On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.
They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.
Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**
The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.
The Executions in Sacramento City
The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.
We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.
THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.
Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …
As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …
The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.
The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.
A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.
While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …
The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”
The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.
The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.
Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.
After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.
* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.
** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”