Share This Article

Against the Vigilantes: The Recollections of Dutch Charley Duane, edited and introduction by John Boessenecker, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1999, $27.95.

The two largest movements of vigilantism in the American West occurred in 1851 and 1856 San Francisco during the California Gold Rush, and right in the middle of both of them–but not on the vigilantes’ side–was one Charles P. (“Dutch Charley”) Duane. In ’51, the Committee of Vigilance banished Dutch Charley from San Francisco, saying he would face a penalty of death if he returned. Seems he had been involved in at least seven brawls, including the beating and shooting of a French actor named Amedee Fayolle. But the vigilantes disbanded that fall, and Duane was soon back in town and making trouble again. During the next several years, he was involved in at least half a dozen violent incidents. When the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance formed in 1856, it targeted Dutch Charley and once again warned him to leave and never to return under penalty of death.

There were two sides to Dutch Charley, though. He was also a fearless fireman. He played a courageous role in saving much of the St. Francis Hotel from a fiery fate in October 1853 and, less than two months after that, was elected chief engineer of the fire department. When the heat died down after his 1856 banishment from San Francisco, Duane quietly returned to town early in 1860 and, within weeks, was honored during a fire department meeting. Dutch Charley would stay put, become involved in politics again (he had once been a chief henchman for the politically powerful David C. Broderick), and outlast most of his drinking buddies.

John Boessenecker does justice to Dutch Charley’s colorful story in 50 pages, which constitutes the “Introduction.” It has to be one of the longest and best introductions you’ll find in a Western history book and serves as more than a warm up for Duane’s own memoirs, originally published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1881 and now published for the first time in book form. Duane’s 100-page account, as Boessenecker describes it, “provides a firsthand viewpoint of one of the most outspoken opponents of vigilance in San Francisco.” Highpoints include getting Duane’s take on a double hanging by the vigilantes on May 22, 1856, and on his own capture soon afterward for refusing to “go and bow down to the Vigilance Committee.” Boessenecker also provides detailed explanatory notes that help complete this fascinating look at one man’s violent life and one boom city’s most violent era.

Louis Hart