Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hangman's Noose

On display in the Superior Court Historic Courthouse in Auburn is the hangman's noose that sent Stephen B. Richards to his Maker.




A plaque gives the details:

On January 11, 1884 this rope hung Steven Richards from a scaffold in the Placer County Jail Yard. At 1:15 PM Placer County Sheriff A. Huntley placed this rope around Richards' neck and carefully adjusted the noose. The trap door dropped and nineteen minutes later Steven Richards was pronounced dead. 150 people came to Auburn and witnessed the hanging, including Sheriffs Galt of El Dorado Co., Carter of Nevada Co., and Cunningham of San Joaquin Co. Richards had murdered Thomas Nichols, 27, a miner on Sunday morning, March 11, 1883, outside the American Hotel in Auburn.

A note by the noose states that Richards directed the building of the scaffold from the jail windows.

The first floor of the courthouse (completed 1898) contains museum exhibits, and court cases are still heard on the second floor. The noose sits in an alarmed display case in the old sheriff's office in Room 103, which contains furniture and books and firearms from a century ago. The Placer County Jail Register rests on the counter-top, its pages turned in synch with the current date. On my February 25, 2015 visit the Register was opened to the bookings from February 8 to February 28, 1897. There had been two bookings on February 25, 1897, for R. Stanley and Fred Snye, both from Rocklin and both for unnamed misdemeanors. Other bookings over this time period were for drunkenness, vagrancy, disturbing the peace, petit larceny, and lodging.

Stephen Richards wasn't the first person hanged on this hilltop where the courthouse stands. People gathered here for bull and bear fights and public hangings before Placer County was formed in 1851. Unfortunately there is a dearth of information on early executions in Placer County. People were in too much a hurry to pick up all those gold nuggets sitting atop the ground to keep detailed notes on executions. The best source of information I've found on Placer County executions is from History of Placer County, California by Thompson & West, published in 1882. The executions I focused on were those from due process of law, thus excluding the several recorded lynchings and vigilante executions.

The book notes:

During the first few years of gold-mining, crime was remarkably rare. There was very little security for property but the knowledge that punishment would be quick and terrible, without any intervention of the tedious processes of the courts, or the technicalities of the law now so universally used to shield the criminal.

Here are the executions from due process of law:

March 31, 1854 - Robert Scott was hanged in Auburn for the murder of Andrew King. Scott shot King in Auburn on October 20, 1853, for King's refusal to loan him $3 for gambling. Two thousand people assembled to watch the hanging, which took place at noon.
June 6, 1856 - James Freeland was hanged in Auburn for the murder of "Greek George." Freeland shot "Greek George" in Oak Flat after accusing the latter of cheating at gambling.
September 18, 1857 - Joseph Bradley was hanged on the outskirts of Auburn for the 1856 murder of Jacob Bateman. The murder occurred at the cabin of Bateman in Auburn. About 500 people witnessed the execution.
June 11, 1858 - Martin Rodriguez was hanged for the murder of Andrew Hollenberg. The murder occured on December 20, 1857, when Hollenberg refused Rodriguez entrance to his house.
September 21, 1860 - Two hangings this date. Joseph N. Maes was hanged for the March 8, 1859 murder of Joseph Thomas, of Dutch Flat. Genero Quintano was hanged for the July 3, 1859 murder of Joseph Reynolds, at Michigan Bluff. Reynolds kept a disreputable house at Michigan Bluff and Quintano, a Mexican, killed Reynolds for not letting him help himself at the bar.

No executions from September 21, 1860 to the book's publication in 1882? I find that odd, as just two years later, in 1884, Stephen Richards goes to the gallows. I'm sure there were hangings between Maes/Quintano and Richards.

Sacramento Daily Union, January 12, 1884


Thursday, January 22, 2015

More on J.W. Beardsley

Yesterday a reader sent additional information on my April 22, 2014 post regarding Joshua Beardsley, the unfortunate miner drowned in 1876 in the North Fork American River at Green Valley, leaving behind a wife and two children in Michigan. It explained why he was taking the small boat across the river - he was going to feed his dog.


My information to this point came from old California newspapers imaged to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, a project of the Center of Bibliographical Studies and Research at the University of California, Riverside. The search engine on this site greatly speeds research.

Many more historical California newspapers have yet to be digitized. They are found in libraries, either in original form or on microfilm. I've wanted to visit the Auburn Library with its microfilm collection of Placer County newspapers. Figuring J.W. Beardsley's death would be a good search topic, today I went for a visit.

Of course I had to search for his name the old-fashioned way: page by page, column by column. No fancy computer search engines when dealing with microfilm. The rolls were kept in the drawers of a metal cabinet. Newspapers from 1876 included the Dutch Flat Forum, Placer Herald, and Placer Weekly Argus. I started with the first issue following his death, to an issue or two following the discovery of his body.

Here's what I found:
Dutch Flat Forum, April 20, 1876: "News was brought here this morning from Green Valley by J. Harper, which strongly indicates that Joshua Beardsley was accidentally drowned in the American river at that place last Monday night. He was seen by several of his neighbors where he expressed a determination to return home to the opposite side of the river, which it is evident he attempted to do so in a rudely constructed ferry boat, which was discovered next morning capsized in the middle of the river. All efforts to discover his whereabouts up to the present time have proven futile." (There was much mining activity in Green Valley in 1876. Nobody lives there today.)
Placer Herald, Auburn, April 22, 1876: "During the storm of Monday morning snow fell in the mountains as low down as Blue Canon." (This article was unrelated to J.W. Beardsley, but the storm may have raised the river level.)
Dutch Flat Forum, May 11, 1876: (This contains numerous errors, corrections are in brackets) "FOUND - in our issue of April 20 we stated that Goshua [Joshua] Beardsley was supposed to be drowned in Bear River [American River]. The conclusions were correct, as the body was found at Sacramento [downriver of Sacramento] about ten days afterward [J.W. Beardsley drowned on April 17 and his body was recovered May 3]." 
Placer Herald, Auburn, May 13, 1876: "Early in the week a body was found in the Sacramento river, some distance below the city of Sacramento, which was identified by his brother, as that of J.W. Beardsley, who was drowned on the 17th of April, in the North Fork of the American river, at Green Valley, while attempting to cross in a boat. His body had been carried by the current at least 75 miles."
Historical newspapers contain valuable information, but for those not yet digitized, finding a particular subject absent specific dates can be daunting, the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Of Old Air Rifles and Ancient Stone Pestles

I took my niece and her son (age 9) target shooting on public land near Alta in Placer County. We used my Sheridan Blue Streak air rifle, my first firearm, acquired when I was about thirteen. With that rifle I had my luckiest shot ever, in Tehama County around age fifteen, the target being a California valley quail running up a small rise some twenty yards away. I took quick aim and fired. The 5mm lead pellet entered the bird's breast. But the quail had its revenge, for it fell amidst poison oak bushes. This was my first real exposure to poison oak. I got oil on my arms and face, and for days afterwards I suffered greatly.

I taped a paper target to a cardboard box, and atop the box I set aluminum soda cans. My niece was familiar with firearms - I'd taken her to Dillman Range in Lincoln three times before. But this was her son's first time handling a firearm, so I gave him a safety briefing: shooting firearms is not a game; a firearm is not a toy; always consider a firearm to be loaded; never point a firearm at what you don't intend to shoot; &tc &tc. And then, to drive the point home, I told him what I was told many, many years ago. Pointing to the barrel of the rifle, I said, "This is where Death lives." We then commenced target shooting.

What a magnificent spot to spend the day! Some 1800 feet below us was the North Fork American River. Before us was the expanse of the canyons, covered with pine trees and manzanita bushes, and to the west was Giant Gap. To the east and 26 miles away stood Tinker Knob at the crest of the Sierra, elevation 8901 feet. The December storms brought much-needed snow to the Sierra, but warmer weather followed, and now here and there the andesite rocks on the sun-exposed west slope of Tinker Knob could be seen, meaning a low snow level, not good for our drought situation.

And we had this place to ourselves, mostly. Two people in an old sedan bearing Washington state license plates drove up and parked nearby. We paused shooting until they disappeared on their day hike. This topography transported to a flatland state out east would be a national park crawling with people.

The sky had been overcast and the temperature chilly upon our arrival around eleven o'clock, but soon the sun poked through and warmed things up. The dead of winter in California.

A short distance from the practice site, on the return drive, I stopped to show the two a small slate bedrock with some five grinding mortars. A Nisenan village had stood here. It was a good spot to live. A spring with fresh water was close by. Deer and other game were in the surrounding forests. There were salmon runs in the river (no longer, due to dams). Over thousands of years, generations of Nisenan women had sat at this bedrock, grinding seeds and nuts into meal, making the mortar holes deeper and deeper.

I had been here several times before, but it was my niece who discovered the rock pestle buried halfway in the soil. It fit perfectly in the hand, the flat side to the palm, fingers easily grasping it, the rounded side matching the concavity of the mortar holes. When had a Nisenan woman last used it? Was it right up to the Gold Rush, when the Argonauts came in a ran off those Nisenan they did not kill outright? And when was it first used? 1000 years ago? 4000 years ago? One thing was for certain, the rock was not from the rough slate here. It was rounded and polished in a riverbed, and the nearest riverbed was some 2000 feet below us. We set the pestle back into the hole, made it appear undisturbed, and continued on our way.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Day

What finer way to bring in the new year than with a leisurely hike? And with the morning brisk and the skies clear, and me being the first one on Stevens Trail, the historic miner's toll path that connected Colfax and Iowa Hill, what could make this day even better?

Well, this is my first day of retirement.

(Postscript, January 4: I forgot to add, and I must add, that I left so many wonderful people, and took away many good memories. I thank everyone so much, especially my boss!)





Monday, November 24, 2014

Two Mines


Last month at the Placer County Archives, a man at my table inquired about my research, and we found we shared an interest in the mining history of Placer County. We discussed the dangers of hiking alone into remote areas. After a lengthy talk about some of our explorations, we agreed to go on an expedition, and today Darren and I hiked to two remote mine sites.

We traveled to an area affected by the American Fire of August 2013. Here and there logging crews were cutting down burned trees and loading the salvagable timber onto trucks for transport to the Sacramento Valley. The fire had cleared brush which made our hike easier, although we'd return with clothing and hands blackened with soot.

The first mine was fairly easy to reach. The adit had been filled in, possibly for safety reasons. Historic photographs show numerous buildings on this site. A large amount of debris was scattered about. Relic hunters long ago removed the collectibles, but who knows what is hidden in the soil. Many bottles and plates had been used for .22 target practice. There seemed to be a lot of whiskey bottles. Darren found two Coca Cola bottles, one with the bottom marked SACRAMENTO and the other TRUCKEE. A metal canteen bore a patent year of 1918, and we wondered if it was military issue from the Great War, although it had no U.S. marking. There were many rusted tin cans. And there was debris from the buildings - window glass, ceramic insulators, electrical wire, metal pipe, and round nails. The fire had burned any remaining structure timbers.

The second mine was about one-third mile away, much of the our route along a rough trail, with a final scramble down a steep and rocky hillside where we grasped the trunks of small trees for stability. This is where solo hiking is unwise, for a moment's inattention could result in a twisted ankle or worse, and in this deep ravine there was likely no cell phone reception. At least with the cool temperatures we didn't have to worry about rattlesnakes.

A small stream of nasty looking water flowed from the adit of the second mine. Who knows what toxins those waters held. The large opening had not been filled in, possibly due to the remote location and difficulty of access. This mine operated from the 1890s to the 1930s, the activity irregular, with several changes in ownership. The miners worked three veins of ribbon quartz. Mules pulled the one-ton cars.

The mine's stamp mill was the main object of this hike, and we did not expect to find the two 200 h.p. steam boilers and other equipment, all left in place. The boilers powered the electric generator for the mill, hoist, compressor and other machinery.







We reached the nearby stamp mill after a short scramble down a steep hillside. A historic photograph shows a large building here, and more recent photographs show boards scattered about and the stamp mill exposed. The timbers and boards burned in last year's fire, making it much safer to walk around the site. There has been talk about moving the stamp mill to Foresthill for a historical display. The fire may make it easier to extract the parts by helicopter.





Darren remarked that for every hour of hiking, there are several hours of research. More visits to the Archives are in store for information on these two mining sites, and we are looking at the topographic maps to plan future adventures.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Return to Placer County Archives

In my second visit to the Placer County Archives, I learned to following:

1) The abandoned water ditch I passed last year on my hike to Dix Mine and Mitchell Mine was the Breece and Wheeler Ditch. It took water from Indian Creek in the east branch of El Dorado Canyon to the Paragon Mine (Breece and Wheeler Mine) east of Bath near Foresthill. (From Historic Mining Ditches of Tahoe National Forest, by C.B. Meisenbach, Tahoe National Forest Cultural Resources, Report No. 28, 1989, pg. 32. This references Placer County Book K of Deeds, pg. 79.)

2) The Dix Mine (John Dix and Arkansas Consolidated Placer Mine) was owned by William Mitchell of the nearby Mitchell Mine. Dix Mine had an assessed value in 1872 of $50. By 1882 the value had increased to $750. (From Mining Claims of Foresthill Divide 1851 to 1902, by Amy Rebok, pg. 59.)

3) Hudson Bay Company fur trappers worked the North Fork of the American River as far up as Green Valley. Forty Niner Mahlon D. Fairchild found a fur trapper at work in Green Valley. The trapper had left Fort Vancouver (Washington) shortly after word reached there of Marshall's discovery of gold. (From Placer County's Own Mining Story, L.M. Davis, Roseville Historical Society, 1997, pg. 13.) Heretofore I had wondered if the trappers went beyond the confluence of the North and Middle Forks.

I made a contribution to the Archives, to be filed under business establishments, an August 1949 photograph of my grand-uncle at work in Halley's Barber Shop on Finley Street in Auburn. He had lived in Auburn but a few years. A search by an Archives staff member found no records of him in Placer County. Born in the Missouri Ozarks shortly after the turn of the century, he had come with his parents and several siblings to California from Oklahoma during the Depression. While he and his family never faced the hardships described in The Grapes of Wrath, they did move around California quite a bit as they sought better opportunities.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dia de los Muertos

The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead combines an Aztec festival with Catholic traditions. On J Street in Sacramento, people built altars to dead family members and friends, complete with offerings. Some dressed up and had their faces painted for the event.