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The Hanging of Juanita: The Only Woman to be Lynched in California

Updated on November 29, 2016
Sherry Hewins profile image

I have lived, all over the beautiful and diverse state of California. Beaches, mountains, desert and redwoods, California has it all!

Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons - Not an actual photo of Juanita
Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons - Not an actual photo of Juanita

A Booming Mining Camp Celebrates the Fourth of July

Downieville is now a sleepy little town in Sierra County, California. It is located where the Downie River and the north fork of the Yuba River come together; it was first settled during California's gold rush. When this notorious event happened, Downieville was a thriving, rough and tumble mining town. It had a population of 5000 and a reputation for lawlessness.

It was July 4, 1851, when the incident began. It was the first Independence Day since California had become a state, and the town was in a particularly festive spirit. All of its many saloons and gambling halls were packed with patriotic miners, flush with gold, and ready to do some serious drinking.

A young Mexican woman, barely 20, sat at one of the tables in Jack Craycroft's Gambling Palace. Her name was Juanita (some say it was Josefa, but for the sake of this story, we'll call her Juanita). She and her man, Jose, who was a Monte dealer at the establishment, were giving their full attention to a losing hand of cards. Frederick Cannon, a Scotsman commonly known as Jock came in. He was in a generous mood, buying drinks all around. In his drunkenness, he grabbed the bare shoulder of the young woman, and it is said, she whipped a knife from her garter and was out of her chair in one move, facing Jock in a fury. Jock's friends pulled him away, and the incident was put to rest, or so they thought at the time.

Sometime later, in the wee hours of the morning, Jock Cannon and his friends were stumbling down the street banging on doors. When they got to Juanita's house, they broke the door down. The men later claimed they only knocked on the door, and it fell down. There is some discrepancy in stories here about what exactly happened, Jock's friends said they pulled him away and that was the end of it, they set the door back up and left. A Deputy Sheriff, Mike Gray, would later say that the men had entered the house and created a disturbance, which had infuriated Juanita. Where this information was during her trial is unknown.

Later that day, Jock returned to Juanita's home, his friends claim his intention was to apologize for his earlier behavior. Upon seeing Jock, Jose demanded payment for the door, and an argument ensued. Juanita stepped between the men, and Jock confronted her angrily, calling her a whore. It's unclear exactly what else happened between them, but he continued to berate her, and followed her into her house. Jock was next seen stumbling out of the house, clutching his chest. He had been stabbed in the heart and bled out on the ground.

Downieville as it looks today
Downieville as it looks today | Source

Miner's Justice

The cry of murder went up throughout Downieville, and the formerly happy crowd quickly became an angry mob out for revenge. Jose and Juanita were taken into custody, and placed in an empty building to be held for a miner's trial.

As often happened in cases like this, which was outside of the legal system, great care was taken to go through the procedure of an actual trial. There were lawyers for the defense and for the prosecution, both presenting their case before a judge and jury.

Jock Cannon's friends gave their testimony concerning the events leading to the breaking down of the door, and the confrontation that ended in Jock's death.

Jose stated that he had heard Cannon call Juanita a whore, and continue his verbal abuse as he entered the house.

Juanita testified that she was afraid of the men in town, including Jock Cannon, and was in the habit of sleeping with a knife under her pillow. She admitted killing Cannon with the knife.

Juanita also gave testimony about previous interactions she'd had with Jock. She testified that she had rebuffed his sexual advances in the past. She also stated that she had received a warning from some Mexican boys in town.They told her that they had overheard some men discussing breaking into her house to have sex with her.

Juanita's defense attorney took his role seriously, and he did his best to save her. He got a doctor, Cyrus D. Aiken, to testify that Juanita was pregnant, and he asserted that her innocent child should not suffer for the sins of the mother. However, the angry mob demanded that other doctors examine her. The other doctors disagreed with the diagnosis of pregnancy. The crowd immediately ran Dr. Aiken out of town.

Perhaps Juanita was pregnant, perhaps not, the residents of Downieville were not in a patient mood, and did not allow that possibility to delay what they saw as justice.

It seems likely that existing racial tensions in the town contributed to the anger of the crowd. Had Juanita been a white woman there is a good chance that the hanging would have been postponed, at least until she could get a legal trial. As it was, the jury quickly found Juanita guilty of murder and sentenced her to be hanged that very day. They gave her an hour to prepare herself. Jose was freed, but encouraged to leave town.

While Juanita dressed for her hanging, a makeshift gallows was prepared for her on the bridge. When the time came, they say she walked proudly in her finest red hoop skirt, and a Panama hat, which she tossed to her beau before placing the noose around her own neck. When asked if she had anything to say, she responded, "I would do the same thing again if I were treated as I have been."

This is how Juanita died, hanging from the bridge at Downieville that day, July 5, 1851, the first, last, and only woman to be lynched in California.

Downieville, California, in the Sierra Nevada Moutains

A markerDownieville, CA -
Downieville, CA 95936, USA
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    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 2 weeks ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      It's a cute little mountain town. Charming, fun to visit, with a beautiful river running through it. If you've been there, you probably knew something about the story of Juanita.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 2 weeks ago from Oakley, CA

      Wow! What a story! How awful.

      As soon as I began reading, however, my mind wandered to happier tales of the town in later years. It was probably sometime in the 1930s, that my father, in his bachelor days, found Downieville to be the base for his travels to and from a fire lookout station, higher up the mountain. It was, he told, a half-day trip on horseback with a pack mule in tow, for a 2-week shift in a small shack atop a high tower. He'd spend the day watching for any smoke, and if found, would radio the location back to town. Downieville and nearby Sierraville were his stomping grounds in those days... ;-)

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas

      Fascinating tale of the old west. There seems to be much information unknown about the true circumstances of this incident and the resulting trial although it makes for a great story and you told it well. Much of the lawlessness of the old west is clearly a case of angry mob rule and town sentiment toward the murdered victim as well as the accused. In this case, the man seems to have expressed bad intentions toward the woman but little is known about her character or profession. Perhaps he was an offspring one of the town fathers and she was a saloon gal like so many of the Western films portray. I kept hearing Marty Robbins' song, "El Paso", playing in my head as I read this.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 4 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Mike Arnold

      Lynching: verb (used with object)

      1.

      to put to death, especially by hanging, by mob action and without legal authority.

      They did go through the motions of a trial, but it was without legal authority.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 6 months ago from Essex, UK

      Sorry tale. Clearly it's not possible to know today exactly where blame lay for the death of Jock Cannon, and that was probably the case back in 1851 too. It does seem that there were at least mitigating circumstances for Juanita, but whether those circumstances could justify killing Jock, is unclear. It was one side's word against the other's, and even published accounts at the time - judging by the comments - differed in apportioning blame.

      It's just sad that 'justice' could be meted out in that way, perhaps without genuine legitimacy, and possibly subject to prejudice.

      Speaking of which, although your article is careful to point out the limitations on our knowledge of the event, it does slightly depress me that one or two of the comments here seem to indicate that more than 160 years later, we are still willing to jump to conclusions and judge. I concur with 'Au fait' :

      'People live their lives by assumption - they make judgements and hurt people with their assumptions that are based on gossip, hearsay, and sometimes on nothing at all.'

      Well written and carefully balanced account Sherry of one of many sad episodes which took place during those times.

    • profile image

      Mike Arnold 6 months ago

      Contrary to popular belief, townsfolk back then took every care to be as legal as possible, when the law wasn't present. Incidents as these were almost always reviewed by the law. Where applicable, and provable, charges would be brought against those blatantly breaking the law. Hollywood has been instrumental in perpetuating the idea of "Lynch law" justice. This woman was given a trial, found guilty, and paid for the crime. She may have not gotten the full benefit of the legal system in 1851, but she was not "lynched."

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 7 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Maria - At least now she would probably get a legal trial, and perhaps some of her peers on the jury. I don't think women or non-whites would have been eligible then. Neither racial relations, nor the court system is perfect, but I think a lot of progress has been made.

    • profile image

      Maria D.Flores 8 months ago

      Now days if there ware the same laws, whites will still do that to minority women

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 10 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Even back then, this "trial" was illegal. The miners in Downieville took justice into their own hands that day.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 10 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      This is a new story to me. Thank you for sharing it with us. It is so sad yet shows clearly the unsophisticated manner of the Judicial System during that era.

      Today this would never occur due to the right to self-defense. Juanita was a courageous woman.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 10 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Heather, History is full of sad stories. It is not always pleasant, but it's good to know what people are capable of.

    • profile image

      Heather 11 months ago

      Sad story. I didn't want to read it, but I couldn't help myself. I'm only 10 years old. Why did I just say my age!? Ugh.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 22 months ago from North Texas

      An unfortunate story. Just goes to show how quickly unexpected things can happen. Things still happen on this order because people live their lives by assumption. They don't bother to get the facts or even attempt to do so. They make judgements and hurt people with their assumptions that are based on gossip, hearsay, and sometimes on nothing at all.

    • profile image

      Jane Winstead 2 years ago

      You are right Sherry. It is a very sad story. She didn't have a chance. Her abuser got what he deserved.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 2 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Wow, thank you for providing that information. That does lend more credence to Juanita's side of the story. Still, a newspaper article is not a court of law, that's one thing Juanita will never have. Her "trial" was a sham, outside of the legal system, and the result was a foregone conclusion.

    • janewinstead profile image

      janewinstead 2 years ago from Hercules, California

      The following information about Juanita is taken from a story titled "Hanging of a Woman," published in the Daily Alta California, July 14, 1852 following Juanita's hanging on July 5, 1851. The story of "Juanita" appears in the book, "Women of the Sierra" by Anne Seagraves.

      The occurrence was written about in an article from the Daily Alta California, July 14, 1852: "The occurrence which was published a few days ago, as having taken place at Downieville, proves to be no fiction as several papers supposed. John S. Fowler, Esq., who witnessed the frightful scene, describes the affair as reflecting infinite disgrace upon all engaged in it. The act for which the victim suffered, was one entirely justifiable under the provocation. She stabbed a man who persisted in making a disturbance at her house and had greatly outraged her rights.

      The violent proceedings of an indignant and excited mob led on by the enemies of the unfortunate woman are a blot upon the history of the state. Had she committed a crime of a really heinous character, a real American would have revolted at such a course as was pursued toward this friendless and unprotected foreigner. We had hoped the story was fabricated. As it is, the perpetrators of the deed have shamed themselves and their race. The Mexican woman is said to have borne herself with the utmost of fortitude and composure through the fearful ordeal, meeting her fate without flinching.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image
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      Sherry Hewins 2 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Historian - If you have evidence of another side of the story, I would be happy to hear it. The main point of my story was to say that Josefa/Juanita was the only woman to be hanged outside of the legal court system. Perhaps a legal trial would have had the same result, but we will never know it now.

    • profile image

      Historian 2 years ago

      Correction: " was NOT acting in self defense"... my apologies for the typo.

    • profile image

      Historian 2 years ago

      There is another blog online that speaks of this story with primary source information regarding this incident, clearly showing that Josefa committed murder and was acting in self defense, nor was she attacked by Cannon. It seems that in recent years people have tried to make this story about racism, although at the time the townspeople claimed that whether it had been a woman or not, (regardless of color) someone was going to hang for Cannon's death due to the circumstances of the crime. Would it be impossible to assume that there are always two sides to every story and that Josefa wasn't as innocent as people make her out to be? The documented records of the time do not mention her innocence at all, so the idea she was wrongfully convicted has become something speculated later, and not a part of actual documented history.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Makes me think about how in the earlier days the perception of women was not as positive as it is now. Thoughtful and insightful, Sherry, and I share.

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