When San Francisco Rose Up to Chase a Racist Gang Out of Town

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An artist's rendition of the Hounds attacking a Chilean mining camp in San Francisco in 1849.
An artist's rendition of the Hounds attacking a Chilean mining camp in San Francisco in 1849. ('The Annals of San Francisco,' 1855)

In 1848, as San Francisco rapidly transformed from a small town of a few hundred people to a city besieged by Gold Rush fortune-seekers, a pervasive lawlessness took over. There was no police force; it was every-human-for-themselves. Out of the chaos, a violent racist group emerged. They called themselves the Hounds and, for the better part of a year, they terrorized the city.

The Hounds were young, angry and arrogant. (Think of them as Proud Boys for the Gold Rush era.) They loosely formed during the latter half of 1848, but in February 1849, the Hounds went official. They appointed leaders and established headquarters in a large tent near the intersection of Clay and Kearny. They called it "Tammany Hall" after New York's Tammany Society—a fraternal organization for American-born men wishing to wield political influence.

While the group's official reason for being was "mutual defense," members talked openly of the need to protect white citizens from immigrants. In truth, many of the Hounds were veterans of the Mexican-American war—which had come to an end in February 1848—and continued to harbor resentments towards Mexican citizens. That racism extended to all people of color, and foreigners more generally. (A Frenchman named Jules Rousson later testified that the Hounds attacked his restaurant repeatedly.)

Every Sunday, the Hounds would parade through the streets, waving weapons and banners, and playing drums and flutes. By night, they terrorized immigrants on the unlit streets. At the time, many structures in the city were impermanent because lumber was so expensive. That meant Mexican, Peruvian and Chilean miners living in tent encampments were particularly vulnerable to the Hounds. The gang beat, rob and attacked them with impunity.

No part of the city went undisrupted. The Hounds also ran protection rackets, forcing multiple local businesses to pay up. In addition, according to the 1855 Annals of San Francisco:

A favorite sport was to intrude themselves, even in open day, in a numerous gang, upon taverns and hotels, and demand high priced drinks and food, which on receiving—for people were too much afraid of their lives and property to refuse—they would recklessly destroy the furniture nearest at hand and forthwith decamp as boldly as they had entered.

Emboldened by months of getting away with these kinds of intimidations, on Sunday, July 15, 1849, the Hounds went on a daylight rampage that would ultimately be their undoing.

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That afternoon, on returning from a thieving expedition in Contra Costa County, the Hounds—now trying to rebrand themselves as "Regulators"—held an armed parade through the city. Guided by Hounds leader Samuel Roberts, who dressed in military uniform and was addressed as "Lieutenant," the march ended at a Chilean encampment at Clark's Point. (Today's Embarcadero.)

There, the Hounds went on a wrecking spree, savagely beating and raping occupants, stealing money and valuables, and destroying tents and personal affects. Facing little opposition, they eventually began firing their weapons indiscriminately. There is no record of how many people the Hounds shot that afternoon, but at least one child later died from his injuries.

The Weekly Alta California reported on Aug. 4, 1849:

The scene, as heard by those residing in the vicinity, is described as heart-rending. In every direction were heard the cries and shrieks of women and children, mingled with the oaths and demoniac laughter of reckless and impious men, whilst the report of fire-arms, and the sound of blows falling thick and fast upon the defenseless gave to the act its finishing touch of cowardly outrage.

Within hours of the attack, word of the carnage spread across San Francisco, and the city rose up in protest.

For months, the serving alcalde (mayor, for all intents and purposes), Thaddeus M. Leavenworth, had been unsure how to tackle the gang. The day after the attack, however, Leavenworth was approached by two respected citizens with a plan. The first was entrepreneur Samuel Brannan, publisher of the California Star—San Francisco's first newspaper—and the first Gold Rush millionaire. The second was Captain Bezer Simmons, an adventurer from Vermont with an honorable reputation. The two implored Leavenworth to deputize citizens and capture the Hounds.

Historical portraits of (L) Thaddeus M. Leavenworth and (R) Samuel Brannan.
(L) Thaddeus M. Leavenworth and (R) Samuel Brannan.

Almost immediately, Leavenworth called the frustrated citizens of San Francisco to gather at 3pm at Portsmouth Square—right outside Tammany Hall. The meeting was passionate but remained orderly. Local businessman William Davis Merry Howard was elected president of the meeting. James Ward and merchant William Heath Davis were vice-presidents; local doctor Victor J. Fourgeaud served as secretary; and Bezer Simmons was chairman.

Brannan took to the podium, denounced the Hounds, and asked that survivors of the previous day's attack step forward and sign up for relief packets at the nearby Parker House—a high-end gambling den. Then Brannan implored able-bodied San Franciscans to volunteer as special constables.

Two hundred and thirty people stepped up, and a man named Hiram Webb provided 60 muskets for them. Mr. A. J. Ellis was nominated as sheriff, and W. E. Spofford was made chief of police. On accepting the nomination, Spofford declared: "When I forget my duty, may God forget me." He then organized volunteers into ten different police forces led by individual captains—Bezer Simmons was one of them.

That same day, just 24 hours after the Hounds had attacked the Chilean encampment, 20 members of the gang were caught and locked up. That group included Samuel Roberts, who had been caught trying to escape to Stockton via schooner, and prominent gang member John Curley, who was apprehended in the Mission. The Hounds were held in a makeshift jail on board the USS Warren, a stores ship. (The only jail in San Francisco at the time stood at Clay and Stockton, and was notoriously easy to escape from.)

On Tuesday, July 17, the Hounds appeared before a grand jury comprised of three elected judges (Leavenworth, Ward and future senator, William McKendree Gwin) and a jury of citizens. The gang was charged with conspiracy, riot, robbery and assault with intent to kill. In his opening remarks, prosecution lawyer Francis J. Lippitt noted: "The charges... do not present the whole of the outrages... We have called it simply conspiracy to avoid technicalities."

Bizarrely, one of the witnesses that testified was Leavenworth himself. As soon as the alcalde arrived on the stand, the Hounds' defense lawyer vehemently objected. Leavenworth made matters worse by threatening to have the lawyer arrested. Another judge was forced to intervene in the subsequent melee, stating: "If the alcalde comes on to the stand as a witness, he must abide by the rules applicable to all witnesses and cannot, for the time, be considered a part of the court."

In the end, Roberts was found guilty on all counts, and eight of his cohorts were guilty of one or more of the charges. All were sentenced to prison time with hard labor. Unfortunately, all escaped without punishment due to the lack of judicial infrastructure that plagued San Francisco at the time, as well as the influence of corrupt local politicians.

The trial did accomplish one thing, though. After the Hounds' escape from formal punishment, its members were too afraid to regroup. Making their lives even more precarious was the fact that the city never forgot the atrocities the Hounds committed. It was later reported that, after the gang split up, some members sought work in the mines, only to be instantly recognized by those they had previously attacked. Several were hanged on the spot by revenge-thirsty miners.

While the meting out of official justice ultimately failed on this occasion, the swift process of capturing and removing the Hounds from San Francisco streets left many in the city convinced that the concept of organized policing could work. An Irish immigrant named Malachi Fallon was quickly called on to form a police force. "The merchants of the town having heard of my former connections with police matters, called to see me and offered inducements to remain and organize a police," Fallon later wrote. "The council met and appointed me Chief of Police at a salary of six thousand dollars a year."

Fallon started work on Aug. 13, 1849, and immediately appointed 30 officers, three sergeants and a deputy captain. The men had no formal training and no uniforms, and they made their headquarters in a one-room former schoolhouse near Portsmouth Square. Two months later, the town council announced the purchase of a new secure prison. It was a ship—the brig Euphemia—and it was ready for prisoners by February 1850.

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It wasn't all smooth sailing; Vigilance Committees briefly popped up in 1851 and 1856 and took matters of justice into their own hands, publicly hanging eight people in the streets. But Fallon's police force marked the very beginning of law and order in San Francisco—a system that rose, initially at least, out of citizens declaring that enough was enough.