Criminal Annals, Part 55 – Vigilantes

The Seventh-Fifth Anniversary Souvenir Review Edition of the “Mountain Democrat,” published on January 6, 1928, devotes most of a page to a series of stories under the title, “Operations of Vigilantes.”

The word “vigilantes,” is used here to describe a series of executions and events, some of which have already been previously mentioned. Note that they are slightly different from earlier stories about the same event, a result of stories being copied and amended by later writers.

In the 1800s there were actual “Committees of Vigilance,” in locations such as San Francisco and Sacramento where the people, believing that local government was not doing enough to keep the people safe from harm, formed short-lived groups to correct the problem. These will be discussed in the near future.

“Operations of Vigilantes.

“The name of Hangtown was given to the former Dry Diggings on account of the operations of Vigilantes, in two or three of the more noted cases, in which Judge Lynch was called upon to administer swift ‘Justice.’

“While some historians have regarded the instances as stains upon the mottled pages of early history, others find in the effectual and swift punishment of offenders, an evidence of the inherent love for law and order, which is the heritage of every true American; many see in this recital of early executions, traits, of which the descendants of the pioneers may be proud.

“First Executions.

The name is directly traceable to the execution of a white man and two Mexicans in 1849. One Cailloux, a Frenchman, lived in a log cabin near the junction of Cedar ravine with Hangtown creek. One night he was awakened by a noise and saw standing at his bedside a Mexican with an uplifted dagger in one hand and a pistol in the other, while another Mexican, lighted candles in hand, was ransacking his chest in which he had about fifty ounces of gold dust. He was warned to make no outcry on pain of instant death. He obeyed and they took his gold dust and departed.

“Strange to relate, these Mexicans were in no haste to leave the camp, and this act of bravado, if it may be so termed, cost them their lives, for early on the morrow Prosper Cailloux announced to the miners in that little valley what had occurred to him. The Mexicans were at once taken in charge, and about the same moment there arrived in the camp a party in pursuit of horse thieves from the southern part of the State. The two Mexicans and a white man present being identified as the thieves they were in search of, their doom was settled, and they were hung from the limb of an oak tree that stood near the corner of Coloma and Main streets. Their bodies were buried on the north side of Hangtown creek.”

“Second Committee Organized.

“In September, 1850, there was organized the second Vigilance Committee in this valley to hang Richard Crone, known as ‘Irish Dick,’ a sporting man [gambler?], who had stabbed a man to death in the El Dorado [early hotel and saloon where the Cary House is now located. It burned in 1856], over a dispute about a bet at a monte game. The tragedy occurred about 2 a.m.. and Dick was not arrested until 8 a.m., and thus might have made his escape as his friends desired him to. The news of the murder spread like wildfire in the neighboring canyons, ravines and flats, and by 1 p.m there were in Hangtown, fully 2,000 angry men, everyone armed with something that would hurt, from a pick-handle to a rifle. The farce of a preliminary examination was allowed to be gone through with before Justice of the Peace Humphreys in the middle of the street. The evidence was brief, and the Judge ordered Dick committed to the custody of the Sheriff (Uncle Billy Rogers) [William Rogers], and Alexander Hunter and John Clark, Constables, to be placed in the county jail at Coloma, the then county seat of El Dorado county. The Judge had scarcely made the order when a lariat was thrown over Dick’s head, and he was literally dragged along Main street and up Coloma street to an oak tree, above mentioned,. The loose end of the lariat was thrown over a limb of a tree and Dick was pulled up and strangled to death. One of the principal leaders of the move was a large, powerful man, who bore the sobriquet of ‘Dutch Ben.’

“Buck Harrigan Escapes

“About twilight of that exciting day Ben was sauntering along the middle of Main street, and when he came opposite the Empire [theater], ‘Buck Harrigan,’ a noted sport, and ‘Wooley Kearney’ were standing in one of the doors of the establishment. Buck suddenly stepped up behind ‘Dutch Ben,’ dealing him a blow under the ear which felled him to the earth as if he had been struck with a sledge hammer. Instantly there was shouts of ‘Hang him! Hang him!’ and the speed with which ‘Buck’ fled over Hangtown hill would have been creditable to a mountain goat. About that time a man named Jack Watson was publicly whipped by the vigilantes.

“Officers Hold Man in 1853.

“Another Vigilante movement took place in June or July, 1853, to lynch one Hughes, who had killed a man in Coon Hollow; but the alertness and the strategy of the law officers and a few bold citizens, headed by Captain Norton, succeeded in thwarting the mob and safely lodging him the county jail at Coloma. The law, at a later date, preformed the act which the mob at Hangtown had wished to carry out. Since that time Judge lynch has been deposed, and none have suffered the death penalty since, except for two Indians in 1861 and Poole, and others, some years later.



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