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Justice Wasn't Pretty (November 1999)

Justice wasn't pretty -- but it was quick. Punishment for criminal behavior during the chaos of California's Gold Rush was not always just, but it was quick. The miners who poured into the Sierra canyons by the thousands had little time for courts, juries or lawyers. Instead, justice was dispensed by "Judge Lynch" -- in the form of mobs that held impromptu trials and meted out immediate punishment, often whipping, hanging or banishment.

Old historic Main Street in Placerville is home to the bar where a noose on the bar's second story dangles a lifelike dummy -- a mustachioed roustabout with a plaid shirt, a single suspender, work pants and pointy boots. There are numerous versions of what happened, but it is widely agreed that two or three men were charged with robbery and then hanged in a hay field behind the Jackass Inn at the intersection of Coloma and Main streets.

The suspects were tried and convicted by an assembly of miners -- some sodden with liquor -- who had elected a judge and jury. Thenceforth, Dry Diggins became known far and wide as Hangtown. But other than the fact that several men were hanged at the same time, the case was quite typical of how miners handled crime.

Such ad hoc "justice" reflected the political vacuum that existed in California after Mexico lost the region to the United States, which was itself edging toward the Civil War. Congress, busy debating whether California should be a free or slave state, neglected to establish a territorial government before statehood in 1850. The region was administered by the U.S. Army, but practically speaking, formal law enforcement was largely nonexistent.

During the early days of the Gold Rush, there was little crime. Gold was plentiful, as was space. By 1849, however, the rivers and streams were crowded, and the easy gold was mostly gone. Men from around the world, who traveled for half a year in life-threatening conditions to get to California, were bitterly let down. Some killed over claims. And some turned to stealing, which became such a problem that in 1851 the state Legislature passed a bill that allowed the death penalty for stealing property worth more than $100. Many an armed miner lost his hard-earned gold dust to professional gamblers in saloons where liquor flowed freely.