Tag Archives: gold rush

1862: Not Finnigan, miner’s court survivee

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.

1853: Three for the McIvor Gold Escort attack

On this date in 1853, three bushrangers hanged in Melbourne Gaol for the sensational (and very nearly successful) McIvor Gold Escort attack.

Our hanged trio’s crime traces to the mad 1850s gold rush to Victoria, mainland Australia’s southwesternmost province* and more specifically to the McIvor Creek diggings near Heathcote. Gold was struck there late in 1853; by the next year, the place was heavy with prospectors. And gold, why, we know what gold does to men’s souls.

The notes are eternal but gold sings her siren song in every major and minor key; where she calls men, haggard and desperate, bearing pickaxes and gilded dreams, she also beckons in another register to their counterparts bearing ready sidearms and black hearts. Miners after a different name.

On July 20, 1853, some 2,300 ounces of gold extracted from the McIvor diggings were dispatched with an armed guard from the Private Escort Cmpany on its regular run to Kyneton. Here was a mother lode for characters who could stake it.

The July 20 gold escort encountered a blocked road and six desperadoes waiting in a well-orchestrated ambush: without bothering to demand the escort stand and deliver, the robbers opened fire on their prey, wounding four of the troopers — non-fatally, but enough to compel submission — and killing the coach driver, William Flookes, ere they looted the dray of treasure worth near £10,000.


19th century illustration of the attak on the McIvor gold escort.

When news of the incident reached McIvor, 400 outraged miners formed up in posses and set off in pursuit — but the robbers had planned their strike cunningly and were well ahead of the chase. Racing away through wilderness, they paused to divide their spoils near Kilmore and proceeded to Melbourne, where they scattered themselves and were able to duck a sweeping but essentially blind manhunt for several weeks.

Joseph Grey, George and Joseph Francis, William Atkins, George Wilson, and George Melville were perhaps on the verge of completing the caper by August 13 when George Francis got cold feet and turned himself into the police — shopping all of his confederates into the bargain.

Joseph Grey, the wiliest of the bunch, was cautiously changing his address every single night — and so George Francis’s information did not nab him. Grey managed to stay ahead of the search and make good an escape with his share of the booty: he was never caught.

The remaining four — including Joseph Francis, George Francis’s own brother — were all speedily snapped up.

A twist in the plot occurred when star witness George Francis slashed his own throat, leaving the crown with a virtually empty case until brother Joseph fulfilled the informer’s place, piously declaiming against the shootings as more crime than either Francis had bargained for. This self-serving pap came in for uproarious pillory by the defense barristers when the surviving Francis took the witness stand — “with your own person in danger, you would sacrifice your mother and tell any lie you rpoor intelligence could invent!” — but the stool pigeon’s evidence stuck, corroborated by accounts from the troopers who survived the ambush.

Atkins, Wilson, and Melville hanged together at Melbourne Gaol sixteen days after their judge donned the black cap. Melville’s wife availed her right to claim her husband’s body and scandalized Melbourne’s authorities by cheekily garlanding the corpse in flowers and putting it on display in her oyster shop on Little Bourke Street, charging half a crown per gawk. Melbourne Gaol’s hanged thereafter were exclusively buried within the prison yards itself, and Parliament soon legislated this as a nationwide requirement.

* While the gold rush brought many boom towns that expired with their associated mineral veins, it boomed the frontier town of Melbourne right into the gigantic metropolis it remains today.