Saturday, November 28, 2009

ALTA CALIFORNIA Battles Crime in the City


Few of the historical publications in the Magazine and Newspapers Center microfilm collection have as storied a San Francisco past as the ALTA CALIFORNIA. Initially a reclamation project of publisher Edward C. Kemble and some fellow investors, the ALTA was forged from the remains of what had once been THE CALIFORNIAN and the CALIFORNIA STAR newspapers - victims, as much as anything else, of the Gold Rush itself (and the subsequent manpower shortage resulting from the mass exodus to the hills). The first city daily paper, the ALTA CALIFORNIA (1849-1891) itself shared - and made - much of the vibrant early history and events of San Francisco. It was a time of foundation building (and rebuilding), moralizing, retribution, and not a little sanctification - generated from scratch . . .

The ALTA's Edward Gilbert and associates took some strong editorial stands in their day. Commenting on imports in March 1851, the paper voiced a complaint that San Francisco merchants (amidst growing pains) would only repeat in succeeding years:

"Before, we could not get adequate
supplies from all sources; now we find
our markets broken down with merchandise
from the eastern states . . . ."

Thus addressing the problems of over-supply in imported merchant goods, the ALTA would subsequently foresee a peaking gold production and a diminished growth in mining, and would point (early on) to the need for a more diversified and sustainable economy for Californians.

Dramatic historical events link the DAILY ALTA CALIFORNIA most closely to the phenomenon of crime and vigilantism in frontier San Francisco, for the paper took a strong, outspoken, and active participatory role in the local struggle for the establishment of law and order. The ALTA came down early on crime, beginning on January 1, 1851:

"There are some three hundred thieves in this city, who live by their profession, and prefer to live so rather than work . . . ."

and continuing in this vein in late February 1851:

"No place seems safe from outrage, no person secure, even in his own dwelling . . . the floodgates of crime, which seem opened by the devil's hand and flowing from his infernal abode through our very midst . . . ."

Crime in Gold Rush San Francisco plagued the populace to alarming degrees, in the predominant forms of assault, battery, larceny, criminal arson and murder. The ALTA, as did other local newspapers, blamed Australian (and later Chinese) immigrants at large for much of early San Francisco's rampant vice and lawlessness in the February 25, 1851 issue:

"The state of California has been made the grand rendezvous for the transported felons of Great Britain, who have either managed to escape or have been assisted in their embarkation from the penal colonies."


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