Continuing with stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, we now look at two versions of the story provided by one of Placerville’s most thorough historians, Marilyn Ferguson.
Her version, entitled “The True Tale of the Hangman’s Tree,” covers not only the hangings, but gives a bit of history about the tree and the buildings nearby.
“The True Tale of the Hangman’s Tree,” by Marilyn Ferguson
“Soon after James Marshall picked up the first gold at Coloma, word spread quickly and the gold rush was on.
“Men came by the tens of thousands to find their fortunes. Honorable men found their gold by hard work but soon came the gambler, robber and murders – those who would steal the fruits of the miner’s labor by dishonest means.
“The town of Placerville was initially called “Dry Diggings” by the first miners who arrived in 1848. The found an untouched ravine, a small creek flowing through it with clear water and surrounded by pine and oak trees.
“A large oak tree near the creek towered above the rest. Early in 1849, R.W. Barkhurst built a crude wooden building beside the oak, calling it the Placer Hotel. In 1850 Bruce Herrick, a cook at the hotel, purchased the property and it became known as the Jackass Inn. The hotel was such an important landmark that county roads were laid out with the Inn as the official starting point.
“As related by pioneer E. H. Strout, the story is told that in 1849 a vicious gang called the Owls robbed a French trader who had a story in Log Cabin Ravine, now Bedford Avenue.
“Three of the gang members were captured and a 30-minute jury trial was held, the verdict to be a flogging and banishment from town.
“The flogging was carried out, but before the criminals were able to take their leave, a lawman rode into town in search of the same men who were accused of a murder along the Stanislaus River.
“An immediate decision was made to hold a second trial. A jury was duly organized, and this time the verdict was ‘HANG ‘EM!’
“This sentence was carried out from the branches of the large oak behind the Jackass Inn, and murderers were dispatched to eternity. The E. Clampus Vitus has placed a stone marker at the corner of Center Street and Highway 50 near the spot where the three were buried.
“Another story tells of Irish Dick Crone, know as ‘Bloody Dick,’ who was hanged for killing a miner during a Monte game at the El Dorado House, the early hotel located where the Cary House would later be built. He stabbed the miner in the heart, killing him on the spot. Dick was seized, tried and hanged – all in an afternoon – and the oak tree again served with the deadly finality earning the town its nickname of ‘Hangtown.’
“As the Jackass Inn grew in popularity, Mr. Herrick wanted to expand his business, so in 1853 the hanging tree was cut down to make way for a new two-story building to be constructed on the site.
“On display at the Fountain-Tallman Museum is a small piece of wood taken from the root system of the hanging tree, a very rare artifact of that time when Placerville was a roaring gold camp, and justice was handed out swiftly.
‘The importance of the tree as a symbol of early-day justice was made clear in a poem written by Joe Fisher, an early-day businessman:
Herrick, spare that tree!
Let not its branches fall;
Here let it always be
A warning to us all.
For it was in forty nine,
When our good town yet was young,
Three men for murder vile
Upon that tree were hung.
Yes, on this same old tree
These miscreants met their doom;
Keep it for all to see –
As a grave-tree o’er their tomb.
This tree let always stand!
For ‘tis of great renown;
Then, Herrick, Stay thy hand;
Spare this relic of our town.
“And so it was that Dry Diggings took on the nickname of Hangtown, and the creek flowing by became know as Hangtown Creek.
“Citizens have always perpetuated the name, and the City of Placerville has endorsed it by adopting their official seal depicting a hangman’s noose attached to the branch of a tree and a miner bent at the creek panning for gold.”
Marilyn Ferguson is the host and very knowledgeable docent at the El Dorado County Historical Society’s Fountain-Tallman Museum, which is located at 524 Main Street in Placerville. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and can be reached at (530) 626-0773.
TO BE CONTINUED