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The corrupt justice in early San Francisco

Jose Forni
Jose Forni

Under the corrupt system of elections that existed in gold rush San Francisco even the county and municipal officers could hardly be anything other than bad, and their subordinates untrustworthy and unreliable. Though some judges were honest, in general they tilted the law in favor of those to whom they owed their position. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies, with the rare exception of the few with integrity, were generally appointed to reward partisan and often fraudulent services, and as a rule were grossly inefficient and corrupt. Their only honor lay in fidelity to their party, their virtue in subordination to their clique and their security in the success of their leaders. They were not only the friends of criminal but criminals themselves and instead of protecting the community against scoundrels they protected the scoundrels against the community. They sometimes aided escapes, destroyed evidence, removed witnesses or packed juries.

Because of the multitude and the magnitude of crimes committed and the confidence with which criminals could submit to arrest the police court became the most important tribunal in the city. The best and brightest attorneys regularly attended its sessions. The law is full of technicalities even under the best of circumstances but in the police court bar of old San Francisco those technicalities were marvelous and in the rare case where they did not carry the lower court they were almost sure to win on appeal. Between 1849 and 1855 over one thousand homicides had been committed in the city with only one legal execution. On December 10, 1852 a Spanish murderer named Jose Forni was hanged on Russian Hill in front of a crowd of six to ten thousand spectators. In December 1855 it was said that in the preceding eleven months five hundred and thirty-five killings had taken place in California, forty-nine were lynched by mobs and only seven men were legally executed.

John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.