Criminal Annals

Criminal Annals, Part 14 – The Placer Times: The Cholera

vol1no17p1 headAlthough crime of all sorts was becoming a problem in parts of California’s gold mining area, something was being done about it through the creation of a civilian government. At the same time, there was something of greater concern, something about which they could really do nothing: cholera.

This deadly disease had run rampant throughout Europe and had come to the United States, probably with the immigrants. Now it was slowly coming to California overland and by ship. Although the number of cases in Europe were by this time declining, within a couple of years it would be the major killer of immigrants on their way to California, some families being almost completely wiped out on the plains. Later newspapers would estimate the death rate among immigrants in the early 1850s to be as high as 50 percent.

Medicine and the ideas about contagious diseases being what they were at the time, some immigrants believed that if they moved their wagons and families away from the populated areas rapidly, they would be okay. Unfortunately, the disease travelled with them and many hundreds of miles into their trips they came down with it.

The September 1 issue of the “Placer Times” describes what it has learned from the newspapers brought by ship from various ports around the world:

“The Cholera. – The ravages which this disease is making at this moment in nearly every part of the civilized world, (as appears from the European news, added to the most recent communications from various sections of the Union,) present the most awful and imposing spectacle of which the human mind can conceive. The great Œumenic pestilence of the nineteenth century has become a topic whose interest to ‘all living’ transcends the of even the stupendous Revolutions now in progress. Political events lost their interest to men in view of death.

“The cholera at New York on Thursday (5th) had 54 cases and 26 deaths. In Philadelphia on Wednesday, 47 cases and 19 deaths. In Cincinnati on Thursday there were 137 deaths of cholera, and 33 of other diseases.

“At St. Louis on the 29th June, there were 131 interments, with 93 deaths from cholera. On the 39th June and 1st July, although no accurate returns had been made, still the impression was that the disease was decreasing. The papers state that nearly or quite three-fourths of the deaths occur among newly arrived immigrants, and the establishment of some quarantine regulations is strongly insisted upon.

“In New York City on the 30th June, there ere 39 new cases and 18 deaths by cholera.

“In Philadelphia, June 28, 40 new cases and 13 deaths occurred.

“Albany generally continues healthy, and no cases of cholera have as yet been reported.

“The cholera is fearfully increasing in Cincinnati. The weather is wet and the atmosphere oppressive. The Total number of deaths for the day ending at noon on the 24th June was reported at 150, of which 130 were foreigners, mostly German and Irish. On the 25the, the interments for the twenty-four hours ending at noon, where of cholera 98 and other diseases 38 – not including 6 cemeteries from which reports had not been received.

“The remains of one of the victims of cholera in Cincinnati was placed in the vault of a graveyard, where it remained about 24 hours, when in the presence of friends and relatives it was taken out for burial, and, awful to behold, the features of the corpse were found to be hideously distorted, his shroud torn, and his fingers – which were between his teeth – bitten and gnawed to the very bone.

“At St. Louis, June 26, eight cemeteries reported yesterday 118 interments, of which 88 were deaths by cholera. The full report of the previous week’s interments is not yet made up, but they will doubtless be over 700 from cholera alone.

“A tremendous meeting of the citizens was held on the 25th, for the purpose of adopting measures for the mitigation of the cholera.”

In the September 22 issue of the Placer Times is a small, front page article pointing out how very seriously everyone was taking the problem of the epidemic:

“Proclamation of President Taylor. – The President of the United Sates has issued a proclamation recommending that the first Friday in August be observed by the people of the United States as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to avert the ravages of the pestilence that is now threatening to sweep throughout the land.”


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.


Criminal Annals, Part 12: The Placer Times – Foreigners

vol1no10p1aFollowing the June 30, 1849 article in the “Placer Times” regarding a group calling themselves the “Americans” forcing out Spanish speaking miners, we find a secondary article in the July 7, 1849 edition.

“The Mines – No important intelligence from the mine since our last. The movement to drive away foreigners from the Placer has been successful, so far as the region is concerned beyond the Mills. Already some scores of Mexicans and Chilians [sic] have re-crossed the river, and at the latest accounts were quietly encamped at Coloma. We have understood that the gold had been taken away from some of the foreigners before they left the mines, but we very much doubt the rumor. Unless great caution should be exercised, naturalized American citizens will suffer from this rigorous movement, hence it is to be hoped the United States authorities will take some immediate steps to investigate the affair.

“Since the above was in type we have seen several Spaniards from the mines who complain bitterly of the summary manner with which they were treated by the Americans and others. Only three or four hours’ notice were allowed them to depart accompanied with the threat that in case of noncompliance their tents and all their effects would be destroyed.”
On July 21, 1849 the Placer Times printed this somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” appeal to the citizenry regarding the discharge of firearms:

“Prompt measures should be taken to stop the discharging of fire-arms in our midst. – Balls hitting those ‘brave old oaks’ glance in every direction: a man was killed this other day by this process. People come here ‘loaded’ with revolvers and don’t seem satisfied until they shoot somebody, somehow.”

This was followed, in a later edition with the following:

“Another man came within six inches of being shot yesterday. Blaze away, ye miserable triflers with human life! Startle the sick and dying, it may be your turn to experience this annoyance anon.”

The lack of a strong government in California was not going unnoticed by those who had been put in charge. Brevet Major General Bennett C. Riley (1790 – 1853), the seventh and last military governor of Upper California, issued a directive to establish a civilian government on June 3, 1849. The July 28, 1849 edition of the Placer Times indicates that in response to this directive there was a mass meeting in Sacramento on July 5, 1949, where a committee was formed to create precincts for the Sacramento region and nominate candidates to a constitutional convention in Monterey, which would commence on September 1, 1849. The following gentlemen were nominated: John Bidwell, Capt. Shannon, Jacob R. Snyder, M.M. McCarver, John Sutter, L. W. Hastings, W. S. Sherwood, C.E. Pickett, John McDougal and John S. Fowler. the committee also established polling places, one of which was Coloma.

In the July 28 edition of the Placer Times is the following front page story:

“At a meeting of the citizens of Coloma and vicinity, held on Wednesday, the 18th July at the residence of Dr. Dye, for the purpose of taking into consideration the nominations made by the mass meeting held in Sacramento city on the 5th inst., the following business was transacted:
“On motion, Mr. Dye was called to the chair and L. W. Hastings appointed secretary.

“The chair not being fully advised as to the object of the meeting, called upon Mr. Shannon, who stated the object of the meeting as above, and read the proceedings of the mass meeting in Sacramento city; after which he addressed the meeting at some length, urging the necessity of extending further notice to the citizens at the different ‘diggings’ in this vicinity, for the election of local officers of this precinct, such as 1st and 2d alcalde (Justice of the Peace), sheriff, etc.

“On motion, a committee of five, consisting of Messrs. Shannon, Gordon, Bennett, Anthony and Monroe was appointed to draw up and present resolutions expressive of the sense of the meeting, and to nominate local officers for this precinct.
“This committee, having retired a few minutes, reported the following resolutions and suggestions:

“1. Resolved, That we approve of the nominations of delegates, made by the mass meeting of Sacrament city, and that we approve of the general action of that meeting; but that we set more in accordance with the Proclamation of Governor Riley.

“2. Resolved, That from the want of all legal authority, it becomes necessary to elect, on the 1st of August next, the local officers for this precinct, such as the 1st and 2d alcalde, or justice of the peace, one sheriff as well as one judge of the superior court, for the northern district – Your committee respectfully suggest the names of L. W. Hastings for the office of 1st alcalde, that of Elisha Packwood for 2d alcalde, and that of A. J. More for the office of sub prefect or sheriff.

“And your committee further suggest that it be submitted to this meeting, whether the present corresponding committee shall be continued as such.

“On motion, the report of the committee was unanimously adopted.

“L. W. Hastings having stated his objections to accepting the nomination as 1st alcalde, and having proposed to be excused by the meeting, whereupon, Capt. W. E. Shannon was nominated for the office of 1st alcalde.

“On motion, the corresponding committed appointed for this precinct, by the mass meeting of Sacramento city, was continued as such.

“On motion, the corresponding committee was instructed to use their utmost endeavor to have the coming election in August next conducted conformably to the Proclamation of Gov. Riley.

“When, on motion, the meeting adjourned.

“Clarkson Dye, Chairman, L. W. Hastings, secretary. Coloma, July 20th, 1849.”

Note: L. W. Hastings is the same Lansford W. Hastings, an attorney, who arrived in Oregon in 1842 and wrote “The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California.” He later encouraged wagon trains to take his “Hastings Cut-off” as a shorter route to California. The Donner party was one group that followed his advice.


Criminal Annals, Part 11: The Placer Times – Gold Fever and Manifest Destiny

vol1no04p1aContinuing through the issues of the “Placer Times,” Sacramento’s first newspaper, we find that crime was not limited to the area of the mines, but also committed by those anxious to get there.

“Placer Times, Saturday, May 19, 1849

“The extracts from late papers (newspapers from the east coast that arrived with the ships) to be found on our first page, show how intense the excitement raging in the east respecting the gold discoveries in California; of course our limits will not permit of copious quotations from the different newspapers in our possession, but a tolerably correct idea may be derived from what has already appeared. It will be seen that women as well as men are seized with the infection, and that while thousands of persons are preparing to emigrate and thousands are on their way, the agitation continues quite as great as ever. Men are going mad on account of the gold and others, becoming desperate, commit crime to enable them to raise the means of getting to California. The papers tell huge stories of wealth revealed, and speculate upon the probable results of the fever just as ever. Some gloomily fancy the forebodings of distress and others exult in the richness of the new acquisition, as their political character determines them.

“We confess never to have deliberately and fully summed up the chances favorable to or against the welfare of the mass – the consequences likely to follow the workings of the mania, but a moments reflection has convinced us that in the multitude on its way her there are many who will encounter disease, privation and death. Many who will be successful, but which will be worse to them than if they dwelt in poverty all their lives. Many who are now rich that will be ruined, and more who where the possessed a penny before shall now be worth a pound. But the emigration will roll on unmindful of the fate or fortune of those around, until this, the pearl of our Pacific possessions, shall have developed her now slumbering resources, and the wilderness be truly made to ‘blossom as the rose.’”

For the next few weeks the Placer Times was filled mostly with ship arrivals, government proclamations and such, but in the June 30, 1849 edition something very disturbing showed up.

When the miners first arrived there was plenty of gold that was easily found and room for everyone to stake a claim. As the gold became harder and harder to find and the land more crowded, the American miners, believing that the land was really theirs (Manifest Destiny), started taking the claims belonging to those other than themselves.

Under the theory of “Manifest Destiny,” the people of the United States felt it was their mission to extend the “boundaries of freedom” to others (and to the Pacific coast) by imparting their idealism and belief in democratic institutions to those who were capable of self-government. It excluded those people who were perceived as being incapable of self-government, such as Native American people and those of non-European origin.

The first reported large-scale action by Americans, as is told in this story, involves taking the property of Spanish speaking miners, even though a majority of them were American citizens as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded California to the United States in 1848.

“A movement has taken place in the Gold Region which, from its probable results, calls not only for the intervention of the civil and military authorities, but seems to require an earnest expression of their feelings from all those citizens of the United States, who have a regard for the honor of their country, and who are resolved to maintain it. We allude to the forcible expulsion of certain foreigners and naturalized citizens of the United Stated from the Placers of the Middle Fork and neighborhood by an armed body of men calling themselves Americans.

“Of three individuals thus expelled, which we have seen, one is an old resident of California and a naturalized citizen of the United States. Another is a native Peruvian and naturalized citizen of the Unites States, who has, to our knowledge, periled his life many times in this country, fighting under the American flag, and who was severely beaten by the enemy because he refused to bear arms against us.

“We have been informed that hostilities have been commenced against those only who speak the Spanish language, but who cannot speak English, and not only are the English, French, Dutch, Italians, Portugese, etc. reported to have been unmolested, but we are informed that they actually composed a part of the expelling force. God grant that they may have composed the whole of it: that no American can have so far forgotten his own honor and that of his country as to expel those from the Placer whom our Government has sworn to protect in the full enjoyment of all the privileges of American citizens.

“We are informed that the Regulators gave to their victims three hours’ grace. This a piece of condescension for which these unfortunate men are doubtless thankful since it enabled them to escape with some of their animals, but they would certainly feel still more indebted had they been able to have brought away with them their provisions and machines..

“This disorderly proceeding may be attended with many serous results. Those Governments whose citizens or subjects have been the victims of this partiality ought to, and probably will, demand instant reparation for all damages which they may have sustained.

“Every child, that is every American child, ought to know that the government of the United States alone has the right to prevent persons from digging the gold region, and we will not question the common sense of our readers by attempting to prove it.