Archives for October 2011

A case of robbery and murder

On June 30, 1855, only a few months after the lynching of Edward Griffiths, four men snuck into the rooms of Thomas C. Brunton of Yorktown in the dead of night. Brunton was known to have $12,000 stored there in a safe. He awoke to find one of the men standing over him with an axe and was told that they only wanted the cash. Brunton did as he was told but when the men left with his money he grabbed a pistol and followed them, only to be knocked senseless by a waiting bandit. For some … [Read more...]

The boy from Algerine

About nine o’clock one morning in 1851 a man rode hard into Sonora and headed directly for the sheriff’s office. There he told a deputy, named Captain Stuart, that there had been a robbery in Algerine Camp, a supposed culprit had been caught and a frenzied mob was ready to hang him. In Tuolumne County stealing was viewed as the most serious violation of all the Ten Commandments and men there had little patience with thieves. Stuart, a tall, brave veteran of the war with Mexico, saddled up and … [Read more...]

The murder of Joseph Heslep

About nine o’clock on the night of January 18, 1855 Joseph Heslep, deputy treasurer of Tuolumne County, was found brutally murdered, his body still warm and lying on the floor of his Sonora office. The alarm sounded, a huge crowd gathered, and guards were sent out to prevent suspicious characters from leaving town. Meanwhile an examination of the body revealed that blows from a blunt instrument had horribly mangled Heslep’s head and face and his mouth and nose were stuffed with paper. There … [Read more...]

Politicians interfere with justice

Even though Judge Creaner was on the bench in Sonora, and not disposed to be unduly influenced by fancy talking lawyers, the fact that only one legal execution took place in several years did not induce the community to rely on the regular courts, considering the number and atrocity of the crimes committed there. When Peter Nicholas visited Columbia from his nearby mining site of Sawmill Flat, got drunk and picked a quarrel with Captain John Parrot of Pine Log and, with no cause whatever, … [Read more...]

The law and Judge Creaner’s nose

It was onto the shoulders of Charles M. Creaner, judge of the fifth judicial district, that the promise of greater efficiency in the courts fell. Elected in March 1850 Creaner’s first court session in Sonora was in July. While he was not a cultured or scholarly man, Creaner was evenhanded and over time developed into a fair judge for those days. But he hailed from Texas and was said to have a fiery temper. Everyone who appeared before him was exceedingly careful not to provoke old … [Read more...]

Gold rush lawyers

The reason the vigilance committee of Sonora did not go further and inflict more punishment on criminals than it did in 1851 was not because of the promise of greater efficiency by the courts, for no person actually made such a commitment. There is no indication that the problems with the courts were caused by judges who were in any way derelict in their duty. But, while there was little settled law and few legal precedents in the gold country, most judges did lack the long study of the law and … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

Murder at Dragoon Gulch

After an extraordinary lull of nearly two weeks without the occurrence of a single felony, one of the most diabolical murders in the short history of Tuolumne County happened at Dragoon Gulch near Shaw’s Flat. Three Mexican miners had bought a long tom from Captain George W. Snow and asked him to come by their tent the next morning for payment. Snow normally carried large amounts of money on him and it appears the miners knew this. When he entered their tent he was assaulted and stabbed twice. … [Read more...]

Failures of justice

As we have noted, the early laws in the mining country had many loopholes that an accused man with a good attorney could slide through easily. Justice was often hard to come by in the legal courts of the mining districts and that seems to be what happened in the case of the murder of Tyndal Newby by A. J. Fuller, who was his partner in a mining operation at Smith’s Flat. It appears that not long after the incident at Holden’s Gardens a disagreement erupted between the two men because Fuller had … [Read more...]