A newspaper illustration depicted the assassination of James King, in 1856. California Historical Society

When a San Francisco lawmaker assassinated a crusading newspaperman

In 1856, San Francisco witnessed an assassination as treacherous and cowardly as there ever was in the city.

In the days of the Gold Rush, vice and violence ruled the day, and the crusading newspaperman James King made a career of exposing the city’s many scoundrels in the pages of the Evening Bulletin.

“He flayed the politicians, the prostitutes, the barbarous custom of dueling, the defaulting bankers, the gamblers, the toughs, the police, and just about everything else in sight while championing the home, the church, the school, and reform — and the city loved him for it,” historian Roger Lotchin wrote.

On the afternoon of May 14, a city supervisor, James Casey, stormed into the Evening Bulletin office, furious over an article that had revealed he spent time in a New York prison for grand larceny. He demanded an explanation.

“Is that not true?” King shot back.

“That is not the question,” Casey said. “I don’t wish my past acts raked up; on that point I am sensitive.”

“Are you done?” King replied. He pointed: “There’s the door — go. Never show your face again.”

James King, circa 1855.

U.C. Berkeley, Bancroft Library

That evening Casey, still seething, lie in wait on Montgomery Street. When King appeared on his walk home from the office, Casey ordered him to defend himself, then fired a Colt navy revolver at his chest. King keeled over, mortally wounded.

The killing provoked broad indignation, and in the days that followed San Franciscans created the Second Committee of Vigilance, the largest vigilante movement in American history.

King’s funeral on May 22 drew a line of mourners that stretched a mile in what one newspaper account described as “the most imposing procession we ever witnessed in California.” Later that same day, ropes were affixed around the necks of Casey and another unlucky soul “and the doomed men were both launched into eternity.”

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