STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
The Vigilante Era
On the 19th day of March, 1884, the San Joaquin Valley Regulators shot and instantly killed Joe Doane in his saloon at this home six miles from Modesto on the Waterford road – his place being known as the Six Mile House. The Vigilantes followed this event by the expulsion of a number of assumed undesirables from Modesto. During their subsequent activities they kept Modesto in a constant turmoil of excitement for several months until they deemed their mission accomplished.
This was the second appearance of Vigilantes in Modesto, their previous demonstration being in the year 1879 when they made one swift, sudden raid and clarified Modesto's murky atmosphere for a short period of time. Such was the condition of affairs in Modesto that the development of the vigilance committee was not unexpected by the public on either occasion.
Like every frontier village that grew up with a rush and experienced unexampled prosperity from the start – thereby attracting to its confines the rougher elements of society who sought opulence without honest endeavor amidst the primitive customs and the open life of a rudely and rapidly constructed town – Modesto, in its infancy, suffered its period of open lawlessness, its era of unbridled gambling, its reign of brutal thuggery, its sway of the malign saloon influence, and its season of brazen, flaunting vice. The liveliest mining camp, situated upon civilization’s extreme verge, in the height of its most wide open activities, possessed no edge upon Modesto in the years night life that it held the reputation throughout the state of being a place in which there was literally a man served for breakfast every morning in the year.
At this period Modesto was an extremely prosperous village. The wealth that was garnered from the bountifully productive virgin soil poured into the city as though the fabled mines of Ophir had been tapped.
From the offices of the warehouses that contained the grain that rolled in from the prairies and from the vaults of the bank that stored the gold into which the wheat had been transmuted, even unto the tables of the gambling halls, the counters of the barrooms, and the parlors of the gilded palaces, it permeated every avenue of communal activity. Money in plentitude was spent with a recklessness and prodigality that baffled understanding. Young Modesto manifested the spirit of the youth who had suddenly acquired affluence and was frittering away his substance like a nabob possessed of an inexhaustible spring of riches. Modesto was in its golden age.
In the small and scattered town there were about two thousand people when the Vigilantes first came to it in 1879. On the west side of Tenth street between H and I, where imposing mercantile establishments now exist, residences with struggling gardens fighting against the ever present weed, domiciled some of the most prominent citizens. On the east side of Tenth street in this block, there were two blacksmith shops with the homes of the owners adjoining, a few other homes, a bakery and a store or two. At the corner of Tenth and I streets there was a saloon with a livery stable adjoining. In the middle of this block amidst the residences, there was another saloon. Toward H street there were a few stores. ON the block north in which the Modesto Theater is now located there were a number of residences. On the corner of I and Front streets stood the famous Ross House – the St. Francis Hotel of the village. If it could only be recalled into existence, and made to speak in a living tongue, its walls could unfold a tale of life of the early days that would make racy reading. Directly north from this hotel and on the opposite corner was a brick building with a saloon in the basement where music and mirth held sway. In the middle of the block on the north side of I street between Ninth and Tenth, there were a saloon and a lodging house. On Ninth street between H and I streets, adjoining the Ross House, there was first a store or two and a string of saloons that made Modesto, and Front street famous throughout the state.
Toward the end of the block near H street there were two or three stores. On upper Front street between I and J streets saloons flourished. The main business district was on H street between Front and Tenth streets. These two blocks on either side of the street contained the usual number of saloons among the commercial establishments. When the people were out shopping their ears were greeted with the ribald language that emanated from these places and they were frequently jostled off the sidewalks by the inebriated and maudlin visitors who sought the fresh air as a relief from the atmosphere of these ill-smelling and stuffy public houses. This constituted the main business district of Modesto at this period.
There were a few mercantile establishments across the track opposite the old railroad reservation. In the middle of that block there was the ever-obtruding saloon with its notorious dance hall in which a few years earlier one of the partners murdered in cold blood his associate, disappeared with all the money of the firm and hid in the brush of the Tuolumne river bottom, being apprehended through the action of one of the female attendants in taking food to him.
The other residential portions of the community were comprised within a radius of not more than four or five blocks east and west from the corner of I and Tenth streets and perhaps from two to four blocks on Sixth and Seventh streets there were very fine residences in which lived many of the early settlers of Modesto. There was scarcely a home east of Fourteenth street. There were a few scattered residences further out but the vast majority of the population was contained within the boundaries indicated. The town was then beginning to grow east, and northward. All the open territory surrounding was a vast wheat field.
Modesto grew so rapidly during the first years of its existence that any element chose its own locality for settlement. Chinese wash houses and opium joints with their fan tan and gambling lay-outs flourished in the midst of the main business district. One was situated on the present location of the Modesto Theater. Another made the air dismal near Modesto's present city hall and fire house. Others were on the west side of the railroad track. All encroached on the most respectable residential quarters. While the main saloon district was on the Front, these establishments, then highly legitimate in the life of the community and possessing a most powerful influence, were not averse to taking a position among or close to the homes and residences of the people and disturbing the peace with their midnight carousals.
A notorious dance hall existed on the west side of Tenth street a few hundred feet from the corner of H street. Another provided entertainment at the corner of Eighth and H streets. Both sold hard liquors, possessed their retinue of painted women, and provided the nightly dance for the rancher, vaquero, farm hand, the motley crew that infested Front street and the male citizens generally. Barbary Coast had been transferred to Modesto. It was a “coast” that well maintained the reputation of its prototype in hilarity, in criminality and in petty thievery. These establishments contained a number of private rooms.
Drunken carousals with the female habitants of these gay and festive places from which the male participants emerged with broken heads, contused faces, and abbreviated bank rolls, were not infrequent. Nor was it deemed improper, undignified, or unbecoming for unattached youth or mellow age to slum amidst these attractive purlieus, and dance and mingle with the diverse and variegated Bohemia that made them so alluringly inviting. It was a part of the town's life. A full fashioned and well distinguished red light district flourished in various parts of the town, closely adjacent to the business and the residential sections.
The dominant political influence in Modesto as well as in the county was the saloon element. It aligned itself with the prevailing national party. It controlled so many votes in convention, in the primary and in the general elections that no person who sought public office could hope for success unless he had made his peace with or had delivered the price to this coterie. There was a solidarity of action in this faction within the party. The saloon crew possessed able political leaders who delivered the saloon hordes as though they were puppets and pawns in the Machiavellian game. In many a hard fought contest this element determined the final result. Its power and influence caused the aspirant to bow to its edicts and to follow its program, which involved non-molestation with and protection of the most disreputable features of the saloon business.
Modesto then presented the spectacle of a town in the grip of those elements whose activities were antagonistic to the written law as well as to the mandates of decency. The Front was wide open both day and night. It became the rendezvous of the most daring sports, gamblers and saloon habitues that could be found in the state. Gambling and drunkenness were rampant. Hardly a night passed during which some derelict who floated in from the country to enjoy a rest from labor or a season of joy was not fleeced in a game of cards, robbed and beaten up, or plied with liquor until he became insensible and his pockets picked by the light-fingered gentry. The Front displayed a continuous round of gaming, thievery and thuggery. Shooting scrapes were frequent. Drunken carousals made the night hideous. Courts and lawyers were busy with the flood of criminal business that originated on the Front. In fact, in these days criminal practice was the most profitable portion of legal work.
Such was the cohesive power of criminality that any sort of a defense could be proved by the denizens of the Front. An attorney of the old school whose rise to fame and prestige began in that period has said that he knew of six witnesses who lived on the Front by whom he could easily prove any defense desired in behalf of any of the Front street habitues. Whenever any of the police officers remonstrated with the leading saloon keepers on the manner of the management of their establishments as regards law and order, they were pugnaciously informed to betake themselves to the imaginative domain in which the atmosphere is presumed to be torrid. The maintenance of law and order on the Front was a gross travesty on justice and a huge joke on the law.
After the two years of drought, during which the usually fertile plains of Stanislaus, parched by the summer's heat, failed to produce the golden sheaves – after these two lean years that have become historic in the county's annals, the wonderfully bounteous crop of 1879 brought to Modesto the best and perhaps the worst times that the city had ever seen. To the tiller of the soil, to the merchant and to the community's lagging industries, with the recrudescence of prosperity, it brought renewed life and hope and vigor that gave us impetus to all kinds of business enterprise.
A tonic had been infused into the arteries of trade. The wealth of garnered grain also brought to the town a flock of gamblers, a bevy of shady charactered women, with their stiff-brimmed and spring-bottomed consorts, together with men of other equally undesirable activities, who came hither to gain their illicit share of the profits of the industrious farmer and of the wages of the rural worker. The Front reassumed its wonted aspect. Gaming, thievery and thuggery returned to this habitat with a renewed vigor. The opium joints and the gambling halls were permitted to run in full swing. From the very center of the town the dance halls spread their baleful influence over the entire community. The tenderloin crew, oblivious of the resentment that was rapidly becoming deep-seated and of the day of reckoning that was preparing, rode in Modesto's saddle and controlled the town.
Suddenly, one Saturday night in the latter part of the month of August, 1879, there was a gathering of the Vigilantes from all portions of Modesto and vicinity. In accordance with their own method of communication by which they could be easily assembled, they met on the outskirts of Modesto in the broad expanse of open country on a certain piece of high, knolly land between Modesto and Ripperdan – about midway between the old red brick school house on Fourteenth street and the lane that fringed Dry Creek. The night's darkness gave excellent opportunity for complete mobilization without the public or the law officers being aware of the meeting, while the smallness of the town and the lack of street illumination were additional factors in the secrecy of the rendezvous. Nor was this territory ever frequented by the pedestrian or the curious night prowler, for indeed in those days it was a dreary and uninviting place - “No man's land” - out in the country and far from the beaten lines of travel. The Vigilantes came to this spot, singly or in pairs – never more than two of them walking together. There were about two hundred and fifty of them. They were all thoroughly armed. They were led by a fearless and intrepid “Captain” - a man of family, of property, a farmer in whose veins flowed Revolutionary blood, for his ancestors had fought under Washington and his kin had been in the civil war. An advocate of law and order, in private life he was known as a law abiding citizen.
The Vigilantes gave implicit confidence to his leadership of them.
Donning black masks and led by their “Captain,” the Vigilantes formed a weird looking procession in the silent darkness of the night as they quietly and determinedly marched over the broad expanse of then uninhabited land – now covered with paved streets, made beautiful by blooming gardens and dotted with well built homes and cottages in which the cheery prattle of bright-eyed children enliven the hours of the day and the safe quiet of the night speaks of Modesto's progress from its era of lawlessness to its reign of order – into H street and along this street to Tenth. They marched down Tenth street until the Sullivan dance hall was reached. Deploying in front of this notorious establishment, the Vigilantes halted. In a strong, commanding and deliberate voice the “Captain” demanded the appearance of Sullivan. As the bedizened women and the blear-eyed roysterers peeped through the open door of the establishment, and observed the gleaming shot guns and six-shooters in the possession of the Vigilantes, trained on the Sullivan dance hall, and saw the rows of apparitions faced in black, there was a rapid scurrying to cover. Pandemonium and panic seized the erstwhile revelers. The music and the dance and the promiscuous carousing ceased. The glamour of Sullivan's faded. It became a bygone – a relic of the past. Through the rear entrance, the terrified and motley crowd hastened into the safety of the outer air and vanished into the obscurity and gloom of the dark.
In answer to this grim summons, Sullivan immediately presented himself. He was instructed to close his notorious joint. He did so, left the town and has not since returned. The Vigilantes then visited the numerous houses of ill fame that were located in the alley between G and H and Ninth and Tenth streets. The inmates were notified to leave Modesto. Many of the women left at once but a few of them awaited the arrival of the morning train. After cleaning up the “Alley,” the Vigilantes marched to the Johnson dance hall at the corner of Eighth and H streets. Johnson was given the same order that Sullivan received. He complied with the request but remained in the community and thereafter became one of Modesto's most distinguished constables.
These proceedings were followed by a raid on the joints in the Mongolian quarter. After placing ropes around these shanties, the Vigilantes tugged away till they were razed to the ground. The ruins were searched for pipes and other smoking paraphernalia, fan tan lay-outs and faro tables. These were placed in a public square and burned. The gamblers and the Chinese women of ill fame were notified to leave Modesto and they did so forthwith.
A sudden surprise to the entire tenderloin, this raid was effective for the time being. Neither the officers nor the public molested the Vigilantes upon this occasion, nor was any effort made to ascertain the perpetrators of the raids. No blood was shed. After their work was accomplished the Vigilantes marched to the northern part of Modesto and disbanded.
On the morning following this raid as the north-bound train steamed into Modesto, among the dense throng that awaited its arrival were many who hailed its appearance as a deliverance from the wrath of an outraged public sentiment. The exodus surprised the Modesto citizenship present. There was a subdued agitation around the old Southern Pacific depot. In the excitement an incident occurred that left an indelible impression on the memories of the spectators. Two men were seen coming from one of the Front street saloons, dragging toward the depot and supporting him on either side as they pulled him along, a man in the most advanced state of intoxication. As the trio approached the train and sought to board it, another man, a stranger in the town, rapidly darted from the crowd and made a ferocious lunge at the drunken individual in the center. It was evident that a fight was in progress. Not one of the spectators seemed desirous of interfering. The two tore their companion from the clutches of the stranger, and sought to lift him into the car. The conductor refused to permit him to enter. He was covered with blood and was apparently seriously injured. The two men then abandoned their companion to this fate and entered a passenger coach. The bleeding man fell to the ground. The train moved on with its human freightage of the enforced exiles of Modesto.
The injured man was a Front street habitue named Kelly. Taken immediately to the office of Dr. S. M. McLean, opposite the depot, it was discovered that he was suffering from a number of pocket knife wounds inflicted by the stranger, who had arrived in town on the previous night.
On the next day Kelly died. The stranger was subsequently charged with murder before Justice of the Peace C. W. Eastin. He told his story and was discharged from custody. Later he was compelled to appear before the grand jury. He repeated the same story. It refused to indite him. Kelly paid the supreme penalty for alluring the stranger's daughter, a beautiful girl, seventeen years of age, from her home in the northern part of the state, and placing her in a Modesto brothel. The stranger traveled afoot from his mountain home to wreck vengeance on his daughter's seducer.
The Vigilante body did not spring into existence on the spur of the moment, nor was its creation effected without care and deliberation. Starting several months prior to this raid with the “Captain” and a few other men, as a nucleus, it required the period of at least a half year to perfect the organization. A committee on membership operated until over one hundred and fifty men were enrolled on the roster. The members were the most substantial and prominent farmers and business men in Modesto and vicinity. They assembled in an unoccupied warehouse in the northern part of the town adjacent to the old Southern Pacific depot. Notice of meeting was sent to the Vigilantes by courier and by word of mouth from the “Captain”, and from the executive committee. A prominent merchant was the secretary. In meeting the Vigilantes were unmasked. No lights were in evidence at any meeting. A guard prevented the approach of eaves-droppers. At meetings the purpose and intended acts of the Vigilantes were freely discussed, but as the “Captain” was their leader, his judgment was followed implicitly. The members came to the meetings armed. When they disbanded they quietly filed out of the warehouse and singly or in pairs took to the open country and returned to their homes by an avoidance of the streets and highways – across the country through grain and stubble fields. So secretly were the Vigilantes organized that none but the members knew of their existence until the night of the historic raid on Modesto's tenderloin.
The primary cause of the organization of the vigilance committee was the persistence of highway robbery, of gambling and of brutal thuggery in Modesto, together with the apparent immunity of the criminal element from punishment. The town was infested with the most finished gang of thieves, gamblers and strong men in the state. The frequent murders and shooting scrapes that occurred on Front street and the ascendency of the criminal elements in the affairs of the town compelled drastic action. So powerful were these classes that the workmen and even the farmers from the country, as soon as they reached town, would either deposit their wealth with the sheriff or place it in the possession of some merchant for safety. Otherwise neither their money nor their lives were immune from the wiles of the harpies on the Front or from the crafty women of the bawdy houses. If they retained the money in their possession it was taken from them in some manner. On many occasions the sheriff was compelled to surround the county jail with an extra cordon of deputies in order to frustrate threatened jail deliveries by the friends of those incarcerated therein. Though the officers were extremely desirous of preserving the peace and of maintaining law and order, they were absolutely powerless to accomplish these results. There were but few officers and as a consequence none but the most glaring crimes arrested their attention or activity.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.