The Unintended Consequences of Fake News

Historians/History
tags: Trump, Fake News, Vigilance Committee



Nancy J. Taniguchi is a retired professor of history from California State University, Stanislaus. In 2006 she discovered the secret Executive “Minutes” of San Francisco’s 1856 Vigilance Committee, a document considered “lost” for over 150 years. Her new book, Dirty Deeds: Land, Violence, and the 1856 San Francisco Vigilance Committee (University of Oklahoma, 2016) is the result.


Barak Obama is a foreign-born Muslim. Mexico will build us a wall. The press never reported the Bowling Green massacre. Fake news has been bombarding us for some time now, shaping the perception of a dystopian America. To maintain this grim view, more fake news is required. What could go wrong?

In 1856, San Francisco’s elite struggled with exactly the same problem. They had created a perception of the city as politically corrupt beyond redemption, although the California state legislature had just passed laws to clean up the mess. Like current fake news purveyors, they had their own reasons for creating this fiction, and had to face serious, unintended consequences.

That summer, a muckraking editor excited the city with tales of public and private corruption, often completely manufactured. When one of the men he maligned shot him, a shadowy group of “Executives” – some three dozen mercantile elite – revived a hibernating vigilance committee, eventually enrolling some 6,000 men, known inside and outside the Committee only by their numbers. One of the very first Executive actions was to seize control of the press with their enormous economic clout. Within days they had hanged two men; within weeks, they banished dozens more upon threat of death if they returned. All their victims were part of San Francisco’s underclass, most of them supporters of the local Democratic boss who was an Irish Catholic, a group widely disparaged in 19thcentury America. These men made easy targets.

Then, in a clash over weapons, the vigilantes captured a California Supreme Court judge, David S. Terry. No crooked ruffian, Terry was a Protestant, a married man, a father, and a Mason who had been elected to the bench by the entire state on the recent reform ticket. To complicate matters, in the melee leading to his seizure, Terry had stabbed a vigilante, leaving a dangerous four-inch gash in his neck. As the food and drink given his victim dribbled out the open wound, the vigilantes locked Terry in their makeshift fort. What could they do with the judge?

Pro-vigilante citizens were quick to offer solutions. An anonymous letter insisted that in order to retain public confidence the Executives must adhere to the glorious motto of the Committee: “Justice must be done though the heavens fall.” In other words, if Terry’s assailant died, Terry must hang.

Yet Terry also enjoyed widespread support. Through their spies, the vigilantes immediately learned that the Masons – including Masonic members of their own committee – were already planning his rescue. The Executives immediately ejected over 100 suspected disloyals. Later, in Terry’s own secret “trial,” he testified that both his grandfathers fought in the Revolution (proving that he was a “real” American) and that he had defended Texas against the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War. In a state where honor was so cheap and judicial malfeasance so common, he had never been accused of any wrongdoing. His only “crime,” he told the northern-leaning Executives, was that he had been born a southerner. Within days, news arrived of a growing split between North and South back in “the States”: bloody fighting in Kansas and a vicious beating within the U.S. Congress itself. Local anxiety rose. Meanwhile, Terry’s assailant kept slipping in and out of danger.

While Terry’s secret “trial” dragged on, public opinion in San Francisco permanently shifted. Voluntary donations, which up to this point had sustained Executive expenses, began to dry up. An outside observer astutely noted the embarrassing position of the Executives: secret testimony (regularly leaked) proved that Terry had acted in self-defense. If his assailant died, the Executives had to swallow their consciences and hang a popular judge. If the fellow lived, they had to acquit Terry. What would their bloodthirsty followers do to them then?

Well aware of their predicament, the Executives diligently promulgated fake news. In the press, Terry, a reticent lawyer who had never frequented saloons nor bawdy-houses, became a natural street-brawler who had even cut a witness on the stand with his Bowie knife. Driven by personal demons, he had come to San Francisco purposely to kill all the Executives (instead of to deliver an unsuccessful writ of habeus corpus at the Governor’s request for one of the men subsequently deported by the vigilantes). Terry regularly displayed an inhuman desire to flood city streets with the blood of the elite. And so on.

After six weeks of this fake news, Terry’s victim finally recovered: the worst thing that happened in the entire life of the Committee, according to one of the Executives. They were stuck with a devil’s bargain. Since no murder had been committed, Terry would not hang. Yet if they deported a widely popular sitting judge, Terry was likely to return with federal backing (which the Executives had always feared). Other deportees were likely to follow, necessitating more hangings, or an admission that vigilante threats had been hollow. If Terry were allowed to stay, he would return to the bench, where Executives would likely be tried for their crimes.

After so much bad press, the general committee, some 6000 men, wanted to see Terry dead no matter what. In an attempt to calm this blood lust, the Executives secretly tried and publicly hanged two other men. One was a convicted robber, deemed a murderer only on very circumstantial evidence. The other had been fired upon first, and killed his assailant in self-defense. This additional hanging did nothing to quiet the clamor over Terry, and further lowered popular opinion of the Executives.

Finally, after much wrangling, some members of the Executive Committee released Terry in the middle of the night. In their secret “Minutes,” they recorded that, although Terry was guilty of an attack on a vigilante, they had nothing in their power to punish such a crime. The “demon judge” walked free.

Reactions exploded. Thousands of vigilantes rushed to the Executives’ fort, seeking Terry, who was smuggled out to a ship in the Bay and sailed upstate with the great fanfare of his supporters. An anonymous letter in the press asked if the judge who was released in the dead of night was the same criminal who made decisions with hot blood and cold steel? Thousands of the vigilantes had sacrificed money, time, and effort guarding this devil for six weeks. The Executives’ claim of equal justice was hollow. They had lied. The previous docile general committee threatened to kill their leaders.

The Executives spent weeks calming their agitated followers. They held a splendid “final” parade, also advertised by fake news, since they continued to meet for over three years thereafter. But they gradually jettisoned their general committee. Particularly after the Civil War began, their exploits faded from public memory. Even twenty years later, former Executives considered the whole experience a horrid nightmare that they wished to keep from their children.

Today, we are again awash in fake news. In falsified reports, America has become a land of “carnage” despite a rising GDP and lowering crime rate. Complaints about the nation and its civil servants proliferate. Only one man can fix these horrible problems. What comes next? We’ll see.  




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