First Chief of Police
Entry Author: Kevin
When the steamship California landed at San Francisco
in the flush of the Gold Rush year of 1849, it brought the
first wave of a flood of argonauts from the Atlantic states.
As described in the Annals of San Francisco, the men
were "largely composed of the rowdy and the knavish class,"
able quickly to leave "the States" for California
because they "required no long time to make preparation
for the voyage. Their baggage was on their back, and their
purse in every honest man's pocket." Among the passengers
who jammed the decks and cabins of the first Pacific
Mail steamer arriving that spring was Malachi Fallon,
the man who, as San Francisco's first chief of police, would
be charged with imposing order on the gold-maddened boom town.
Reminiscing much later, Fallon was more generous to his fellow
gold seekers: "San Francisco's population was then made
up of rough young men with adventurous spirits, excited by
the discovery of gold. They needed a strong and experienced
hand to keep them in control. Many of them were of the cowboy
class, while the worst were deserting whalemen coming from
all parts of the world. They were not men of evil principles
but they felt the excitement of the time and enjoyed the lack
of restraint in a town where there was no social organization
or adequate legal control. Outside of this looseness of moral
forces at the time, they were good fellows."
Clearly there was little law and less order to be found in
the town at the time of Fallon's arrival, for news of the
gold strike on the American River had resulted in the prompt
abandonment of such rudimentary institutions of government
and criminal justice as existed.
As the news of the strike spread, the next to head for California,
according to the Annals, were "the most daring
and clever adventurers of blemished reputation" from
Pacific ports and "stray vagabonds" from Australia,
"where had been collected the choice of the convicted
felons of Great Britain." In San Francisco, they joined
in common purpose with the dregs of the New York regiment
of volunteers, sent to California during the Mexican War as
soldier-settlers, and with failed miners who found work in
the placers too arduous for their taste.
As shipload after shipload of gold seekers descended on the
town and swelled the population, most of the "good"
citizens neglected public affairs and scrambled to make a
pile; others vied among themselves for control of the town
Against this backdrop of public apathy and political confusion,
the rowdy elements of the town banded together into a loose-knit
criminal alliance called "The Hounds" and filled
the governmental vacuum. Encouraged by an opinion voiced by
the newly arrived military commander, Persifor Smith, stating
that Latin immigrants were not entitled to mine gold in American
territory, the Hounds set about harassing the Hispanic residents
of San Francisco. On the pretext of raising revenue to support
their self-appointed law enforcement efforts, they brutally
extorted money and goods from Latin American immigrants.
Unchallenged by the disorganized citizenry, the Hounds soon
extended their exactions to non-Latin merchants, demanding
and receiving free food and drink from saloons and restaurants
of the town under the guise of payment for police services.
On Sunday afternoons, the sole day of rest in Gold Rush San
Francisco, the Hounds would parade through the streets of
the town to the accompaniment of fife and drum, in drunken
and defiant parody of a military parade, while the cowed citizenry
averted their eyes.
Then, on July 15, 1849, the Hounds went too far. After a drunken
Sunday excursion to the Contra Costa or eastern shore of San
Francisco Bay, they returned to town, where, worked up into
a retaliatory frenzy by the recent shooting of an American
by a Chilean defending his tent, they raged through "Chiletown"
on the slopes of Telegraph Hill for an entire night, tearing
down tents, staving in boats, and shooting the inhabitants
of the hill.
The next morning, the citizens of the town finally roused
themselves to action. Forming themselves into a volunteer
police force, they established the first of the popular tribunals
for which Gold Rush San Francisco would become famous, and
in the following days, arrested, tried, and convicted the
leaders of the Hounds, effectively bringing the group's reign
of terror to an end.
While the trial of the "Hounds" was proceeding,
a group of merchants who had recognized at last that predatory
crime would grow in an enforcement vacuum and that something
had to be done to insure order, approached thirty-five-year-old
Malachi Fallon and asked him to organize a police department
in San Francisco.
Chief Malachi Fallon
Coutresy od San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection,
for larger view
Born in 1814 in Athlone, Ireland, Malachi Fallon had been
taken as a young boy to New York and apprenticed as a saddler.
As an adult, he seems to have had some connection with a political
saloon, and he served for a time on the New York Police Department
as a keeper at the Tombs Prison. It was to this "former
connection with police matters" that Fallon later ascribed
his selection by the San Francisco merchants to establish
a police department.
On Christmas Eve of 1848, in the great mania that seized the
eastern seaboard following President James K. Polk's announcement
of the gold strike in California, Fallon took ship from New
York on the steamer Falcon. He steamed to the Isthmus
of Panama and crossed to the Pacific side where he embarked
with 350 other hopeful Argonauts on the steamer, California.
Before the gold excitement had erupted in the East, the California
had made its way around the Horn with most of its seventy-five
passenger berths empty to establish a mail service on the
West Coast between Panama and the recently acquired territory
Upon landing in San Francisco in February 1849, Fallon as
did most of the new arrivals, left for the gold regions where
he set up a mining partnership in the Jamestown region of
Tuolumne County. While on a business trip to San Francisco
a few months later, during the trial of the Hounds, he was
asked by a group of merchants to become San Francisco's chief
The political and social confusion which characterized San
Francisco in the first months of 1849 was brought to a temporary
end by an election. Proclaimed by the military governor and
held on August l, the election brought in a new town government
headed by Alcalde (Mayor) John Geary and a 12-member ayuntamiento
(council). Prompted to action by the affair of the Hounds,
the ayuntamiento, composed largely of town merchants, no doubt
the same ones who had previously approached Fallon, appointed
him the first chief of police on August 13, 1849.
In the following weeks, Fallon in turn appointed an assistant
chief, three sergeants, and 30 police officers as the first
members of the department. Establishing themselves in a station
house at the head of Portsmouth Square, they set about policing
From the beginning of his tenure as chief, and despite the
claims of some apologists for events which occurred, Fallon
was faced with only a moderate amount of that sort of crime
which could be expected in a Gold Rush town. On August 20,
1849, he had to arrest a Frenchman, Joseph Daniels, who had
murdered his partner for his poke near the road to Mission
Dolores. In October, a Chilean stabbed a black "servant"
to death in a drinking tent. In November, the trussed-up body
of a John Doe murder victim was found on the beach on the
East side of town, and in mid-December, Rueben Withers, while
attempting to oust sleeping patrons from the rear of the Bella
Union saloon, became engaged in a dispute with Arthur "Bones"
Reynolds (so-called because of the instrument he played in
a Negro band) and stabbed him to death. The month and year
ended with the discovery of the body of Thomas Browne, mutilated
with 24 stab wounds, in the bushes near the road to the mission.
Still, despite the exceedingly heavy rains of the winter of
1849-50 which restricted miners to their tents and the saloons
of San Francisco and other settlements, Fallon was relatively
unbothered by those predations which would in a short time
cause the rise of the Vigilance Committee, eclipse the activities
of the Police Department, and end Fallon's brief police career.
In reporting on only three arrests having been made in the
preceding three days, the Alta California remarked
on January 18, 1850, "We believe there is no place in
the world with the same amount of population, where crime
exists less than in San Francisco at the present time."
And as late as November of that year, the paper warmly complimented
the police department as "equal to any in the world",
saying it would be hard to find a "set of men their superiors
as regards gentlemanly conduct and intelligence"
But in the summer of 1850, after the establishment of a chartered
city government following an election at which Geary had been
chosen mayor and Fallon chosen city marshal, Fallon's problems
began to multiply. The city began to experience a very real
increase in predatory crime, as the incidence of murder doubled,
and housebreaking and robberies - crimes less tolerated in
those times before urban populations had retired behind iron
grillwork-increased alarmingly. Gradually, press and public
opinion toward the authorities began to harden in the face
of a crime wave thought to be the work of Australian ex-convicts
who were not intimidated by the criminal justice apparatus.
Taking their cue from the more sparsely populated mining regions
about the territory, where, in the absence of adequate criminal
justice facilities, summary justice had been administered
to those who preyed on their fellows, and urged on by prompting
from the press, private citizens moved to take matters into
their own hands. On several occasions, even in instances of
relatively minor crimes, groups of citizens tried to take
prisoners from Fallon's officers and deal with them summarily.
On January 6, 1851, the Evening Picayune, while allowing
that the police department was too small to be everywhere,
reported on the well-known fact that "out of the vicinity
of the drinking saloons, a policeman is scarce ever to be
found, day or night." Then the paper blatantly endorsed
the idea of volunteer patrols as long as the volunteers were
"permitted to take their own way in the treatment of
By late February 1851, the people were ready to act on their
own. The occasion of the beating and robbery of a popular
merchant threw the town into a virtual frenzy for three days.
Because of the widespread belief that regular institutions
of justice were incompetent to handle the matter, "the
people" at a series of angry mass meetings formed a popular
court. There followed several abortive rushes to take the
two suspects, later shown to be innocent, from Fallon and
his officers who had arrested them. But sentiment favoring
a trial, albeit an extra-legal one, prevailed. Fortunately
for the defendants, the jury could not agree on their guilt,
and they were eventually released.
Dissatisfaction with crime conditions were quieted for a time
but not dispelled. Next the disgruntled citizenry turned to
the ballot box. In the municipal election at the end of April,
Fallon and his fellow Democrats were turned out of office
in the arousing Whig victory. The Whig mayoral candidate bested
the Democrat by a margin of 414 out of 6,000 votes cast. Robert
G. Crozier, the Whig candidate for city marshal, defeated
Fallon by 1,709 votes, receiving 64 percent of the vote to
Fallon's 36 percent, a landslide by any definition of the
For a time the people and the press believed that conditions
would improve with the change of officials. But on the very
day the new city government was to be sworn in, San Francisco
was devastated by the fifth and greatest of a series of fires
thought by many to have been set by arsonists. As luck would
have it - bad for the new police - there followed a series
of escapes from the station house. For the most part, flimsy
construction of the jailhouse was at fault, but it was thought
a the time that the breaks were the result of police incompetence
or collusion with the criminals.
Even with Fallon out of office, the press kept up a steady
drumfire of criticism of the town authorities, and in early
June 1851, when the trial of an Australian arrested for setting
fire to his rooming house on Central Wharf (Commercial Street)
was postponed for what was considered a trivial technicality,
"the people" had had enough. A group of prominent
citizens formed themselves into a Committee of Vigilance,
vowing in their hastily composed constitution the "no
thief, burglar, incendiary assassin shall escape punishment
either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prison,
the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity
of those who pretend to administer justice."
The committee had hardly organized itself on the evening of
June 10 when an Australian thief named Jenkins (or Simpton)
was arrested by nearby boat-men while burglarizing a shipping
office on Central Wharf. At the suggestion of a member of
the newly formed Vigilance Committee, he was turned over to
that body rather than to the police. The committee was assembled
by the prearranged tolling of fire bells, and in the next
few hours, Jenkins was tried by the secret tribunal, convicted
of burglary, and sentenced to death by hanging. In the early
morning hours, he was escorted to Portsmouth Square with a
rope around his neck and hanged from a beam of the Custom
House. To the general approval of the press and public, in
the months which followed, the committee, in secret conclave,
conducted a number of hearings. Testimony taken from suspected
criminals and others resulted in the execution of three more
Australian criminals and the banishment of several more.
In the social turbulence which attended the Vigilante eruption,
information was uncovered which supported the belief that
some police officers were on the take and that Marshal Fallon
had been part of it. Some later chroniclers present in San
Francisco at the time of Fallon's tenure in office and the
Vigilante uprising would characterize Fallon as "a good
officer and an honest man", but other information suggests
a different conclusion.
Though Fallon had been out of office for a month by the time
the secret tribunal was convened, the Vigilance Committee
had occasion to scrutinize and review his conduct in office.
In testimony before the committee in July, Thomas Ainsworth
(aka Tommy Roundhead), an Australian with an extensive criminal
record, charged that Fallon had tried to set him up in business
as a burglar, and, when he refused to cooperate, caused his
repeated arrest. Ainsworth notwithstanding any efforts Fallon
might have made to turn him to a life of crime, was on a first
name basis with other members of the criminal band from Australia,
and as the sole witness against Fallon before the committee,
Ainsworth's testimony was and is not enough to sustain a charge
of corruption against the marshal.
But there was more. Even as San Francisco seethed with Vigilante
turmoil, the governor of the state allowed a one-month reprieve
to a man in Sacramento who had been sentenced to hang with
two others by the regular courts for highway robbery. An enraged
mob seized him from the authorities and promptly hanged him.
But before he died, with his neck in the noose, he was said
to have made "grave charges" against the mayor of
Sacramento and Marshal Fallon of San Francisco. The establishment
press, which supported the Vigilance Committee and missed
no opportunity to discredit its opponents among officialdom,
was quick to discount allegations as sensationalism. With
more important fish to fry than an out-of-office marshal,
the committee never called Fallon to testify regarding the
charges made against him, and the papers of the committee
(which contained the charges made against him) were kept solely
within the committee for more than 20 years. As a result,
Fallon did not have the opportunity to refute the allegations
while the events were still fresh.
Historian Mary Williams, whose History of the San Francisco
Committee of Vigilance of 1851 and Papers of the San Francisco
Committee of Vigilance of 1851 are the definitive treatment
of the 1851 Committee, includes four San Francisco police
officers in a list of criminals implicated by other members
of the gang infesting San Francisco in the summer of 1851.
Three of the officers are shown as being important members
of the gang; Malachi Fallon is the fourth.
In later years when the aging Fallon was interviewed he never
hesitated to speak of his work in the Tombs in New York, and
he regaled listeners about the rowdy days of Gold Rush San
Francisco. However, he avoided discussing any specifics of
his term of office in San Francisco and made no mention of
any charges of misconduct laid against him decades before.
The matter must stand, then, where Mary Williams left it.
After his removal from office in the April election of 1851,
Fallon never again worked in law enforcement. He opened a
saloon, the Rip Van Winkle, on the corner of Pacific Wharf
and Battery Street and later moved to the Knickerbocker House
at Central Wharf and Battery. In 1852 he left the city forever
and moved to a 17-acre parcel he purchased on the Peralta
grant on the Contra Costa. There he lived near Seventh and
Fallon streets in Oakland until his death, full of years,
in 1899, at the age of 85. Today, his connection with the
criminal justice system of an earlier age is remembered symbolically,
at least, by the presence of the Alameda County Courthouse
on Fallon Street, just down the road from his residence.