A Tuolumne County vigilance committee

In June of 1851, soon after the execution of Jim Hill, with crime rampant in Tuolumne County and little confidence in the regular courts to administer justice, the residents decided it was necessary to form a committee of vigilance similar to the one already in existence in the Nevada County town of Rough and Ready, and one was soon organized in Sonora. There had been a tendency toward taking this step for some months and the success of the now famous San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1851 added fuel to the fire for those who wanted to take the law into their own hands. An attempt by some of the area’s criminal element to burn the town to the ground so that they could benefit from the chaos and confusion that would result greatly aided the shift toward Lynch law justice.

A hanging by the SF vigilance committee

The most respectable and orderly of the town’s citizens organized the committee, led it, and carried out, by their prompt and decisive actions over the course of several weeks, a great deal to significantly clarify the once putrid moral atmosphere in the region. A thief was hunted down and banished, as was a man who tried to pay for goods with a counterfeit coin. The two counterfeiters were uncovered and kicked out with him. A man, caught in the act of stealing, was given twenty-five lashes, while a horse thief bore a hundred, had his head shaved and was threatened with death if he returned.

A hanging and a flogging

Toward the later part of the year, now thanks to a new and healthy fear on the part of the area’s criminal element and a growing efficiency in the district courts, the number of Lynch law punishments dropped considerably. But criminals will do what they will do and an escaped convict from Sidney, said to have taken a mule, was given seventy five lashes, and a Mexican who stole a pistol was flogged fifty times. The heads of both men were shaved and they too were banished. Some semblance of law and order had returned at last to Tuolumne County.

 

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