Sunday, June 2, 2013

Juanita -- First White Woman Lynched in California

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
On the fourth of July, 1851, Downieville celebrated the anniversary of the birth of our republic. Tents, cabins, and buildings were decorated with flags, and hundreds of miners were in town for the event. They consumed large amounts of alcohol and presented lively speeches from a large platform in the town square. One after another, the orators proclaimed the right of liberty for all and declared all men were free.
However, something went wrong in Downieville. The next day these same people participated in one of the most shocking crimes in California history -- they allowed a frenzied mob to hang a woman without the constitutional right to a fair trial. The speeches about equality and liberty for all obviously were not meant to include women, especially of the Mexican race. The victim was Juanita, and her name will be forever linked with the area's colorful past.
Juanita (no last name was ever recorded) was considered attractive, with long, lustrous dark hair; delicate features; and passionate black eyes. She was a graceful young woman from Sonora, Mexico, who was reputed to have been a saloon girl at one time. In Downieville, however, she was considered a better class woman than the camp followers. She lived with her lover in a small cabin, and, although many men sought her favors, Juanita was content with her man, Jose.
They were a happy couple. Jose was a quiet man who dealt cards at Craycrofts' Saloon. In contrast, Juanita was noted for her hot-blooded Latin temper and brightly colored skirts. She met Jose after work every night, and they would walk home together holding hands in the moonlight.
On the day of the crime, July 5th, the Independence Day celebration had continued into the early morning hours when several of the revelers staggered from the saloons. Some were in high spirits, singing and laughing; others were drunken vandals who sent down the streets breaking open the doors of houses. Jack Cannon was one of the latter. He was a large Scotsman who was popular with the men and considered to be a camp rowdy.
On this particular morning some say Cannon fell against the door of Jose and Juanita's cabin, knocking it from its hinges. When Juanita asked Cannon to leave her alone, he called her obscene names in Spanish and accused her of being a prostitute. Juanita swore back at him and he left.
After a few hours of sleep, Cannon returned to Juanita's cabin. Jose politely asked Cannon to have his door repaired. Cannon, who was suffering from a hangover, started once more to insult both Juanita and Jose. The argument became louder, and a crowd began forming. Juanita, upset by the insults and the audience's jeers, asked Cannon to be quiet and invited him into her house to talk. At this point, it is not clear what happened. Either the large man lunged at her, or her temper became too violent. She grabbed a Bowie knife, and small and slender though she was, she managed to plunge the knife into Cannon's chest, instantly killing him.
The stunned spectators, realizing their friend was dead, started yelling. "Lynch them!" In fear, Juanita and Jose ran to Craycroft's where they thought they would find protection. The angry mob surrounded the saloon, and the couple's defenders were forced to run for their own lives. There was no escape for Juanita. She was dragged to the main plaza and forced upon the same platform where the public speeches were heard the day before. Cannon's body, with its ugly wound, was placed nearby to inflame the crowd.
The scene was set for a mock trial. The crowd's mood became uglier as the trial continued. Juanita was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging within the hour and denied the solace of a priest. They took the trembling 22-year old woman to a nearby cabin to wait for her death. Alone I the cabin, it can be assumed she prayed for forgiveness and the courage to accept her fate.
A rope was hung from the top of ta bridge, beneath it a plant swung out over the river. Townspeople lined the streets to see the hanging. The air was hot, and empty whiskey barrels still lay on the ground from the night before.
Juanita was taken from her cabin, and with her head held high, she bravely faced the crowd. She took the noose in her own hands and placed it around her neck. They tied her arms, skirt, and feet together -- within seconds Juanita was dead. It will never be known if she was guilty or innocent. She was the first woman who was denied the right of a trial. She was buried next to Cannon, and the legend of her hanging lives on.
Photo of Downieville at present.
Women of the Sierra by Anne Seagraves

7 comments:

  1. What a shame that Juanita was hanged, with or without a trial. And when men say "all men are created equal" thy seldom mean mankind to include women. I used this sort of injustice in one of my recent books. I think it happened more often than we know. Thanks for sharing this sad story.

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  2. Wow, this is quite a story. I have never heard this, and I don't want to hear another one. How cruel was all that. Just terrible, and I can only imagine how Juanita felt, her fear and trembling while she waited for certain death.
    Thank you, Paisley, for the story.

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  3. I live in Placerville where they temporarily named it Hangtown because of a hanging judge. It was a terrible time during the wild days of the gold rush. I have a feeling there were a lot more injustices.

    Thanks Caroline and Celia.

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  4. What an incredible piece of history, Paisley, and what a hideous miscarriage of justice.I love learning new points of history, especially California. I know a bit about Placerville myself...we visit it on the way to our niece's. Love the place. Thanks for a great post.

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  5. Thanks, Tanya. History is so interesting, especially the wild west. I love living here where it was quite wild and wooly.

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  6. That's a sad story. It's amazing how cruel and crazed people can be in situations like that. To be denied the right to see a priest though, unbelievable.

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  7. Yes, it was a very sad story, Linda. Life was very rough during those days.

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