During the second half of the 19th Century, there was a vigilante culture in western American towns and cities. When crime or corruption reached the point where it compromised the safety of a community, business leaders and angry residents organized vigilance committees to take back their neighborhoods. One vigilante movement erupted in San Francisco in 1851 in response to murder, mayhem and arson that nearly destroyed the city.
In 1856, violent crimes plus blatant and entrenched political corruption galvanized San Francisco residents to organize another Vigilance Committee. This time more than 5,000 men signed up. Four suspected murderers were executed in 1856, but one of the victims committed suicide after being terrorized and jailed. Unlike in 1851, this committee worked closely with the city government and California Governor J. Neely Johnson. This movement was so successful that political power in San Francisco transferred to the new People’s Party established by the Vigilance Committee, thus weakening the Democrat Party’s stranglehold on city politics and its judiciary. And once again, when crime fell dramatically the committee disbanded, also after just four months of assertive militancy.
The men in the 1856 San Francisco Vigilance Committee quickly returned to their normal daily business, but over subsequent decades similar resident-based groups were organized in towns throughout the West to bring prompt justice to violent criminals who often avoided punishment. Ineffective law enforcement and a lack of secure jails offered bad men a chance to escape, even for capital crimes.
In 1863, Aurora was a rich Nevada mining community east of the Sierra Nevada near the border of California and Nevada Territory. A dispute over mining rights broke out that year and a handful of ruffians were hired to settle the matter. After they resolved the quarrel, the shady characters remained in town and ran things as they liked through intimidation and brutality. On Feb. 1, 1864, four of the thugs murdered W. B. Johnson, a prominent citizen who lived on the Walker River. Johnson’s brazen killing shocked the community and a Citizen Safety Committee was quickly organized.
Meanwhile, a sheriff’s posse had captured the ruthless gang, arrested them for murder and thrown them in jail. But residents were concerned that in a regular court of law, the criminals would produce witnesses who would offer perjured testimony and thereby gain acquittal. They had seen it before many times. The townspeople felt that justice would be better served in a trial held by the safety committee.
Members of the vigilante group quickly seized a quantity of guns from the local military armory and stormed the county jail. They snatched the accused men and held their own tribunal. Prominent lawyers took an active part in the deliberations, which gave the lynch court a quasi-legal aspect.
A speedy trial convicted John Dailey, William Buckley, James Masterton and John McDowell (alias Three-Fingered Jack) and all were sentenced to death. The condemned men were marched to a hill in the center of Aurora where a scaffold large enough for a quadruple execution had been built. Nearly 5,000 people showed up for the grisly spectacle. Meanwhile, the overpowered sheriff at the jail had telegraphed Territorial Governor James W. Nye alerting him to the forced breakout of his prisoners. Gov. Nye contacted the Commissioner of Esmerelda County and told him to stop the hanging, but the order came too late. The trap doors were tripped and the four desperadoes dropped and jerked at the end of a hemp rope. A terse reply was sent back to Gov. Nye: “The men have just been hanged. Peace and order now prevail.”
Ultimately, many vigilance movements in the West took on the ominous name of 601, a moniker allegedly dreamed up in 1871 by angry residents in Virginia City, Nev., when a mob of armed masked men broke into the jail one night and hanged a prisoner. There was no deliberation: 601 stood for 6 feet under, zero trial, one bullet or one rope.
Vigilante activity chased criminal miscreants and wandering vagabonds from town to town. Consider this editorial in the Reno Evening Gazette: “Whenever Sacramento gets a move on and attempts to handle the tramp element vigorously, Reno gets the benefit of the influx of as worthless an element as the world ever produced, and unless our people get together and take steps to rid the town of that vicious element, it will bankrupt the county to look after them. There are 17 in the jail now and more coming in every day.”
Situated on the railroad, the town of Truckee was also the reluctant recipient of criminal vagrants banished from other communities.
Reno had its own secretive 601 Vigilance Committee that issued “tickets of leave” — black-bordered cards printed with the recipient’s name, crime history and a warning to leave town. Targeted criminals were given 24 hours to quit Reno or the next day be beaten, tarred and feathered and then given a free train ride in a box car back to California. Tarring and feathering was a favorite technique in America’s frontier mob violence to humiliate and torture a victim. A bucket of coal tar was heated over a fire and then poured or applied to the victim, followed by the addition of hundreds of poultry feathers that stuck to the tar. It was a painful experience, yet the removal of tar from the skin was even worse.
By the early 1870s, street shootouts and violent crime in Truckee had gotten so out of hand that the town’s male business leaders organized a Vigilance Committee of their own. Unlike San Francisco where vigilantes signed a registrar to join and did not disguise their identities, Truckee’s 601 members kept their association a close secret. They ran their cleanup operations late at night, wore low hats and bandannas to conceal their faces and sported long duster overcoats that hid their street clothes.
Usually the Truckee 601 gave fair warning of potential action against undesirables. No-nonsense warnings were posted around town, on saloon and brothel doors, and the committee even published the same blunt message in regional newspapers. In August 1889, the Reno Evening Gazette printed a notification from the Truckee 601 that warned: “All thieves, vagrants, pimps, opium fiends and disreputable characters without exception are hereby notified to leave Truckee within 24 hours after the posting of this notice. FAIL NOT AT YOUR PERIL! 601”
Stay tuned for Part III in the next issue and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.