Criminal Annals, Part 41 – The Placer Times: The Slave Case

As promised in the May 24, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” the May 27, 1850 edition has an in depth followup on the case involving the runaway slave that had been captured after California had adopted a State Constitution that forbids slavery.

The slave, Charles, had been freed by the court and afterwards his former master, Lindal Hayes, attempted to seize him. When a third party tried to assist Hayes, the sheriff was called and Charles was held on the charge of “disturbing the peace.”


“The proceedings of our Courts, the past week, have afforded unusual interest. Charles, a colored man, claimed as the slave of Lindal Hayes, was brought before judge [James S.]Thomas, on a writ of habeas corpus, and discharged, the Judge maintaining that under the constitution of the State, and under the Mexican laws previously existing he had no right to detain him. We shall give the opinion of the Court at length, and a history of this highly important trial on another occasion. The man Charles was again brough up on Friday for breach of the peace, in having made an assault upon said Hayes, and for unlawful resistance to the Sheriff and officers arresting him. Mr. Hayes deposed that the prisoner drew a knife upon him, against which he defended himself; that the knife was accidently dropped, when the prisoner took to flight, Hayes in pursuit; a third party, a gentleman, then came up, struck the fugitive with a stick, and ‘addled’ him; Sheriff [Joseph] McKinney appeared at this time with officer [John Ashby] Tutt, who took the prisoner in charge. Other witnesses were examined, but nothing material elicited. The defence offered very little testimony, and that bearing upon the circumstances of the arrest and the resistance of the prisoner. The points urged by the defendant’s counsel were, that the Sheriff had no warrant, and was not authorized to make the arrest without one. 2d – That no breach of the peace was committed at the time of the arrest, nor in presence of the Sheriff. 3d – That the prisoner Charles having been declared a freeman by the decision of our Courts was justified in the resistance he offered to Lindal Hayes’ attempt to capture him.

“Numerous authorities were cited by counselor [Joseph C.] Zabriskie to sustain these and the collateral positions affecting the case. This gentleman adhered closely to the legal aspect of the question, and did not respond to the irrelevant, diffuse and personal harangue which was permitted to succeed him. In consideration of the particular circumstances of the case, and the great interest manifested by the crowded assemblage which had been drawn together, the Court allowed a liberal latitude of discussion. Justice [of the Peace] [Charles C.] Sackett promptly discharged the prisoner; the position taken by the defence being fully supported by the testimony of the witnesses and thoroughly sustained by the direct bearing of the authorities. We are denied by want of space from laying before the public an abstract from our notes of the eloquent address of Mr. J. W. [Joseph Webb] Winans in behalf of the prisoner. Except those who listened to his appeal in the same cause, before Judge Thomas, few of our citizens were prepared for the high legal and forensic ability this occasion afforded. Mr. Winans was able, brilliant and effective throughout, and chained the unwavering attention of the Court and crowded auditory. His efforts in the cause of justice and freedom entitled him to the high esteem of this community, and we are truly proud that our Alma Mater, ‘Columbia,’ is so nobly represented in the rising genius of the new State of California. It is well known that of the persons brought here as slaves but a small proportion are now retained in service by their assumed masters – Whatever impressions maintain elsewhere, few in our midst doubt the perfect liberation that awaits the slave who places his foot on our free soil; but the friends of freedom and humanity everywhere will welcome gladly the ready response which our Courts have given to the unshackling tendencies which distinguish the spirit of the age.”

One of Charles’ two attorneys, Joseph Webb Winans, received a degree in law from Columbia in 1843. According to an article in the May 29, 1881 edition of the “San Francisco Chronicle,” “For several years he followed his profession, but when the California fever was at its height, in company with a few friends, he purchased, manned and fitted out a yacht and set sail for the land of promise, arriving within the Golden Gate August 30, 1849, after a long and exciting voyage around the Horn. After a short stay they sailed on to Sacramento and anchored there, and the law firm of Winans & Hyer, formed soon after, was known as the leading firm of the capital for a decade of years.”

In the column next to the previous report from court is another story regarding the rights of a “black man” in early California.

“DARK DEEDS. – A colored man by the name of Lawrence was married on Thursday evening to Margaret, a woman hired out to service in this city, by Wm. Marr, who claims to be her master. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. and Hon. Dr. Deal. The happy bride and groom had retired for the night, but very early in the morning were rudely disturbed by the attacks of said Marr upon the house, which were continued until admission was gained. When, by threats and drawing a pistol, he compelled Mrs. Lawrence to go off with him, without the show of any legal authority, and contrary to the laws of the State, and he now holds her in custody and safe keeping, and threatens to carry her away against her husband’s consent. We learn that a writ of habeas corpus was refused by Judge Thomas, on the ground of insufficiency in the application, and that doubts are entertained by him as to the right of a black man to obtain such a writ to the detriment of the claims of a white person. In the nuptial affair, and to relate, it appears tht the bride is since disposed to stay with her present claimant, as mistress of his household,

Propositions having been made and accepted to that effect, but as he offers to resign her upon the payment of $1000, the sincerity of their mutual affection cannot be much commended, while the questionable morality of the whole affair is apparent.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.