Gold Country History

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.”


Criminal Annals, Part 3 – Buffum’s Version of the Hangings

Buffum six monthsAs a part of the look at the various stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, Edward Gould Buffum’s first-person account is one of the most important.

In Chapter VI of his book, “Six months in the gold mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9,” Buffum graphically describes what he saw in Placerville that January day.

“We determined to settle down quietly for the rest of the winter in our log house, and take our chance among the dry diggings. It had by this time commenced snowing; and from the first until the fifteenth of January it continued falling heavily, so that by the middle of January it was about four feet deep on a level. All labour was of course suspended, and we lay by in our log house, and amused ourselves by playing cards, reading, washing our clothing, and speculating on the future results of gold-digging. By the middle of January the snow ceased, and the rain again commenced; and in a few days, the snow having been entirely washed off the surface, we anticipated being soon able to recommence operations.

“A scene occurred about this time that exhibits in a striking light, the summary manner in which ‘justice’ is dispensed in a community where there are no legal tribunals. We received a report on the afternoon of January 20th, that five men had been arrested at the dry diggings, and were under trial for a robbery. The circumstances were these:–A Mexican gambler, named Lopez, having in his possession a large amount of money, retired to his room at night, and was surprised about midnight by five men rushing into his apartment, one of whom applied a pistol to his head, while the others barred the door and proceeded to rifle his trunk. An alarm being given, some of the citizens rushed in, and arrested the whole party. Next day they were tried by a jury chosen from among the citizens, and sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes each, on the following morning. Never having witnessed a punishment inflicted by Lynch-law, I went over to the dry diggings on a clear Sunday morning, and on my arrival, found a large crowd collected around an oak tree, to which was lashed a man with a bared back, while another was applying a raw cowhide to his already gored flesh. A guard of a dozen men, with loaded rifles pointed at the prisoners, stood ready to fire in case of an attempt being made to escape. After the whole had been flogged, some fresh charges were preferred against three of the men–two Frenchmen, named Garcia and Bissi, and a Chileno, named Manuel. These were charged with a robbery and attempt to murder, on the Stanislaus River, during the previous fall. The unhappy men were removed to a neighbouring house, and being so weak from their punishment as to be unable to stand, were laid stretched upon the floor. As it was not possible for them to attend, they were tried in the open air, in their absence, by a crowd of some two hundred men, who had organized themselves into a jury, and appointed a ‘pro tempore’ judge. The charges against them were well substantiated, but amounted to nothing more than an attempt at robbery and murder; no overt act being even alleged. They were known to be bad men, however, and a general sentiment seemed to prevail in the crowd that they ought to be got rid of. At the close of the trial, which lasted some thirty minutes, the Judge put to vote the question whether they had been proved guilty. A universal affirmative was the response; and then the question, ‘What punishment shall be inflicted?’ was asked. A brutal-looking fellow in the crowd, cried out, ‘Hang them.’ The proposition was seconded, and met with almost universal approbation. I mounted a stump, and in the name of God, humanity, and law, protested against such a course of proceeding; but the crowd, by this time excited by frequent and deep potations of liquor from a neighbouring groggery, would listen to nothing contrary to their brutal desires, and even threatened to hang me if I did not immediately desist from any further remarks. Somewhat fearful that such might be my fate, and seeing the utter uselessness of further argument with them, I ceased, and prepared to witness the horrible tragedy. Thirty minutes only were allowed the unhappy victims to prepare themselves to enter on the scenes of eternity. Three ropes were procured, and attached to the limb of a tree. The prisoners were marched out, placed upon a wagon, and the ropes put round their necks. No time was given them for explanation. They vainly tried to speak, but none of them understanding English, they were obliged to employ their native tongues, which but few of those assembled understood. Vainly they called for an interpreter, for their cries were drowned by the yells of a now infuriated mob. A black handkerchief was bound around the eyes of each; their arms were pinioned, and at a given signal, without priest or prayer-book, the wagon was drawn from under them, and they were launched into eternity. Their graves were dug ready to receive them, and when life was entirely extinct, they were cut down and buried in their blankets. This was the first execution I ever witnessed.–God grant that it may be the last!

“The bad weather had cleared off, and our gold-digging life was again commenced; and the little ravines that ran down from the hillsides afforded us ample field for labour. The regularity and extent with which the gold is scattered in California is remarkable. When wearied with our continual labour in the immediate vicinity of our house, we would sometimes start on a ‘prospecting’” expedition some five or six miles distant. During all these searches I have never yet struck a pickaxe into a ravine without finding gold,–sometimes, however, in such small quantities as not to justify the expenditure of individual manual labour. Through this vast territory it is scattered everywhere, as plentifully as the rich blessings of the Providence that created it. Our labours usually yielded us sixteen dollars per day to each man throughout the whole winter.”