Lane Library

Vigilance Committee Revived

On the evening of May fourteenth, the news of King's wounding by Casey spread like wildfire. The streets were at once filled with a frenzied mob that surrounded the County Jail on Broadway where Casey was held. "Take the jail! Hang Casey!" was the cry. The militia under the command of Major Isaac Rowell, MD, later Professor of Chemistry in the Medical Department of the University of the Pacific, was summoned to restore order. Casey was greatly alarmed when he learned that Major Rowell and the militia not only refused to guard the jail but that they disbanded and in a body joined the Vigilantes. [17]

Confusion persisted around the jail until the crowd finally agreed to disperse and to reconvene at nine P.M. that evening in the Plaza. There, and later in permanent headquarters at 41 Sacramento Street, the Vigilance Committee of 1851 was swiftly revived as a formidable military-style force of more than eight thousand members, about three fourths of the adult male population of the city. William T. Coleman, prominent merchant, a man of common sense and determination, was named President of the Vigilance Committee of 1856. The leadership of the Committee differed from their brethren of 1851 in having a sufficient number of solid business men and broad-minded conservatives to control hot-headed radicals who might discredit the proceedings by rash disregard for due process. Dr. Beverly Cole was made Surgeon General of the medical staff of the Vigilance Committee with some eighty physicians under him.

As a counterbalance to the Vigilantes, a Law and Order Party was hastily organized including the politicians, lawyers, members of government and the small number of common citizens who opposed the Vigilance Committee. The overwhelming support of the Committee by the people of San Francisco rendered the Party as well as the law enforcement agencies of the City and State largely ineffectual during the Committee's reign.

The Committee immediately turned 41 Sacramento Street into a combined courtroom, jail, armory and command post for its civil and military operations. The stronghold was referred to as Fort Vigilance. Opponents of the Committee dubbed it Fort Gunnybags because of the rampart of sand-filled gunnybags piled to a height of eight or ten feet across the entire frontage as a defense against attack by government forces.

Never had the West seen a popular tribunal that so effectively marshaled the citizens' collective wrath to curb lawlessness. Within hours of its convening the Committee defined its objectives and began to round up known criminals still at large, and to bring in James Casey and Charles Cora from the County Jail. Cora was a gambler and powerful figure in town who shot the unarmed United States Marshal William Richardson dead in the street on 18 November 1855. The reason for the murder? Richardson on the night before had made a slighting remark about Cora's paramour, Belle, the madame of a notorious bordello. Cora pleaded not guilty, his trial ended in a hung jury, and he was sent back to jail awaiting a new trial. His eventual release by the lax San Francisco courts was confidently anticipated until he was swept up with Casey by the wave of public revulsion against actions such as theirs.

At noon on Sunday, May eighteenth, the day of Consultant Griffin's crucial visit to the sickbed of the failing James King, 2600 armed men, divided into 26 companies of 100 each, quietly assembled at Fort Vigilance. Immediately, they began a silent march by different routes to converge upon the County Jail, surrounding it completely with a wall of gleaming bayonets. A loaded artillery piece was drawn up with its muzzle pointed at the front door of the building, and a match lighted as if for instant action. Marshal Doane of the Vigilance force rode up to the prison entrance and demanded of Sheriff Scannell that he surrender the jail. After brief and futile objection, the Sheriff complied with the Marshall's demand in order to avoid bloodshed and Casey and Cora were whisked away by carriage to cells in Fort Vigilance. Their trial by the Committee was conducted in general accordance with judicial process. Unequivocal evidence as to the offenses of the prisoners was presented.

King's death on Tuesday, May twentieth, the sixth day after his injury, plunged the city into general mourning for the courageous editor. His valiant efforts in life to expose crime and corruption in San Francisco, and by opposing end them, have continued through his martyrdom to inspire future generations. Like martyrs before and since, King probably accomplished more in the manner of his passing than he could have hoped for in a longer life.

Two days later, on Thursday May twenty-second, James King of William was borne to his resting place in San Francisco's Lone Mountain Cemetery. The hearse was drawn by four white horses draped in black, followed by a cortege of mourners two miles long. Drs. Hammond and Gray preceded the hearse in a carriage.

At the same hour, a grim drama was in progress at Fort Vigilance. The trials of Casey and Cora were over and they were sentenced to death by hanging. The militia drew up on all sides of Fort Vigilance and scaffolds were extended from two windows on the second floor. While all the bells in the city tolled for James King, the sentences were carried out. [18] [19] [20] [21]

Dr. Charles Bertody was not the only graduate of Harvard Medical School to participate in these violent affairs. Dr. Washington Ayer, also a Harvard graduate, was practicing in San Francisco at the time. His "Personal Recollections of the Vigilance Committee (of 1856)," published thirty years later in the Overland Monthly are the source of many of the details found in the accounts of other historians already cited. [22]

Washington O. Ayer (1823-1899) was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on the 18th of July. Being of a studious nature he completed primary and secondary schooling with an eminently satisfactory record but lacked the means to go on to college. In keeping with the self-reliance and industry of the ambitious youth of his generation he sought to acquire the necessary funds for a higher education by his own efforts, which he devoted to teaching school for three years. His first school in his native town of Haverhill was near the home of the honored Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier who, with his sisters, encouraged the young Ayer. It was possibly due to association with the supportive Whittier family that Ayer developed strong literary interests, and even aspirations as a poet which he modestly fulfilled.

Ayer was of delicate health so that both illness and lack of financial resources led him to forego college and enter a preceptorship in medicine with practitioners in nearby Bradford, Massachusetts. This was followed by a successful course of study at Harvard Medical College where he received his MD degree in 1847. While a Harvard medical student he was present at the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia at the Massachusetts General Hospital on 16 October 1846. Ayer's description of the procedure he witnessed that day is a classic rendition of the historic scene. [23]

Upon graduation from medical school Ayer settled in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Practice came slowly to the eager young doctor until accidental circumstances brought him to the favorable notice of the public. One day when crossing the bridge over the Spigot River, swollen to flood-stage by a recent storm, Ayer saw a woman struggling in the raging torrent. Without a moment's thought he plunged into the stream and rescued the drowning woman whom he resuscitated on the river bank, while many on the bridge above witnessed his bravery and professional skill. Newspapers on the following day were full of praise for his heroic deed. Now widely known in the community for his courage and medical readiness, It was not long before he had an abundance of patients.

When his health, never robust, began to fail again he was forced to seek respite from his busy practice. The opportunity for a change arose when he was invited to go to California as physician to the New England Trading and Mining Association. On 4 February 1849 he sailed from Boston aboard the Association's ship Lenore. She dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay just five months later on 5 July 1849 at the height of the Gold Rush.

Soon after his arrival Ayer proceeded up the Sacramento River to the heart of the Gold Country where he settled in the town of Vernon, a village on the right bank of the Sacramento at the mouth of the Feather River. During the next five years his seemingly boundless energy was devoted to an extraordinary variety of activities ranging from doctoring to mining, ranching, and the freighting of supplies by wagon and riverboat. He was proudest of the hospital he established at Vernon to serve the mining community where accidents and other emergencies prevailed and fevers, dysentery and infectious diseases were rampant. He was highly successful in his enterprises from the beginning and rapidly acquired valuable holdings in land and profitable businesses. Then disaster struck during the winter of '49-'50. The Feather and Sacramento Rivers rose in a devastating flood that within hours swept away his hospital and other fruits of his toil, leaving him marooned for three weeks atop an Indian Mound, a tiny island in a sea of rushing water.

To recoup his losses Ayer returned to mining but, after prospecting several sites to no avail, he resumed the practice of his profession - first in Sacramento, next in Mokelumne Hill and then in Volcano, Amador County. Finally, in 1854, after a visit of five months to his home in the East, he abandoned the Gold Country and made his permanent residence in San Francisco where he was soon ranked among the ablest practitioners in the city. There he met Elias Cooper and became his good friend and loyal supporter. Years later, in 1893, Ayer read before the San Francisco Medico-Chirurgical Society a glowing eulogy entitled "Reminiscences of the Life and Labors of Elias Samuel Cooper." [24] [25] [26] [26] [27]

***

Cooper's Critique of the King Case

There is no predicting the course of history had King survived the gunshot wound. It is certain that Casey would not have been hanged. As far as King's treatment is concerned, it is fair to state that neither Cole nor Cooper, had they been in charge of the case, would have hesitated to remove the sponge from King's wound on the first day and that this would likely have forestalled a fatal infection. Both Cole and Cooper were staunch disciples of Joseph Pancoast and thoroughly versed in the surgical approach to the subclavian artery, which is beautifully illustrated in anatomical plates in Pancoast's Treatise on Operative Surgery. Had the artery bled, they could have ligated it. On the other hand, the treating physicians (even Toland) were obviously unprepared to cope with subclavian artery hemorrhage. With these considerations in mind, neither Cooper nor Cole was inclined to overlook what they viewed as the incompetence of King's doctors. We shall refer now to Cooper's verdict on the case, and later to that of Cole.

Cooper resented the affront he suffered when he attempted to consult on James King on May fifteenth, but the treatment of the unfortunate patient by Hammond, Gray, Toland, et al made him furious. His only recourse at the time, about mid-1856, was to make a scathing attack upon King's doctors in a Letter to the Editor of one of the local newspapers. Although Cooper's personal papers contain several drafts of such a Letter, we have no clipping or other evidence to confirm that it was ever published. Nevertheless, the following reconstruction of Cooper's Letter is inserted here in order to convey his surgical views, and underline his increasing hostility toward the medical elite of San Francisco whom he suspected of conspiring against him. [28]

Oh! What Muggins

Mr. Editor:

What a set of Medical Muggins we have in San Francisco!

Oh, shades of Aesculapius, has the middle of the 19th century come to this! The embodiment of surgical knowledge of a city of 60,000 inhabitants so ignorant of surgical anatomy!

Cannot some industrious French Veterinary Surgeon accustomed to dissecting horses instruct by comparative anatomy these lazy medical men of San Francisco who never dissect?

Have we no qualified surgeons among us? This inquiry is made in consequence of having heard it stated frequently within a few days past that the subclavian artery could not be tied above the clavicle. I know that the thing can be done. However skillful our medical men as practitioners of medicine may be, and of whom I know many in this city, still the people require some surgeon who from constant dissections has that perfect knowledge of the human system that enables him to perform without a moment's tarrying any operation known formidable.

Mr. Editor, I should like therefore to have some of the learned gentlemen who cared for James King attempt to prove that the most consummate ignorance was not displayed in his treatment from the moment of his injury to the period of his death. If there is anyone of this clique who dares to come out over his own signature and say that the treatment of Mr. James King of William was judicious, I will prove that plugging up a gunshot wound to arrest hemorrhage under the impression that the subclavian artery was shot away denotes more consummate ignorance of the principles of surgery on the part of anyone practicing the same than can be often found at this enlightened day.

This plugging operation did surpass anything of the kind I ever knew. Only think of attempting to plug up and prevent hemorrhage from the subclavian artery. Now confess the truth, Gentlemen, you who profess to be at the head of the profession of San Francisco: Did you not ignorantly fear that bleeding might again occur if this plug was removed? And did you not know that you could not tie the vessel but that some one else would be called in who could?

Where is the intelligent medical man of this city who doubts you killed that patient? You are the men whose influence like an incubus has rested upon the spirit of improvement among medical men in California from an early period up to the present time. You are the men who assume to hold in complete contempt the strangers who come here and attempt to establish themselves by potently laboring for the good of the profession. You are the men who have always thrown discord and confusion into all associations for medical improvement in this city, and chafe like alienated furies because you can't do it still. You, gentlemen, are a disgrace to the medical profession. Who are they that give evidence in our courts of justice "according to the clique" and whence the discordant testimony among medical witnesses so keenly and appropriately commented upon by our city papers?

Such men as you would disgrace any cause. It is to you, the would-be leaders of the medical profession of San Francisco, we owe the odium under which that profession now rests and must rest until your true position in it is fully known by the people. You are the criminally ignorant surgeons who in the case of James King tried to plug up a wound as you ignorantly supposed of the subclavian artery. Where is the intelligent medical man of this city who doubts for one moment you killed that patient?

In conclusion, I should not omit to state that the opinion prevails among medical men here that the surgical treatment of the late Editor of the Bulletin caused his death. I take this occasion to call (King's doctors) to account for the criminal ignorance they displayed in his treatment.

Cooper's harsh indictment was typical of the bitter exchanges that frequently occurred between individual physicians and medical cliques in his era. Inevitably, the contentious and vindictive spirit endemic within the medical community of San Francisco created instability in personal relations and professional organizations. These conditions constantly threatened to frustrate Cooper's plans but, mirabile dictu, failed to do so. As we suggested earlier, the reason for Cooper's ultimate success in spite of severe impediments, was the respect and loyalty he inspired in able associates who supported his efforts. It was during the Vigilante period that Beverly Cole emerged as one of the most valuable of these associates. Therefore, let us return to the operations of the Vigilance Committee of 1856 and the extraordinary services rendered to it by Surgeon General Cole.

Lane Library