Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Vigilance Committee of 1856 -> Chapter 7

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page

Chapter VII.

The last in the list is Edward McGowan - "Old Ned" - Chief of Police, Judge, Emigration Commissioner, politician, fugitive, "ubiquitous" soldier, retired sporting man, and still in life, nearly eighty years of age, clear in all his faculties. He was a devoted, trusted confidential friend of Broderick, and unpurchaseable in his friendship. He had been a prominent actor in many hard contests in behalf of Broderick, and aided materially in the successes which elevated that extraordinary man to the Senate of the United States. McGowan was a warm friend to Casey - his adviser on many occasions. He received intimation the night of Casey's arrest, that his own was contemplated. He was not seen again in San Francisco until his return to the State a year or more afterward, to surrender himself and demand trial upon whatever charge the Committee, or any, could prefer against him. His acquittal was the consequence.

Never was fugitive more assiduously and desperately hunted than he. Domiciliary visits, the intrusion of the Vigilance police into the homes of citizens, of every house and room in which it was suspected McGowan would be caught. Every friend of his was shadowed to get a clew to his place of concealment. Yet he was for weeks securely hidden within five miles of the city. Thence he made his escape to Santa Barbara, through the aid of true and sagacious friends; was sheltered and protected there by another - Jack Powers, one of the Stevenson's regiment, a fearless, dare-devil, desperate, wily man, accustomed to wild adventures, and hair-breadth escapes, whose own many exploits, including pursuit and search, will some day find publication, to rival the most interesting and exciting narratives of frontier life, and the daring and heroism of the men bred to such life. Jack Powers had on several occasions escaped the capture and death his Mexican pursuers had deemed inevitable. His ingenuity now came to do service on behalf of his friend McGowan. Chief of Police Curtis had got word that McGowan was in Santa Barbara. He was a zealous, Vigilance man. A schooner was chartered, and a strong, armed force sailed on her for Santa Barbara, to capture the fugitive. They landed, searched everywhere, particularly the house, premises and surroundings of Jack Powers' residence. Powers and McGowan both well knew that catching meant hanging beyond all hope. After a thorough quest Curtis and his armed band gave up the hunt and returned to San Francisco. At Powers' home they had searched every place except that in which McGowan was concealed. They had been within a toot of him; had nearly stepped on him; were so close that he heard their whisperings and cursings. But they never suspected his hiding place. He was simply rolled in a great mass of old floor matting, at one side of the house, which was covered with dust and leaves, and bits of straw, to give it the appearance of having been there, just as it seemed, for months. After the schooner sailed, McGowan succeeded in making his way out of the State and safe from the Vigilance Committee by the cunning and adroitness of his good friend Jack Powers. The Committee were foiled in their endeavor to capture the man, of all others, they were the most eager to catch and hang. There would have been short invoking of trial in his case and a hurried death by the rope. McGowan lives to relate his adventures and enjoy the narrative.

To give some idea of the manner of procedure and the discipline of the Committee, I will relate an experience of my own: One beautiful moonlight evening I was visiting the family of a prominent member of the San Francisco Bar. About nine o'clock the door bell was rung. Thinking that some friend of the family was at the door, the mistress of the house went herself to see who was there. In the doorway stood a strange man. He asked - mentioning my name - if I was in. She called to me and I went to the door. He requested me to accompany him to the rooms, of the Committee. I wished to know for what purpose, and at whose instance he came. He said he could not tell; he was ordered to request my attendance at once, and could say no more. I got my overcoat and went with him. On the way down he informed me of the diligent hunt he had made to find me - mentioning half a dozen families whom I frequently visited. At last we reached Fort Gunny Bags. He led the way to the Front street door, in the rear of the building. Two rows of guards with muskets, had position from the curb-stone to the door-way. He gave the password to these and we passed through. At the door were other guards - the same giving of pass-word there. We mounted the narrow stairs - my escort in advance. Midway on the stairs were two guards - one of them Dr. Rabe, with whom I had been intimate since 1850. Again the pass-word. And again at the head of the stairs to the four guards there. My escort opened the door of a medium-sized room, which fronted on the street, and requested me to be seated. He left me alone in the room. For an hour I had the room to myself. Then the door was opened, and I saw David C. Broderick over the head of the person who had evidently escorted him, and requested him to be seated. Broderick entered, and the door was closed, and locked from the outside. We had no more than shaken hands and mutually wondered what we were wanted for, when the key was turned, the door again opened, and in came tall Jo. McKibben, taller even than Broderick. As he entered, the door was again locked on the outside. The situation was too amusing, and we all laughed over it. But why were we there? On relating the manner of the "request" and escort, each had been served in similar manner - neither could conjecture the purpose in having us there. No other person was let in until about an hour. "Old Jim" Dows, as he was familiarly called, came to see us. We had known each other for years. He appeared surprised to see us, and McKibben and myself exchanged some pleasantries with him. I said to him, at last, that I wished the Executive Committee would hasten whatever business they had in my case and let me go, as I was eager to return to the house I had been visiting. He said he would and in ten minutes returned to apprise me that I could go right then if I wished. He accompanied me to the head of the stairs, and in loud voice ordered the guards to let me pass out - that it was "all right." With this he passed into the hall. The guard at the head of the stairs duly let me pass. At the middle of the stairs Dr. Rabe, who so well knew me, and must have heard Dows' order, demanded the pass-word, and refused to allow me to proceed. I said, "Why, Doctor, I don't know the pass-word, and you heard Jim. Dows' order to let me pass out." The guard at the head of the stairs cried out to him, "it was all right," and I was then allowed to pass down. But at the foot of the stairs the guard made similar demand, and again the word had to be shouted from above, that I was to be allowed to pass out. One of the guards then took my arm, escorted me through the file of outside guards, into the street, and I was, finally, "all right." But I felt curious in regard to Broderick and McKibben, The next day Dows told me we had all been wanted as witnesses on behalf of one of the prisoners in the custody of the Committee, but that he had got me excused. From Broderick I subsequently learned that he had given his testimony and had then come away. Also had McKibbon.

Rumors had been circulated that Broderick was to be arrested by the Committee. Whether true or false, I never learned, At all events he soon left San Francisco and made a tour of the mountain counties, to promote his canvass for the Senatorship, which he achieved the following year. His devoted friends were all violently opposed to the Committee, and any harm to him, by that body, would have been the occasion of very serious trouble.

Colonel E. D. Baker had defended Charles Cora, at his trial, as I have related. He was positive and unreserved in his denunciation of the Committee. Whether he was ever threatened with arrest I do not know; but he likewise left the city and went into the interior Northern Counties and there practiced his profession until September, when he entered into the Presidential campaign as chief orator of the Republican party, for Fremont, and in November returned to his practice in San Francisco.

The Vigilance Committee disbanded their military forces late in August. The Executive Committee held to them for future emergencies, but ceased their meetings. Fort Gunny Bags was dismantled. The rooms were abandoned; but as a closing scene, a grand review of the military was held near South Park, and the rooms were thrown open to the public. Thousands, ladies and gentlemen and children went there, and looked at the stuffed ballot-box, at the nooses and ropes used in the hanging of Casey and Cora, of Hetherington and Brace, at the shackles and gyves, at all the other instruments and paraphernalia of the gallows and the cells, into the narrow cells and their scant furniture, and at all the ghastly curios of these haunted rooms of life and death, of mental torture and bodily suffering, of forced suicide and the mocking of the crazed victim of his own despair and desperation. It was a remarkable sight for women, an astounding treat to ladies, and such an example to children, boys and girls! But comment is not required.

The city and county election was soon to follow. The Committee men did not neglect the opportunity which their powerful organization had given them. The Executive Committee became practically a self-constituted nominating convention. Their rank and file were not forgotten. General Doane was nominated for Sheriff. For every other office Vigilance men were named the candidates. None others had chance or hope. Their ticket was elected. They obtained the reward of their services in the organization, and profited accordingly. Thirty-one years have now passed since the existence of the Committee. Many of its executive members are numbered with the dead. Some of them passed away in a manner to remain as an enduring sorrow to their kindred and connexions. A few have prospered and occupy high places in community. A very few enjoy office bestowed by the party they aided so much to destroy in 1856. On the monument erected over the ashes of Casey is the scriptural admonition for all mankind. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay." Retribution is with God alone. The generation of this period will best subserve the good of community by conformity to the divine injunction. And this would never have been written were it not for the many and frequent ex parte, and incorrect publications, which have been put forth as faithful and impartial accounts of the Vigilance Committee of 1856, of the character of those who suffered death and banishment at its hands, and of the causes which led to its organization. The task is done. May another similar to it never be required. The law of the land should suffice for every exigency. It sets no bad or dangerous example, but is always the conservator of the public welfare, the best protector of all, the voice of the people in accordance with the laws of God.

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page