Sonora and the Southern mines were not the only places in the gold country where summary justice was practiced. On the North Fork of the Feather River, at the boomtown of Rich Bar, a Swede named Little John, a waiter at the Empire House, stole four hundred dollars from his employer. He was caught, tried, and sentenced to thirty-nine lashes and banished from the region. Flogging was a common punishment for thieves but it was used mostly as a compromise. Stealing was looked on as more serious than practically any other crime. The hard-core miners demanded the death penalty, but there were always those who favored acquittal. Flogging then was usually the middle ground. Yet there were times the more violent men had their way.
Soon after the trial of Little John two men were arrested for stealing eighteen hundred dollars in gold dust from their partners, the worst crime a man could commit in the mines. They were tried before a meeting of the miners, but since none of the gold could be found and no other evidence was produced, they were acquitted. Both men loudly protested their unjust treatment and then went off to Marysville. Then in December one of the men, William Brown, returned. He loafed about town for a while, pretending to be prospecting for new mines. After a few days Brown was followed to a coyote hole that, after he’d left it, looked like someone had disturbed the earth at the bottom. Brown was soon accosted and found to have a money belt that looked as if it had only recently been buried and then cut open. Brown also had a large sum of gold dust on him.
Again the miners seized Brown. At first he professed his innocence but when he was promised that there would be no trial before a miner’s court he confessed that he and his companion had stolen the money. The companion had left for the east coast with his half of the loot and Brown claimed to have only six hundred dollars of his share left. After learning the facts, and not withstanding the promise made to Brown, the miners of Rich Bar hanged him within three hours.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.