Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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COLEMAN, William T., pioneer, born in Cythiana, Kentucky, 29 February, 1824. He went to San Francisco in 1849 and engaged in business as a shipping and commission merchant. During 1850 and the early part of 1851, lawlessness, from which San Francisco, even at the height of the first gold excitement of 1849, had been surprisingly free, became frequent and aggressive. The regular courts, meanwhile, proved to be ineffective. The result in February, 1851, was an outburst of popular indignation against crime. Robbers had assaulted and badly injured a well-known merchant, Jansen, in his place of business; and two men were arrested on a mistaken suspicion that they were the assailants. On 22 February a crowd of indignant citizens undertook to get these men out of the hands of the jailer and execute them, but the attempt was for the moment thwarted. Later in the day, however, an agreement with the authorities was reached, in accordance with which the prisoners were to be brought for trial before an improvised popular tribunal on the next day. At this trial Mr. Coleman appeared as prosecuting attorney, regular lawyers declining the responsibility. He himself had before used all his personal influence with the assembled people to secure an orderly trial, and when the popular jury disagreed on the question of the personal identity of one of the accused, the whole undertaking was quietly abandoned, the people restored the prisoners to the regular authorities, and the excitement died away. The possibility of orderly popular justice in San Francisco had, however, been made plain by this affair, and when, in May and June, further signs of lawlessness became noticeable, while the inefficiency of the courts remained as obvious as ever, the leaders in the movement of February joined with many other citizens to organize a vigilance committee, for the sake of terrifying, banishing, and, in very serious eases, hanging the dangerous characters. In the executive body of this committee Mr. Coleman was prominent. The committee was active during June, July, and August, its sessions all being secret. In all eases but one (where they retook two of their prisoners whom the sheriff had rescued) open resistance of the regular authorities was avoided. Even in this case they escaped an actual fight with the authorities by means of prompt action and an overwhelming show of force. They executed, in the course of their activity, four men, all notorious and desperate characters, banished to foreign countries, under threats of death upon return, many others, and terrified into flight or concealment a vast number. When their work was done they abandoned, not their organization, but their active operations, and returned to private life. Mr. Coleman's services in connection with the committee of 1851 were not forgotten, and when in May, 1856, after a long period of commercial depression, popular discontent, and too general social corruption, public indignation was once more aroused to white heat by the murder of the noted editor James King, of William, Mr. Coleman was one of the first called upon to lead a new movement, which resulted in the greatest of all vigilance committees. After some urging, he accepted this call and became leader of the executive committee of the revived organization. The work of the great committee cannot be described fully here; but Mr. Coleman's name is connected with all the prominent occurrences for which the committee is responsible. Early in the history of the excitement he was visited at the rooms of the executive committee by the governor of California, Neely Johnson, in company with prominent officials, among whom was Gun. William T. Sherman, then major general of the state militia. The officials came to use their personal influence with Coleman himself, and, with the other members of the body, to prevent any active interference in the course of law. Of this interview General Sherman, in his "Memoirs," has given an account that differs much from the memory of Mr. Coleman himself, and of other committee members. At all events, the negotiations entirely failed, and the committee took /'or the time almost complete control of the administration of criminal justice in San Francisco. Both City and state authorities were powerless to hinder them; the committee were strong in the consciousness of the approval of a large majority of good citizens; and the respectable but not very skilfully conducted efforts of the "law and order" party to organize public sentiment against the whole movement proved unavailing. Mr. Coleman throughout endeavored, and generally with success, to keep the committee from hasty and dangerous action, and to avoid collision with United States authorities. He had charge of the trials, and directed the final executions, of the four murderers whom the organization hanged, the most noted of whom was Casey, the murderer of King. The most serious complication in the movement was the arrest and trial of Judge David S. Terry, of the Supreme Court of the state, for assault on one of the vigilance police. Terry was finally released without punishment. The committee tried to avoid interference in matters of general partisan politics, so far as related to national and state affairs; but after the cessation of the activity of the whole body, in August, 1856, its members still retained enough unity to control municipal politics for many years. While Mr. Coleman's firm continued its San Francisco business, he himself lived in New York from 1857 till 1864; and he was there unsuccessfully sued by persons who had suffered from the vigihmce committee. In 1864 he returned to San Francisco. The history of the vigilance committees, so far as it is now known, may be found in the "Annals of San Francisco" (New York, 1855); Tuthill's "History of California" (San Francisco, 1866): and Hittefl's "History of San Francisco" (San Francisco, 1878). But the complete inner history of that strange episode will probably not be written, or at least not published, until the actors have all passed away.
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