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Malachi Fallon
First Chief of Police

Entry Author: Kevin Mullen

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 government.

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.

Police Chief Malachi Fallon

Coutresy od San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, SFPL
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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 of California.

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 of police.

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 the town.

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 public offenders."

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 term.

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.


Malachi Fallon was appointed the first chief of police on August 13, 1849
In April, 1851 City Marshal Fallon was out of office, replaced by Robert G. Crozien
In June, 1851 a group of prominent citizens formed themselves into a Committee of Vigilance
Malachi Fallon lived near Seventh and Fallon streets in Oakland until his death in 1899, at the age of 85


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