Weekly Story: Fort Gunnybags

Weekly Story

In 1856, private citizens choose a headquarters for their campaign against a corrupt political machine.

For a considerable time after the organization of the Committee, on account of the strenuous opposition of their enemies, who were ironically called the “Law and Order party,” great apprenensions were felt of a clash with the State, if not also with the United States, authorities; and the fact was recognized that the Vigilance headquarters would be untenable in case of an attack.



Fort Gunnybags.
The Old Stronghold of the Vigilance Committee.


Only the points that pertain to the building the Committee used as its headquarters concern us here. These, abstracted for this article by Mr. Theodore H. Hittell from his History, are as follows:—


THE third volume of my “History” gives a full account of the building on the south side of Sacramento street between Davis and Front, which was known in the old days as “Fort Gunnybags.” It is the low, two story, brick, business house, with flat roof, the fourth from the corner of Front street. It had been occupied by the firm of Truett and Jones, wholesale liquor merchants, up to Saturday, May 17, 1856, when the famous Vigilance Committee engaged the second story, moved into it, and established their head-quarters. For a short time Truett & Jones continued on the second floor, but, as the work of the Vigilance Committee expanded and more room was required, the firm was induced to remove, and the committee took charge and control of the whole building and remained there until their final adjournment.

It was there, in front of the second story windows, that James P. Casey and Charles Cora were hanged by the Committee on Thursday, May 22, 1856,—Casey for the murder of James King of William, editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, and Cora for the murder of William H. Richardson, United States Marshal. Wooden platforms had been run out from two of the windows, extending about a yard beyond the line of the building and provided with hinges at the edges of the sills. These platforms were held in horizontal position by cords fastened at their outer ends, passing up to beams which projected from the roof directly over them and then to the top of the building out of sight. To the projecting beams were also attached the fatal ropes with nooses and slip knots, prepared beforehand. Casey was attended by Father Maraschi and Cora by Father Accolti. Armed files of Vigilance soldiers took up most of the street in front; but the rest of it and several vacant lots on the opposite side and the streets and housetops for blocks around were filled with immense crowds of sympathizing people, Everything was conducted as orderly and calmly as was possible under the circumstances. At twenty-one minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon, the legs of each having been strapped together, the ropes were adjusted about their necks; white caps were drawn over their heads; and at a signal from within the cords holding up the platforms were severed on the roof and the doomed men fell a distance of about six feet. They died apparently without a struggle.

The Vigilance Committee next proceeded to purge the community of some of its remaining objectionable characters, whom they arrested and confined in small rooms partitioned off on the second floor of the building. Billy Mulligan, Martin Gallagher, Billy Carr, Woolley Kearney, Edward Bulger, Charles P. Duane, and many others were confined there, while they were being tried and until their transportation out of the country. It was there, also, in one of these small apartments, that Francis Murray, usually known as Yankee Sullivan, the prize-fighter and ballot-box stuffer, fearful of meeting his deserts on the scaffold, committed suicide by severing the arteries of his left arm at the elbow with a table knife. It was in two of the same rooms that Joseph Hetherington and Philander Brace were subsequently confined and thence, on July 29th, taken by the Committee to their execution on a scaffold erected in Davis street between Sacramento and Commercial,—Hetherington on account of the murder of Dr. Andrew Randall and Brace for the murder of Captain Joseph B. West. When, however, David S. Terry, a justice of the Supreme Court of the State, was arrested for stabbing Sterling A. Hopkins, none of these small rooms was considered secure enough, and a new, stronger, and more removed place of confinement was prepared in the second story of the adjoining building on the east: and it was there that he remained most of the time from June 21, the day of his arrest, till August 7, after Hopkins’ recovery from his wound, when he was released.

For a considerable time after the organization of the Committee, on account of the strenuous opposition of their enemies, who were ironically called the “Law and Order party,” great apprenensions were felt of a clash with the State, if not also with the United States, authorities; and the fact was recognized that the Vigilance headquarters would be untenable in case of an attack. There was consequently some talk of removing; but it ended only in efforts to strengthen the building as it was. Various things with this end in view were done; but the most remarkable—though there may be much question as to its real efficacy—was the fortification of the building by a sort of breastwork that was thrown up on the night of June 10th and gave to the place its distinctive name of “Fort Gunnybags,” by which it was subsequently known.

The plan of fortification referred to, says the “History,” consisted of a wall, constructed of coarse sacks, usually known as gunnybags, filled with sand and piled up in such a manner as to form a breastwork nearly six feet thick and nearly ten feet high. This wall, extending out from the front corners of the building across the sidewalk and into the street and then running along in the street in front of the building, made a sort of inclosure. What might be called embrasures were left at several points and particularly at the corners, at each of which a cannon was placed; and all along the line there was an inside platform and openings from which a scathing fire of musketry could be poured. It seems to have been understood at the time of the construction of these works or just previous thereto, that the Law and Order party had tried to obtain or had obtained positions in the immediate neighborhood, from which the Vigilance building could be raked; and it was to counteract and foil its plans that these works, including the planting of a few small cannon on the roof of the building, were constructed. As has been said before, it is doubtful whether the works would have been of any account in case of a fight, and particularly if the Law and Order party had planted an effective battery on Rincon hill or any other of the surrounding heights. But, whether so or not, they appear to have at least inspired confidence in the Vigilance Committee forces; and in that respect, if in no other, some praise was due from them to Francis J. Lippitt, afterwards colonel of their fourth regiment, to whom they were indebted not only for the idea, but also for the building of such a fortification.

Subsequently, on August 21st, 1856, and on the following two days, after the Committee had finished their chief labors and were about ready to finally adjourn, the headquarters on Sacramento street were thrown open to public inspection; and during those days many thousands of persons, including most of the residents of San Francisco and many strangers, visited and examined them. By that time the sand-bag fortifications in front had been removed; but the cannon on the floor, the guns and swords in their racks, and the ammunition in the magazine all remained. Everything was scrupulously clean and in order. Portraits and pictures ornamented the walls; in one place was a bust of James King of William; in another the famous ballot-box, with false bottom and sides partially drawn out so as to show the stuffed ballots that had been found in it. The offices of the grand marshal, quartermaster and commissary were finely carpeted. . . . The room of the executive committee was perfectly plain, containing only several long tables, a lot of chairs, and some cases full of papers. In the police office there were exhibited such curiosities as usually garnish places of that kind, including pistols, bowie-knives, and other deadly weapons, that had been taken from prisoners. On the wall were the hats of Casey, Cora, Hetherington, and Brace, surrounded by the ropes with which those individuals had been hanged. An old rusty blade, said to have been displayed when the Law and Order arms were taken out of the schooner Julia, was facetiously labeled, ‘The Sword of the Pirate Durkee.’ Over the police rooms were the armorer’s shop and the hospital, and on the roof the bell, at whose tap the Committee was ever ready to fly to arms. Of the implements of war on exhibition at the building, not counting those stored in other places, there were said to be some nineteen hundred muskets, two hundred and fifty rifles, three hundred dragoon sabers, seventy-eight Roman sabers, and fifty-five artillery swords, besides a lot of shotguns and arms of other kinds.

Overland Monthly (Vol. XXXI-No. 181, January, 1898).


James King of William Shot by James Casey, a Politician. This Act Prompted the Organization of the Vigilance Committee of 1856, and the Hurried Construction of Fort Gunnybags.—From an old print of that time.

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker