Hidden City Crime Files: San Francisco
Marcus travels to San Francisco to explore the Committee of Vigilance in the time of the California Gold Rush, the Zodiac serial killer and the assassination of the first openly gay politician Harvey Milk. Discover more about each of these stories that played a role in the Golden Gate city's history.
The Assassination of Harvey MilkWho: Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930. He grew up in Woodmere, NY. In school he was known as a class clown. Milk knew his sexuality in high school, but kept it a secret. He attended college at New York State College for Teachers and majored in math. None of Milk's friends ever suspected he was gay. After graduation, Milk joined the Navy and served aboard the USS Kittiwake. Once he was discharged Milk held various jobs, including teaching, investment banking and actuarial work. He ultimately ended up in San Francisco and opened a camera shop on Castro Street.
What: While San Francisco had a large population of homosexuals, there was still discrimination and harassment. Milk decided to pursue politics after realizing that he had to take action to try to change things, not just complain. After several failed attempts to win office, Milk was elected as the city supervisor for District 5. His swearing-in made headlines as he was the first openly gay individual in the US to win election to public office. Also sworn in with Milk were Carol Ruth Silver, Gordon Lau, Ella Hill Hutch and Daniel White. Milk and White went head-to-head on various issues and hostility grew between them. Throughout his time in office, Milk worked on gay rights issues in the city along with child care and transportation concerns.
After serving as a supervisor for 10 months, Dan White resigned his position due to financial concerns. A few days after his announcement he asked Mayor George Moscone to reinstate him. At first he agreed, but after some pressure from the other supervisors, including Milk, Moscone changed his mind. He decided to appoint someone else to the position. On Nov. 27, 1978, before the press conference to announce White’s replacement, Dan White broke into City Hall and shot and killed both Moscone and Milk. White eventually turned himself in.
Where: The murders took place at San Francisco’s City Hall. The City Hall was also the location of the riots that broke out after Dan White was acquitted on first-degree murder charges.
When: The double assassination took place on Nov. 27, 1978 and the riots occurred on May 21, 1979. Dan White served 5 years for the murders. Then on Oct. 21, 1985, he committed suicide after losing his family due to his prison time.
In the Media: There have been many tributes to Harvey Milk, including a plaza in San Francisco and a high school in New York that serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, both named after him. In 2009, President Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to the gay rights movement. His nephew accepted the award in his honor.
In the media, Milk’s story has been the subject of books, a musical production and a documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, based on the book The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts. The 2008 film Milk earned 2 Oscars, including 1 for actor Sean Penn who portrayed Milk.
The Zodiac KillerWho: The who still remains a mystery in this story. While there have been many suspects, no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced and therefore no one has ever been charged.
What: It has been confirmed that the Zodiac Killer had 7 victims – 5 died and 2 survived. Most of the attacks were on couples who were either shot or stabbed. The last death was a cab driver. It is suspected that an additional 4 deaths are tied to the serial killer. A lady who was kidnapped, but escaped alive, is also suspected to be tied to the case.
The Zodiac Killer taunted authorities and the public by sending a series of letters to the press. The letters included cryptograms that were said to reveal his identity. Only 1 was solved; the resulting message gave insight into why the Zodiac was committing the murders.
Where: The killer struck in Northern California, with victims in Benicia, Vallejo, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco.
When: The Zodiac Killer attacked and murdered people starting in the late 1960s and ended in the early '70s. It is hard to give exact dates since many of the murders have not been conclusively tied to the Zodiac Killer.
The Latest: In the last 4 years several people have come forward claiming to know who the Zodiac Killer was. Authorities have looked into the claims but nothing has been confirmed and the case remains open.
In the Media: There have been many books and movies about the case. The 2007 movie, Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. is probably the highest profile film. In addition, there are several websites focused on the Zodiac Killer. On these sites you will find his letters and a wealth of information on the victims and suspects. Zodiackiller.com is well-known and its webmaster has appeared on many shows to discuss his views on the case.
The Committee of VigilanceWho/What: The 1851 Committee of Vigilance had 700 members who came together because they believed that current laws and authorities were not doing enough to maintain order in the city. The committee would police the city, investigate disreputable businesses and deport immigrants. Along the way, people were hanged, whipped, deported and turned over to the authorities. This was all done without any due process. The committee dissolved, but reorganized again in 1856 with more than 6,000 members. They again hanged people, but also began going after political officials, including the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Where: San Francisco had grown in population due to the California Gold Rush and this brought about an increase in crime.
When: The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was first formed on June 9, 1851, and then again on May 14, 1856.
In the Media: Several books have been written about the Committee of Vigilance and The Bancroft Library at University of California at Berkeley has documents such as meeting minutes, letters and press clippings about the group's activities.
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