Chapter XI. The Vigilance Committee of 1856
The Vigilance Committee of 1856
Crime in San Francisco subsided briefly following the hangings and deportations of notorious felons by the Vigilance Committee of 1851. But it was not long before lawlessness was again rampant in the streets while embezzlers invaded commercial enterprises, and corrupt public officials undermined confidence in the government. By 1856 conditions had deteriorated to the point that a fearless and independent press was the community's last remaining defense against the criminal elements.
James King of William (1822-1856), editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, dared to expose scoundrels in both public and private domains; and by relentlessly pursuing a campaign against them, he changed the course of history in the beleaguered city. It is of special interest to us that the violence erupting as a result of his biting editorials had extraordinary medical dimensions.
The memory of James King of William continues to be honored in California while, at the same time, his unusual name is still a source of some confusion that we shall promptly dispel.
He was born at Georgetown in the District of Columbia on 28 January 1822, the youngest of a numerous and respectable family. His father was named William and to distinguish himself from a number of other James Kings then living in Georgetown, James took and retained the name of "James King of William," (that is, "James King, son of William").
He was an eager student, acquired a fair knowledge of Latin and English literature, and learned to speak French, Spanish and some German. After a variety of jobs as a clerk, and brief stints on newspapers, he was engaged in 1841 as a bookkeeper in a Washington bank. He was married in 1843 and, in 1848, departed for the Pacific Coast by sea via the Isthmus of Panama to improve his prospects and establish a new home for his family whom he left behind. While en route to the West, word reached him of the discovery of gold in California. Therefore, when he arrived in San Francisco in November 1848 he went directly to the gold fields. After a brief and profitable mining venture at Placerville, and temporary engagement in mercantile business in Sacramento, King returned briefly to the East where he made arrangements to open a banking business in the name of James King of Wm. on Montgomery Street between Clay and Merchant in San Francisco.
King was soon widely known and highly regarded as a banker throughout the State. His wife and four children joined him in 1851 and his successful banking business flourished until 1854. It was at this point that an irresponsible agent, to whom he had entrusted large sums to purchase gold dust, invested the money in worthless stock. As a result, King was forced to close his bank and become an employee of the express firm of Adams and Company. In return for King's depreciated assets, the firm agreed to reimburse all his creditors. However, the tribulations of the honorable James King were far from over. He had not been long in the employ of Adams and Company when he discovered that they were insolvent. When he warned the San Francisco manager of impending ruin and urged him to take steps to protect the depositors, his advice was ignored and on 22 February 1855 the company failed with disastrous losses by thousands of industrious persons throughout the State. Fortunately, King's reputation was unsullied by the bankruptcy for he had always acted in good faith towards creditors, but public sentiment was hostile to banking and his attempt to reenter the field was unsuccessful. With the financial help of some friends he then began publication on 8 October 1855 of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin which he described as "a truly independent journal - one that (would) support the cause of morality, virtue and honesty, whether in public service or private life, and which, regardless of all consequences, would fearlessly and undauntedly maintain its course against the political and social evils of the day." 
The crusading editor began immediately to attack those who he believed to flout moral standards or betray the public trust. It was not long before threats upon his life began to occur, to which the defiant King replied in the November twenty-second issue of the Bulletin: 
Bets are now offered, we have been told, that the editor of the Bulletin will not be in existence twenty days longer, and the case of Dr. Hogan of the Vicksburg paper, who was murdered by the gamblers of that place, is cited as a warning. Pah! We passed unscathed through worse scenes than the present at Sutter Fort in '48. War, then, is the cry, is it? War between the prostitutes and gamblers on one side, and the virtuous and respectable on the other! War to the knife, and the knife to the hilt! Be it so, then! Gamblers of San Francisco, you have made your election, and we are ready on our side for the issue!
To a gambler named Selover, who made threat's against the editor's life following the latter's refusal to meet him in a duel, King responded in the Bulletin of December sixth: 
Mr. Selover, it is said, carries a knife. We carry a pistol. We hope neither will be required, but if this rencontre cannot be avoided, why will Mr. Selover persist in periling the lives of others? We pass every afternoon about half past four to five o'clock, along Market Street from Fourth to Fifth Street. The road is wide and not so much frequented as those streets farther in town. If we are to be shot or cut to pieces, for heaven's sake let it be done there.
The purpose of King's contemptuous response to Selover was to rate the gambler as unworthy of consideration as an adversary in a duel, but it also laid out for him and any other enemies, the ground on which the editor could be violently attacked. Given the uncontrollable emotions of the day, and the reckless disregard of life, King's audacious challenge placed him in almost daily jeopardy of deadly assault on the road he usually followed in going home.
When the inevitable confrontation occurred, it was not with the gambler Selover but with a prominent politician and ex-convict known as James P. Casey whose special genius was for the fixing of elections by the stuffing of ballot-boxes. Casey's most recent feat was to gain election as Supervisor of a district of which he was not even a resident. He was thought to have accumulated by various nefarious transactions a fortune that enabled him to start a newspaper, the Sunday Times, regardless of the fact that he was incapable of writing a word for publication. Casey was especially sensitive on two subjects - ballot-stuffing and his term of eighteen months at hard labor in Sing Sing for robbing his mistress.
On 14 May 1856 King published in the Bulletin the following editorial that referred to a Mr. Bagley and his quarrel with Casey: 
Our impression at the time was that in the Casey fight Bagley was the aggressor. It does not matter how bad a man Casey had been, nor how much benefit it might be to the public to have him out of the way, we cannot accord to any one citizen the right to kill him or even to beat him, without justifiable personal provocation.
The fact that Casey has been an inmate of Sing Sing prison in New York, is no offense against the laws of this State; nor is the fact of his having stuffed himself through the ballot-box as elected to the Board of Supervisors . . . any justification for Mr. Bagley to shoot Casey, however richly the latter may deserve to have his neck stretched for such fraud on the people . . . However much we may detest Casey's former character, or be convinced of the shallowness of his promised reformation, we cannot justify the assumption of Mr. Bagley to take upon himself the redressing of these wrongs.
About four o'clock on the afternoon of Wednesday the fourteenth of May, an hour after the Bulletin containing the above editorial appeared on the streets, James P. Casey stormed into King's office and demanded to know: "What do you mean by that article?" 
"What article?" asked the editor.
"That which says I was a former inmate of Sing Sing prison."
"Is that not true?" shot back James King.
"That is not the question," retorted Casey. "I don't wish my past acts raked up; on that point I am sensitive."
"Are you done?" demanded King, pointing. "There's the door - go! Never show your face again."
Casey started toward the open door; but paused there long enough to fling out, "I'll say in my paper what I please."
"You have a perfect right to do as you please. I'll never notice your paper."
As far as King was concerned, the matter was now closed; but Casey, slipping his hand to his breast, uttered the warning, "If necessary, I shall defend myself!"
At these words, the editor of the Bulletin arose from his seat. "Go!" he repeated with such force that Casey immediately disappeared.