The town that lynched a woman

John B Weller 1879

It was July 4th, 1851 and John B. Weller, soon to be a United States Senator and later the Governor of California, was scheduled to give a speech in Downieville. Miners flooded into town from camps all over the area. After the scheduled events there was a lot of drinking and carousing and, as evening fell, the crowd began to stagger through the streets, hooting and howling, beating on houses, and breaking into a door here and there. One of the residences they attacked was that of a woman named Juanita and the monte dealer she lived with. One of the revelers, perhaps the most hilarious of them all, was an enormous Scotsman named Jack Cannon who, it seemed, knew Juanita.

The next morning Cannon went back to Juanita’s house. Some say it was to apologize and pay for any damage he had done the night before, but others think this wasn’t the reason. At any rate, Cannon was heard to address her in a vulgar way and she immediately turned and went back inside, leaving the Scotsman standing with a hand on each side of the doorway talking with the monte dealer. Juanita returned quickly, holding one hand behind her back. Then she suddenly rushed forward and plunged a long knife into Cannon’s chest, killing him.

Downie River and Jersey Bridge

Word of the murder spread rapidly. A huge crowd quickly gathered. Cannon had been a popular man and there was talk of vengeance. Juanita fled into Craycroft’s Saloon for protection. But the crowd surrounded the bar and seized Juanita. They hauled her to the plaza where the stage from the speeches of yesterday still stood. Here they appointed a judge and jury and proceeded to try Juanita while the body of Cannon lay open to view in a tent nearby. Her attorney brought on a doctor to plead that she was with child but another doctor said she wasn’t. The doctor who had said Juanita was pregnant was run out of town. That left her attorney with little else to do but try to reason with the crowd about the enormity of hanging a woman. This enraged the onlookers so much that they kicked the barrel that he was standing on out from under him.

Downieville bridge

The jury found her guilty and Juanita was sentenced to hang within the hour. They took her to the Jersey Bridge where a rope was tied to a projecting overhead timber and beneath it a six-inch wide plank was lashed to the floorboards of the bridge. As several thousand people watched Juanita was walked out onto the plank. She appeared cool and collected and even spoke politely with several friends, giving one her hat and bidding him goodbye in Spanish. Then she took the rope herself and adjusted it beneath her black hair. A white handkerchief was tied around her face and her hands were bound. Then, at the signal of a gunshot, two men with axes chopped the lashings to the plank and Juanita dropped several feet before she jerked to a stop. Apparently she died instantly.

Historical fiction

by John Rose Putnam

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