Saturday, January 9, 2010

Early SF Newspapers -- Alta California Part Three

Arson and Vigilante Justice

ALTA CALIFORNIA editor Edward Gilbert was a firm (and early) editorial champion for the cause of law and order in the crime-ridden city, and he campaigned vigorously for an all-volunteer, organized peacekeeping force. The ALTA CALIFORNIA provided key support for the first Committee of Vigilance (formed in June of 1851), whose storied membership would deal punitively with crime and civil disorder--outside official channels.

Running an otherwise-anonymous editorial credited only with the name of Justice (an authorship later identified as the work of commission merchant R. S. Watson), the ALTA posed a series of "Propositions for the Public Safety" in the June 8, 1851 issue:

". . . we must be a law unto ourselves, and that there are enough good men and true who are ready to take hold . . . to establish a committee of safety . . . to appoint a committee of vigilance of twenty men, in each ward . . . to hunt out these hardened villains . . . ."

The proposal--that a self-selected few should unite in the private administration of justice--as juries, judges and executioners, outside the due process of law--was an extraordinary act which condoned in advance and rationalized the sort of mob-rule actions such as the lynching of Australian expatriate John Jenkins. Said the ALTA on June 10th, all of two days later:

"The trial and conviction of Jenkins was not the act of an inflamed and excited mob - his case was adjudged with calmness and deliberation, his guilt fully established, and the penalty of death imposed by a set of men respected and esteemed by their fellows . . . assuming a responsibility imposed on them by stern necessity, with a full perception of their accountability to their fellow men and their Maker. Who but He shall adjudge or condemn them? We dare not."

Not that Edward Gilbert's staff completely supported vigilantism without reservations; the February 23, 1851 issue had gravely warned that:

"Lynch law is a whirlwind which once set loose may sweep down all peaceable barriers before its angry blast . . . ."

Journalists themselves were not immune to the sort of intimidation, physical assault, and even assassination denounced in many an editorial in 1850s California. Edward Gilbert himself was killed in an August 1852 duel; he had dared to question (not without accuracy) the competence and integrity of Governor Bigler's administration.

Arson and carelessness continued to level and wreck the city again and again with flames, devastation, and conflagration. In the wake of the San Francisco fire of May 3-4, 1851, the ALTA survived as the only paper left standing and able to publish an edition the following day:

"San Francisco is again in ashes. The smoke and flames are ascending from several squares of our city, as if the God of Destruction had seated himself in our midst . . . . Here and there a brick building stands like a tomb among a nation of graves, yet even they in most cases have nothing but their walls standing . . . ."

By 1854, San Francisco citywide boasted a readership in support of twelve other daily newspapers, in addition to the DAILY ALTA CALIFORNIA. For much of its later run, the ALTA assumed a more moderate and increasingly sedate tone and profile in contrast to rival papers like the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE and the DAILY MORNING CALL. Bonanza king James Fair owned the ALTA in its final years, and published the very last issue on June 2, 1891. The entire run (1849-1891) of the DAILY ALTA CALIFORNIA is available for viewing on microfilm in the Fifth Floor Magazines and Newspapers Center of the Main Library. A bound collection comprising 1862-1891 can be found in the Sixth Floor San Francisco History Center. See also the California Digital Newspaper Collection for selected sample issues.

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