Criminal Annals

Criminal Annals, Part 7 – Haskins and Corle Versions of the Hangings

argonauts of california haskinsFinishing up with stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, we look at two books, a history book entitled “The Argonauts of California,” by C. W. Haskins, published in 1890, and “John Studebaker – An American Dream,” a biography written by Edwin Corle, published in 1948. Each of these books gives their own peculiar version of the first hanging and then introduces later hangings from the same tree.

Haskins writes, “The first persons hung in California subsequent to the gold discovery, were two Mexicans and an American. They were hung for horse stealing and robbery during the fall of ‘48, in Hangtown, and it was from this fact that the mining camp derived its name, and although the camp has enjoyed the unenviable reputation of being the place where many murderers and horse-thieves have been kindly laid to rest by the citizens, in committees of the whole, yet only one other individual was ever hung by the citizens of the place, and that was Irish Dick, a young gambler, who was executed in the fall of ‘50 for murder. A jury, composed of miners, was chosen; he was granted a fair trial, found guilty and sentenced to be hung from the old oak tree which stood upon the side of the hill across the creek, at 2 p.m. of the same day. He requested permission to leap from the limb of the tree, head foremost; but this favor, of course, could not be granted since it did not conform to the law, and would be a very barbarous proceeding, as well as a bad precedent to establish, for in some parts of the country the trees were very small.”

Corle John StudebakerCorle, in his biography of the early Placerville resident and businessman John Studebaker, gives an even different version of the first hanging and then adds more to the Irish Dick story. “The first execution in Old Dry Diggings occurred in 1849. A miner living in a cabin near his claim was held up at the point of a gun one night by two Mexicans and one American who ransacked his house, stole his gold dust and left, warning him that if he did anything about it, they would return and kill him. The victim’s name was Prosper Cailloux.

“The next day the three robbers were still in town, and Cailloux called upon his friends to help him get his gold back. The three criminals were ‘arrested’ by a crowd of men. While a method of punishment was being debated another group of men rode into town and at once identified the three as horse thieves whom they were pursuing. That settled it. The three criminals were shortly swinging at rope’s end from the nearest tree. It happened to be a large oak that stood on the corner of Coloma and Main Streets.

“About a year later five men were charged with robbing a Mexican gambler named Lopez. A hundred or more miners listened to the evidence and decided that the criminals should get 39 lashes each. After that, three of them, who had been guilty of earlier crimes, ere summarily hanged from the same oak tree that had taken the lives of the Cailloux robbers.

“That made a total of six men whoa had ‘danced’ their lat at Old Dry Diggings, and that was enough to have the community referred to as ‘the place where they hang ‘em first and question ‘em later.’ So when Postmaster Nugent wanted a new name. it was inevitable that current events offered the answer and the community became Hangtown.

“That didn’t satisfy the official dignity of Postmaster Nugent. He suggested yet another name. Placer mining was the chief method of extracting gold, so why not call the town Placerville?

“The idea was logical, but hangings continued and hangings were more vivid.

“Irish Dick became number seven. He was a brutal criminal who stabbed a man to death over a dispute at a monte game. The results have a special interest, since Irish Dick (sometimes know as Bloody Dick and New Orleans Dick – his real name was Richard Crone) was a gambler, and he believed the gambling element was so strong in Hangtown that law-abiding men could not defy it. He openly boasted that he had killed two men previously and would kill others in the future if he felt like it. Two thousand miners thought otherwise, and Irish Dick was dragged to the famous tree and hanged to the cheers of the populace. But at least the unpleasant incident indicated that the gamblers could not control the community.”


Criminal annals, Part 6 – Hittell’s Version of the Hangings

 Theodore H. Hittell

Theodore H. Hittell

Continuing with stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, we now look at the version provided by the well-respected Theodore H. Hittell in his “History of California,” Volume I, printed in San Francisco in 1885. Like most later histories it draws on earlier publications for information.

“The names adopted by the miners for their camps and mining locations were usually taken from the names of the first settlers or from the names of the places from which they came or were of those slang names, already mentioned, which seem to have been chosen on the part of the unbridled adventurers as a sort of protest against the restraints of respectability. In some cases, however, the name of a place was taken from some circumstance connected with it foundation or growth; and unfrequently a name, and sometimes a change of name, of itself indicated more or less of the history of the settlement.

“After Coloma and Mormon Island, one of the next most important and earliest settled mining localities was a spot on the ridge south of the South Fork of the American river and about eight miles in a straight line southeast of Coloma. It was located on or near the head of a branch of Weber’s creek and appears to have been discovered as a rich field for mining operations comparatively early in 1848 by William Daylor, one of Sutter’s associates. It, or the creek on which it was situated, though substantially dry in the summer, was noted, even as early as the time of Governor Mason’s visit, for its great richness; and it very soon became a populous camp, generally know, on account of its distance from the river or constant water, by the name Dry Diggings. Much gold was taken out of the locality even in 1848. One night, about the middle of January, 1849, a Mexican gambler of the place, named Lopez, who had in his possession a large amount of money, was attacked in his own room by five men, overpowered and robbed. While the robbery was going on and before it was entirely consummated, an alarm was raised and a number of the miners of the neighborhood rushed into the house and seized the robbers. It is not likely that what may be called the public opinion of the camp cared very much about Lopez or his losses; but it plainly recognized the fact that such an offense as had in this case been committed or attempted to be committed could not under any circumstances be suffered to pass without notice. The next day, accordingly, as there was practically no such thing as a court in the mining regions and hardly and such thing in the whole country as could be called a judicial tribunal, the miners organized into a sort of committee of vigilance, tried their prisoners, convicted them and sentenced each of the five to receive thirty-nine lashes. The next day, which proved to be Sunday, was fixed upon as the time of punishment; and as Sunday in the mines was by a general consensus set aside as a day of idleness and recreation, there was a very large concourse from all directions to witness the widely-talked-about flogging of the fiver robbers that was to take place at Dry Diggings.

“An eye-witness of the scene relates that on his arrival at the place he found a large crowd collected around an oak tree, to which was lashed a man with a bared back, upon which though already cut and into bleeding stripes another man was applying with all his might a long rawhide whip. A guard of a dozen men, with loaded rifles pointed at the prisoner, stood ready to fire in case of an attempt being made to escape. After all had been duly flogged for their attempt to rob Lopez, fresh charges of robbery and attempted murder, committed the previous autumn on the Stanislaus river, were made against three of the men, two being Frenchmen and the third a Chileno. The prisoners, so accused, on account of the severity of their punishment, were unable to stand and had to be removed to a place where they could lie stretched out; but this did not prevent their further trial from going forward; and it was conducted by the assembled crowd, consisting of some two hundred men, in their absence. The charges appear to have been substantiated, though they amounted to nothing more than attempted robbery and murder. But it seemed plain that the accused were bad men, whose presence was a continual menace to the community; and there was a general sentiment in the crowd that law or no law, as there was apparently no other protection against them, they ought to be got rid of. At the close of the trial, therefore, which lasted only about a half hour and resulted in a unanimous verdict that they were guilty, when it came to the question as to the punishment to be inflicted, one of the crowd moved to hang them; and upon the proposition being put to vote it met with almost universal approbation.

“Upon this E. Gould Buffum, the eye-witness referred to, who had previously been a lieutenant in Stevenson’s regiment of New York volunteers and was afterwards editor of the Alta California newspaper, mounted a stump and with all the force and vigor of which he was capable and in the name, as he says, of God, humanity and law, protested against such an extreme measure. But the crowd, having made up its mind as to what was necessary and some being excited by strong drink, not only refused to listen to any criticism on their actions but even threatened to include the bold orator in the execution if he did not immediately desist from arraigning their conduct. It was very apparent that there was no use, under the circumstances, in attempting to say anything; and the speaker, coming down from his improvised tribune, prepared to witness the tragedy that he found himself powerless to prevent. Only thirty minutes’ notice of the condemnation and sentence was given to the prisoners. They were then brought forward, bleeding from their flogging; placed upon a wagon, and held up while the ends of three ropes, which had been thrown over the limb of a tree, were fastened around their necks. No time or opportunity was given for explanation. They tried to speak; but as none of them spoke English, the words they employed were understood by very few. They called for an interpreter; but in vain. Amid their own cries and the yells of the more brutal portion of the mob, their arms were pinioned; a black handkerchief was bound about the eyes of each; a signal was given; the wagon was drawn from under them, and they were launched into eternity. Graves had in the meanwhile had been dug; and the bodies, when life was entirely extinct, were cut down and buried – and affairs at the camp resumed their ordinary course. But from that time forward, and until it became exclusively known as Placerville, the place, on account of the circumstances just related, went by the significant though by no means elegant name of ‘Hangtown.’”


Criminal Annals, Part 5 – Marilyn Ferguson’s Version of the Hangings

Continuing with stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, we now look at a version 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 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 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. and can be reached at (530) 626-0773.


Criminal Annals, Part 4 – “Alta California” Version of the Hangings

Further from the Mines smLast time we looked at the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, as it was written by Edward Gould Buffum in his book, “Six months in the gold mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9.” Now we will look at the same story as it ran in San Francisco’s weekly newspaper, the “Alta California,” for which Buffum worked. It is generally believed that he is the “gentleman recently returned from the Dry Diggings” that they refer to in the story, but it should be noted that the actual reporting of the hangings occurred after their “informant” had left.

Alta California, February 8, 1849:
“From the Mines.”
“From a gentleman recently returned from the Dry Diggings, we have the particulars of the recent attempt to rob and murder in that place, and the punishment meted to the offenders. They are substantially as follows:
“On the night of the 18th of January, four men named Montreuil, a Canadian Frenchman; Pepi, an Italian; Antoine, a Spaniard, and Tchal a Frenchman, went to a house owned and kept by two Frenchmen, where they amused themselves with gambling and drinking. They staid late, and the proprietors of the establishment finally retired, leaving the four men still gambling and drinking. In a short time one of the proprietors fell asleep, and the four men then seized the other proprietor, telling him the if he made the least outcry or resistance, they would murder him. They then placed two of the party as sentinels over the proprietors of the house, whilst the other two robbed it of about $600, and then they all decamped.
“These facts became generally known in the course of the next day, and on the night of the 19th a large party of armed citizens proceeded to the house of the four robbers and arrested them. The next day the citizens assembled and selected three judges who were to try the four men. Twelve jurymen were drawn by ballot, and the trial at once took place. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of robbery, and the four men were sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes each and to be banished forever from the mines. The sentence was duly executed upon them on the 21st ult.
“The citizens afterwards learned that two of these robbers had been concerned in a murder on Weaver’s creek and on the South and Middle fork, in the course of last summer, and that recently two of them had attempted to murder a man near Weaver’s creek. – Thereupon. the citizens, in a public meeting, resolved that if the murderers should be found within the mines, they should be forthwith executed; but their information came too late, the birds had flown.
“Our informant says that up to the perpetration of this robbery he had never resided in a more quite and orderly community. It is surely most gratifying to observe the determined spirit of justice which actuated the people thus situated, and the credible goal with which this outrage has been punished. Let the abandoned and desperate wretches who infest the country, and who disgrace humanity by their hideous crimes, take warning from the fate of those punished at Santa Barbara, San Jose, and the Dry Diggings.”

That is a simple story: four men rob two others and after a trial are each given thirty-nine lashes for their crime. It is then found that some of them were guilty of murder or attempted murder and it was decided that “if the murderers should be found within the mines, they should be forthwith executed.” However, in their next edition, the Alta California adds to the story.

Alta California, February 15, 1849:
“Further From the Mines. Three Men Hanged at the Dry Diggings.”
“Our account of last week in relation to the trial and punishment of the four men at the Dry Diggings was substantially correct. After our informant left the Diggings, it now appears on good authority, the men were again captured, and three of them, Pepi, Antoine and Tchal were hung by the citizens. This occurred somewhere between the 21st and 25th of January.”

The most notable difference between the Buffum story and the Alta California story is the difference in the names and nationality of the criminals. Buffum says, “three of the men–two Frenchmen, named Garcia and Bissi, and a Chileno, named Manuel,” while the Alta California calls them, “Pepi, an Italian; Antoine, a Spaniard, and Tchal a Frenchman. It may just be a matter of the use of first, middle and last names, or simply a lapse of memory.

This is probably the only timely newspaper account of the hangings of these three men in Dry Diggings, although, as was common at the time, other newspapers would often pick up and reprint stories. Often stories in the Alta California would even have a note on a story that read: “Eastern papers please copy.”