Criminal Annals

Criminal Annals, Part 19 – The Placer Times: The Population Increases Dramatically

vol1no31p1 head 12 8In April of 1849, according to the December 8 issue of the “Placer Times,” the population of California was approximately 31,000 “souls,” as they put it. By November 28 of the same year, the population had tripled to 94,000, about 25,500 of whom had arrived by ship and over 30,000 by land. Access to the mining areas of the foothills was limited due to the very wet winter weather which made the roads impassable and the rivers and streams to high to be worked for gold. Thus, people had a lot of time on their hands, some of which was not put to good use.

During the month of December the weather would worsen and not only would the newly organized City of Sacramento be flooded, severe winds would blow down many of the frame buildings there and in the mining areas.

The newly elected governor of the State of California (not yet a part of the Union), Peter H. Burnett sent a message to the legislature which the January 5, 1850 issue of the Placer Times reprinted, commenting on the governor’s words:

“The Governor’s Message. This is a smoothly written, as well as an able paper, and one to which very few exceptions can be taken. After expatiating upon the new and extraordinary circumstances under which the Legislature has assembled, the Governor proceeds directly to business, and urges upon the Senators and Representatives of our infant State the necessity of prompt and efficient action. Among the first duties of the Legislature, his Excellency refers to the adoption of a civil and criminal code of laws, and recommends the following codes:

“1. The definition of crimes and misdemeanors contained in the Common Law of England. 2. The English Law of Evidence. 3. The English Commercial Law. 4. The Civil Code of the state of Louisiana. 5. The Louisiana Code of Practice.

“Direct taxation is recommended, instead of borrowing money to meet the expenses of the state government. The Governor very properly urges the necessity of establishing a system of county and town governments throughout the state, as of the utmost importance. Many other measures are recommended calculated to promote the harmony and prosperity of the state.”

The December 29, 1849 issue of the Placer Times comments on something that has appeared the the newspaper before, random shootings:

“Random Shooting. – If there is one thing more reprehensible and criminal, or one fraught with more danger to human life, than the practice – much in vogue at the present time in this community – of shooting at random, it has not come to our knowledge. If one individual wishes to take the life of another, it seems to us unfair that the person of a third party should be placed in jeopardy by the transaction. A gentleman, a few days since, engaged in front of our office, was protected from the warm caresses of a ‘little joker’ fresh from the bore of a rifle, by the blade of an ax which he held in his hand. Not long ago a gentleman had a ball pass through one of the lapels of his coat; and we have often reverted to incidents of a like nature. It is time that such amusements were brought to a close.”

The January 5, 1850 edition of the Placer Times starts off with a front page story of a major fire in San Francisco, one that caused approximately one million dollars in damage, the cause being unknown. Major fires throughout the area will become more and more common as buildings are literally thrown up using whatever materials were locally are available and fire departments were few. As an example, in 1856 alone, the gold rush towns of Georgetown, Diamond Springs and Placerville would all burn, Placerville not once but three times.

On the second page of the same edition are two stories about local problems, one a theft, the other a possible murder:

“ Goods and Chattels Missing. – There has evidently been another Association formed in our city, which may be properly called the ‘General Appropriation Society,’ the members of which appropriate everything they can find not locked up, to their own use. Mr. Queen, it will be perceived by an advertisement in another column, has had a flask of quicksilver stolen, and we hear of innumerable cases of theft in all parts of the town. The time has gone by for leaving goods wherever you think it most convenient, and we advise people to put things under lock and key, and be on their guard generally.”

“Supposed Murder. – We learn from a note which we received yesterday, that on the morning of that day, as four men were fishing from a boat about 13 miles below this city, that they discovered the body of a man floating in the river, which they supposed to have been murdered, from the circumstances of the body and one arm containing a number of large cuts. The name of Gaylord was on the bosom of the shirt of the deceased. The following order was found in one of the pockets of the pantaloons:

“Sacramento City, Sept. 21, 1849. Messrs. Winter & Latimer will please let the bearer of this order have the chest which I left at your place on the 28th day of September last. It is a green painted chest, marked William Smith, San Francisco, California. Yours, W. Smith.

“The body was buried near the bank of the river, about 13 miles from this place, where those interested can obtain particulars by applying to the camp of Mr. John Woods.”


Criminal Annals, Part 18 – The Placer Times: California has a Constitution

vol1no28p1 head 11 17For most of the month of November, 1849, the “Placer Times” published the results of the recent election.

The Constitution for the State of California was approved overwhelmingly, Peter H. Burnett was elected Governor (one of his famous opponents, John Sutter would finish way behind him), John McDougal was elected Lieutenant Governor and various gentlemen were elected to serve in the California State Legislature. A short while later the when the legislature met, they would select to serve in the U.S. Senate, William M. Gwinn and John C. Fremont.

Upon California becoming a state in September of 1850, Mr. Burnett would step down and McDougal would become governor, Mr. Burnett having some differences of opinion with some parts of the new Constitution.

At the same time the paper would also publish the newly enacted ordinances for the City of Sacramento, most of which were designed to raise monies to operate the government.

With it being a very wet winter, most of the mining operations in the foothills have ceased, thus crime has dropped there. However, the City of Sacramento, problems still continue.

The November 17, 1849 issue of the Placer Times has a story regarding theft of goods which were being unloaded in large quantity along the banks of the Sacramento River by the many boats making the run from San Francisco to the new city.

“Thieves. — There has be some rather large operations in the thieving line during the past week. Goods to a large amount have been missed from various places in town, and no clue to them could be obtained until two or three evenings since, when Mr. Stevens, the auctioneer, discovered a couple of fellows carrying off a keg of butter. Mr. S. arrested the gentlemen in their operations, when upon investigation, the principal operator proved to be a man calling himself James Collins, from Missouri, who has made it his business to employ persons to remove goods from one part of the city to another, and selling them at somewhat reduced prices. Subsequently, other persons have become convinced that the same individual had ordered a lot of their goods to be taken away, and entered a complaint accordingly. Collins was immediately arrested and confined to the hold of a vessel, but soon got bail in a trifling amount, and was permitted to ‘go his way rejoicing,’ The firm entering the complaint had to pay sixteen dollars in the way of a fee, have lost some hundreds of dollars in goods, and now have the satisfaction of knowing that the thief is prepared to renew operations on the first fine evening. Now we undertake to say, if we have been correctly informed, that there is a screw loose somewhere in this business, and we advise our citizens to keep an eye on this Mr. Collins, who has been flourishing about the city sometime, and will probably commence business again in a few days.

“Another scoundrel undertook to get Dr. Crane’s change box the other night, by cutting through the canvass and reaching to the place where it was usually kept. Luckily for the Doctor, the box had been removed to a different locality, hence the gentleman made nothing by taking the ‘bearings’ in the day time.

“We can conceive of no excuse for stealing in this country, where any man, by a slight effort can obtain a competence, and we trust the next fellow that is caught pilfering will be made an example of, either by the authorities or the citizens themselves.”

In the November 24, 1849 issue of the Placer Times there is a story regarding more thieving and two about people taking justice into their own hands. It is interesting to note in the first story that the newspaper, which has been preaching against firearms for some time, has somewhat changed its opinion.

“More Thieving. — The store of R. J. Watson on J Street [Sacramento], was entered a few nights since and the safe taken as far as the door before the burglars were discovered. Of course they immediately fled, and before a shot could be had at them, were out of harm’s way. It is now a ‘fixed fact’ that we have a gang of villains among us who intend to make robbery their business, and we advise every one to have his revolver under his pillow, and to use it whenever certain emergencies exist.”

The second story involves some kind of a gambling misunderstanding:

“Affray. — A quarrel took place the other evening between two men named Cheeks and Lundy, in consequence of some misunderstanding in regard to a fiscal operation performed on a monte [a popular gambling game at the time] table. During the first part of the rencontre Lundy fired two shots at Cheeks, one taking effect in the hand and the other in the foot. Although there were thirty or forty persons in the room, no one else was injured by the shots discharged. Notwithstanding the wounds he had received, Cheeks challenged Lundy to fight him on the spot, when a ring was made, and the two gentlemen ’went in’ on scientific principles. We understand that Lundy was severely punished so much so that he has not been able to get about much since.”

Finally, a thief meets his match:

“Served him Right. — A fellow who has been vagabonding about town for some time, occasionally helping himself to whatever might suit his fancy from goods and chattels belonging to others, was caught on Thursday appropriating a buffalo robe to his own use. Mr. Reynolds caught him soon afterward and gave him an elaborate and luxurious bath in a mud-hole opposite our office. The thief will undoubtedly remember the circumstance some days, if not longer.”


Criminal Annals, Part 17 – The Placer Times: Death in Dry Diggings

vol1no23p1 head 10 13The October 13, 1849 edition of the “Placer Times” notes an accidental death apparently in Placerville (Dry Diggings):

As an introductory note, Weavertown is most likely Weberville, which was also known as Webertown. It was a mining community on Weber Creek, between today’s Placerville and Diamond Springs. The town and the creek were named for “Captain” Charles M. Weber who came to California overland in1841. He was a very early miner at this location before going on to found the city of Stockton.

Apparently many people pronounced Weber as “we-burr” or the more German like “vee-burr,” both of which sound a lot like “weaver.” As a result it is very common to find the town and the creek named Weaver in early stories and on maps. Later map makers would spell the creek’s name “Webber,” to assure its correct pronunciation. This spelling still shows up on some maps.

As most California newspapers were routinely sent east with the mail, at the end of the story we find a note asking an eastern newspaper to copy the story.

“Died, On 3d Oct. at the Dry Diggings 3 miles north of Weavertown, Augustus Coriell, aged about 36 years. He came to his death by the accidental blowing up of a keg of powder. – He was very badly burned on the face, hands and breast, and lived but 9 days after the accident. He was formerly from Dubuque, Iowa. Iowa papers please copy.”

The October 20, 1849 edition of the Placer Times reprinted a story from a New York newspaper regarding less than desirable American citizens entering Mexico on their way to California:

“The Mexican Government, through its Minister in Washington, has complained to our government of outrages frequently perpetrated by armed bands of American traversing the Mexican territory on their way to California – especially at the town of Passo del Norte [an agricultural town along the Rio Grande, across the border from El Paso, Texas and, in 1849, the only settlement in the area]. The minister states that they go through the country unprovided with passports and commit frequent depredations upon the inhabitants. He further states that they will hereafter by subjected to such stringent measures as may be found necessary to repress these outrages and punish their perpetrators. The Secretary of War has replied that Americans, like all other persons, by entering Mexican territory, make themselves subject to Mexican laws, and must expect to pay whatever penalties may be attached to their violation. – N. Y. Cour. and Enq.”
The November 3 edition of the same newspaper tells the story of two possible homicides in the Sacramento area:

“An inquest was held on Saturday last, on the body of a man found shot near the slough in this city. The charge entered the head just under the ear and shattered the upper pat of the skull horribly. Some were of the opinion that he was shot, but the jury returned a verdict of suicide by shooting, as a pistol wa found in the vicinity. Name not ascertained.

“A man was found murdered last week about 15 miles below here, on the road to Benicia. He had been shot under the left eye and apparently hit over th head with a gun, his skull being broken in. The supposed murderer had dragged the corpse near two hundred years, for the purpose of throwing it into a creek., but on hearing persons approaching, dropped it and fled. The clothes of the murdered man were marked G. W. H., and from his dress, he was evidently a U. S. soldier.”

In the next edition of the Placer Times, dated November 10, 1849, tells the story of an accidental death of a miner on Dry Creek, which at the time was the southern border of El Dorado County, there being no Amador County until 1854:

“A most Melancholy Death. – A correspondent gives us the particulars of a sad accident at Dry Creek, on the morning of the 25th of October. Three men named Kendall, Kent and Wright, were working in partnership and lodging together in one tent. Mr. James F. Kendall had been sick, and about 2 o’clock in the morning got up and went out of the tent, leaving his partners asleep. Mr. K made some noise in the bushes near by, which aroused Mr. A. N. Kent, who immediately sprang to the door of the tent with pistol in hand and inquired who was there, at the same time telling the object to be gone. Mr. Kendall did not immediately answer, but moved toward the tent; and Mr. Kent, supposing the person to be some Indian or Spaniard who have been stealing some of their provisions, fired thee shots, one of which took effect in the right breast of Mr. Kendall, who died in a moment without uttering a word or giving more than one groan. A meeting was immediately called and a jury selected to try the case. After a full hearing of the case the jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental homicide.’ Before the meeting adjourned, the following resolution was unanimously adopted:

“Resolved, That we sincerely sympathise [sic] with the friends of the deceased; also with Mr. Kent, and we fully concur with the jury in their verdict, believing, as we do, that the accident was entirely unintentional on the part of Mr. Kent.”

A few inches away on the same page is a story regarding criminal justice in Sacramento:

“First Criminal Conviction in this City – Criminal Court of the First Instance, Sacramento District – The People vs. John Rowe, Nov. 8, 1849. Hon. Wm. E. Shannon, presiding – The prisoner was arraigned on complaint of Samuel Norris, Esq. for stealing a cow or heifer valued at $40. After a patient and laborious trial the jury brought in the prisoner guilty, and recommended that he be fined not less than $200 and costs. Sentenced to pay a fine of $200 and the expenses of prosecution, including the expenses of his arrest and maintenance, and to stand committed till paid. Costs as taxed, $315; total to be paid by the prisoner for cattle stealing, $515. Complainant has still a civil action for damages.”


Criminal Annals, Part 16 – The Placer Times: The Constitutional Convention and Slavery

vol1no21p1 headThe September 29, 1849 edition of the “Placer Times” printed this small story regarding a hanging in San Francisco. As can been seen, the establishment of civil law is progressing as judges are appointed and a legal process created.

“Joseph Daniel, tired and found guilty of the murder of Peter Pettit, at San Francisco, was sentenced on Wednesday, 19th inst. by Judge Geary, to be hung on the 28th October next. Upon hearing his awful doom the prisoner’s terror and despair knew no control, and when removed from Court was scarcely able to stand.”

[Note: Although the story says “to be hung,” the proper word is “hanged.” Pictures are hung, people are hanged.]

The October 6, 1849 issue of the Placer Times has an advertisement showing that in spite of the rough times, people were still honest.

“Notice – The person who left a sum of money in gold dust at the store of J. Harris & Co., K street, is requested to call at the same place, prove property, pay expense of advertising and remove the deposit. C T H Palmer”

As was noted earlier, at this time in California’s history, the Constitutional Convention was taking place in Monterey. They would produce a document that would be presented to the voters and ratified by them in October of 1849. Article I, Section 18 of the Constitution would read:

“Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” However, during their deliberations the members of the Constitutional Convention would propose other verbiage. The same October 6 issue of the Placer Times includes a story regarding one proposal which did not make it into the final document.

“The Convention – We have the proceedings of this body up to the 21st ult. The Convention is progressing slowly with the business before it. We notice nothing of much importance to our readers save the passage of the following section passed on committee of the whole in regard to slavery:

“39. The Legislature shall, at its first session, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state, and to effectually prevent the owners of slaves from bringing them into this state for the purpose of setting them free.”

One of very few comments regarding problems along the trail with the Native Americans appears in the October 13 edition of the Placer Times:

“A party of California emigrants from Marion, Ohio, were attacked by Indians on the Platte River, June 2. One of the company was shot through the leg – no one else injured.”

Although many other similar incidents went unreported for various reasons, there must have been more given the number of people headed to California overland. To provide a perspective on that subject, the same October 13 edition of the Placer Times reprints a letter from an eastern newspaper.

The Pioneer Line mentioned in the story was one of several commercial companies that were formed to provide an alternative to the trip to California by covered wagon. According to advertisements of the period, the Pioneer Line charged $200 a person from Independence, Missouri to San Francisco, claiming the trip would take 55 to 60 days. Each passenger was allowed 100 pounds of baggage, anything over that was 20 cents per pound extra. The passengers, all men on the first groups, were carried in light weight wagons (carriages the company called them) that held six and were each pulled by a team of four mules. The baggage and supplies were carried in large wagons with flotation devices on them so they could ford streams and rivers.

At this point, June 10, 1849, they were not being very successful in meeting their schedule and there was a real possibility of a riot or worse.

“The following extract from a letter in the St. Louis Republican gives an idea of the way the overland emigrants are coming on:

“Fort Kearney, Indian Ter. [later Nebraska] June 10.

“Dear sirs: The cry is still them come – 5,095 wagons at sun down last night had moved past this place toward the golden regions of California, and about 1000 more I think are still behind. The fever [cholera] however in many cases has completely subsided, and in others a few more doses of rain will put them in a fair way of recovery. A few are daily turning back and many more would follow suit did they not stand in fear of the ridicule that is most sure to await them upon reaching home….

“The Pioneer Line of ‘fast’ coaches reached here on the 8th – advertised to go through in 70 or 100 days, I forget which – the end of one month finds them but 300 miles on the road [the total trip was about 2000 miles]. The passengers were loud in denouncing all ‘fast’ lines and the Pioneer Line in particular. A stormy feeling of discontent prevailed throughout the entire company, owing entirely to the want of sufficient transportation, and the chances are strongly in favor of a general explosion. The devil himself would find it difficult to give satisfaction to an incongruous crowd of 120 persons drawn from all parts of the world and thrown together for the first time as is the case in the Pioneer Line. There are to be found lawyers, doctors, divines, gentlemen of leisure, clerks, speculators, etc. etc. tumbled in together and obliged to stand guard, cook victuals, bring wood and water, wash dishes, and haul wagons out of mud holes.”

Finally, in the same issue of the Placer Times is another story regarding guns and accidents, followed by an editorial statement:

“Another Death by Firearms – A young many name Jesse Poulson, aged about 35, belonging to the New Brunswick and California Mining and Trading Co. that arrived in the bark Isabel from New York, shattered his arm badly on Monday by the accidental discharge of his gun, and before surgical aid could be obtained bled to death. We move that a committee by appointed to dump everything in the shape of firearms into the river.”