The lure of gold attracted to California thousands of criminals of every degree, from the petty thief to the bank forger. The convicts from Mexico already here were joined by convicts from "Botany Bay" and New South Wales, the "Sydney Ducks" from Australia, and the vilest of women from New York, New Orleans, France and England. Some of this class came to carry on anew their criminal work in a larger and less hazardous field, others to escape recognition and punishment for previous crimes.
The time and the conditions were such that crimes could easily be committed with but little danger of being detected. There were no buildings or store houses for the safe keeping of goods, no banks, vaults or safes for the deposit of money or valuables. there were no prisons or jails, no well organized police force, either local or state, no telegraph lines, no quick communication between town or camp. No man had any knowledge or acquaintance with his neighbor. Ever restless, ever on the move, men would be in Sonora today and gone tomorrow. No one paid the least attention to their coming or going. It was very easy for the criminal to escape punishment unless caught in the act.
The pioneers or first gold seekers were as a rule honest, law abiding and industrious citizens. Governed by no law save that of honor, they promptly paid all debts, fulfilled all contracts to the letter, sacredly regarded the rights and property of their neighbors and cheerfully submitted to arbitration all disagreements of rights. In the towns merchandise was left unprotected upon the streets or in the little canvas tents. Gold dust was deposited in old tin cans, boxes, buckskin purses and trunks and left exposed in all manner of places, without either locks or guard. In the mines the same degree of honesty was seen. Miners left their shovels, picks and crow bards (then worth sixteen dollars each) for days at a time where they had been working, and returning they would find them unmolested. Thousands of dollars in gold dust the miner would carelessly leave in his cabin or place it under the cabin floor, while thousands of dollars would be left night after night in the sluices. All were honest, the better class from principle and the rascals because of the fear of the swift and severe punishment that awaited the guilty. Those were the few months of peace and harmony and it was of these few months that the Argonauts ever praised and sung:
Oh cherished be forever, The days of auld lang syne, Those golden days, remembered days, The days of '49.
The "reign of terror" inaugurated by the criminal class compelled the law abiding citizens to take some measures to protect their property and lives and they called upon Judge Lynch to preside. He held office in some parts of the state for many years. His decisions were not always impartial or just, and his punishments were ofttimes severe, brutal and excessive; nevertheless they were effective and over-awed to some extent the criminals. The miners' criminal laws were simple and easily understood. They were condensed in one sentence, "touch not that which belongs not to you." Their trials of criminals were short. From their decision there was no appeal and their sentences were speedily executed. In the trial of every person accused of crime a competent person was appointed judge. Twelve good men were selected to act as jurymen. Attorneys, the most able in the district, were appointed to defend and prosecute the criminal. Witnesses, both for and against the defendant, were compelled to appear and testify as to the guilt or innocence of the accused person.
It is perhaps a strange incident that the first person hanged in the mountain camps was a woman, she being the first and only woman thus punished. This was in Downieville, July 5, 1849. The town at that time contained a large number of Mexican residents. Among this class was a woman, Juanita by name, quite pretty and small in stature. She was a woman of the camp, a monte dealer, and lived in a shanty with a companion. Late on the evening of July 4, 1849, a number of men who had been celebrating passed the woman's tent. One of the number, Joe Cannon, in his drunken mood kicked in the frail door. The following morning, calling at the tent, he insulted Juanita. Drawing a bowie knife she drove it deep into his breast. The Scotchman reeled backward to the street and died in a few minutes.
The woman ran to the saloon of one Croycraft for protection. A large crowd soon gathered and the mob, rushing to the saloon, soon found the murderess and dragged and carried her to the plaza.
A Judge Lynch court was organized and twelve jurors were quickly found willing to bring in a verdict of guilty, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. Two young lawyers, anxious to strengthen their friendship with the miners, volunteered to prosecute the victim; but not a lwyer offered or dared to defend her. "One citizen attempted to speak in defense of Juanit," says Calvin B. McDonald, "but he was kicked off the platform, and the crowd below opening a gangway, he was beaten off the ground and driven across the river, fleeing up the hill and leaving his hat and mule behind him." The evidence was quickly presented and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced her to be hanged by the neck within four hours.
As soon as sentence was passed a number of men began the construction of a rude gallows on the bridge across the Yuba river. At the hour named the woman was taken to the scaffold and placed upon the trap. Calmly and quietly twisting and fixing her long black hair, she smoothed down her dress and with her own hands placed the rope in the proper position, the knot just under the right ear. Then with a ringing laugh and a graceful salute of the hand she exclaimed, "Adios, Senors." Immediately the signal was given for the men to cut the ropes that bound the trap to the bridge. One of the men bungled his work and the poor victim, instead of falling some four feet straight downward, rolled from the blank and was strangled to death.
Brutal and cowardly was the execution of the woman, but right was the mob which in September, 1850, took the life of the sporting man of Placerville. "Irish Dick," in a gambling game, stabbed and killed a companion. The news of the murder ran like wild fire throughout the mining camps and in a few hours over one thousand excited men armed with everything deadly, from a rifle to a pick handle, assembled in Placerville. In the meantime Dick had been arrested and placed in prison. His preliminary trial took place that afternoon, and while the prisoner was sitting in the courtroom some one dexterously threw a lariat over Dick's head. He was quickly dragged from the room, through the street to an oak, and the lariat being thrown over the limb of a tree the criminal was strangled to death.
In the following year, February 25, 1851, a similar execution took place in Sacramento. A man named Frederick Rowe was gambling with a stranger in the Mansion house. About 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon a dispute arose regarding the deal and they began fighting. Charles Myers, a blacksmith passing by, stopped and requested them to cease quarreling. Rowe immediately exclaimed, "What the hell have you to say?" and whipping out a revolver shot Myers through the head, killing him instantly.
Rowe fled, running into a friend's house near by, but was soon caught and taken to the jail. A large crowd of people gathered and crying fo revenge they shouted, "Hang him, hang him!" A committee of twelve of the best citizens were selected to investigate the affair and after examining witnesses, found that it was a cold blooded murder and so reported.
The mob remained at the jail awaiting the report. As soon as they learned the verdict, they broke down the door and seizing the young man, ran with him to Haymarket square. It was now dark and the mob, increased to about four thousand in number, built a large bonfire and erecting a stand under an oak tree, placed the criminal upon it. A clergyman was then called and after brief religious exercises they fastened the rope around his neck. It was then thrown over the limb of the tree and three men drew him from the platform into the air. Several citizens pronounced the man dead and the body was lowered.
The first legal execution did not take place until May 9, 1851. Then Charles Baker, a young man of twenty-two, was hanged for stabbing George Turner in a drunken quarrel at Stockton. On the day of the execution young Baker -- seated upon his own coffin, his hands tied behind him and accompanied by a clergyman, the Rev. James Wood -- was drawn upon a two-wheel dray to the place of execution, followed by a large crowd. Baker made a short speech, the black cap was then drawn over his head, the rope placed around his neck and poor Baker's body was left to dangle in the air.
In June, 1850, the citizens of San Francisco concluded that it was about time to form an organization to check if possible the rule of criminals. Robberies and murders were almost of daily occurrence. Threats had been made to burn the town. The press (a) asserted that the courts were friendly to the criminal class, and perjured evidence was always ready when required to acquit a prisoners. With no other recourse, the people were compelled to take the law in their own hands. The organization was quickly formed and nearly two hundred of the best citizens were in the ranks. Each man took a solemn oath to assist in the protection of life and property, and they declared that no criminal should escape punishment either "through the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness of the police or the laxity of those who pretended to administer justice." their headquarters were on Battery street and day and night a guard stood on duty either to give assistance or sound the alarm (b).
After the committee was organized the question was asked again and again, "Dare they break the civil law?" It required men of nerve, brave and fearless, to carry out the work they had attempted; but when on the 10th of June, 1851, the alarm bell summoned them to duty every man hastily responded. they had been called out to try one John Jenkins for the stealing of a safe (c). The prisoner was a "Sydney Duck" and a well known brutal and foul mouthed desperado. The trial took place that evening in a little dingy room, corner of Bush and Sansome streets. As the evidence of his guilt was positive, he was sentenced to be hanged before daylight. When asked if he had anything to say he replied, "No, I haven't anything to say, only I want a cigar." This was given him, also some brandy and water. A clergyman talked and prayed with the doomed man until 2:00 o'clock.
At tht hour the bell upon the Monumental engine house began to toll. Soon the march for the plaza was begun. The committee, each with a drawn revolver, marched in the form of a hollow square, with Jenkins closely pinioned in the center. Again the police tried to get possession of the prisoner, but Captain Ray was quietly told to stand back. On arrival at the plaza a rope was placed around Jenkins' neck and thrown over a projecting beam of the old Mexican custom house, then standing upon the northwest corner. The signal was given, and for two hours Jenkins' body hung dangling in the air. The members relieved each other as they tired of holding the rope.
During this time there lay in jail a desperado named Stewart. He was charged with an assault with a deadly weapon upon a storekeeper named Jansen (d). In the trial of Jenkins evidence was brought out showing that Stewart had murdered Sheiff Moore of Auburn, and knocked insensible a captain of a schooner while trying to rob him. The authorities made no move towards trying Stewart. The vigilantes resolved to try him for the assault. How they got possession of Steward is not known. However, on the morning of July 11, 1851, the Monumental bell sent forth its short, quick alarm. The members hastened to headquarters and the trial took place. Throughout the trial Steward appeared indifferent and unconcerned and sat chewing the tobacco given him by a member. The verdict was guilty. Stewart was sentenced to be hanged at 3:00 o'clock. At midnight the prisoner was given the services of a rector, the Rev. F. S. Mines (c). A gallows had been erected upon a lighter at the foot of Market street. At the appointed hour the committee marched three abreast to the wharf, each man carrying a loaded revolver in his right hand. Stewart was strongly bound and upon reaching the scaffold he made a short speech acknowledging that his punishment was just. He died without a struggle.
In August the committee came in conflict with the county officials. At that time they held as prisoners two men named McKenzie and Whitaker, found guilty of murder and arson. The time set for their execution was August 20th. The officials, however, were warm over the acts of the vigilantes and Governor McDougal issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding Sheriff Hays (John Calhoun Hayes) to produce the bodies of McKenzie and Whitaker in court. Hays by a complete surprise of the guard (f) obtained possession of the two men. They were placed in a hack and hurriedly taken to the county jail. Three days later the committee outwitted the brave "Jack" and again had the prisoners in the committee rooms. Inless than twenty minutes from the time the men were taken from the Broadway street jail they were hanging from the end of the beams. The committee was firmly determined that no civil authorities should this time checkmate justice.
These four executions caused an exodus of all of the worst criminals from the city. For a season the citizens rejoiced. The press in their editorials asserted that law abiding people could now walk the streets after dark or live in poorly defended houses without fear of the assassin or the burglar. The committee remained in active operation until September, then they disbanded. Five years later they were again called into existence, and went through precisely the same record on a march larger scale.