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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


The death of Murieta and the annihilation of the desperadoes was followed by peace in that quarter, but evil broke out in another spot. While the good men were resting after a grand display of their silent forces, the bad men were gradually moving to the front. This time San Francisco was the affected center, and the vices of the city were the malignant element. In spite of discomfort, disappointment, suffering, danger, sickness, and possibly death, the immigrants continued to pour into California. Many of them were under the impression that the streets were paved with gold, and were not willing to rest until a hatful of the precious metal had been obtained.

While the Golden State was passing through this period of early development, its political and social problems grew greater. Money traveled fast and free; everyone had enough and to spare; eating, drinking, dancing, gambling, bear-fights, bull-fights and horse-racing were all in the day’s enjoyment. People became intoxicated with prosperity; they overbuilt, overbought, threw money around in a reckless manner, and indulged to excess in all the harmful things of life.

Horse-racing was the chief interest of both the successful and the unsuccessful, and in this particular sport William J. Howard’s Viking blood craved leadership. It did not take long for him to gain recognition as the greatest race-horse owner in the State, for his keenness and ambition in this direction persuaded him to become the possessor of a beautiful race-track, which gave him publicity and popularity throughout California.

Just before the great financial reaction of 1854, the State races were run in San Francisco, where Howard was sure to be present. His age was now twenty-eight. The race-course presented an interesting picture: Beautiful seņoritas dressed in hues of red and gold, with their artistic mantillas swaying in the gentle wind, while gay young seņors and native Americans, in their most courteous manner, endeavored to receive some recognition from these emotional beauties. A few American women were also present, adorned in equally bright colors, for they had gradually adopted the gayer dress of their Latin environment.

Leaving the race-course one day, Howard put up at Ella Moon’s cottage, which was exceptionally clean and cozy, for she was the personification of neatness.

The next morning, mounted on his favorite steed, he rode like a conquering hero through the streets of the city—a city, however, whose 20,000 citizens still threw their garbage in the mud and slime to decompose. Passing a poundmaster’s van whirling along, the driver of which was throwing a reata around the neck of a fluffy dog led by a young and expensively dressed Frenchwoman, his attention was attracted in the direction of a Spanish steer rushing madly down the street, scattering a group of richly dressed Chinese, who were on their way to do homage to departed souls. In trying to escape the steer he almost bumped into a wagon carrying roasted pigs, rice, fancy dishes, liquors, and other little dainties necessary for the “Sacred Feast of the Dead.”

Continuing his ride, he passed many Chinese dens with Oriental lanterns hanging from narrow balconies, and crowded with almond-eyed people having that sickly pallor which is typical of every Chinatown. Next came the gambling dens and dance-halls, with decorated doors indicating vice and sin, in front of which lounge the gaily attired women who constitute the main attraction of the place.

Then a few Spanish-American women clad in black—wrapped to the eyes in their rebozos, and in spite of their dissipation still retaining some distinguishing grace of manner and speech, walk quietly past him. Chinese porters and washerwomen follow closely on the heels of the seņoritas, carrying heavy burdens on the ends of bamboo sticks, balanced on their shoulders, while from the plank side-walk come the shrill cries of an English candy-crier, his narrow-brimmed black derby hat, precise dickie and unrelenting shirt collar present every indication of being built on English soil.

Every moment the sights become more interesting, for numerous Chinese females dressed in cotton pantaloons and straight sacques of broadcloth or silk, according to their social rank, shuffle along the streets laughing and talking in their native language. Their richly embroidered blue satin shoes, gold and silver bracelets, black hair braided in two plaits hanging down the back beneath a striped gingham handkerchief, show plainly that they are slaves. Every second building is a saloon, and in the basements many Chinamen are seated at low benches actively engaged in making cigars and cigarets. Dusk is falling, and every effort is being put forth to make the hopeless buildings look attractive, for this is San Francisco’s famous Barbary Coast. All nationalities are entering the dance-halls and gambling hells, where the silence is broken only by the chink of coins or the monotonous voice of the dealers. Sharpshooters, jay-hawkers, gaily mounted horsemen and horsewomen dash madly past, while riding leisurely down the street on a black, high-stepping charger with showy saddle and bridle, dressed in broad-brimmed sombrero, blue coat with gold buttons, long bright buckskin gauntlets, goes the editor of the Alta California.

In this rendezvous of unbridled pleasure many a disheartened and irresponsible young man is destined to lose his life or fortune.

Howard won the State races that year, and yet he felt low-spirited as he returned to Mariposa. The condition of things in the city of the Golden Gate aroused the serious side of his nature; the dilapidated streets, the lack of police protection, the uncontrolled vice bred by exceptional prosperity, pointed clearly to a great reaction. He could sense it in the atmosphere, for everything seemed to be in a chaotic state. There were no laws and no standards whatsoever; nightly the ruthless gambler beat up or fleeced the visiting miner, rancher, and greenhorn fresh from distant parts, or rode out a few miles along the highway and robbed a stagecoach of its strong box. Local government was of the same stamp. Most of the law-makers of the city and State were incompetent men who made laws to suit themselves and their associates, and in spite of the Vigilantes, politics were absolutely corrupt, for drunken, inflamed crowds were bribed to oppose or support political candidates, as the case might be.

Early in 1854 the period of hard times set in, and before the year was over, three hundred out of every thousand business houses had failed. In the midst of excitement and disaster, many business and professional men turned to politics. Their motives were not all the same; some saw in it an avenue to fame and fortune, whereas a few less selfish spirits desired office for the sole purpose of bringing about a state of order and law enforcement. Among the more noble spirits was Captain Howard, but it so happened that before he had expressed publicly his commendable ambition, there appeared upon the scene a unique character, whose peculiar cognomen, James King of Wm, became one of the best-known in the annals of California.

His rare ability, unusual modesty, yet supreme fearlessness soon made him a dominating spirit in the State. He had come in the gold-rush of ’forty-nine by way of the Isthmus, from the old village of Georgetown, near Washington, D. C. Later he opened a banking house in San Francisco and was quite successful until 1854, when the speculation of his associates almost ruined him. Then he merged with Adams & Company and went down with them in the commercial disaster of 1855. Being one of the finest characters in the Golden State, his honor was unchallenged; the public continued to believe him innocent in connection with the outrageous frauds of Adams & Company, and gave him sufficient financial backing to enable him to start a newspaper called The Evening Bulletin, which has played and continues to play a great part in the history of the State.

As its editor he was not influenced by money or flattery, and, being a man of convictions, did not hesitate to present the facts to the public in regard to the corruption that was taking place before their eyes. He boldly denounced Senator Broderick, whom he accused of fraud and bribery. Social, financial and political conditions were going from bad to worse, and James King of Wm poured out his indignation against politicians and gentlemen gamblers—until he was numbered among the victims of a gambler named Casey.

The shooting of this brave editor aroused the whole State, for his courage and honor had won the hearts of the people, and mobs besieged the county jail day and night, demanding that Casey be hanged. Their howlings and shriekings eventually became so terrible that the citizens secured the assistance of a mounted militia battalion to hold them in check.

As days passed and the clamor grew greater, an impersonal organization was being formed with the sole purpose of enforcing justice. This was the Vigilance Committee, a band of strong and determined men who believed in law enforcement. It was first organized in 1851, and William T. Coleman, its President, came from Kentucky. On his arrival in California, Coleman had made pies from a recipe given to him by his aunt, and had sold them to the miners for a living. He was a great friend of William J. Howard, and every one recognized his qualities of courage, fairness and leadership. Altho only thirty years of age, he had repeatedly proved his wisdom and spirit of justice to the satisfaction of all. As president of the Vigilance Committee he seemed able to decide, without prejudice, whether the accused deserved death or freedom.

In the stormy days of 1851 to 1856, money could do anything in San Francisco, and its influence permitted men to run riot at pleasure or crime; however, no man lost his life through Coleman’s decisions who did not richly deserve it. When the people objected to the Committee, he would tell them that its members, who were known by numbers only, were not anxious to meddle in affairs, and that as soon as California selected officials and judges with honor and courage—judges capable of enforcing good laws—they would willingly hand over their power to the lawmakers and political idealists.

Many regarded the Vigilance Committee as an illegal tribunal, and the Law and Order party objected to its existence. Captain Howard held that there were two sides to this question: the Committee did harm in undermining the Government, but at the same time it did a great deal of good by expunging the worst elements. He also related how Coleman’s oratorical gift gave him great prestige and influence over all those who raised opposition.

On one occasion Governor Neely Johnson, representing the Law and Order party, visited President Coleman, who told him that the law was a dead letter, and that the object of the Vigilance Committee was to turn San Francisco into a city fit for decent and law-abiding people to live in, and this they proposed to do, “Governor or no Governor.” Johnson was so surprised at his eloquence that he slapped him on the back and said, “Go to it old boy! but get through as quickly as possible, on account of the terrible opposition and pressure.”

Governor Johnson certainly had a stupendous task, for men were deserting the militia to join Coleman’s organization. Even William T. Sherman, who later became famous as one of the great Civil War generals, refused to serve under the presiding Sheriff. The Vigilance Committee membership increased almost hourly, and such men as Isaac Bluxome, J. L. Mauron, J. L. Sundey, Charles Doane, R. M. Jessup, N. O. Arrington, George Ward, J. W. Farewell, James Dows, William Arrington, William Rogers, W. T. Thompson, Charles Case, were among its members. Its secret roster also included bankers and many prominent city men.

Senator Broderick was extremely active at Fort Gunnybags, and Captain Howard vividly recalled the time when Coleman said to him, “Broderick, why do you mix with bad characters?” Broderick replied, “I can buy bad characters to work for me; they are an influence in my efforts to gain position.”

While hundreds of volunteers were being enrolled in the ranks of this great reform organization, James King of Wm breathed his last, May 10th, 1856. In spite of his brief residence in San Francisco (seven years) no private citizen had ever received such a tribute as was rendered him at the funeral. The attitude of the masses demonstrated that this man had virtues which could not be hidden under a bushel, for he was beloved by all who knew him. Crowds gathered in the streets wearing bands of crape around the arm as a sign of profound respect, and while the burial ceremony was being performed, the Vigilance Committee, supported by ten thousand men, decided to hang the murderer, who had been given a fair trial.

News of the hanging traveled fast. Crowds quickly filled the streets in the vicinity of Fort Vigilance, and in their desire to see vengeance some men climbed to the tops of business buildings.

This Committee remained in power until the end of 1856, when the members arrived at a compromise with the State Government.

During frequent visits to San Francisco, William J. Howard spent much time discussing politics with his old pals, Judge Belt; Hall McCallister, District Attorney; Horace Hawes, his assistant; Peter Burnett, Judge David Terry, Latham, William Coleman, Kit Carson, and others. These discussions eventually became a habit, as more and more he studied California politics.

At this time there were three national political parties—Republican, Democratic and Whig; the Know-nothing party had died out. The Democrats were quite conservative and in favor of the farmers; it is not surprising, therefore, to find that young Howard, scion of the South, was a Democrat. He discussed politics so intelligently that Judge Belt suggested he offer himself as a candidate for office. His Virginian birth and education gave him the support of the Southerners, and his knowledge of the Spanish language helped him with the Mexicans.

These qualities resulted in his being nominated for the State Legislature at a Convention held in Mariposa in 1856, and in his election by a large majority.

Next: 22. Political PendulumContentsPrevious: 20. Grizzly Experiences

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