Vigilante justice in the mines

One of the most significant occurrences of the early California gold rush, which sheds light on the character of the old miners and their efforts to administer justice and secure order as ill advised as this could sometimes be, were the irregular, spontaneous and sometimes violent proceedings known as lynch law, mob rule or vigilante justice. There were so many occurrences of mob rule, and most of it such a natural outgrowth of the conditions in the mining country at the time that, for a while, this kind of justice came to be regarded as particularly Californian.

Washing gold at the Calaveras River

Somewhere near the Calaveras River, late in 1848, one of the first cases of mob rule took place when a sailor formally from the ship Ohio undertook to rob an ex-army man who had set up a saloon. The sailor had already taken away two bags containing five thousand dollars in gold when he went back for a third bag half full of silver dollars. It was the jingling of the coins that was said to awaken the saloon keeper who then sprang from his bed and, after a short chase, pounced on the thief and tied him to a tree.

Gold rush justice

The next morning a meeting of the miners was called, a man named Nuttman was appointed judge and twelve men sworn in as a jury. Since there was no doubt of his guilt the sailor was quickly convicted and sentenced to hang, but a number of the miners thought that taking the sailor’s life was to severe a punishment for his crime and it was agreed that a more appropriate punishment would be to give the man one hundred lashes on his bare back, shave his head and cut his ears off so that all across the mining regions he would be recognized as a thief. As this was acceptable to all, the sailors feet were tied to the tree, his head shaved, a doctor brought in to lop off his ears, and, when the bleeding was stemmed, he was beaten one hundred times then forced to leave the camp.

A vigilante court in the mines

According to the accounts of the day, the sailor, undoubtedly in poor shape from the treatment he had just received, made it about a half mile away before he stole a mule and rode over to the Calaveras diggings. The poor sailor, it seemed, could not catch a break, for there he ran into the owner of the mule who recognized the animal at once, and the sailor found himself undergoing a second trial for robbery on the very same day. And again he was sentenced to a flogging, but when his shirt was stripped off and the miners saw how badly cut up his back was from the previous beating they took pity on the poor man and simply expelled him from the district with a warning to never show his face there again. Some months later, in the mountains between San Jose and Stockton, Bayard Taylor came across this same sailor and remarked that, although the man had suffered terribly from his punishment, the extreme course taken by the miners seemed to have produced good results, which we can now only assume to mean that the sailor had given up his inclinations to commit robberies.

 

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