Friday, March 23, 2018

Josefa Segovia -- A Woman Lynched In California 1851


Dear Friends,

Since I have written a lot about Vigilante Justice, I've been asked if an angry mob ever go it wrong? Did they ever hang an innocent person? 

Well, the answer to that is simple. They probably did get it wrong, and hang someone that shouldn't have been. Of course in the absence of law and order, citizens committees were the only law there was. And frankly, when the law was so corrupt that it needed to be righted, vigilante committees did that when needed. 

As for a lynch mob mentality that has set itself up as judge, jury, and executioner, in an effort to knowingly hang someone? Someone who was known to be innocent? Someone who killed a friend of their's in self-defense? 

I know of one story where friends of an assailant held a mock trial, as pretentious as could be, all in an effort to seek vengeance on someone who was in fact  defending herself. That incident took place in the town of Downieville located up on the North Fork of the Yuba River. Today the old mining camp is a town of only about 280 or so people, but things were different once upon a time during the California Gold Rush.

The town was first known as "The Forks" because of its location right where the Downie River and North Fork of the Yuba River meet. Downieville was actually founded in late 1849 during the California Gold Rush. It's considered part of the Northern Mines area of the California Gold Country.

Downieville is a pretty place that was named after Major William Downie who is said to have founded the town. Gold was actually discovered there by Francis Anderson on September 14th, 1849, right there where the town now stands. By 1850, the "town" of Downieville is said to have had 15 hotels, a number of saloons, 4 butcher shops, and even 4 bakeries.

Downieville was the location of the first hanging of a woman in California. Her name was Josefa Segovia. She was lynched by an angry mob made up of the friends of the man who she killed in self-defense.

The short story of what took place is that a lynch mob held a "kangaroo court" trial while accusing her of killing an American miner there on July 5th, 1851. For those who are not familiar with the term, a "kangaroo court" is really nothing more than a scam. The legal proceedings are set-up in order to give the impression of a fair legal process, but the whole trial is bogus. The verdict was a foregone conclusion that resulted in a mob hanging her from the Jersey Bridge in town.

On January 24th, 1848, on the day when gold was discovered in California, the majority of the population was still Mexican. But, within just a few years by 1850, the Mexican population fell to 15%. It fell to 4% by 1870. The California Republic and it's independence from Mexico was declared June 14th, 1846. It was a few years later when California was admitted to the Union on September 9th, 1850 as the 31st state.

A lot of people have no idea what California looked like at the time. It's eastern border did not look as it does today. Since California extended to what is today Utah, the Northern Mining area town of Downieville received a huge number of American immigrants coming in by way of the northern California Trail during the beginning of the Gold Rush.

To show the status of Downieville at the time, it had reached a peak population of over 5,000 people in 1851. Then in 1853, it was considered to be the new state capital of California. That was the year when it and others were being looked at to replace the town of Vallejo as a state capital. That area had a number of mining camps including Brandy City, Whiskey Diggins, Poverty Hill, and Poker Flat. Many disappeared after the gold rush, or are now considered ghost towns.

The stereotype of many Mexican women of the time was horrible to say the least. It's said that Mexican women were basically viewed as sexually promiscuous. The stereotype of the Mexican prostitute in popular culture of the times was that of a female enjoying her work.

Many miners saw Mexican women such as Josefa Segovia as having became prostitutes more because of sexual desire. That was in contrast to how they saw White women who became prostitutes. They saw White women as having to do so because of hard times financially, or a lack of economic opportunity.

The false assumption that Mexican women were naturally more sexually promiscuous led to a number of problems. While options in the mining camps for women were limited, it was even harder for Mexican women. For them, the options were simple. They either became someone's wife or a prostitute. One was seen as making them a "good woman" and the other a "bad woman".

In the case of unmarried Josefa Segovia, she was married but her husband was seen as a weakling. This was wrongly seen at the time as making her "available" to suitors.

On the night of July 4th, 1851, Josefa's husband Jose Segovia was drinking and gambling in town. Downieville miner Joe Cannon, who was considered a successful miner there in the summer of 1851, and two companions tried to enter the Segovia home. Yes, uninvited, he and two others broke down their front door.

For some reason, the attackers left. Then they returned with more men. Their intent is unknown. But for me, I ask the simple question, what other reason does a group of drunken men break down the door of a women who they know is alone?

When Cannon and the others forced their way into the Segovia home, Josefa stabbed him repeatedly. And yes, Josefa Segovia is believed to have already been pregnant at the time.

She killed her invader Joe Cannon in the early morning hours of July 5th. Of course, even though a number of men entered her home by force, believe it or not, there are still those who tried to say that Josefa started it when she supposedly invited Cannon to her home. It's true, but that doesn't matter to some folks. 

Another version of what took place says that Cannon "got drunk one night and about midnight went to the house occupied by the Spanish woman and her husband and kicked the door down. Early the following morning he told his comrades that he was going to apologize to the woman for what he had done. He went alone to the house, and, while talking with the husband and wife, the woman suddenly drew a knife and stabbed Cannon to the heart. What had been said that provoked the deed was never known, further than that 'Juanita' claimed she had been grossly insulted." 

This would be interesting if it were true. The problem with that story is that it was written by someone who was never there.

Besides, Cannon breaking down the door and being stabbed in the presence of other invaders should have mattered to the jury. But, it's said the mining population in Downieville was enraged by Cannon's death and they were not interested in hearing her side of the story.

Josefa Segovia was put on trial that morning. The jury consisted of Joe Cannon's friends, some who were said to be part of those who made the assault on her home. One man who cam forward was Dr. Cyrus D. Aiken. He testified that Josefa was pregnant and not in any condition to be hanged. That didn't seem to matter. In fact, right after Dr. Aiken voiced his concerns, he was forced from the stand and told to leave town. And just so happens, there was a lawyer present. He is said to have attempted to testify for her in an effort to plea for not hanging her. He was said to have been beaten by Cannon's friends and also ran out of town.

The trial was over in just a few minutes. Josefa Segovia was found guilty of the murder of miner Joe Cannon. Everyone there knew the verdict before the trial would take place. During the trial a makeshift scaffold was quickly built on the bridge over the Yuba River. Yes, you know you're in trouble when they build the scaffold to hang you from during the trial and before a verdict comes in.

As for the lynching of this woman, it's said that the entire town came out to watch and did nothing to stop it. The people there lined the banks of the river and watched her execution. It's said they knew she hadn't received a fair trial, swift or otherwise. 

Josefa was hanged immediately following the trial. Some say that her last words before she was executed were supposedly "Adios Senores". Today, Josefa Segovia remains the only pregnant woman hanged in California history. She is also believed to have been the first woman to be executed by hanging in California. 

Just for the record, the same supposed historian who the second version of what took place that night, without ever being there, also wrote, "'Juanita' went calmly to her death. She wore a Panama hat, and after mounting the platform she removed it, tossed it to a friend in the crowd, whose nickname was 'Oregon,' with the remark, 'Adios, amigo.' Then she adjusted the noose to her own neck, raising her long, loose tresses carefully in order to fix the rope firmly in its place; and then, with a smile and wave of her hand to the bloodthirsty crowd present, she stepped calmly from the plank into eternity. Singularly enough, her body rests side by side, in the cemetery on the hill, with that of the man whose life she had taken." 

Sounds incredible. Too bad he wasn't there to have witnessed it. Fact is while that individual's book is considered a first person account of California during the Gold Rush, he did not mine for gold in or near Downieville. Because of that fact, we know that what he wrote, his version of the events, has to have been second hand at best.

Of course, even though its second hand, it's obvious from his writing that he didn't let his not being there stop him from giving her a fake name and making up what he didn't know. Some folks just do that. 

Tom Correa

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