“Let’s just hang her and get it over with!”
Those aren’t words anyone would really want to hear, especially if you
happened to be Josefa Segovia, the woman who had suddenly found
herself surrounded by an angry mob of hundreds of hung-over Sierra
Nevada miners and who was the target of the deadly venom with which
the words were being shouted.
“She killed a man, and she admits it!”
Josefa had indeed killed a man. She had pulled a very large knife from
beneath her skirt and plunged it into the man’s chest. She had done so
deliberately, and with more than a little satisfaction. One might even
say that there was a marked zeal in her attitude. And she freely
admitted to doing so.
“He was my friend, and he laid there bleeding out on the ground while
that whore just stood and laughed!”
This was only partly true. The man did indeed fall to the ground and
bleed to death within minutes of Josefa giving him a taste of her
blade. But Josefa wasn’t a whore, and she didn’t laugh.
It was the fourth of July in the year 1851; the first Independence Day
to be celebrated in California since the brief Bear Flag Revolt had
forced a split with Mexico and an equally hasty vote had solidified
California into a union with the United States. Californians were in a
festive mood as they celebrated this special Fourth of July, and those
who lived in the small towns of the Sierra Nevada Mountains had
largely been making it a week-long festivity. Any excuse to drink and
stay drunk was welcomed as a respite from the hard work of the mines
and the logging camps. So that by the time the actual holiday itself
rolled around it was all getting to be a bit of a blur for a lot of
the revelers. Even the tiny mining community of Downieville high up in
Sierra County had a dozen gambling halls and over two dozen saloons to
serve its small population of miners, teamsters, and woodcutters, and
those men had been busy working hard to maintain their inebriated
state of mind for twenty-four hours a day, and for the past several
Josefa Segovia was one of that small population of Downieville,
although in this tiny community she was called not by her real name
but rather known as the Mexican woman, Juanita. White people of
European descent were almost always in the majority in the Sierra
communities. They looked down with comfortable superiority on Chinese,
Blacks, Mexicans, along with anyone else who didn’t look quite right,
and often called these people whom they didn’t understand by a few
common names which they had heard frequently. Juanita was such a case.
As Josefa had made her way north from Sonora in Mexico and through the
mountains and valleys of California she had matured quickly and had
seen much that was wondrous – buckets full of gold; farms that
stretched as far as the eye could see; trees so large that it took men
weeks to cut just one of them down. She had already lived a lifetime
in her brief twenty years and so she adapted to the patronizing
sobriquet of Juanita with a dismissive shrug, not really caring what
others called her.
That, however, was soon to change.
Juanita was often seen in one of the saloons in town, a place called
Craycroft’s. She liked to sit and watch the flow of money and gold
change hands as the man she loved – Jose – was employed there and
dealt cards for a living. Jose was known as an honest gambler who
steadily won money for the House but never cheated his fellow players
at the table. It was generally believed that Juanita and Jose were not
married, although they did live together in a small shack near the
busy heart of Downieville. Juanita and Jose were following this usual
pass-time of cards in Craycroft’s on the Fourth of July of 1851 when a
group of rowdy men made their way into the crowded bar. One of those
drunks was a man by the name Fred Cannon. He was from Scotland, and
his friends called him Jock. Jock was one of those individuals whose
celebratory excesses had probably extended by this time far beyond
what could be called reasonable. Had he been alive in modern times his
friends would probably have taken his keys from him, driven him home,
and dumped him into bed long before they had found and explored this
many saloons. But this was 1851, and those friends instead only urged
him into further excessive and obnoxious behavior. So when Jock
entered Craycroft’s and saw a pretty young Mexican woman who was
apparently sitting all by herself he thought that he was just the man
to alleviate her loneliness. So he walked up behind her and by way of
introduction dropped one of his meaty paws onto her bare shoulder.
Juanita, as has been observed, had seen a lot in her brief life, and
she had learned when she was a very young girl not to suffer unruly
behavior from anyone, not even from those Superior Gringos. So when
that hand grabbed her from behind she bolted upright and spun to face
the man with a knife in her hand. Her slender five foot body had
seemed deceptively docile to Jock and he froze in surprise, staring at
the blade which had appeared as if by magic in her hand, apparently
wondering how things had gone so bad so quickly. His friends had
enough sense to grab him and pull him away from Juanita, saving his
life – for the time being, at least. Jock backed away, muttering under
his breath at the (in his mind) unfriendly Mexican spitfire who he
could straighten out if he only had the chance. But at the ensuing
trial Jock’s friends remained loyal to his memory and swore that no
bad language had ever passed Jock’s lips, nor were any inappropriate
intentions ever on his mind. Their one-sided memories of the encounter
were never called into question, despite the amount of alcohol they
had obviously consumed and which may have perhaps influenced their
judgment just a little.
Later that night, in the small hours of the morning of July fifth,
Jock and his friends finally left the saloon after drinking up their
courage and stumbled down the street to the home of Juanita and Jose.
Jock began to pound on the door and shout. He pounded so hard that he
broke the door off its hinges and it fell to the floor and he stepped
inside, shouting abuse at the woman who had spurned his advances and
made him back down at knifepoint in front of hundreds of men. Once
again Jock’s friends came to the rescue and dragged him away from
Juanita, back out the door and down the street. And once again, at the
trial, they stood by their dead friend by swearing under oath that
Jock had merely knocked politely on the door and that it had fallen in
all by itself. But a deputy sheriff who had investigated the incident
testified that Jock did indeed beat down the door, after which Jock
barged into the house and shouted abuse at Juanita before his friends
could pull him away.
Jock, according to his friends, was in reality a wonderful person but
just sadly misunderstood.
Later that morning of July fifth, after the sun was up and people were
staggering about town with hangovers and splitting headaches, Jock and
his group of loyal friends once again made their way to Juanita’s
house. Jock’s friends swore that he went there to express his regret
for his earlier behavior. This time Jose answered the door. ‘Answered
the door’ is perhaps not quite accurate, as the door wasn’t there any
more, Jock having pounded it into pieces a few hours before. Jose was
angry and demanded an apology from Jock as well as payment for the
door. Jock’s apology consisted of refusing to pay for anything. When
Juanita then made her appearance Jock proceeded to shout at her and
called her a whore. She told him where he could go and spun on her
heel to head back into the house. Jock followed her in, pushing Jose
aside, shouting abuse and obscenities at her as they both briefly
disappeared from view. Just seconds later Jock stumbled back out,
grasping at a gaping hole in his chest which was spurting blood. He
fell to the ground and the life bled out of him in seconds.
Jock’s friends quickly raised the cry of murder throughout the town
and a crowd of several hundred agitated and hung over men soon
gathered. Both Jose and Juanita were bound and then locked into a
small cabin while the crowd loudly debated what should be done. As
there was no judge or court in the town of Downieville the crowd
quickly decided that Miner’s Law would henceforth be in effect, and
they proceeded to prepare for a makeshift trial before justice was
meted out. A judge was chosen from the crowd as was a jury of twelve
men; men who had apparently sobered up to a reasonable extent.
Prosecuting and defense attorneys were appointed and the trial got
under way. Out of all these hundreds of men who gathered to watch the
spectacle of instant justice taking its rapid yet erratic course there
was only one man in the crowd who had the courage to speak up and say
that Juanita should be brought to the county seat for a proper and
legal trial with a real judge and a sober jury. The crowd paused only
briefly to beat the man senseless before getting on with the (il)legal
As the trial proceeded the jury heard testimony both from Jock’s
friends as well as from other witnesses regarding the initial
encounter at Craycroft’s as well as the late night breaking down of
the door, and the subsequent ‘apology’ which resulted in Jock’s sudden
death. Juanita spoke in her own defense, saying that Jock had
approached her on more than one occasion wanting sex and that she had
each time rebuffed him. She said she was afraid of him and always kept
a knife tucked in her garter or beneath her pillow for her defense.
She freely admitted to plunging the knife into his heart, even though
no one had actually seen her do it. Josefa had had enough – Jock had
pawed her in a saloon; Jock had continually pursued her for sex; Jock
had categorized and trivialized her as a generic Mexican woman by the
name of Juanita. Jock had broken down the door of her house in the
middle of the night and shouted abuse at her. And when he called her a
whore and bullied his way into her home a second time she had simply
had enough. She’d had too much. So she killed him.
As court recessed the town’s population retired to the various
drinking establishments to discuss the heinous crime of a lowly
Mexican woman killing a popular white man and its probable outcome.
Prodigious amounts of whiskey were hastily consumed as the men sought
to collectively bolster their courage for the deed they all knew was
soon to come.
Then court was reconvened. Juanita’s defense attorney brought in a
doctor to testify that he had examined Juanita and that she was
pregnant, and that no punishment should be meted out to her lest the
innocent baby suffer as well. When another doctor was brought in to
counter that claim the court paused briefly as the first doctor was
instantly and literally run out of town for trying to save the Mexican
woman. At least he wasn’t beaten to a pulp as had been the earlier
protestor who had tried to help her. Jock’s body was then put on
display and everyone lined up to look at the bloody hole in his chest,
and they angrily muttered about how this should not have happened to
such a nice guy; a man who had innocently celebrated the birth of his
country – a little too loudly, perhaps – but who had done his best to
apologize for any inappropriate behavior on his part. Seeing the body
was enough for the jury. Those twelve sober men of good moral
character within minutes returned with a verdict of Guilty, and the
judge concurred. Juanita was sentenced to be hung that same afternoon.
Jose was found to be Not Guilty, but was told that he had to leave
town anyway as they really didn’t want his kind of undesirable people
in the upright and moral town of Downieville.
While Juanita languished in a locked room awaiting her fate, men
hastily nailed a beam across two posts that protruded from the top of
a bridge that crossed the North Fork of the Yuba River in Downieville.
From that beam they hung a hangman’s noose, then thoughtfully added a
small set of steps so that Juanita would have easy access to it. About
four o’clock on the afternoon of July fifth, 1851, the same day that
she had stabbed and killed her abuser and a mere two hours after her
trial had finished, Juanita stepped onto the bridge. She mounted those
steps and obligingly put the noose over her own neck. Juanita then
turned to the brave men who had sentenced her to death and said that,
given the same circumstances, she would act in exactly the same manner
again. Then she stepped out and died.
They let Josefa Segovia hang from the bridge for twenty-two minutes.
If her neck was broken by the fall, then death would have been
instantaneous. If not and she had to strangle, then ninety seconds
would have sufficed. Yet they extended her stay at the rope’s end for
a far longer time, not so much making certain of her death as taking
satisfaction in the sight of the woman they saw as Juanita the Mexican
Whore receiving Miner’s Justice for the murder of a popular man who
most likely richly deserved exactly what he had received from the
flashing knife wielded by Juanita’s quick hand. But on that same
afternoon someone else also died; a twenty year old woman from Sonora
in Mexico named Josefa, a diminutive little woman whose only crime had
been to show the courage to defend herself when threatened; a woman
who nobody really knew except Jose, the man who loved her.
Jose was allowed to stay long enough to watch Juanita hang for
twenty-two minutes on that bridge. Then he was escorted out of town.
In a final bit of irony, or Miner’s Humor, Juanita and Jock were
buried side by side so that their spirits might torment each other
throughout all of eternity.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501(c)(3) nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
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