Geary had fought in the Mexican War and served as military governor of Mexico City and was not a man to be trifled with. But he had a soft spot for the Irish rebels: The first to arrive, T. J. McManus, was greeted as a hero by Geary, Brannan, and Lieutenant Governor David Broderick upon his arrival in 1851.