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The Shirley letters from California mines in 1851-1852: Letter the Eleventh

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SUMMARY
Educated in Amherst, Massachusetts, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe (1819-1906) accompanied her physician-husband to California in 1849. The couple first lived in mining camps where Dr. Clappe practiced medicine and then moved to San Francisco, where Mrs. Clappe taught in the public schools for more than twenty years. The Shirley letters (1922) is the book edition of a series of letters written by Mrs. Clappe to her sister in 1851 and 1852. They were first published under the pseudonym of "Dame Shirley" in the Pioneer magazine, 1854-55. In these letters Louise Clappe writes of life in San Francisco and the Feather River mining communities of Rich Bar and Indian Bar. She focuses on the experiences of women and children, the perils of miners' work, crime and punishment, and relations with native Hispanic residents and Native Americans. Bret Harte is said to have based two of his stories on the "Shirley" letters.

LETTER the ELEVENTH

From our Log Cabin, INDIAN BAR, December 15, 1851.

I LITTLE thought, dear M., that here, with the green watching hills as witnesses, amid a solitude so grand and lofty that it seems as if the faintest whisper of passion must be hushed by its holy stillness, I should have to relate the perpetration of one of those fearful deeds which, were it for no other peculiarity than its startling suddenness, so utterly at variance with all civilized law, must make our beautiful California appear to strangers rather as a hideous phantom than the flower-wreathed reality which she is.

Whether the life which a few men, in the impertinent intoxication of power, have dared to crush out was worth that of a fly, I do not know, --perhaps not, --though God alone, methinks, can judge of the value of the soul upon which he has breathed.

But certainly the effect upon the hearts of those who played the principal parts in the revolting scene referred to--a tragedy, in my simple judgement, so utterly useless--must be demoralizing in the extreme.

The facts in this sad case are as follows. Last fall, two men were arrested by their partners on suspicion of having stolen from them eighteen hundred dollars in gold-dust. The evidence was not sufficient to convict them, and they were acquitted. They were tried before a meeting of the miners, as at that time the law did not even pretend to wave its scepter over this place.

The prosecutors still believed them guilty, and fancied that the gold was hidden in a coyote-hole near the camp from which it had been taken. They therefore watched the place narrowly while the suspected men remained on the Bar. They made no discoveries, however, and soon after the trial the acquitted persons left the mountains for Marysville.

A few weeks ago, one of these men returned, and has spent most of the time since his arrival in loafing about the different barrooms upon the river. He is said to have been constantly intoxicated. As soon as the losers of the gold heard of his return, they bethought themselves of the coyote-hole, and placed about its entrance some brushwood and stones in such a manner that no one could go into it without disturbing the arrangement of them. In the mean while the thief settled at Rich Bar, and pretended that he was in search of some gravel-ground for mining purposes.

A few mornings ago he returned to his boarding-place, which he had left some hour earlier, with a spade in his hand, and, as he laid it down, carelessly observed that he had been out prospecting. The losers of the gold went, immediately after breakfast, as they had been in the habit of doing, to see if all was right at the coyote-hole. On this fatal day they saw that the entrance had been disturbed, and going in, they found upon the ground a money-belt which had apparently just been cut open. Armed with this evidence of guilt, they confronted the suspected person and sternly accused him of having the gold in his possession. Singularly enough, he did not attempt a denial, but said that if they would not bring him to a trial (which of course they promised) he would give it up immediately. He then informed them that they would find it beneath the blankets of his bunk, as those queer shelves on which miners sleep, ranged one above another somewhat like the berths of a ship, are generally called. There, sure enough, were six hundred dollars of the missing money, and the unfortunate wretch declared that his partner had taken the remainder to the States.

By this time the exciting news had spread all over the Bar. A meeting of the miners was immediately convened, the unhappy man taken into custody, a jury chosen, and a judge, lawyer, etc., appointed. Whether the men who had just regained a portion of their missing property made any objections to the proceedings which followed, I know not. If they had done so, however, it would have made no difference, as the people had taken the matter entirely out of their hands.
At one o'clock, so rapidly was the trial conducted, the judge charged the jury, and gently insinuated that they could do no less than to bring in with their verdict of guilty a sentence of death! Perhaps you know that when a trial is conducted without the majesty of the law, the jury are compelled to decide not only upon the guilt of the prisoner, but the mode of his punishment also. After a few minutes' absence, the twelve men, who had consented to burden their souls with a responsibility so fearful, returned, and the foreman handed to the judge a paper, from which he read the will of the people, as follows: That William Brown, convicted of stealing, etc., should, in one hour from that time, be hung by the neck until he was dead.

By the persuasions of some men more mildly disposed, they granted him a respite of three hours to prepare for his sudden entrance into eternity. He employed the time in writing, in his native language (he is a Swede), to some friends in Stockholm. God help them when that fatal post shall arrive, for, no doubt, he also, although a criminal, was fondly garnered in many a loving heart.

He had exhibited, during the trial, the utmost recklessness and nonchalance, had drank many times in the course of the day, and when the rope was placed about his neck, was evidently much intoxicated. All at once, however, he seemed startled into a consciousness of the awful reality of his position, and requested a few moments for prayer.

The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of the prisoner, across the limb of a tree standing outside of the Rich Bar graveyard, when all who felt disposed to engage in so revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the most awkward manner possible. The whole affair, indeed, was a piece of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional, but arose from the ignorance of those who made the preparations. In truth, life was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and down, several times in succession, by the rope, which was wound round a large bough of his green-leaved gallows. Almost everybody was surprised at the severity of the sentence, and many, with their hands on the cord, did not believe even then that it would be carried into effect, but thought that at the last moment the jury would release the prisoner and substitute a milder punishment.

It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion, but many of the drunkards, who form a large part of the community on these bars, laughed and shouted as if it were a spectacle got up for their particular amusement. A disgusting specimen of intoxicated humanity, struck with one of those luminous ideas peculiar to his class, staggered up to the victim, who was praying at the moment, and, crowding a dirty rag into his almost unconscious hand, in a voice broken by a drunken hiccough, tearfully implored him to take his hankercher and if he were innocent (theman had not denied his guilt since first accused), to drop it as soon as he was drawn up into the air, but if guilty, not to let it fall on any account.

The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of the evening, and when those whose business it was to inter the remains arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft white shroud of feathery snow-flakes, as if pitying nature had tried to hide from the offended face of Heaven the cruel deed which her mountain-children had committed.

I have heard no one approve of this affair. It seems to have been carried on entirely by the more reckless part of the community. There is no doubt, however, that they seriously thought they were doing right, for many of them are kind and sensible men. They firmly believed that such an example was absolutely necessary for the protection of this community. Probably the recent case of Little John rendered this last sentence more severe than it other-wise would have been. The Squire, of course, could do nothing (as in criminal cases the people utterly refuse to acknowledge his authority) but protest against the whole of the proceedings, which he did in the usual legal manner.

If William Brown had committed a murder, or had even attacked a man for his money; if he had been a quarrelsome, fighting character, endangering lives in his excitement, --it would have been a very different affair. But, with the exception of the crime for which he perished (he said it was his first, and there is no reason to doubt the truth of his assertion), he was a harmless, quiet, inoffensive person.

You must not confound this miners' judgment with the doings of the noble Vigilance Committee of San Francisco. They are almost totally different in their organization and manner of proceeding. The Vigilance Committee had become absolutely necessary for the protection of society. It was composed of the best and wisest men in the city. They used their power with a moderation unexampled in history, and they laid it down with a calm and quiet readiness which was absolutely sublime, when they found that legal justice had again resumed that course of stern, unflinching duty which should always be its characteristic. They took ample time for a thorough investigation of all the circumstances relating to the criminals who fell into their hands, and in no case have they hung a man who had not been proved beyond the shadow of a doubt to have committed at least one robbery in which life had been endangered, if not absolutely taken.

[Note: The Shirley letters from California mines in 1851-52; being a series of twenty-three letters from Dame Shirley (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) to her sister in Massachusetts, and now reprinted from the Pioneer magazine of 1854-55; with synopses of the letters, a foreword, and many typographical and other corrections and emendations, by Thomas C. Russell; together with "An appreciation" by Mrs. M.V.T. Lawrence]


Reference : America: A Narrative History, 6th Edition, Chapter 15; Inventing America, Chapter 15; Give Me Liberty, Chapter 13



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