Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bodie California's 601 Vigilantes


Sitting at an elevation of 8379 feet in the Bodie Hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Mono County, the ghost town of Bodie, California, about 75 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe, is today a California State Park. The name of the mining town gives credit to William S. Bodey who is said to have discovered gold there in 1859.

Mr. Bodey himself died during the winter of 1860 in a blizzard while making a trip to Monoville for needed supplies. Because he died relatively soon after his discovery, he sadly didn't live long enough to see that the town was named after him.

Why "Bodie" instead of "Bodey" since his name was Bodey? Well, it's said that Bodie got its name because a sign painter made a mistake in its spelling. One source says local ranchers Ben and John Hasslet had a ranch named Bodey. The brothers decided to start a livery stable and needed a sign made. Their sign was to read "Bodey Stables." But as fate had it, when their sign came in, it read "Bodie Stables" and the name "Bodie" stuck.

As surprising as it may sound, because of two other gold strikes in nearby Aurora and Virginia City, Nevada, interest in Bodie's gold discovery was not very robust. At least that was the case until 1876. In fact, to show how little interest there was in Bodie's gold strike, two companies built stamp mills at Bodie. Both went under because they weren't profitable. That was in 1868.

The actual boom came in 1876 when a large deposit of gold-bearing ore was discovered. That event changed the relatively small sparsely populated mining camp of Bodie, that tiny camp isolated in the Sierras, into a true boom-town. Within a few years, some say Bodie had a population of about 10,000 people. Some say that number is inflated and the actual number was closer to half of that. Bodie is said to have boomed from 1876 to late 1880s when the mines petered out and folks moved on.

During the time when it was a bustling town, Bodie is known to have had all of the amenities of comparable size town. It had its own Wells Fargo Bank, a volunteer fire department made up of four fire companies, its own town band, a jail, offices for the local miners' and mechanics' unions, dance halls, saloons galore, its own red light district on the north end of town, as well as a number of newspapers. The first newspaper there was The Standard Pioneer Journal. It published its first edition on October 10, 1877.

The story goes that at its peak, Bodie was the home of 65 saloons which lined its Main Street. The mile long Main Street and its saloons provided a lot of material for the town's newspapers. As with most towns, cattle towns or mining towns, barroom brawls were usually just brawls with men fighting it out with fists. That was the norm across the West.

One of the saloon-toughs who was well known in Bodie was an hombre by the name of Mike McGowan. He's said to have been a "Bad Man from Virginia City." In fact, he had reputation of biting off an opponent's ears, their nose, and even a thumb, during a fight. For those of us who have been in a bar fight or two in our lifetimes, that sounds like a crazed individual that wouldn't be very much fun to run into.

Of course as we all know, every once in a while there is going to be someone who will inevitably pull a gun and drop a hammer on someone in a saloon whether over a personal angst, a bad business deal, a gambling disagreement, simply because someone had too much to drink, or a number of other reasons. So yes, there were murders, shootouts, and even stagecoach holdups there in Bodie. One such killing was Alex Nixon. He had just recently been elected as the first president of the Miners' Union in Bodie. He was shot and killed in a saloon gunfight on January 15, 1878.

One of the more famous stories of Bodie has to do with the vigilante group known as the 601 Vigilantes. That story has to do with when Thomas Treloar was shot and killed by a man who wanted Treloar's wife.

During a dance at the Miners' Union Hall on January 15, 1881, Joseph DeRoche is believed to have exchanged words with Thomas Treloar when DeRoche wanted to dance with Treloar's wife. DeRoche is said to have grabbed Treloar's wife and forced her onto dance floor even though Treloar told DeRoche to leave his wife alone. According to what I've been told, while some say that it's unknown if an argument took place between Treloar and DeRoche, DeRoche was made to leave the dance by those there.

After first posting this story, I was made aware of a possible behind the scene affair between Treloar's wife and DeRoche. One reader wrote to say she married the older Thomas Treloar for his money and an life insurance policy. Yes, there is the possibility that she may have been an accomplice in her husband's murder. While I'm trying to verify this, if that really was the case, things probably didn't turn out the way Mrs. Treloar and DeRoche planned.

After Thomas Treloar and his wife left the Miners' Union Hall on that Saturday night, they proceeded to walk down Main Street when they were met at the corner of Main and Lowe Streets by DeRoche. He is said to have jumped out of the darkness and simply shot Thomas Treloar. The bullet fired by DeRoche smashed into Mr. Treloar's head, killing him instantly.

Citizens quickly arrested DeRoche and turned him over to the law. But, because he wasn't secured as well as should have been because the town deputy was said to have been drunk at the time, DeRoche escaped and made a dash down Goat Ranch Road. He was caught again aways from town and brought back to Bodie.

It was then that Bodie's 601 vigilante group took over. To my knowledge, the "601" was not simply a single group and in fact there were other vigilante groups that called themselves the "601". For example, we know that there was a secret 601 vigilante group in Bodie, and also up north in Truckee, California. We also know that there was a group of vigilantes calling themselves the "601" in Reno, Nevada. There is speculation that there was a 601 vigilante group in Redding, California, when the Ruggles Brothers were lynched. But, to my knowledge, they were not affiliated in the way that the vigilante groups that made up the Anti Horse Thief Association were all connected.

The Anti Horse Thief Association was started in Missouri and achieved so much success at apprehending horse thieves that they actually branched out into apprehending those wanted for other criminal activities as well. By 1863, the Anti Horse Thief Association actually had formal bylaws and even adopted their own constitution. By the end of the Civil War, law enforcement and the courts saw the benefit of what the Anti Horse Thief Association was doing. Yes, so much so that that vigilante group actually expanded and created branches of their organization in a couple of other states and the Oklahoma Indian Territory with the sanction of the law.

As for the 601 vigilante groups, it appears the use of 601 was common among some vigilante groups because of it's significance. The numbers 601 is believed to stand for "6 feet under, 0 trial, 1 rope." As for the case of murderer Joseph DeRoche, Bodie's 601 Vigilantes hanged DeRoche on Monday, January 24, 1881.

What took place was chronicled in the below article from The Bodie Free Press newspaper:

Judge Lynch held his first court session in Bodie early on Monday morning and passed judgment on a criminal whose crime is already recorded and impressed on every mind in this community. The tragic end of DeRoche, the murderer, was at once awful and impressive.

The lesson to be learned from it is easily read and the simplest mind can fully comprehend it. That a cruel murder had been committed no one can deny; that the swift retribution was expected every observing citizen could predict with safety. The excitement of the Sabbath did not die away and the wrath of the people did not go out with the setting of the sun. As the shades of darkness enveloped the town, the spirit of revenge increased in intensity and developed into a blazing column of fire. It was burning in its intensity and fearful in its results.

After the adjournment of the court and DeRoche was token back to his narrow cell, a mysterious committee was organized, the like of which has existed in many towns on this Coast since ’46, and whose work has been quick and thorough. The Committee, it is reported, held a long session and discussed the matter in hand. The session was long and deliberate, and its conclusions resulted in the lynching of DeRoche.

Between 1:30 and 2 o’clock Monday morning, a long line of masked and unmasked men were seen to file out of a side street into Bonanza Avenue. There must have been two hundred of them and as the march progressed to the jail the column increased. In front were the shotguns carried by determined men. They were backed up by a company which evidently meant business, and no ordinary force could foil them in their progress.

When the jail was reached it was surrounded and the leader made a loud knock at the door. All was dark and quiet within. The call had the effect of producing a dim light in the office, and amid loud cries of “DeRoche,” “Bring him out,” “Open the door,” “Hurry up,” etc. Jailer Kirgan appeared, and responded by saying: “All right boys; wait a minute; give me a little time.” In a moment the outside door was opened slowly and four or five men entered.

Under instructions the door of the cell in which the condemned prisoner lay was swung open. The poor wretch knew what this untimely visit meant, and prepared for the trying and humiliating death. It was some moments before he was brought out, and the crowd began to grow impatient. Some imagined the prisoner had been taken away by the officers – If this had been the case what would have followed can only be imagined. All these doubts were put at rest by the presence of the man.

He wore light-colored pants, a colored calico shirt, and over his shoulders was hung a canvas coat buttoned around the neck. His head was bare, and as the bright rays of the moon glanced upon his face, there was a picture of horror visible. It was a look of dogged and defiant submission.

With a firm step he descended the steps and came out upon the street in a hurried manner, closely guarded by shotguns and revolvers. The order to fall in was given, and all persons not members of the mysterious committee to stand back. The march up Bonanza Street was rapid. Not a word was said by the condemned man, and his gaze was fixed upon the ground.

He was hurried up a back street to Fuller. The corner of Green was turned, and when Webber’s blacksmith shop was reached, a halt was made. In front of this place was a huge gallows frame, used for raising wagons, etc., while being repaired. Now it was to be used for quite a different purpose. “Move it over to the spot where the murder was committed,” was the order, and immediately it was picked up by a dozen men and was carried to the corner of Main and Lowe streets.

The condemned man glanced at it for a moment and an apparent shudder came over him, but he uttered not a word. From an eye witness we learn that the scene which followed was awful in its impressiveness. The snow had just begun to fall, and the moon, which had shone so brightly during the early part of the night, shed but a pale light on the assembled company. When the corner was reached, the heavy gallows frame was placed upon the ground, and the prisoner led under it. The prisoner’s demeanor still remained passive, and his hands, encased in irons, were clasped.

His eyes occasionally were turned upward and his lips were seen to move once or twice. On each end of the frame were windlasses and large ropes attached. The rope placed around the prisoner’s neck was a small one; when the knot was made it was tested against the left ear.

This did not suit DeRoche particularly, and he changed it so that it was in the rear. Someone suggested that his legs and hands should be tied. This was immediately done. The large iron hooks of the frame dangled near the prisoner and the grating sound produced a peculiar feeling. It was at least three minutes before everything was ready DeRoche was asked by the leader if he had anything to say. He replied, “No nothing.”

In a moment he was again asked the same question and a French-speaking bystander was requested to receive his answer. The reply this time was: “I have nothing to say only O God.” “Pull him,” was the order, and in a twinkling the body rose three feet from the ground. Previous to putting on the rope, the overcoat was removed. A second after the body was elevated a sudden twitch of the legs was observed, but with that exception, not a muscle moved while the body hung on the crossbeam. His death took place without a particle of pain. The face was placid, and the eyes closed and never were reopened. Strangulation must have been immediate.

While the body swung to and fro, like a pendulum of a clock, the crowd remained perfectly quiet. After a lapse of two or three minutes a voice, sharp and clear, was heard in the background: “I will give $100 if twenty men connected with this affair will publish their names in the paper tomorrow morning.”

The voice was immediately recognized as that of a leading attorney. (Only Pat Reddy would have had the courage to face the mob, and a yell went up from the crowd.) “Give him the rope,” “Put him out,” and similar sentences drowned out the man and his voice. His retreat was as dignified as the exigencies of the case would admit of.

While the body was still hanging a paper was pinned onto his breast bearing the following inscription: “All others take warning. Let no one cut him down. Bodie 601."

-- end of article from The Bodie Free Press.

There are more than 200 known graves that have been found in Bodie. In the Bodie Cemetery, there are over 150 grave markers. It's said that many of those markers can be easily read. That's surprising since other markers have become so weathered that they are virtually unreadable. And of course, being what human nature is, there are those pathetic individuals in the world who find it necessary to destroy and damage markers.

I've tried to find out if the murderer DeRoche had a marker, or if vandals destroyed it, or if his was a marker that was worn away by the harsh Bodie winters. He's not listed as one of the known to be buried there. So frankly, there's a possibility that he had an unmarked grave. After all, it is very possible that someone simply cut him down and dumped him in a hole face down with no marker or prayer.

After all, Americans in the Old West did not coddle assassins, bushwhackers, those who acted as savage as any rabid dog. It's why citizens committee, both secret and not, sprang up all over America to right things when the law failed to do so.

Whether it was the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851, the Missouri Bald Knobbers, the Montana Stranglers, the Committee of 101 in Skagway, Alaska, the Tin Hat Brigade of Texas, or the 70 or so citizens that made up the un-named vigilante group that broke into the jail in New Albany, Indiana, and lynched the three Reno Brothers in 1868, right or wrong, that's the way it was.

You say that couldn't happen in this day and age? Well, the last group of vigilantes to break into a jail and lynch a couple of murders in California took place in San Jose in 1933. Friends, that really wasn't that long ago.

And as for today, most courts will still make a defendant wear a bullet proof vest for their own safety in court. The same goes for a lot of law enforcement agencies who are transporting prisoners. They do so knowing full well that someone out there might think that they will do what the justice system fails to do in the case of a murderer, a pedophile, a rapist, a cop killer, or some other rabid individual who may get a lenient sentence when their crime is in fact an assault on humanity.

Tom Correa



2 comments:

  1. Movies should be made about Bodie, good movies, well told movies. Your rendition needs to be written as a screen play.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Elizabeth L.Johnson said, Land's sakes! the amount of your research to produce a good blog! Interesting!

    ReplyDelete

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