Truckee Vigilantes: Origins of Extrajudicial Violence in the West, Part I

1856 Vigilante hanging in San Francisco. | Courtesy Harper’s Illustrated

 

In the second half of the 19th Century, the rough and tumble town of Truckee endured many years of shootouts, bar brawls and frequent street fights. The violence that marred Truckee’s reputation in its earliest decades required lawmen with nerves of steel and strong will. Men like that were hard to come by, but early Truckee residents were protected by some of the best in the West.

Read Part II , III , & IV  | Truckee Vigilantes: Origins of the 601 Movement.

The list of Truckee’s earliest constables includes such luminaries as Steven Venard, Jacob Teeter, Jake Cross and James Reed. These men were dedicated to duty and often went beyond the call to safeguard the Truckee community against criminal violence. But Truckee was an active railroad town and often overrun by swarms of transient hobos, pickpockets and thugs, along with unsavory men and loose women prone to drinking alcohol and dangerous behavior.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Truckee’s saloons, dance halls and back alleys were rife with itinerant toughs and hoodlums. The leading townsmen felt compelled to organize a vigilance committee, an extrajudicial organization that deployed its own brand of violent enforcement to protect residents and businesses. Vigilante comes from the Spanish word for watchman or guard. It was later appropriated as taking the law into your own hands. Vigilante committees were common throughout the West during the gold rush and for decades after, a time when weak government institutions and ineffective law enforcement struggled to deal with rampant criminality.

 

Truckee’s vigilante movement became legendary in California due to its ruthless effectiveness, especially when it was later tragically used on peaceful local Chinese immigrants, but it wasn’t the first place in the West to form one. In March 1836, 30-year-old Jose Domingo Feliz, a scion of one of Southern California’s wealthiest Spanish-descent families, was murdered in the small Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles. Feliz’s wife, Maria del Rosario Villa, and her paramour, Gervasio Alipas, were accused of the crime. Alipas was caught, shackled and locked up in the town’s adobe-walled jail. Maria holed up in a nearby building. When the local mayor decided against action to punish Maria, a group of vigilantes broke into where she was seeking protection and removed her.

Next, the lynch mob went for Gervasio and extracted him from prison. The doomed man smiled and told his abductors, “You did well not to delay.” The vigilantes had arrived just in time because Alipas had nearly cut through his iron manacles with a smuggled file. The posse took both Maria and Gervasio, stood them up against the hill behind the town’s only church and shot them dead. Their bullet-riddled bodies were carried to the jail and displayed on the ground in front as a bloody warning.

There were two successful, large-scale vigilante operations conducted in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. A vigilance committee was first formed in San Francisco in 1851 by the town’s leading businessmen and frustrated residents to fight back against rampant crime and frequent destructive fires started by arsonists. Many of San Francisco’s law enforcement officers were corrupt and the city’s courts and justice system was rotten to the core. Criminal gangs dominated the rapidly growing town’s waterfront district, its saloons, gambling dens and houses of prostitution. San Francisco’s thriving business community was forced to pay protection money under threat of violence or intentional fire.

After the discovery of gold in 1848, San Francisco’s waterfront, now known as the Embarcadero, up through today’s North Beach and onto the slopes of Telegraph Hill, attracted some of the world’s worst human riffraff and miscreants. The quarter was known as the Barbary Coast for its concentration of underworld culture focused on cheap lodging houses for sailors, hustlers and flimflam men, decrepit groggeries and seedy dance halls where customers were hustled by prostitutes of all nationalities. Unsuspecting sailors and miners were often entrapped by thieves in these dens of iniquity that provided tainted liquor or drugged them, after which the victims were robbed and often shanghaied — dumped onboard a merchant marine ship and forced to work for months or years before returning to the United States.

Dominant among this disparate collection of rogues and degenerates were the so-called Sydney Ducks, convicts who shipped in from the British penal colony at Sydney, Australia. Prison officials there sent their worst to San Francisco thereby getting rid of them once and for all. Other lawbreakers in the British colony were issued one-way tickets to the City by the Bay. Once they established a syndicate of organized crime, the denizens of San Francisco’s Sydney-Town bribed unscrupulous city officials and politicians for protection from prosecution. Robberies, assaults and other crimes were so numerous that no effort was ever made to tally them up. The city and business district were nearly destroyed by calamitous fires multiple times between December 1849 and June 1851. Investigations indicated that at least four of the conflagrations were started by Australian gang leaders Jack Edwards and Ben Lewis, but after they were arrested and brought to trial, they were promptly released by a paid-off judge. At one point more than 100 murders were committed in the space of a few months, yet not one criminal was executed for the capital crimes. San Francisco teetered on anarchy and it was into this breach that the first vigilance committee asserted itself.

Nearly 700 men signed up as members of the 1851 Committee, all swearing to uphold the “maintenance of the peace and good order of society” and that “no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin shall escape punishment.” Bands of armed vigilantes scoured San Francisco rounding up, interrogating and incarcerating suspects. Nearly 30 were ordered out of the city, including 14 Ducks that were deported back to Australia. A $5,000 reward was offered for anyone found guilty of arson and committee members patrolled the streets at night. Four men were hanged and one whipped. When police tried to protect two of the men the cops had in custody, committee members stormed the jail. Relative peace returned to San Francisco and the committee dissolved itself just four months after forming. But five years later in 1856, the residents of San Francisco would again rise up against crime and corruption, this time with such force that the movement changed the entrenched political power structure in the city.

Stay tuned for Part II in the next issue and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.