Hanging in Downieville

A most notorious incident involving a woman occurred in Downieville in 1851. At that time, Downieville was one the richest camps in the Northern Mines. Located on the north bank of the Yuba River, the town boasted of fifteen hotels and gambling halls and numerous saloons for its 5000 inhabitants. One of the town’s many gamblers was a Mexican man named Jose. He lived with a woman named Josefa. Neither of their last names has come down through history. Descriptions of Josefa tell of a plain woman, short of stature with long black hair and a dark complexion. It was said that she could be considered pretty, in a plain way. She dressed with taste and was quiet in demeanor. She was described as having good character, above the average of camp women of those days.
As in most towns, the Fourth of July was a rowdy occasion for celebration in Downieville. It was also the first Independence Day to be celebrated since California had become a State the year before. The town was full of miners from outlying areas ready to drink, fight and gamble. The noted orator of the day was Col. John B. Weller, campaigning for U.S. Senator. After the day’s activities had quieted down for most, three of the celebrants, Frederick Cannon and two friends, Charley Getzler and a miner named Lawson, continued on into the daylight hours, knocking on doors to wake up the inhabitants. One of the doors was that of Jose and Josefa. It needed repair and fell into the room when disturbed by the revelers. They later claimed that they did nothing but knock, but Deputy Sheriff Mike Gray reported several days later that the men "entered the house of the woman, and created a riot and disturbance, which . . . outraged her."
Cannon and his friends stood the door back up into its opening and left. Later in the day, Cannon went to a barber’s shop near Josefa’s home and was confronted by Jose, who demanded payment for repairs of the damage to the door. They stepped outside and Cannon apologized and shook hands with Jose. Josefa came outside and approached them angrily. According to some, Cannon apologized to her. Others reported that Jose and Cannon argued in Spanish and that Cannon referred to Josefa as a whore. Jose led her back to their home, where Cannon stepped into the doorway and offered her his hand in apology. She responded by pulling a large knife from her dress and plunging it into his heart. He staggered out and fell into his friend Lawson’s arms, saying, "See, the woman has stabbed me!" In moments, he was dead.
The news of the miner’s death spread quickly among the nearby camps, and a crowd of men estimated in the hundreds soon gathered, apparently intending to lynch Josefa. Somewhat cooler heads prevailed and she was then readied for a miner’s trial. She was taken from her temporary hiding place in a saloon, and placed in a log cabin standing on the north side of the lower plaza. A vote by the crowd of men allowed Josefa to be represented by counsel, and two men were appointed. A jury of twelve "sober, candid, intelligent, and honest men" was selected. Pleas were made by one man present to turn the whole affair over to the legal courts, but he was shouted down and even pummeled and beaten by the ever more boisterous and unruly gang of men, now numbering about three thousand.
The trial began with eyewitness testimony by a Mexican youth that described the stabbing of Cannon. His friend, Getzler, explained the door-breaking incident, and Lawson, the friend who held the dying man, gave details of the stabbing. Jose testified that Cannon had called Josefa a whore, and was still engaged in berating her with epithets when he entered the room, whereupon Josefa had stabbed him.
Now, Josefa was called to testify. She recounted that a Mexican boy had told her earlier that some of the men in town wanted to get in her room and sleep with her, and how this frightened her so much that she had taken to fastening the door tightly and sleeping with a knife. She told how she had stabbed Cannon after telling him how wrong it was to come into her room and call her names. She admitted the stabbing, and finished her testimony.
Upon this, the vigilante judge called a recess. Many of the miners then flocked to a tent to view Cannon’s body, which had the gaping stab wound uncovered for all to see. Others went to various saloons to drink and build even more animosity towards Josefa.
After the recess, two more defense witnesses were heard. One of them recalled that he heard Cannon utter a foul word in Spanish just before the stabbing, but he did not know to whom it was intended. The other, a Doctor Aiken, reported that he had examined Josefa and that she was pregnant, and if she were to be hung, two deaths would be on the mob’s hands.
The prosecutor called this a trick and insisted that she be examined once again. Three other doctors accompanied her back to the log cabin, and during this time the crowd became even more enraged, with cries of "Bring her out!" and "Hang her!" Upon the return of the doctors, they announced that there was no reason to believe that pregnancy existed. Doctor Aiken was run out of town, but returned several days later when things had cooled down.
The jury quickly returned with the verdict: That Josefa, being found guilty of murder, was to suffer death within two hours. Jose was found to be innocent, but the jury recommended that he be encouraged to leave town within twenty-four hours.
At nearly four o’clock, the judge, jury foreman and the prosecutor led a now much smaller mob (many who stayed away indicated no delight in seeing the lynching) to the bridge. The bridge across the Yuba River had several upright timbers with a beam across the top. A noose was now hanging from the beam and directly under, another beam had been temporarily fastened across the railings about 4 feet above the decking of the roadway. A step ladder was in place for the condemned woman.
Josefa showed little or no emotion, and when asked if she had anything to say, she responded that she would do the same thing again, if provoked. She asked that her body be given to friends for a decent burial and shook hands with each of the men standing near her, bidding them, "Adios, Senor." She then climbed the ladder to the beam and placed the noose on her neck. A black hood was lowered over her head and a gunshot signaled the release of the temporary beam. She was allowed to hang for twenty-two minutes. Upon being removed from the gallows, her body was turned over to friends for burial.
The furor in California over this lynching would take a long time to settle. Newspapers throughout the state decried the actions of the mob and declared that the history of California had been blotted by Josefa’s death. Some of the town’s residents responded with letters to the editors of those papers, justifying the actions of the court. Some six months later, one Downieville man wrote that Josefa had, previous to the Cannon incident, stabbed and wounded two other men. No such testimony was given during the trial, and it would seem certain that such would have been the case. Another wrote that Josefa was indeed a prostitute, but this seems unlikely, due to her reaction to being called a whore by Cannon, and the fact that no one in town knew her as such.
Her story has been recounted many times, and even though her name has been incorrectly identified as Juanita by H. H. Bancroft in his history of California, her story lives on to this day. Under today’s law, she would have been considered justified in striking out at an attacking man in her own room, especially one who was covering her loudly and physically with vile epithets.
Josefa would have probably been found innocent, even at the miner’s court, if it had not been for the prevailing racism of the townspeople at the time. Any Latin American, Mexican, Chinese, black, etc., of the time was considered less than a citizen by the miners. They were driven from the best claims and relegated to menial and low paying jobs.
Josefa was the only woman to be lynched in the Mother Lode and it seems that the prophetic words of the newspaper editors were true. California’s history will remain forever blotted by this incident.