The gold rush boom town of Coloma, California hosted its first (legal) hanging on this date in 1854.
The ensuing swell of human avarice arriving from every corner of the globe all but overwhelmed the frontier territory’s capacity; nearby San Francisco, “transformed … into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties,” was so disordered that its laws were enforced extrajudicially by a self-appointed Vigilance Committee.
Coloma itself, the literal first mining town of the gold rush, boomed as the county seat of the new-christened El Dorado County. According to Alton Pryor, Coloma had 300 buildings and a hotel under construction by the summer of 1848, six months after the gold strike. (Today, Coloma is a near ghost town.) And like everywhere else, it had a job to manage the mad new world of desperate fortune-hunters ready to murder one another for the dust in their pockets.
Coloma has the distinction of giving birth to California’s first sheriff’s department, in 1852.
It’s almost surprising in such an environment that the original gold rush hotbed didn’t have an execution until 1854 — but Coloma made up for lost time* on November 3, 1854, by hanging two men, twice over.
The milestone perpetrators were classic frontier rascals, straight from a spaghetti Western rogues’ gallery. William Lipsey, a 25-year-old gambler, had murdered a fellow cardsharp in a drunken brawl over a game. James Logan, a 47-year-old miner “silvered o’er with age”, was condemned for killing a fellow miner in a claim dispute — though all the way to the gallows, Logan insisted to the last, before the 6,000 or so souls assembled to watch him die, that he had killed only in self-defense, remarking that
[h]e stood before them a condemned man, the victim of false testimony. It was true that he had taken the life of a fellow creature, but he had committed the deed in self-defence. He went to the claim where the tragedy took place, not as has been said to kill Fennel, but because the claim was his own, and he went to get possession of it. His own rash threats had brought him to the scaffold. In answer to propositions to settle the difficulty by law or arbitration, he had rashly replied that there was a shorter and better way — but he did not mean it. He went to the claim to get possession of it, but did not snap or present his pistol — he merely showed it. It was merely a single-barreled pistol. Fennel went and got a revolver, and came back and presented it at him, cocked. Fennel was advancing upon him with a cocked revolver when he presented his singlebarreled pistol. Any other testimony than this was false. He only snapped his pistol a moment before Fennel did his. The man who swore that he snapped his first swore a lie. They both snapped together. He had warned Fennel not to advance. He got behind Swift, and if he (Swift) had stood his ground, nobody would have been killed, But Swift flinched, and stepped aside. He then had to be killed himself, kill Fennel, or run away. He fired, and Fennel fell. He repeated that it was false that he snapped his pistol first; it was that snap that had brought him to the gallows, and the testimony about it was false.
In view of the halter (to which he pointed his finger) and in presence of that God before whom he was so shortly to appear, he was now speaking the truth. He would never have been hung if he had not had a principle of courage in his composition that prevented him from running away.
Lipsey, who was unquestionably guilty, did not have the older man’s composure and had to be half-dragged to the scaffold where he was so unmanned that he could not muster any last remark — though he was heard to murmur before dropped, “I don’t think I’m a murderer at heart.”
As the Coloma sheriff had no experience with executions, both men fell through their nooses and landed on the ground still alive. Still cool under pressure, Logan raised his hood to look around, got up, and walked back up to the gallows platform unassisted — but as the lawmen adjusted the hemp for the do-over, he recollected the letter of the death warrant and asked to see a watch.
“Ah, you have twenty minutes yet,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “If it was two o’clock I would demand my liberty under the law.”
* Coloma had another double hanging in 1855: outlaw Mickey Free hanged alongside Kentucky-born schoolmaster Jerry Crane, who murdered a student with whom he had become infatuated.