Criminal Annals, Part 43 – The Placer Times: Incendiary

Fire is one of the greatest fears among the businesses in Sacramento. Several areas have already burned, mostly because of carelessness. However, in San Francisco, where there are apparently higher numbers of the criminal element, intentionally set fire is a serious problem.
The Wednesday, May 29, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” in which was printed the treaty between the California government and the Indians, continues with an article of warning regarding the possibility of intentionally set fire, followed by few short articles about miscellaneous items.

“INCENDIARIES. – The citizens of San Francisco are constantly in fear and trembling from the certainty of having these among them. We are free from any like suspicions at our place. Imprudence, however, and carelessness leads often to the same consequences. e have heard lately of many narrow escapes from disastrous conflagrations, from the want of proper care in the use of lights at night. While we escape danger, we are apt to become more and more insensible to the risk we run. The constant proximity of buckets full of water is a great security, especially were our stores are generally occupied ant night, and it is so likely that a fire would be very early discovered. No lot should be without a well. No roof without a scuttle and a ladder to reach it. If gunpowder must be had about, the least sense of right and duty would prompt the selection of a fixed and comparatively safe place for it, such as a separate out-building would afford. The Council will enact ordinances embracing, with the establishment of a fire department and other equally important enactments, these considerations; but they should need nor authority to assure their absolute adoption by our citizens generally.”

If you recall, the random firing of firearms around the area was one of the complaints the editor of the newspaper repeated several time. Generally most people are not armed when out, unless hunting. However that is changing, and with it, the price of weaponry.

“REVOLVERS. – The Indian disturbances have raised the price of pistols. Last fall it was deemed quite absurd to take fire-arms into the diggings. Now ‘Colt’s’ medium size command $75.”

Bullfights and fights between a bull and a bear are two kinds of entertainment that are held in early California, the first being more common than the latter. The latter is frowned on by many people, but bullfighting itself is something that was going on in Spanish and Mexican California long before the arrival of the Americans. Apparently the editor does not think it should continue.

“BULL FIGHTS. – These disgusting exhibitions are still suffered to take place. The men engaged are cowardly and imbecile, the bulls half starved, worn out and unresistant.”

The final note is just a glance at a continuing problem between those who claim the ownership of land and those who are squatting or “settling” on it.

“‘SETTLERS,’ – A disturbance has taken place among those at Clark’s Point, which required the interference of the police.”
On page three of the same May 29, 1850 edition of the Placer Times is a very small note regarding cholera.

“THE CHOLERA. – Western papers notice its re-appearance on the Mississippi. The steamboats from New Orleans seldom go up without some deaths on the trip.”

That story makes the whole cholera issue sound minor, but in a short five months it would be a serious problem in Sacramento, killing 1000 or more (about 15%) of the people in just three weeks. Of the 40 to 50 doctors practicing in Sacramento at the time, 17 of them would die from it.
It is believed to be the worst epidemic of Asiatic Cholera to occur anywhere and the highest mortality rate ever for physicians treating an epidemic. Most of the victims were buried in mass graves, but because of flooding problems, moved to the City Cemetery at 10th Street and Broadway where they are believed to be under military graves.

The cholera epidemic of 1850 was also the major killer of people travelling by wagon to California. Some tell stories of there being at least a grave each mile for a cholera victim.

On page 4 of the same edition, the newspaper has printed an ordinance adopted by the City of Sacramento relating to nuisances. In a small article prior to it the editor encourages “all good citizens to see that it is carried out to the letter.”
The ordinance is lengthy, but portions of it are very interesting and it is one of the first laws in Sacramento, which is only months old, that makes common activities a crime.
It also give us insight as to the conditions and problems in early California, where there was no storm drain system, sewer system or organized garbage and trash pickup and disposal.

“Sec. 1. …no person shall throw or deposit, or cause to be thrown or deposited, in any street, land, alley, square, public place or vacant lot, or any other place, and animal or vegetable matter, subject in its nature to undergo decomposition, and thereby cause disease. [Next paragraph has the same verbiage for dead animals].

“Sec 2. [Penalties for both the person depositing the material and the person who owns the land if the nuisance is not removed in a timely manner].

“Sec 3. …all house offal, whether consisting of animal or vegetable matter, shall be deposited in such vessels as will not contain liquids, and be removed at the expense of the owner or occupant of said house not less than twice in each week, during the months of June, July, August, September and October, and once each week thereafter, and thrown, until otherwise ordered by the Mayor and Common Council of this City, into the channel of the Sacramento River, at some point designated by the City Marshal or officer of health, below O street, in said City…

“Sec 4. …no vault of a necessary or privy shall be dug or placed within two feet of the line of any lot of land, street, lane, alley, square, public place or passage way; and whenever any vault or privy shall become offensive to any inhabitant, the same shall be cleansed….

“Sec 5. …no person shall land or cause to be landed on any wharf or other place, or shall otherwise bring into the city any damaged grain, meats or fish, under penalty of ten dollars for each offence…

“Sec 6. [Penalties for not following the rules]

“Sec 7. [Ordinance is effective immediately].”


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