Criminal Annals, Part 13 – The Placer Times: Arrests, Trial and Execution

vol1no15p1 headThe August 18, 1849 issue of the “Placer Times” contains the following article based on a story in the San Francisco “Alta California.” It tells of a hanging in Stockton of a member of the “Hounds,” one of several gangs in existence at the time of the Gold Rush.

“Arrests, Trial and Execution – A letter from the town of Stockton, dated Aug. 1st, contains the following information. It appears, by such other accounts as we have been enabled to gather, that Stockton has become the scene of excitement the counterpart of which was witnessed in this place a week or two ago. We forbear commenting upon the particulars as presented:

“This afternoon a man was hung in Stockton. His name was Mickey alias Bill Lyon, and he belonged to the fraternity of ‘Hounds’ who have so long prowled about and disturbed the peace. His offence was burglary and theft, and his trial was by jury, his sentence death by hanging. He was executed with the unanimous approval of the people of Stockton.

“A number of men, implicated in offences committed by the same gang, have been arrested and their trial will soon take place. – The prompt action of our citizens in these matters has restored law and order to the place, and we feel more secure now than we have for a six months past.

“Later advices confirm the above account and add the one or more others convicted were punished with a rigid observance of the barbarous forms of Judge Lynch, such as shaving the head, lopping the ears, and other disgraceful mutilations of the person. To his mockery of law and outrage of humanity we trust the citizens of Stockton have not yet resorted. – Alta California.”

Shaving heads and cutting off ears were common punishments for convicted thieves. They were then banished from the community. The thought was that so marked they could then be easily identified by people in other towns as being a problem.

Gold dust was the major form of “money” during the early days of the Gold Rush. However, there was a mix of Mexican, American and other country’s gold and silver coin in circulation, the silver, one-ounce Mexican or Spanish eight Real (dollar) coin being the most common. Because of this mix of money and the lack of knowledge about it by the newly arrived, there was always an opportunity for the unscrupulous to profit.

Along this line, on the second page of the same newspaper noted above is found an interesting counterfeit notice:

“Counterfeit Coin – There is any amount of counterfeit Gold and Silver coin in circulation. Half and quarter ten dollar pieces are easily detected from their light weight. The Peruvian counterfeit dollar contains but 39 cents’ worth of silver, and is detected at a glance. We advise our citizens to discountenance the circulation of this base coin, and use their best efforts to detect the knaves who are instrumental in palming it upon the community.”

The September 1, 1849 issue of the Placer Times again brings up the issue of the treatment of “foreigners.”

“Foreigners. – There is a good dal of prejudice and bad feeling evinced in this community against a large class of citizens who do not happen to be Americans by birth. – Even the native Californian does not escape this mean-spirited and narrow-minded prejudice. We witnessed, a day or two since, a most brutal attack upon an inoffensive native, whose only offence seemed to be the misfortune of being a shade darker than the wretch who attacked him. Without pretending to discuss the right of foreigners to the privilege of digging Gold at the Placers, we will remark that the immigrant has as much right here as an American, and should be protected in his rights by all good citizens. It matters not where one finds his way into this ‘breathing world,’ if he is a Man and a good citizen, we are always ready to extend to him the right hand of fellowship, and assist and protect him to the extent of our humble ability.”

Being the only Sacramento newspaper at the time, the Placer Times provided not only local news, but national and world news gleaned from newspapers brought by sailing ships, along with stories related by recent arrivals, both overland and by ship. When there was a lack of stories, the newspaper often included short jokes or other light reading.

The rush for California was often referred to as an “epidemic,” because people became “infected” with the need to get to the gold camps , not understanding the primitive conditions faced there. In the August 25 edition of the Placer Times is found a story that depicts “typical” living conditions in the gold camps as a “cure” for those who have caught “gold fever.”

“A Remedy for the California Fever – A New Yorker who has seen some service in camp life, offers to those afflicted with the prevailing epidemic the following prescription: 1. Sleep three nights in your woodhouse with the door open and swinging in the wind, during which time let your diet be pork, cooked by yourself at a smoky fire in the garden. 2. Improve all the rainy nights in sleeping between your currant bushes. 3. On the fourth day of your regimen let the diet be chiefly mule steak. 4. Thereafter dispense with all kinds of food save dog meat. If this be followed resolutely, it is confidently believed a permanent cure will be effected.

TO BE CONTINUED

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