Criminal Annals, Part 133: “Doctor” Marsh

John Marsh

Continuing with the Oct. 2, 1852, edition of the Sacramento “Daily Union,” we again find the most interesting of the articles listed under the doings in the Recorder’s Court, where minor criminals, many of whom seem to be there most of the time for various and continuing incidents, face Judge McGrew.

“RECORDER’S COURT. – Before Judge McGrew. Friday October1, 1852

“The morning fawned bright and beautiful, and the birds, if there had been any in the streets, would certainly have greeted it with their most joyful matins [a service of morning prayer]. Even the nightingales, whose songs and pipings rendered the air vocal, previous to their lighting down in the Station House, had a just appreciation of out-door loveliness, and looked pleased at the prospect of regaining immediate liberty. It is from contrasts alone that we derive the sweets of life. Those who have never been hungered, know little of the enjoyments of appetite – so, those who have never been locked up in a prison, can form but an indefinite idea of the bliss derived from freedom – freedom, too, when the glorious sun, the softly tempered breeze, and the shady watercourses, all invite to the abandonment of recreation.

“In the case of William O’Rourke, judgment was rendered in a fine of $40 and costs. Not having that small amount on hand—being at the conclusion of a ‘big spree,’ in which his money circulated freely – William was sent up for ten days. Before leaving, he took occasion to address the court as follows: ‘Your Honor, I did not make any defence, for I knew your Honor would punish me, whether guilty or not.’

John Blake, for assault and battery upon the person of Philip Smith, found guilty, and fined $20 and costs— in default five days imprisonment. The whole costs amounted to $40, which the defendant concluded he would rather go to prison than pay. While the warrant was being made out, however, he changed his determination and forked over.

Joseph H. Wheelwright, for petit larceny, found not guilty and discharged.

Matthew Rice, for assault and battery. This is the same individual who manifested such delight yesterday morning at escaping the infliction of the law ‘once more’ – the same that the Judge rebuked – ‘once more’ in the law’s clutches, from which he now found escape more difficult. All the crocodile evidences of contrition exhibited by Mr. Rice, had no effect in modifying the stern decision of justice. He was found guilty – $50 and costs – in default of paying which, he was sent to prison ten days.

John Turner, for disorderly conduct, flourishing a knife, and threatening to ‘carve’ people’s hearts out. As the prisoner was on a spree, and said a good deal more than he had any intention of executing, and in consideration of his general good character, he was fined only $[figure missing] and costs.

Matthew McGinley, Henry Davidson and John Carroll, for an assault and robbery upon the person of James H. Marsh. Case continued.

In the same edition is an article about an event called a “A Mike Fink Exploit,” referring to the a semi-legendary brawler and boatman, Mike Fink (1770/1780-1823) who exemplified the tough and hard-drinking men who ran keel-boats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Apparently there had been some confusing publicity in San Francisco about a shooting between two men who knew each other, one of whom was a former friend of Mr. Fink.

“The ‘Mike Fink Exploit.’ – We give Mr. Taylor the full benefit of our columns to place himself right in reference to this affair. Our information was derived from a respectable gentleman of this place, and whose veracity we had no reason to doubt. We copy his communication to the S. F. Whig [May 1853 – February 1853, then continued under other names], preceded by the editor’s remarks :

“THE MIKE FINK AFFAIR AT MARTINEZ.– Below will be found a communication from Capt. Taylor, which sufficiently explains itself. We had the pleasure of a visit from him yesterday, and we are glad to find him enthusiastic in the support of Scott and Graham [Whig candidates for President and Vice President in 1852]. Capt. T. is a full cousin of the late President Taylor – is 63 years of age, was taken prisoner by the British during the war of 1812, was through the whole Texan war of Independence, was one of the Texas Rangers, was with Gen. Taylor during the war with Mexico, and took an active part in every fight Gen. Taylor had in Mexico:

Editor. Daily Whig: – In your paper of the 27th inst., you publish an account, under the head of ‘A Mike Fink Exploit,’ (copied from the Sacramento Union) of an occurrence which took place at Martinez, on Tuesday of last week, which is incorrect in some particulars, and which I trust you will allow me the space in your columns to correct. On that day I had a law-suit with a man named John Marsh, known as a doctor, in which I was the successful party, he is a man of whose character 1 will say nothing at present, but simply state that we have been at variance for some time past.

Note: “Doctor” John Marsh (1799-1856) was an early pioneer and settler in California (1836), and although he did not have a medical degree, is often regarded as the first person to practice medicine in California. His historic stone house will be part of the Cowell/John Marsh Property State Historic Park in Contra Costa County.

Continuing with the story; “In the evening after the suit, while sitting in the store of Mr. Sturges, of Martinez, I was attacked or menaced by a man whose name I cannot now recollect, and with whom 1 never had a difficulty, when off my guard, with a Bowie knife, from which I escaped without injury, and the would-be assassin fled. I have many old Texas friends in that neighborhood, and among the number, Col. Wm. Smith, (who, 1 believe, is well known in your city). Hearing of the murderous attack upon me, they made efforts to find the man who had made the attempt upon my life, but could not find him. We afterwards got together and spent a pleasant hour, during which time, the subject of our former exploits in Texas and elsewhere, were fully discussed; and it being known that the Celebrated Mike Fink and myself were old associates, and that we had many a time fired at bottles placed on each other’s heads, some bantering took place as to who was the best shot. Finally without any hesitation on my part or Col. Smith’s, a bottle was placed on my head, and fired at by the Colonel, with a revolving pistol, at the distance of thirty-five or forty feet. The firing was after dark and by candle light, and was done at the word. I knew him to be an excellent shot, but at the time, thought he was aiming a little too low, and so told him. Unfortunately my prediction was true, and the hall passed under one side of the bottom of the bottle, knocking it off without breaking it, and knocking out a piece of my skull bone about three inches long, and the depth and width of the ball, and yet without knocking me down.

“The above are the facts of the case. The statement that I called Col. Smith a coward and forced him to fire, and the further statement that he fled across the river, is entirely untrue. He is too brave a man for that, I have many friends in your city, and to satisfy them that I am not dangerously wounded, can inform them that I write this here, being down on business.

“Yours. &c., John H. Taylor. San Francisco. Sept 29, 1852.”

TO BE CONTINUED

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