Item #8374 Tremendous Excitement! Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie rescued from the authorities, and hung by the Vigilance Committee, on Sunday August 24th at 3 o’clock P.M. in the presence of Fifteen thousand People. Quirot Justh, Co.

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Justh, Quirot & Co.

Tremendous Excitement! Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie rescued from the authorities, and hung by the Vigilance Committee, on Sunday August 24th at 3 o’clock P.M. in the presence of Fifteen thousand People.

San Francisco, CA: Justh, Quirot & Co., [before 1 September 1851]. Lithographic letter sheet on white paper. Printed area: 6.25” x 10”. Sheet size: 8.625” x 10.75”. CONDITION: Good, small chip in top margin, small crack in sky upper left corner, several pieces of masking tape at edges of verso.

 

A scarce and dramatic pictorial letter sheet depicting the San Francisco lynching of two criminals by the citizens’ Vigilance Committee during the city’s chaotic gold rush boom.

Just a few months after the fifth great fire of San Francisco nearly destroyed the booming gold rush town—a disaster for which members of the Australian criminal network known as the Sydney Ducks were blamed—two members of the group, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, were lynched. This lithograph depicts the scene after the men were “rescued” by a mob that stormed the prison where they had been placed by authorities, “and hung by the Vigilance Committee…in the presence of Fifteen thousand People.” Below their swinging corpses are signs for several businesses, including “Bullitt, Patrick & Down,” “Torrey & Blanchard,” “H. A. Cheever & Co.,” and, of course, the “Vigilance Committee Chambers. Other signs advertise “Furniture” and “Storage.” Telegraph Hill, where the Australian immigrant community was largely centered, can be seen in the background on the right. The title of this example differs from that of the one described by Baird, reading “hung” rather than “hanged.”

Both Whittaker and McKenzie were implicated by another Sydney Duck, James Stuart, who had recently met a similar fate. According to the committee’s report on Whittacker, the men were executed not for one act of wrongdoing in particular, but for “divers offences, whereby the safety of Lives and property have been endangered” (Williams, p. 467). As the report on McKenzie therefore concluded, the two were “hardened offender[s]” whom it would be “unsafe to hand…over to the Authorities or mete out…a less Penalty than Death” (Williams, p. 462).

Once the gold rush had transformed San Francisco from a quiet settlement of fewer than 2000 inhabitants into “a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties,” formal law enforcement had been unable to maintain order. Of the many immigrant groups flooding into the city, the Sydney Ducks (also known as the Sydney Coves or Sydney Birds) were “one of the most maligned…in American history. Attracted to California by the discovery of gold, the Ducks acquired a reputation for criminal activities that was remarkable even during the gold rush era in San Francisco” (Ricards). Many had originally been deported from Britain for crimes, but a demographic analysis of the Australian immigrant community, which skewed towards families, suggests that this reputation was somewhat overstated. Nonetheless, such was the fear caused by the gang that it prompted the establishment of the first San Francisco Committee of Vigilance. The Committee had some 700 members and was responsible for several executions (in 1851 as well as 1856, when the group briefly re-formed), of whom Whittaker and McKenzie are probably the best known.

Justh, Quirot, & Co. are among the most important early lithographers to document San Francisco’s boom—as Peters writes, “their realization of the ‘news value’ of lithography is obvious” (p. 132). Because of the many destructive fires that razed `swaths of the young city, however—as well as the 1906 earthquake—little of their work has survived.

An important visual record of the turbulent San Francisco scene during the gold rush era.

REFERENCES: Asbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast (New York, 1933), p. 18; Baird 274; Clifford’s California Pictorial Letter Sheets 283; Ricards, S. & Blackburn, G., “The Sydney Ducks: A Demographic Analysis” in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1973), p. 20; Peters, Harry. California on Stone (1935); Williams, Mary Floyd, ed. Papers of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 (Berkeley, 1919).

Item #8374

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