John Nugent, founder of the San Francisco Herald in June 1850, was a man of proven passionate conviction. A native of Galway, Ireland, he brought a fighting record with him from New York, where he had been a reporter on that city’s Herald.
Nugent believed deeply in a newspaper’s public trust, and while editor of the San Francisco Herald, he pursued his convictions of honesty in government and freedom of the press. He proved to the world that he was ready to risk his life for his beliefs, fighting at least two shooting duels. But overall, Nugent aimed a more deadly pen than pistol.
The San Francisco of 1850 proved to be fertile ground for the fighting editor and his philosophy. It was described by all accounts of the day as one of the most wicked and corrupt cities in history.
According to the editor of the Alta California, “Law is but a ghost of its former self.”
Early in the life of his paper, Nugent allied himself and his paper with a cause to clean up the crime in San Francisco. He was a prime inspirer of the Committee of Vigilance.
In June 1851, The Herald spoke out: “A way to stop the crime which stalks abroad at mid-day and runs riot through the streets of San Francisco: there is clearly no remedy for the existing evil but the strong arms and the stout souls of the citizens themselves. Let us organize a band of two or three hundred ‘regulators’ composed of such men as have stake in this town. If two or three of these robbers were caught and treated to ‘Lynch Law’ their fellows would be more careful about future depredations.”
Nugent was referring to the rampant murders, robbery, arson and governmental corruption that characterized the young city. His dramatic appeal to the emotions of the masses was heard, and action was taken. The Vigilantes were doing the executing, and the results proved favorable.
San Francisco of the 1850s had more ships in the harbor than houses in the town, and more saloons than either.
With people from all over the world swarming in, there was plentiful grist for such editorial matter. Sensational expositions of murder and corruption had their effects, and such reporting caused Nugent’s paper to become the largest daily in San Francisco. When Nugent took up the Vigilante crusade, the paper had 40 columns, the largest advertising and the largest circulation in town.
As San Francisco began to get organized, it settled down to a fairly respectable period of growth.
The Committee of Vigilance kept law and order, and the greatest causes of excitement were the frequent duels fought by politicians and other public figures. Hangings by the Committee attracted great crowds of the morbidly curious, but the newspapers had long prevailed upon the Vigilantes to conduct them away from the center of town, “in the interest of business and good taste.”
The impulsive shootings and hangings came to a head when James King, editor of The Bulletin, was shot down in the street by James Casey, editor of a rival newspaper. King was a real champion of the cause of justice to the people of San Francisco, and the incident instantly put the city into a pandemonium.
King died and the Vigilantes promptly hanged Casey and another inmate of the jail for good measure.
By this time, Nugent strongly felt the usefulness of the Vigilantes had long since ended, and he denounced their hanging of Casey and his unfortunate cellmate. Although public opinion plainly seemed to favor the Vigilantes, Nugent persisted in his belief now that constituted authorities could effectively see justice done.
Nugent broke with the cause he had once so avidly pursued when he felt it was warranted. As a result, The Herald collapsed from San Francisco’s largest daily to bankruptcy in almost one day.
Nugent said people gathered by the hundreds at his office door to buy his papers as they came off the press.
The papers were purchased to be used in building huge bonfires in the streets.
In a turnabout of causes that cost Nugent the life of his paper, he said, “We have never been controlled; if the sacred position of public journalist is to be degraded by compulsory subservience to the behests of babel, we confess we have no stomach for the office.”
John Nugent, fire-brand, crusader and editor in the finest sense of the word, died in San Leandro on March 29, 1880.
*Hall of Fame inductees are selected annually by a committee appointed by the California Press Foundation. They recognize career achievements of weekly and daily publishers in California who were important and influential in their era, as judged by their peers in the association. The write-ups are a historical and journalistic snapshot in time and not official biographies.*