Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tuesday at the Library

This morning I drove to the library and didn't remember until I pulled into the parking lot that Tuesday is some form of Children's Reading Group morning. That so often translates to Children's Screaming Group and this was one of those mornings. So I gravitated toward the back of the library, back toward the history section. I was browsing the local history books when I came upon "Downieville: Gold Town on the Yuba" by James J. Sinnott.
When I was delivering produce for a living, my Downieville route was my favorite. In fact I may even go as far as to say that my Downieville route is one of my fondest memories of my adult life. The drive was beautiful, I was being paid to drive for around 4 hours straight and listen to podcasts, the town was.. frankly, idyllic. It was like a place I would dream about living in or around. I took my wife and parents up there once when my folks were visiting and I think none of them were particularly impressed by the small, Gold Rush town, but for some reason the place was absolutely wonderful to me. Rolling into town around 7 am in the clean, crisp mountain quiet every Friday. It was lovely.
When you drive into the town of Downieville it is one road with a few small streets branching off. Directly into town is the town square which has a parking lot, a pizzeria called The Gallows (which is where I took my parents because the Grubstake Saloon was closed. If you ever find yourself in Downieville, do visit the Grubstake Saloon. It is an awesome thing. The owner is a great character and amateur historian. I seem to recall a morning where he told me that Downieville had the unfortunate place of being the site of the first execution of a woman in California history. But, the food and drinks at the Grubstake are excellent, taxidermied animals on the walls, floppy old hound laying on the floor by the bar, the whole gold town saloon bit. Do visit it if you have the chance), a grocery store, and a water tower. Up the street is the row of restaurants, bars, bed and breakfasts, the tiny post office, a fishing store and the school. They get bears and deer and snow. There's a clear, clean, frigid mountain river that flows right through the middle of town which has probably had hundreds of gold panning plates dipped into it.
And the town is nice, like people with money retired there. It's very clean, well tended, freshly painted. It's kind of a mix between Peyton Place and Knott's Berry Farm. I think the population is around 300 (yes, it's very small. The group at the benefit dinner we went to on Saturday was larger than the population of all of Downieville.) That's because it's surrounded by National Forest land. It hasn't grown in 150 years because, thanks to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, it can't. All of the land surrounding the town is protected. The winding highway up to Downieville is plowed 24 hours a day in winter because during WWII it was the highway they used to transport ammunition to San Francisco and, like so many ordinances, it was never rescinded once the military stopped needing to transport ammo by truck over the mountains.
So, back at the library this morning I pulled down the oversized Downieville book which was on the top shelf so I had to use one of those step-stool/seat things. I started flipping through the book and was drawn into one particular story.

The Hanging of Juanita

Mr. Calvin B. McDonald, a Downieville resident, recalled the incident and was an eyewitness to the hanging. He writes "About 10 O'clock in the morning of July 5, 1851, the cry of `Murder!' came up the river. Everybody was running towards town. At the scene of the action we found a vast throng surrounding a clapboard shanty, and, within, a miner was lying dead. We happened to be one of the few who crowded in. A broad stream of blood flowed from the breast of the slain man, as much as ten feet...
"Presently, the crowd began to surge in a particular direction, indicating that the murderer has been discovered. The man killed was Joseph Cannon, an Englishman."
Joseph Cannon was well known in the area. He was a gregarious and good natured miner, well liked by the other miners in the area, who came from Australia (or England depending on whose account.) He stood well over six foot and weighed around 230. As miners are wont to do, he drank and caroused, often becoming rowdy with groups of miners.
Again, Mr. McDonald, "On the night of the 4th of July Cannon had been on a spree celebrating through the night in company with some of his friends, in the course of which `hilarious intoxication' they went about the town knocking at the doors of houses and making people get up and have a drink."
Finally the group came to the door of a clapboard shanty with a ragged door on leather hinges. When Cannon kicked at the door, the door fell apart and the drunken party ran to their homes realizing they had taken a joke too far and were now vandals. The shanty was the home of a young Mexican couple named Jose and Juanita. Juanita is, I think somewhat cruelly, referred to in the account as Jose's "reputed wife." Jose was a monte dealer at one of the casinos and there was a sort of constant simmering animosity in the area between the well dressed casino workers and the raggedy miners. Added was the racial tension between the white miners and the Mexicans. Juanita was 24 years old and remarked upon as being a "rather pretty little woman." The next morning, Cannon came back to the clapboard shanty and here's where the story gets a little confusing. The storyteller claims that Cannon came to apologize and to pay for the damages. But here's what happened:
"Then while Cannon was standing at the entrance of Juanita's home and while speaking in Spanish to Jose, Cannon placed a hand on each door post, and while in that situation Juanita sprang out from a place of concealment and with a long, sharp Bowie knife, stabbed him through the center of the breast bone and clear into the heart."
Cannon let out a great bellow and staggered to the middle of the street where he fell. "With the clarification as to who it was that had been murdered a cloud of indignation rose rapidly and with ominous portent." Which I take it as a nice way of saying a lynch mob quickly started brewing.
"A lynch-court was summoned and twelve jurymen eagerly responded... Judge Lynch (sic) and his court, repaired to the stand that had been erected for the July 4th celebration and the trial began...
"Since a jail had not yet been constructed in Downieville, Juanita was placed in a guarded log cabin... There were impassioned speeches, most of them demanding justice be done for Cannon and asking what should be done with Juanita. To such a question the almost common reply was: `Hang her.'"
During the rapid trial, a few cool minds spoke out and one of those was indicative of how cool minds were treated. Dr. Cyrus D. Aikin took the stand and wishing to save Juanita's life testified that she was "enciente" (with child.) McDonald writes, "A howl of incredulity was raised, and he was driven from the stand, had to flee the town, and dared not return for two or three days."
Another witness, "A certain Mr. Thayer from Nevada undertook to make a speech in defense of the prisoner, but he was kicked off the grandstand, driven across the river, and fled up the hill, leaving his hat and mule behind."
Juanita was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged in four hours time. "At the appointed time Juanita mounted a ladder to the plank, she was handed the rope and with her own hands placed the noose over her head and around her neck. She looked upon the faces of the hundreds that had gathered, courage showing in her demeanor, and said to them: `Adios, amigos, adios senores.' The guard attending her asked for her last words and they were to the effect that under the same circumstances she would repeat the act, as Cannon had insulted her. She thereupon signalled that she was ready, and upon a signal from the conductor of the hanging, the ropes supporting the plank were cut by men with axes and Juanita fell to her death...
"One of the two men who were to cut the ropes became unnerved and failed to cut the rope. Only one end of the plank fell and Juanita was left partially supported for a short time until the second blow of the ax severed the rope and Juanita fell free. In a few minutes, Juanita was dead... On the following day Cannon and his slayer were buried near together on the hillside. We saw the graves and their inscription as late as 1862."

I got up dazed and with tears in my eyes in the back corner of the Chico branch library on September 1st, 2009. I was overwhelmed by the weightiness of history, all that has gone on around me without my even knowing about it. That I ate at that place with my wife and parents jokingly called "The Gallows Pizzeria" which was built on that site. The great and terrible history of human's inhumanity to other humans. And also so many questions of what really happened in that clapboard shack 150 years ago and a two hour drive from my front door. What really happened that morning in that cabin that brought Juanita to stab that miner? What happened to Jose? What was the rest of his life like? Justice, if you can even pretend to call it that (vengence perhaps) was apparently so swift, we'll never know.
With all due respect, I'm not convinced that Mr. McDonald's story is entirely accurate or unbiased. At the very least he was not there in the cabin to witness the actual murder and was relying on the testimonies of what would even by a conservative estimate fall into the category of an "angry mob." The problem is to speculate on what really happened has the potential to sully the name of a potentially innocent party. Did Cannon try to rape Juanita and that's why she murdered him? Did Jose actually murder him and pinned it on Juanita? Was Juanita crazed or grossly misunderstanding the presence of the man in the doorway who had kicked their door in the night before? Or was it as it was claimed, simply some insult or phrase taken as an insult said at the wrong moment leading to a murderous rage? Somehow I find myself seriously doubting that last one which history (or, at least, the book I got from the library) records as the official story.
Somewhere up in the mountains far behind Oroville under a little mountain town (is it a playground now? Is it under some one's garage?) lay two skeletons beside one another, unmarked and unremembered, a moment of firey emotion killing them both. Several of the names in the story (the doctor for sure) I've seen on plaques or street signs as I sat in my truck waiting for the owner's of a restaurant to show up and receive their orders for the week. I walked out of the library both light and heavy, wondering what else I don't know. Wondering what else might be under my feet at all times.
Wondering whose feet I'll be under unawares someday.


  1. It never even occured to me why the gallows pizzera was called that! There are all kinds of stories out there that people have forgotten.

  2. what an ass I have been missed all that....read it only today..