A plea for mercy

Soon after the murderers of Captain Shaw were executed, Jim Hill, known to be a man of bad character, entered a store in nearby Campo Seco with a number of his rowdy friends and held a pistol to the head of the proprietor while his cohorts removed an entire iron safe and all its contents. A few days later Hill showed up at a house of ill repute in Sonora. There he got into a fight with a stranger, grabbed the man’s gun, beat him over the head with it, then took a shot at the man. The stranger managed to run into the street and sound the alarm. Sheriff George Work then went to the house, found Hill hiding under a bed and hauled the miscreant off to a cell.

Sonora CA 1866

The next morning a large crowd converged on the jail and broke Jim Hill out, then took him back to Campo Seco where they tried him Lynch law style for the robbery at the store, and quickly convicted him. Because of an intense anger at the extraordinary amount of crime that had occurred in the area lately, Jim Hill was sentenced to die for his crime. But that evening, as he was facing the hangman’s noose, Hill gave a passionate plea for mercy, admitting he had led a life of crime but vowed that he had never shed the blood of another man.

Campo Seco 1853

The crowd went into a frenzy, with half the people for granting mercy and the other half determined to carry out the execution. Confusion erupted. Hundreds of pistols were drawn. But after order was finally restored and several men had addressed the mob, Sheriff Work asked to be heard. He then pledged that if Jim Hill were delivered into his custody he would produce him for trial at the next session of the district court. Those in favor of the hanging cried “Thornley, Thornley” in reference to the killer who recently escaped the sheriff’s jail, was then recaptured and tried only to be declared innocent and set free by the court. In the commotion Hill was tossed into a carriage so quickly that no one in the crowd had time to prevent it and the wagon then headed back to Sonora.

Tuolumne County Courthouse

But the news that Hill was on his way reached Sonora before the prisoner did and the people there were even more determined to hang Jim Hill than were those in Campo Seco. Several prominent men spoke out in favor of taking Jim Hill away from the sheriff and there were no voices of dissent from the angry, well-armed crowd. When the sheriff’s carriage pulled into town the crowd rushed it, causing a crash. The sheriff made a run for the jail with his prisoner in tow and managed to make it all the way up the steps to the door before he ran into a well respected merchant named Frank Cheatham, six-shooter in hand. Sheriff Work was restrained and Hill seized then hauled off to an oak tree behind the El Dorado Hotel. Hill was dead with fifteen minutes.

 

Comments

  1. Barbara Trost says:

    Thanks for this story. I have been to Campo Seco many times. This story brought it alive for me! I love gold county tates!

  2. Tom Betts says:

    Like Barbara I’ve been to Campo Seco several times. So little is left it’s hard to imagine it as it was in this story. Always a delight to read your work John. It brings the Gold Country to life once again.

  3. Bob Paul says:

    The Campo Seco I am familiar with is in Calaveras County, so these logistics are a little strange to me. My G-grandfather’s first “lawman” job was constable at Campo Seco in 1854 and soon became Calaveras County Deputy Sheriff. Nearest County seat at that time was nearby Mok Hill.

    • Bob, Campo Seco is indeed in Calaveras County. However Jim Hill went of his own accord from there to Sonora. Part of the problem in those early days was that the legal system was in its infancy. The people had a tendency to take the law into their own hands. That was, after all, the point of the story.

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