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 seemed to be no other clue that would point to the guilty party, but Constable Samuel Phillips had some ideas of his own.

Old Sonora

The coroner’s hearing was held the next day, and during the testimony of an Englishman from Liverpool named Edward Crane Griffiths, the last man known to have been in Heslep’s office, Phillips searched the man’s room in the United States Hotel. As soon he walked back into the hearing carrying a valise he’d found in Griffiths room, the Englishman broke down on the stand and confessed to the murderer. The bag contained clothes covered in fresh blood and an overcoat with gold worth six thousand dollars stuffed into the pockets.

The whole town was now up in arms. When the facts were known it was agreed that Griffiths should hang at daybreak. There wasn’t a single dissenting voice. The crowd held the prisoner outdoors beside a bonfire all night. The sheriff did make a pretense of getting custody of Griffiths but was unsuccessful. The people of Sonora were determined that justice would not be stolen from them this time and nothing could have saved Griffiths from a noose.

Goya, War

Griffiths himself realized his end was near and made a full confession. He was born in Liverpool in 1824 and went to sea at age eleven. When he arrived in San Francisco he’d been penniless but the brother of the man he’d just killed had given him a letter of recommendation and money enough to get to the mines. Heslep was ready to put a bag of money into his safe when Griffths showed up at his office and asked for a loan of some of that money. When Heslep refused Griffiths put his hand on the moneybag and Heslep hit him. Griffiths went into a rage, grabbed a nearby axe and slammed it into Heslap’s temple, knocking him to the floor. He then hit the poor man several more times but Heslep was still making noise so Griffiths stuffed his mouth and nose with paper. Then he reached into the safe and took the six thousand dollars in gold and left. He finished the confession between one and two o’clock in the morning. At daybreak he was carried to an oak tree and swung by his neck until he was dead. Governor Bigler didn’t have time to commute this execution.


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