This entry from a diarist in Idaho’s 1860s gold rush arrives to us courtesy of Steven Tanasoca and Susan Sudduth in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of summer 1978.
Sydney-born, our observer George Harding in 1856 joined the wave of Austrlian migration to gold-strike California with his widowed mother and three younger brothers. But the family (augmented by a stepfather and an adoptive son) soon drove on to the Oregon Territory. In 1862, 19-year-old George, his brother Bill, and their stepfather Charles Murray tried their luck in the Idaho mining boom: far from prospecting, Harding made his bread by painting, carpentry, and suchlike workaday labor in the Elk City camp.
Wednesday 10th [September] Clear and fine all day. We worked all day on the fashion Saloon. A man by the name of [James] McGuire was shot through the neck this afternoon by a man named Finnigan. A most horrid murder was commited [sic] this afternoon. He was stabbed in the neck twice, cutting the jugular vein in two. He died about half an hour after. At the time of the murder, he was lying in bed supposed to be asleep. They have arrested Finnigan. Have suspicion that he committed the crime. We had a very severe frost last night. Ice was a quarter of an inch thick in the shop.
Thursday 11th Clear and fine all day. We work[ed] all day painting for Captain Maltby. The town has been in a great excitement all day. The miners came into town this morning and organised a Vigilance Committee. Finnigan has been on trial all day. The jury returned a Verdict about 10 o’clock this evening that he was guilty of Willful Murder. A great number of the miners was for hanging him right away, but after a little consideration it was decided that he should be hung at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. We had another very heavy frost last night.
Friday 12th Clear in the morning, but got dark and cloudy in the afternoon. We worked all day for Captain Maltby. The scaffold was erected this morning about eight hundred yards from Elk City on the West side. Finnigan was brought to the scaffold about eleven o’clock under a strong guard. He was reading the prayer book all the way to it. When he got on the scaffold, he confessed that he committed the crime and stated the reasons why he had done it. He said that some time back he and the deceased had a quarrel in which the deceased had attempted to take his life with a knife and would have done it had he not been stopped by outside parties.* He said that after this he had wanted some revenge. Also, the deceased had said that he would kill him the first chance he got. Finnigan warned all young men to take warning by him to keep from drinking and gambling as it was that that had brought him on the gallows now. Finnigan took a parting leave of all his friends. The Sherif [sic] then covered his face and tied his hands behind his back and put the rope around his neck. The trap was then let go, and to the astonishment of the spectators, Finnigan fell to the ground. By some means or other the knot came untied after giving Finnigan a heavy jerk. As soon as he could speak he cried out to save him, save him. Some of the people then cried out to let him live and he was then taken back to the town, which he left this afternoon. It commenced raining this evening.
* The bad blood between these men is fleshed out a bit more — along with a more cinematic version of the gallows escape — in An Illustrated History of North Idaho. This source not unreasonably suspects that a sympathetic hand among the execution party might have rigged the noose to “by some means or other” come undone.