Vigilante Justice, 1851
In many areas of the burgeoning West,
the absence of established institutions of law and order led the
local community to literally take the law into its own hands and
dispense justice through Vigilante Committees.
San Francisco vigilantes
hang a murderer,
In San Francisco, for example, the news of the discovery of gold
to its north depleted its police force while simultaneously
triggering an explosion in its population. (see The
California Gold Rush, 1849) The resulting increase
in crime and violence prompted the establishment of a Vigilante
Committee to maintain law and order. The Committee was made up
of 600 local volunteers, most of whom were prominent members of
the business community. During its first year (1851), the Committee
hanged four law breakers, whipped one, deported 20 and released
41 after trial. As a result, violent crime was reduced in the city.
The Committee was disbanded within a year after its creation. It
was revived five years later and disbanded the same year.
The remoteness of mining camps, often in politically unorganized
territories, put them beyond the reach of the law. In this unruly
environment, volunteers formed Committees of Vigilance that established
basic rules of conduct and assured at least a minimum level of
order. The community thus entrusted the Vigilante Committee with
the combined responsibilities of judge, jury and executioner.
Mrs. Louise Clappe was the wife of a physician
and lived in the mining area known as Indian Bar that bordered the
Feather River in Northern California. In the period from 1851 to
1852 she wrote a number of letters to her sister in Massachusetts
describing her experience. These letters were originally published
in Pioneer Magazine (1854-55) and then as a book in 1922. A copy
of this book resides in the Library of Congress.
In a letter written on December 14, 1851, Louise describes how
the mining community established its own form of law and order:
"The facts in this sad case are as follows.
Last fall, two men were arrested by their partners on suspicion of
having stolen from them eighteen hundred dollars in gold-dust. The
evidence was not sufficient to convict them, and they were acquitted.
They were tried before a meeting of the miners, as at that time the
law did not even pretend to wave its scepter over this place.
The prosecutors still believed them guilty, and fancied that
the gold was hidden in a coyote-hole near the camp from which it
had been taken. They therefore watched the place narrowly while
the suspected men remained on the Bar. They made no discoveries,
however, and soon after the trial the acquitted persons left the
mountains for Marysville.
A few weeks ago, one of these men returned, and has spent most
of the time since his arrival in loafing about the different barrooms
upon the river. He is said to have been constantly intoxicated.
As soon as the losers of the gold heard of his return, they bethought
themselves of the coyote-hole, and placed about its entrance some
brushwood and stones in such a manner that no one could go into
it without disturbing the arrangement of them. In the mean while
the thief settled at Rich Bar, and pretended that he was in search
of some gravel-ground for mining purposes.
A few mornings ago he returned to his boarding-place, which he
had left some hour earlier, with a spade in his hand, and, as he
laid it down, carelessly observed that he had been out prospecting.
The losers of the gold went, immediately after breakfast, as they
had been in the habit of doing, to see if all was right at the
coyote-hole. On this fatal day they saw that the entrance had been
disturbed, and going in, they found upon the ground a money-belt
which had apparently just been cut open. Armed with this evidence
of guilt, they confronted the suspected person and sternly accused
him of having the gold in his possession. Singularly enough, he
did not attempt a denial, but said that if they would not bring
him to a trial (which of course they promised) he would give it
up immediately. He then informed them that they would find it beneath
the blankets of his bunk, as those queer shelves on which miners
sleep, ranged one above another somewhat like the berths of a ship,
are generally called. There, sure enough, were six hundred dollars
of the missing money, and the unfortunate wretch declared that
his partner had taken the remainder to the States.
By this time the exciting news had spread all over the Bar. A meeting
of the miners was immediately convened, the unhappy man taken into
custody, a jury chosen, and a judge, lawyer, etc., appointed. Whether
the men who had just regained a portion of their missing property
made any objections to the proceedings which followed, I know not.
If they had done so, however, it would have made no difference, as
the people had taken the matter entirely out of their hands.
A mining camp
At one o'clock, so rapidly was the trial conducted, the judge
charged the jury, and gently insinuated that they could do no less
than to bring in with their verdict of guilty a sentence of death!
Perhaps you know that when a trial is conducted without the majesty
of the law, the jury are (sic) compelled
to decide not only upon the guilt of the prisoner, but the mode
of his punishment also. After a few minutes' absence, the twelve
men, who had consented to burden their souls with a responsibility
so fearful, returned, and the foreman handed to the judge a paper,
from which he read the will of the people, as follows: That William
Brown, convicted of stealing, etc., should, in one hour from that
time, be hung by the neck until he was dead.
By the persuasions of some men more mildly disposed, they granted
him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden
entrance into eternity. He employed the time in writing, in his
native language (he is a Swede), to some friends in Stockholm.
God help them when that fatal post shall arrive, for, no doubt, he also,
although a criminal, was fondly garnered in many a loving heart.
He had exhibited, during the trial, the utmost recklessness and
nonchalance, had drank many times in the course of the day, and
when the rope was placed about his neck, was evidently much intoxicated.
All at once, however, he seemed startled into a consciousness of
the awful reality of his position, and requested a few moments
The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by
throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of
the prisoner, across the limb of a tree standing outside of the
Rich Bar graveyard, when all who felt disposed to engage in so
revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the
most awkward manner possible. The whole affair, indeed, was a piece
of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional, but arose from
the ignorance of those who made the preparations. In truth, life
was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and
down, several times in succession, by the rope, which was wound
round a large bough of his green-leaved gallows. Almost everybody
was surprised at the severity of the sentence, and many, with their
hands on the cord, did not believe even then that it would be carried
into effect, but thought that at the last moment the jury would
release the prisoner and substitute a milder punishment.
It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity
of the occasion, but many of the drunkards, who form a large part
of the community on these bars, laughed and shouted as if it were
a spectacle got up for their particular amusement. A disgusting specimen
of intoxicated humanity, struck with one of those luminous ideas
peculiar to his class, staggered up to the victim, who was praying
at the moment, and, crowding a dirty rag into his almost unconscious
hand, in a voice broken by a drunken hiccough, tearfully implored
him to take his "hankercher," and if he were innocent (the
man had not denied his guilt since first accused), to drop it as
soon as he was drawn up into the air, but if guilty, not
to let it fall on any account.
A vigilante court
in a mining camp
The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after
the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of
the evening, and when those whose business it was to inter the
remains arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft
white shroud of feathery snow-flakes, as if pitying nature had
tried to hide from the offended face of Heaven the cruel deed which
her mountain-children had committed."
Clappe, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith, The Shirley
Letters from California Mines in 1851-52, ed. by Thomas C. Russell
(1922); Davis, William C. and Joseph Rosa (eds.), The West (1994);
Grafton, John, The American West in the Nineteenth Century (1992).
How To Cite This Article:
"Vigilante Justice, 1851" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com