In the 1870s and 1880s, most of Truckee’s residents and businessmen backed the unauthorized policing provided by vigilantes who rid the town of undesirable criminals, thugs and sometimes unruly prostitutes on Jibboom Street in the red-light district behind Commercial Row storefronts.
Even so, the men in the covert 601 kept their identities secret to protect themselves from local law enforcement or revenge by acquaintances or fellow gang members of those beaten and tarred and feathered by the extrajudicial anti-crime organization. They ran their clean-up operations in the dark of night, wore low hats and bandannas to conceal their faces and sported long duster overcoats that hid their street clothes.
Despite community support due to a fanciful perception that the vigilantes filled a law enforcement vacuum and were helping the town’s deputies, in reality the 601 was often engaged in bitter conflict with Truckee’s constables and the courts. In fact, a primary reason Truckee Constable Jacob Teeter was gunned down in a downtown saloon in 1892 was his resistance to the 601. Teeter considered it a badge of honor that in more than 30 years he never allowed vigilantes to take a prisoner from his charge. It inevitably led to a shootout in Hurd’s Saloon where he was shot multiple times at close range and later died.
On the morning of Nov. 23, 1874, the 601 was involved in a deadly tragedy that was a direct result of their violent approach to crime. That morning the vigilantes sent warning to several undesirables roaming around Truckee that their time was up. Most jumped on the afternoon train, but local prostitute Carrie “Spring Chicken” Pryor and her hoodlum lover Bob Mellon challenged the 601 to come get them. They would be waiting for the 601 with 40 associates armed and ready for a fight at a dive flophouse on East Main Street owned by George Hayward. Pryor was a troublesome “soiled dove,” who often got drunk and into violent altercations in Truckee’s Front Street bars and on sleazy Jibboom Street in the back of town.
At midnight, 24 masked and armed vigilantes gathered near J.F. Moody’s Truckee Hotel. Among them was prominent businessman David Belden “D.B.” Frink, founding editor and proprietor of the Truckee Republican newspaper. The disguised men of Truckee’s vigilance committee brazenly sauntered through the front door of Hayward’s drinking establishment, while four other members guarded the back door from the outside. The vigilantes found Hayward behind his bar and demanded that he get a lantern and escort them through the house.
Once inside, the vigilantes split up and began searching the kitchen and a bedroom for Pryor and her gang of thugs. At one point a gunman’s hand was seen in an open doorway at the end of a dim hallway with a pistol pointed in their general direction and the 601 opened fire. Editor Frink fell dead with a thud. Several of the vigilantes, all close friends of Frink, approached the body and realizing it was their comrade carried the corpse into the back alley and then up the stairs at Hurd’s Saloon where they deposited it in Justice of the Peace John Keiser’s office. The 601 left immediately. When Judge Keiser found the body, he called Dr. William Curless to examine it. Dr. Curless concluded that death was nearly instantaneous, “the bullet passing through the upper portion of the sternum or breast bone.”
Until his death on Nov. 23, Frink had been a leader in the Truckee community. A native of New York, he was 40 years old. Even as they mourned Frink’s untimely death, newspapers across northern California supported the vigilante movement that caused it. In its story on the shooting, the Downieville Mountain Messenger newspaper wrote: “Frink was a man of more than ordinary intelligence, a vigorous writer and of generous impulses. He was a thorn in the side of the thieves and ruffians of that locality and probably had more to do than any other man with the organization of the  committee.”
The Sacramento Record noted how bad the streets of Truckee had become: “Truckee has long been the rendezvous of the worst class of men and women in the state: Petty thieves, robbers and murderers. They have found this place to be an excellent base for a large field of operations. Recently the better citizens of the town determined to rid themselves of this class, so dangerous to the peace and reputation of the community.”
Over the next few weeks, the Truckee Republican and other newspapers conducted a vigorous editorial debate on the merits of vigilantism. The Truckee paper defended the actions taken by the 601. Frink was described as a man “blessed with a stern sense of right and justice, and when occasion demanded was not laggard in expressing his convictions. His life had been repeatedly threatened during his stay in Truckee. The law may not excuse; the opinions and expressions of men in other localities who know nothing of the circumstances which called into being the organization known as ‘601’ in our midst, but the citizens of Truckee cannot fail to acknowledge that the town has been threatened by robbers, cutthroats, and the vampires of society more than any other.”
In an article published 10 years later in the Truckee Republican, the new publisher of the newspaper, Charles McGlashan, defended the 601 shooter and questioned Frink’s thinking process the night of his death: “From prominent citizens I learned that the man who fired the fatal shot was one of Frink’s truest friends. He did nothing more than any man might have done under the circumstances. Frink’s three companions who were assisting in guarding the rear of the house were safely and securely hidden as they should have been.”
The unidentified gunman suffered prolonged remorse at the accidental killing of his companion and left Truckee not too long after the incident.
Amazingly, the unintended killing of Frink did not stop the 601. In fact, their actions would continue for another 25 years. Over time the 601’s focus turned against the town’s Chinese presence. In 1876, vigilantes set fire to a wooden bunkhouse while Chinese laborers were asleep inside. As the terrified workmen fled the smoke and flames, the vigilantes shot at them, injuring most and killing one in the so-called “Trout Creek Outrage.” We’ll look at Truckee’s dark history of savage racism against Chinese immigrants in a future column.