Saturday, March 11, 2023

The San Francisco Hanging of José Forner 1852

Jose Forner (or Forni) was a Spanish immigrant to San Francisco in 1852. History tells us that Forner was small in size, but was really a pretty bad hombre. In fact, it is recorded how Forner was caught, accused, and released after he stabbed to death a Mexican in broad daylight three months before killing his last victim. 

Forner maintained that Jose Rodriguez had jumped him before stealing his knife and his money. He said he chased Rodriguez. He retrieved his knife and stabbed Rodriguez to death, then retrieved his money. Forner stuck to the story that he was actually the victim and not Jose Rodriguez who he had stabbed to death. 

One of the problems with Forner's story is that other than Forner's own knife being taken from Forner when he was apprehended, Rodriguez was found unarmed. The second problem with Forner's story had to do with the money that he said was his. 

Let's understand that Jose Forner was convicted of murder and stealing $400. Forner was sentenced to death. In 1852, $400 was a lot of money. In fact, $400 in 1852 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $15,541.30 today (2023). The money found on Forner became a problem in Forner's story because Forner was caught with the cash in a Mexican sash.  Such a sash was not something that Spaniards would wear to carry their cash in those days. 

So how would it have been possible for someone who was being chased to be able to put the supposed stolen money in their sash? It was something that Forner could not answer. And while we can't believe every source out there, especially the one that said that Forni's hanging was faked, I agree with the general thought that no one believed Forner's story. Thus, he was hanged.  

The hanging of José Forner was the first legal execution in San Francisco and was witnessed by thousands of people who gathered around the scaffold on Russian Hill. It was a huge event with an extremely large crowd of people present. The sketch above shows how big of an event it was.

Who was the Hangman?

In California, as with other states, hangings were usually carried out by the County Sheriffs. In fact, in 1872, in Erie County, New York, future President of the United States Grover Cleveland was the County Sheriff there. Cleveland actually executed two men while he was Sheriff there. Today, besides being the only President who served two non-consecutive terms in the White House, he's the only President who had to carry an execution while holding a lesser office.

On April 1st, 1850, American hero of the Mexican-American War and famous Texas Ranger Major John Coffee Hays became the First Elected Sheriff of San Fransico County. Historians tell us that John Coffee Hays won by a landslide victory and took office as San Francisco County's First Elected Sheriff on a Tuesday, April 9, 1850. 

As the newly elected County Sheriff, Jack Coffee Hays inherited several problems that not very many other men in his position had to deal with just entering office. Among those problems was the presence of rampant crime, horrid political graft, corruption in the courts, not much of a jail as the county mostly used a ship in San Francisco Bay as a Brig to hold prisoners, and criminal gangs such as the Sydney Ducks who were in control of parts of the Barbary Coast, all that while talk of the people emerging in the form of a Citizens Vigilance Committee swirled about. Yes, that's a lot for any one man's plate. 

Because he was San Francisco County Sheriff, John Coffee Hays had to perform San Francisco's first legal execution on December 10, 1852. The Vigilance Committee of 1851 hanged four men extra-judicially during the year 1851. The political establishment and courts in San Francisco took note of the fact that the Vigilance Committee of 1851 numbered in the hundreds. Some say they numbered close to a thousand members strong. A few years later when the Vigilance Committee of 1856 would emerge to take control of the city, they numbered six thousand members or more.   

Many believe that the rise of the Vigilance Committee of 1851 prompted the San Francisco courts to take a tougher stance on crime. The first man to face lawful execution in San Francisco was Jose Forner. As County Sheriff, John Coffee Hays originally decided to perform the execution in the heart of San Francisco right there at Washington Square. Then plans changed and he was looking into hanging Forner on Portsmouth Square. At one point, John Coffee Hays thought about hanging Forner right in front of the jail. Finally, building a gallows on the peak of Russian Hill was decided on. And yes, they picked that spot because it was "the highest point of the hill" and could be viewed by the entire city. 

The hitch in that plan came when it was found out that the peak of Russian Hill was the original burial ground of the original Yerba Buena settlement. Because of the sensitivity of people not wanting to hang a killer over what was the gravesite of several of the area's earliest settlers, John Coffee Hays had the gallows moved several yards down the hill on the morning of the hanging. While it was a good location, it failed to meet the need for it to be in view of the city -- as a warning to all.

As for the hanging itself, other than a last-minute move of the gallows that morning, the first legal hanging in San Francisco was reported to be sort of uneventful. A large crowd gathered around the gallows in what was described as there being a light rain. 

At precisely one o'clock that afternoon, a local militia group, the Marion Rifles, which consisted of mostly members of the Vigilance Committee of 1851, pushed the crowd back to create a perimeter around the gallows. A second militia unit, the California Guard, which also consisted of mostly members of the Vigilance Committee of 1851, escorted Sheriff Hays, his staff, and Jose Forner to Russian Hill. It's said they actually arrived in an open wagon that was drawn by four black horses.

Sheriff Hays personally led Jose Forner up the gallows stairs before he read the execution order. Forner was then allowed to speak his last words and he again explained that his case was merely self-defense. After his plea to the thousand in the crowd, Forner's legs and arms were then tied and a black hood was placed over his head. A noose was placed around his neck. 

At approximately 1:25 pm, on December 10th, 1852, San Francisco County Sheriff John Coffee Hays did his duty and used a hatchet to cut the rope to let Forner drop. A few minutes later, at 1:30 pm, doctors on the scene pronounced Jose Forner dead. 

Though no one is said to have believed Forner's story given to the crowd, the confession below was given by him as he waited to be hanged. It was published as a broadsheet after his execution on December 10, 1852.

The Confession of José Forner y Brugada

On the day that the killing was done, to wit: On the evening of the 8th of October, about the hour of 4 o’clock, in company with two young friends, talking of going to dine, they did not wish to go so early. I said, well, I would take a walk and see the Steam Paddy work. 

I then parted from my friends and walked towards Happy Valley; and while I was looking at the machine at work, one José Rodriguez (the deceased) came up to me and slapping me familiarly on the shoulder, said, “Hallo, José, what are you doing here?” 

I returned for answer, that I had come out for a walk, I at the same time noticed that the deceased looked strangely at me. After a few moments he asked me to come and take a drink with him, I said no, thank you, that I must away and obey a call of nature, I then left him and went on a sand hill, took off my body my money belt, which contained some four hundred dollars, I laid the belt on the ground: at the same time I took off my knife, that also I laid on the ground; whilst I was in the act of dressing myself, deceased came running up to me, and saw my knife laying on the ground, which he instantly seized, and said, “I want your money,” I said that I had but two or three dollars, which you can have if you wish it.

He answered, “No, you have more and I will have it,” at that moment he jumped towards me, I stepped back to avoid him, when he struck me a blow with the knife, which took effect in the calf of my leg, I exclaimed that he was a d—d scoundrel, what did he mean. He ran down the hill, I after him, he dropped the knife, I picked it up while running after him, he made an effort to get the knife away from me, which I had done afterwards, God only knows, I was frantic with rage. 

I confess that I did intend to kill him, believing at the time, that it was his intention to rob me and perhaps to kill me if necessary in its accomplishment. The money which I had when arrested, was my own, I had worked hard for a portion of it, and the other portion won at cards. I was a cook and confectioner at the Jackson House where I received $125. I also worked at the Nueva Mondo and at the Laguna: from these two places I received between $50 and 60, and the balance of the money I won at cards at the El Dorado, Polka and Arcade: in all about $400

I was born in Valencia, (Spain) in the month of May 1820, of highly respectable parents. My uncle is Alcalde of Valencia, and all of my family, with but few exceptions, hold office under the Spanish government. I am worth in Valencia from $4000 to $5000 in real estate. 

At the age of 16 years, I went to learn the trade of confectioner with my uncle; served with him 5 years; from there I went to Barcelona, and was three years in the service of Don Jina Costa; from thence I went with letters of introduction to the brother of my last employer Don Juan Costa, at Havana, Cuba, worked there two years; then went to my native place Valencia; from there to Madrid; from thence to Barcelona; then again to Havana, was there three or four months in the house of Dominicas; from thence to Vera Cruz, Medico; thence to Puebla; thence to the city of Mexico; thence to Acapulco, from there to the city of San Francisco, where I have been working five or six months. 

I had about $75 when I arrived here. I worked for the proprietors of the Jackson House, the hotel Nueva Mondo and the Laguna. This is the first time that I ever was in prison, and never wronged any man of one dime. The money found on me was my own.


His confession was given as he waited to be hanged. It was published as a broadsheet after his execution on December 10, 1852. It was published under the direction of the keepers of the County Jail and for sale by Bonestell & Williston, Clay St., San Francisco.

As he was on the gallows, Joes Forner gave his last words (translated from Spanish):

“My friends! You have come to see an innocent man die. I die for having killed an assassin. He attempted to rob me; I resisted; he stabbed me and fled. Maddened and smarting from my wounds, I pursued, overtook, and killed him. I am a native of Valencia, Spain. I have but few friends in San Francisco.

I have resided in Cuba, where I have many friends. I was tried by a judge and jury who were utter strangers to me. I could produce no witnesses in my favor. What led to my killing my assailant is known only to God and myself. What I have said is true. After I have spoken these few words I shall never speak more. No doubt those who tried me acted justly according to the testimony. They could not have known the truth. The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco! World, farewell.”

The Alta California newspaper published the following report about the festive atmosphere of the hanging: 

A continuous line of human beings was pressing up the hill all the morning, until a crowd numbering three thousand at least had gathered together [n.b. – nearly a tenth of San Francisco’s population at this time -ed.] …  the assemblage was indeed a singular one — there being at least one-fourth of the number composed of youths, women, and children. Women elbowed their way as near as possible to have a full view of the gallows, whilst others were on horseback and in carriages, riding around with as much gaiety as if on a pleasure drive.

But what was most shocking was to see respectable-looking parents taking their little sons and daughters into such a heterogenous crowd, to witness such a terrible spectacle. Despite the slight rain, they stood it out with heroical fortitude and patience worthy of a better occasion. Before the prisoner had arrived, the small boys amused themselves with playing marbles, the bigger ones with dog fights, whilst others whiled away the time recounting their experience in such matters.

-- end of The Alta California article dated December 16th, 1852.

As for other newspaper reports and editorials of the time? All seem to echo the general feeling about how the people there witnessing the hanging appeared pleased with the outcome. Believing that the hanging would forever stop such a murderer from ever being able to be free to do it again, it's not hard for us today to understand how such a feeling of regaining their security and knowing that they did away with such a killer was reason enough to celebrate. 

It was obviously a different time than the one we live in today. 

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. Jose Forner Y Brugada may not have meant to kill Jose Rodriguez by the vigilantes who killed HIM didn't see it that way. To them, it was still murder. You have to remember that back in those days, vigilante justice was considered almost the real law and they didn't believe in a fair trial since they felt no need for one. Any crime that went on in any Old West town was considered a hanging offense except train robbery. I plan on making a movie about this called, "Vigilante Law" that deals with the story of a man who shows remorse for the many killings he had to commit in the name of vigilante justice. It will make the Western genre seem much darker than it already is. But hey, what did you expect? It's not like I'm gonna sugarcoat the history of Old West vigilantes! If I'm gonna make a Western version of "Death Wish", I'm gonna give it to you real and I'm gonna give it to you raw. You'll be able to see a history of the Old West like you've never seen it before. The way it was meant to be seen. Because if there's anything I do best it's to keep it real 100. And there ain't nothing wrong with that. But remember. Lynching today is a hate crime. So the next time your friends tell you not to leave them hanging, you better listen. They might actually mean it.


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