From Dry Diggins to Hangtown to Placerville
Dry Diggins was the first of thirty mining camps to spring up around Coloma, where gold was discovered by James Marshall on January 24, 1848. While other camps, such as Bottle Hill, Georgia Slide, and Murderer's Bar just faded away, Hangtown, or Placerville, was a survivor, along with Diamond Springs, El Dorado, Shingle Springs and Georgetown.
Dry Diggins became known as Hangtown in the fall of 1849, due to vigilante justice meted out to criminals at the end of a rope, often at the giant old oak tree on the thoroughfare in town. With the large influx of fortune hunters from around the world came the usual portion of unsavory characters committing all manner of despicable deeds, from robbery to murder.
The miners quickly became short-tempered with the rising crime rate and the lack of readily-available law enforcement, so they took the "law" (or lack thereof) into their own hands. Criminals were punished in short order, whether it be flogging or hanging, based on snap decisions made by impromptu courts with hastily-formed juries. If you voiced your reasonable objections in favor of a more lengthy, but fair trial for the accused, you'd risk swinging, too.
Flog Five, Hang Three - The first lynching in the camp, a triple hanging, came after a gang of five tried to rob a miner of his gold dust. They were caught and each received a whipping of nearly 40 strokes. Then someone in the crowd of 2,000 said he recognized three of the five as being wanted for involvement with a murder on the Stanislaus River. At that, the three suspects, who were still weak from the flogging they took, were immediately tried, sentenced and hanged by the mob.
There was one dissenter, E.G. Buffum, who stood on a stump and protested on behalf of the accused, saying they were too weak from loss of blood to either stand or speak in their own defense. His valiant efforts were in vain, however, and he himself was threatened with lynching by the angry mob if he didn't 'shut up'. Buffum escaped with his life and later became the senior editor of the Alta newspaper in San Francisco.
The three suspects were hanged together from the huge oak tree in camp. The location of this well-used hangin' tree is marked by an effigy dangling by his neck from the second story of the Hangman's Tree Historic Spot in downtown Placerville. The stump is said to be in the cellar.
A lynching in 1850 resulted from an incident that happened at the El Dorado Hotel, when a miner accused a young Monte dealer of "waxing the cards". The card dealer was the infamous Dick Crone, who threatened to cut the miner's heart out if he accused him of cheating again. When the miner repeated the words, the gambler drew a large bowie knife, plunging it into the miner's chest twice, twisting it around the second time (obviously trying to make good on his threat to cut his heart out). Miners flocked into town from outlying diggins to locate and punish Crone. He was found hiding in Coffee's tavern, and was promptly tried (with witnesses testifying), convicted, and hanged that very evening by a mob jury of thousands.
The vigilante lynchings, with their often deserved but sometimes questionable justice, brought about a measure of peace within the camp. The criminals hadn't left the scene completely, however. They just moved their business to the outskirts of town, ambushing miners. These bushwhackers had a gang-like network, complete with in-town spies, secret handgrips, and special passwords. A vigilante committee was formed to deal with this problem.