Friday, March 14, 2014

California Vigilante Justice, The Clappe Letters, 1851

"They granted him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden entrance into eternity."

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, Mrs. Louise Clappe 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.

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 for prayer.

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.

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."

That's the way it was.

While civility was not always present in the Old West, in what was known back then as the Far West of California, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Montana, a gold and silver strike, or cattle and the need for water and grass, sometimes brought out the worse in mankind.

But don't be fooled, law was always present in one way or another.

Fact is most of the people coming West had roots in places back East where there were already such fanciful things such as city ordinances and the beginnings of organized law enforcement with the cities actually having constables for example.

The biggest problem that criminals faced was a matter of adjustment so to speak - their problem was that many things that were considered infractions or misdemeanors in the East were in fact a hanging offense out West.

Stealing a horse in New York, Chicago, or St Louis could get you a fine while in the West because putting a man or woman afoot was the same as killing them - the offense got you a California neck tie and short drop.

Compared to the hellish violence back East, this lead to a great deal more civility in the West even if the law in most places were based on the Golden Rule, the 10 Commandments, and other virtuous guidance.

And yes, just for the record, people came West to find better lives -- and an escape from the violent East were arming one's self was illegal.

Even back then, like today, it was proven time and time again that an unarmed populace is prey for those armed who couldn't get a tinker's dam about the law.
People fled to where they could have better lives - including the ability to protect themselves.

Because many Western communities had very little organized, or uncorrupted law enforcement, most local communities were literally forced by need and necessity to take the law into its own hands and dispense justice through Vigilante Committees.
The tradition of vigilante justice in Montana began in 1860s in what was then a remote part of the eastern Idaho Territory.

Like in California and Nevada, the courts had very little power in the remote mining camps of what would eventually become western Montana.

And yes, like hundreds of other towns, vigilantes in Montana first came into existence to bring order to what was becoming a lawless community.

San Francisco had one of the biggest vigilante committees on record with thousands of members. Yes, it was a small army.

Like in some crisis, just as when a third of the New Orleans police department threw away their badges and left the city high and dry during Hurricane Katrina, many of the police responded to the news of the discovery of gold in the same way.

Many officers just walked off the job and heading to the gold camps.

Yes, gold depleted its police force while simultaneously triggering an explosion in its population. And interesting set of circumstances for a city not really for what took place in the way of the dealing with some of the worse in mankind.

The result was an increase in crime and violence, and it prompted the establishment of a Vigilante Committee to maintain law and order.

The San Francisco Committees of Vigilance of 1851 was made up of 600 local volunteers, most of whom were prominent members of the business community.

During its first year, 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. But, 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.

And yes, when the government failed - as it did back then either by way of corruption, neglect to the problems at hand, abuse of power, or a combination of all three such as in San Francisco in 1851 - the armed citizen was the one who had to take ownership of their city.

Something they did very well in one way or another.

While not using the Politically Incorrect word "Vigilante," this very thing has taken place recently in an Oregon county bigger in size than some states back East.

To read about citizens taking ownership of their freedoms and security, click here: 

Rural Oregon Citizens take Ownership of Police Duties - Part One

Rural Oregon Citizens take Ownership of Police Duties - Part Two

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. I feel bad for that poor William Brown. I can just imagine him back in 1851 as this 18 or 19-year-old boy who probably never committed a crime in his life. And yet he has been considered a thief. And the town of Indian Bar wants to hang him. And what does poor Billy do? He begs and pleads for his life. But the verdict is already in. Billy is guilty. And so he must die. They hang Billy but centuries later his story lives on. Who knows? Maybe his ghost haunts Indian Bar. Maybe the ghost of Billy Brown wants revenge. Do you think he will get it? Stay tuned to find out.


Thank you for your comment.