Brutal lynching in Columbia

John S. Barclay, a New Yorker, became enamored of Martha, the owner of Martha’s Saloon, a disreputable house in Columbia, California. Barclay then married her and moved into the saloon. On October 10, 1855, John H. Smith, also from New York but currently living at Knickerbocker Flats, and normally a quiet, reserved man, got drunk at the saloon, broke a pitcher and then got into a quarrel with Martha. When he grabbed her and roughly threw her into a chair, Barclay ran into the room, drew his revolver and shot Smith dead. Barclay was immediately arrested and confined.

Columbia Jail

Smith was a well-known and popular man and a crowd soon gathered at the jail. The newly elected state senator, James W. Coffroth, addressed the crowd with a fiery speech where he pointed out how as a senator he was in favor of following the law but in this case, seeing as Smith was such a fine fellow and close friend, the justice due the murdering swine, John Barclay, should be taken into the hands of the people at once. The senator’s words incited the mob. A judge and jury were appointed, the jail was rushed, the jailers overpowered and, while black powder was prepared to blow the cell doors, the mob managed to pry them open with crowbars, axes and sledge hammers. Barclay made a feeble attempt to flee but was caught and hauled out to where a high flume crossed over the road to Gold Springs.

Placer Mining, Columbia CA.

The trial began with Coffroth as prosecutor and John Oxley, another state legislator, as the attorney for the defendant, but it was clear that the crowd had no intention of allowing the defense to be heard, witnesses were shouted down with savage yells. When Oxley cried out for reason his words were drowned out by howls and curses. Just as the case was to be presented to the jury Sheriff J. M. Stewart arrived but he was immediately grabbed by the crowd and pushed back. He broke free and rushed toward the prisoner, his knife out to cut the rope, but was hit in the head with the butt of a pistol and carried off.

Columbia, California photo by Tom Madracki

The mob was now in a fury. Men on the flume above began to pull Barclay up by the rope around his neck but no one had bothered to tie the poor man’s hands and he grabbed the rope over his head to prevent being strangled. The men on the flume pulled Barclay up then dropped him down several times in an attempt to loosen his grip and at last Barclay’s hands let go and he dropped down a few feet, convulsed for a while and then was still.

Barclay was dead but the scene had been a horrible one. Sheriff Stewart and John Oxley were regarded as heroes while the conduct of the crowd was seen brutal and cruel. A strong reaction against Lynch law justice formed across the gold country and although there were more incidents of it in California they were rare and no longer represented the expression of popular feeling.

Hard driving historical fiction from the California gold rush

John Rose


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