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Banking House of Lucas, Turner & Co.,
San Francisco, Cal.,
May 21, 1856.
W.T. Sherman to Hon. Thomas Ewing.
My Dear Sir: I take it for granted you will be sufficiently alarmed at the condition of affairs here as reported by the papers. . . . There is no doubt that James King of William was indiscriminate in his abuse, but the public offices heretofore having been controlled absolutely by politicians who did not scruple to use such men as Casey, Billy Mulligan, Charley Duane, et hoc genus Immune, all graduates of New York prisons or political clubs, the public generally approved King's bold course in assailing that class of men, at the same time refusing to fight a duel.
Our courts here and our authorities are about as good or as bad as you would expect from the elements that make up our population. They have all been elected by the people themselves, either as Democrats or as Know-nothings. Nevertheless the merchants and people who despise the kind of men who hang around the polls, the public offices, the courts, etc., are and have been perfectly sick and tired of the class of men referred to; therefore, when James King began his career and pitched into the rowdies with such zeal and boldness, he met an unexpected encouragement which on several occasions upset his vanity. The murder of Richardson by a low gambler, Cora, and his acquittal raised the same feeling against the courts, and it is useless to talk to our best men here about them; they assert, with some show of truth, that any man with money can, through the sheriff, so pack a jury that they cannot agree. All these elements were rife when King was shot by Casey, one of the most skillful politicians of his day, he is a New York convict, editor of a newspaper established here to levy blackmail, and a member of the Board of County Supervisors, when he was not: even a candidate. He himself admits that during the election he did not propose to have himself elected, but when they commenced counting the votes he found his opponent in wire-pulling and rowdyism - Yankee Sullivan - had been stuffing a little too strong. He got tickets printed with his own name, and caused the inspectors to put them in the ballot-box, and to declare him (Jim Casey) elected. These facts, 't is said, are notorious, and were well known to the Board of Supervisors, when by vote the every appropriation made. It is not then astonishing that this murder in broad daylight in the very center of the city should produce such commotion. I was not surprised to learn the next morning after the occurrence that the jail had been threatened, and that a deep-seated determination existed to hang him whether King died or not. By circumstances I was compelled to examine the jail and see how far the military companies could sustain the civil authorities. The military companies shared the general sentiment, and would not risk themselves to defend such rascals as Cora and Casey. The whole mass of the people were of like sentiment. The city police is small, mostly distributed about the courts as messengers, etc., and of the very class of men against whom the storm was brewing, and the sheriff, also a "shoulder-striker," was absolutely abandoned by his friends. At no time, by concentrating these discordant elements, could I count on more than one hundred inexperienced men. The jail, too, is a single-story yard, with a cluster of cells, covered with a roof of one-inch plank and tin; its front is above the grade of the street, but the hill rises so rapidly to the rear that its back wall and roof are absolutely flush with the ground, so that you walk down the hill and on the roof without losing step; the whole interior is overlooked by a great many houses all round it. With equal numbers I would rather have been outside than inside. I therefore advised the sheriff how to act should he be assailed by an indiscriminate mob. I had been appointed, by mere accident, the day before King was shot, a major-general of militia, but I have never attempted to exercise authority, because there were no forces, or what few there were in the shape of volunteer companies were on the other side, or so unreliable that none but a fool would count on their fidelity in time of real danger. Therefore, whenever called on I have advised, but have declined to attempt action without reliable men. As long as the matter rested with an unorganized mob there was little or no danger, but soon it was observed that all the discordant elements were drawn together under the name, and after the precedent, of the old Vigilance Committee. Long lines of men were seen passing in and out, oaths were administered, depots opened for recruits, muskets, rifles, and cannon bought, subscription papers carried round in broad daylight, and no one could help it. Over one thousand sworn men were banded together, and William T. Coleman, one of the largest merchants of this city, son-in-law to Daniel D. Page of St. Louis, and a man of fine impulses, manners, character, and intelligence, was made president. He has not much education and not the least doubt of himself, his motives or intentions. The legal government of San Francisco was paralyzed, and the mayor in his helplessness telegraphed the Governor, who came and was as powerless as anybody else. The entire community was on one side. The new organization was the power, the only organized power here, and with the design of saving bloodshed we put ourselves in communication with them. They assured us as men, as acquaintances, etc., that they would commit no murder, no bloodshed, no violence; but that justice, summary justice, must be done. I cannot tell all that was done, and how futile that was. The papers will blame Johnson for treating with the enemy, but there was no other person, and he had to attempt that or nothing. Now King is dead and Casey is a murderer; Cora is a murderer; both must be hung; far better were it if they could be hung by law, but the Vigilance Committee cannot help themselves. All business is stopped, and immense masses of men idle in the streets watching for blood. Thus far the committee have been exceedingly cautious - a little too much so, for the masses may become uncontrollable; yet thus far no violence has been committed, and I have the most positive assurances from their leaders that none is intended they even pay the passage to New York of such rowdies as cannot pay their own. They declare their intention to purge the city of rowdies and criminals, but they also have shown an enmity to the free expression of opinion that looks like other similar events of history. These events have shaken my confidence in this city, and once or twice I have wished that (my family) were in a safe place, and regretted that I ever incurred the expense of my dwelling-house, which must tie me down here. Of course I myself cannot leave here, but if matters do not improve, I may at some future time accept your kind offer to take them home till such time as I can properly return. . . . Understand, I fear no molestation of person, but I fear the effect of this on property, on money, and credit.
Your son, W.T. Sherman.
- William Sherman