|Date(s):||January 1, 1851 to December 31, 1851|
|Location(s):||San Francisco, CA|
|Tag(s):||gold rush, Violence, urban history, California, vigilance|
|Course:||“Digital History,” Dickinson College|
It was an odd thing to see so many people gathered on the balcony of the Jones Hotel at four in the morning. Fire bells rang as half-dressed people wearily watched the horizon glow a soft orange for the fifth time in eighteen months. San Francisco may have been a “cloth and board” city, with no advanced water system – a tinderbox, but suspicions mounted as the Great Fire of May 4, 1851, destroyed eighteen city blocks, including the timber “portable,” that was constructed somewhere in Boston or Baltimore, and shipped in sections, to house the Joshua Norton & Company, Merchandising Company. The local newspaper Alta was quick to place blame. “Little doubt, if any, remains that this city was set on fire by some fiend for the purpose of robbery.”
Crime, murder, arson, and violence were commonplace in frontier towns and mining communities. Penal colonies were often purged and felons from Van Dieman’s Land, New South Wales, and Sydney Australia found their way to San Francisco, California. These felons would often organize themselves into cooperative organizations and terrorize the city and countryside. The general term “hounds” was used to describe anyone who banded together and specialized in pick-pocketing, thievery, arson, or assassination. A small collective of convicts from Australia lived on Telegraph Hill, behind the charred remains of Norton’s former business, in a quarter called Sydney Town. Bungaraby Jack, Jemmy-from-Town, Big Brummy, Billy Sweet Cheese, and Tommy Round Head, were members of the crime collective known as the Sydney Ducks.
On Sunday, June 8, a letter was published in the Alta, which proposed the formation of a “Committee of Safety” and a formal plan about how the committee should operate. The degenerate nature of society could supposedly only be improved by monitoring and boarding vessels that came in from Australia and refuse anyone who looked of doubtful character to come to shore. In terms of the “hounds” that had already made their way into the city, “committees of vigilance” were to be established and arbitrarily determine who would have to leave the city. It was proposed that one should be given five days’ time in order to leave the city or face the consequences of the “war of extermination,” that would be waged against them. “Let us set about the work at once. It may be well to call a public meeting in the square, to organize and carry out these views. Without this, or some other similar plan, the evil cannot be remedied; and if there is not spirit enough amongst us to do it, why then in God’s name let the city be burned, and our streets flow with the blood of murdered men.”
Two days later, on the night of June 10, between eighty and one-hundred local merchants gathered in a storeroom on Sansome Street to draft the constitution of San Francisco’s first Vigilance Committee and elect its officers. Unfortunately, for one of the Sydney Ducks, Mr. John Jenkins, was caught stealing a safe and taken to the meeting still going on. He was sentenced to be hanged that same night. Many voiced their concerns over the severity of the punishment. Should attempted theft warrant execution? Others were only concerned with the hanging taking place late at night. They felt the event should be held in broad daylight with a larger audience to send a better message to other “hounds.” Members of the police force were there and the Captain attempted to save Jenkins from the mob and take him into custody, but it was of no use, the committee was too strong.
Jenkins was taken to the California Engine House and the bell was rung to alert more townsfolk of the public event that was about to transpire. The biggest complaint of the night was that Jenkins would be hanged on the liberty pole. Deeming it too unpatriotic to execute someone on the pole where they fly the country’s flag, Jenkins was taken to the “old adobe” custom-house instead. The police tried one more time to take back Jenkins but he was too well protected by armed members of the Vigilance Committee. Despite the tumult, Jenkins was placed into the makeshift gallows and hanged. 
John Jenkins became the first person to be officially hanged in San Francisco. The coroner charged specific members of the committee with the responsibility for his death. The Vigilance Committee responded with a complete list of all the members and declared that the guilt was equally shared. The Committee considered itself a means to creating social good and that it had the ability purge the negative elements of the society. For a time, many residents in Gold Rush era San Francisco, agreed. 
 Drury, Norton I, Emperor of the United States, 28.
 Devens, “The Reign of the Vigilance Committees in San Francisco:1851 & 1856,” 45.
 Drury, Norton I, Emperor of the United States, 29.
 Devens, “The Reign of the Vigilance Committees in San Francisco:1851 & 1856,” 47.
 Drury, Norton I, Emperor of the United States, 29.
 Josiah Royce, California, 417-18.
 Drury, Norton I, 29.
 Devens, “The Reign of the Vigilance Committees in San Francisco,”47-8.
 Ibid. 47-8.
 Royce, American Commonwealths. 421.