I came across a great story about an enterprising San Francisco merchant who scattered $20 worth of gold dust on the cobblestones of a public street, and was sweeping it up and panning it out in a horse trough just as a boatload of eager new 49ers arrived from “The States”. To them it seemed the streets of San Francisco really were paved with gold. The shop keeper even helpfully directed the newcomers to a nearby store where they could begin getting rich by obtaining their own twenty cent prospecting pan - for a mere $15.00 each. The new arrivals bought every pan in the store, and the merchant got rich. It's a myth of course, but not by much. The Frisco store was owned by Sam Brannan (above). And in nine short weeks in 1848 this alcoholic womanizer sold enough mining pans and picks and shovels out of his Frisco and Sacramento stores to profit the modern equivalent of $9 million. And he used that fortune, and four lengths of rope, to grab as much power as quickly as he could..
Samuel Brannan got his grub stake as the first President of the Mormon mission to California, when he traveled to Sacramento to collect tithes from the 100 Mormon workmen, contracted to build Mr. Sutter's mill (above) on the American River. His timing was fortunate because he saw the gold nuggets the Mormons had just discovered. Now, Sam should have turned that tithe money over to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which had dispatched him to California in 1846. But in 1847 he had crossed the high Sierras, and met with the church's new leader, Brigham Young. Sam urged Young to continue on to paradise in California, but the Mormon Moses was inspired instead to remain in the Utah wilderness. Returning alone to California, this disillusioned saint saw the “first world-class gold rush” as his own message from God. He became a prophet of capitalism. And when the church asked for the tithes he had collected, Sam told them, “When Brigham Young shows me a purchase order signed by God, I'll show him the money.” Or so the story goes.
As one of Frisco's first millionaires, Sam was a natural for the town council. But it was not an easy job. In the first 24 months after Sutter's mill, San Francisco went from 1,000 to 25,000 residents. Then, in 1850, the new California legislature slapped on a $20 monthly “foreign miners tax”, which drove most non-American prospectors out of the gold fields. Frisco soaked them up. Twenty percent of the town were now Chinese, and another twenty percent spoke Spanish, and a surprisingly large percentage were Australians, transported from England, usually for the crime of being poor. Men outnumbered women in Frisco by a hundred to one, and 2/3rds of those few women were prostitutes. Half the population was sleeping in tents, the other half in ramshackle shanties or aboard the hundreds of ships, abandoned by their gold hungry crews, and left floating in the bay. And to make matters worse, the darn place kept burning down.
On Christmas eve 1849 a fire broke out that overwhelmed the towns 90 volunteer firefighters and devoured fifty buildings. During the inferno, capitalist were selling a bucket of water for a dollar each. On May 4, 1850, 300 houses and three lives were destroyed by another fire. This time entrepreneurs insisted on contracts paying $3 an hour to help the firemen. And when city council hesitated to pay their bills, some frustrated contractors threatened to start their own fires. At about eight on the morning of June 14th, it happened again, consuming another 300 buildings. And on September 17th, the fourth fire in nine months swept up Jackson Street and burned out 125 buildings and eight city blocks. Then on May 4, 1851, a heavy wind drove yet another inferno that devoured yet another18 city blocks, centered around the neighborhood called “The Barbary Coast”, or “Sydney Cove” - for the large percentage of Australians living there.
The entire city was made of wood and canvas, and the only source of heat and light were thousands of open flames, and the only potable fluid safe to drink was alcohol laced, so in retrospect conflagrations were inevitable. But rumors, and newspapers such as the California Star, owned by Sam Brannan, insisted that Frisco's 57 police officers and overworked judges were too corrupt to catch and punish the extortion- arsonists nicknamed “The Lightkeeper”.
At least a suspect was caught in the May 1851 fire, an Australian named Benjamin Lewis. He was even rumored to be a member of the gang, “The Sydney Ducks”. His trial on Tuesday, June 3, 1851 was interrupted by shouts of “Lynch the villian”. Court officials hoped Sam Brannan could calm the angry crowd, but instead he suggested that Lewis be handed over to “volunteer policemen” for trial and punishment. The crowd agreed, but the real cops managed to slip the defendant safely out of the court house. Within a few days, the evidence against Lewis collapsed, and all charges were dropped. But this only outraged the citizens of San Francisco even more. On Monday, June 9, 1851, a meeting was called at the California Engine Company by fireman George Oakes and merchant James Neall to organize a public response. They asked yet another volunteer fireman to head a vigilante committee – Samuel Brannan, of course.
The very next day a drunken John Jenkins (alleged to be another Sydney Duck) boldly strode into a shipping office on the Long Wharf, grabbed a small safe with $50 in gold coins inside, and walked out. As pursuers drew close he tossed the safe into the bay, then allowed himself to be taken into custody. Jenkins was certain his fellow Ducks would rescue him. But he had not been taken by police. Instead he was lead to the headquarters of the Vigilante Committee, a warehouse owned by Sam Brannan, directly behind the offices of his “California Star” In less than an hour a rump court was convened, and two hours later Jenkins was convicted. At two in the morning, Wednesday June 12th , John Jenkins was jerked aloft from a gallows leaning against the Old Mexican customs house on Portsmouth Square, right in front of Brannan's newspaper. The Australian hung there for two hours.
The next day, Thursday the 13th, the goals of the Committee were published in the pages of Brannan's "Star" and other papers. “The citizens of San Francisco,” it announced, “do bind ourselves, each unto the other...determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” It had been written by Sam Brannan. Within days 700 citizens had joined the vigilante committee.
Over the summer Brannan's vigilantes' were busy, dragging people into their headquarters, interrogating them, and doling out punishments as deemed necessary. One man was whipped in Portsmouth Square, 14 were forcefully deported back to Australia, another 14 were ordered to leave California, 15 more were handed over to the real police, and 41 were allowed to leave, with a warning. It is not known how many other Australians were refused entry at the port, or the number who “self deported” out of fear. Then on July 11th, the committee detained and hanged accused murderer “English” Jim Stuart from the yard arm of a ship docked at the end of the Market Street wharf (below)
It should be pointed out, that the committee also organized nightly fire patrols, and offered a $5,000 reward for any information concerning the identify of “The Lightkeeper”. Fires diminished, in number and severity, but this success must have at least partly been due to the use of brick and mortar in new construction. But the $5,000 reward was never claimed, although at last, two Australians, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie were arrested and convicted in the Vigilante court of arson as well as burglary and robbery Their execution was set for August 21st.
The day before, the Governor, John MacDougal, issued a public proclamation, denouncing the “despotic control of a self-constituted association unknown to and acting in defiance of the laws in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.” He went further, and obtained a writ of habeas corpus (“prodcuce the body”) from a state Supreme Court Justice, and then served it himself on the sheriff, Jack Hays. That night the Governor, the mayor and the sheriff , along with three deputies, marched into the committee's headquarters and demanded Whittaker and McKenzie be handed over. The sleepy guards acquiesced, and by 3 AM the two Australians were heavily guarded in the city jail.
It was a clear and direct challenge to Brennan. But Sam waited until Sunday, the 24th, until he acted. That morning Sheriff Hays was lured out of town by an invitation to a bull fight. And at about 2 PM, as the prisoners were being allowed out of their cells to receive mass, 36 heavily armed vigilantes rushed the jail, grabbed McKenzie and Whittaker, and marched them back to Committee headquarters. In 17 minutes the men had been tried and convicted again, and hanged from the beams used for loading goods into a wharehouse's second floor windows. Sam Brannan even addressed the crowd of 5,000 who come to cheer and to stare in shock at his audacity.
But Sam Brannan (above) had finally gone too far. The Democratic Governor had an ally, in the local United States Military Commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, who noted in his autobiography decades later, “As (the Committee) controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but.... the same set of..rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes”.”
How the message was delivered is not known, but clearly a message was delivered. Quietly, the Committee did not meet again for five years, and never again under the leadership of Sam Brannan. That September, the sheriff was reelected. And Sam sailed for Hawaii, where he bought more land. He did not return to San Francisco for the better part of a year. In 1853 he was elected to the state Senate. But by then his church had excommunicated, or disfellowshipped, him, because of his vigilantism. Any dreams he had harbored about higher office would always break on the same rock.
Sam continued to build his fortune until until 1872, when his wife Anna could take his infidelities no more, So numerous were Sam's marital transgressions that the judge in their divorce awarded Anna half of all of Sam's wealth, in cash. Selling his properties left him almost bankrupt. Sam bought a small ranch outside of San Diego, remarried and made enough speculating in Mexican lands to pay his debts. But Sam left his new wife with nothing when he died in 1889.
The Democratic machine Sam had put in place continued even in his absence, in part by another outburst of vigilantism in 1856. More miscreants and arsonists and murderers were hanged, and more were chased out of town, but this time they were usually Chinese. But the Barbary Coast remained the same sinful place, and 'Frisco politics remained dirty. In the meantime, about 14 billion in early 21st century dollars were dug out of the California gold fields, and almost all of it had passed through San Francisco. In retrospect it seems that by building his political power on fear, Sam Brannan had tried to grab too much too fast. And he didn't get to keep any of it.
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