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

I have lived all over the beautiful and diverse state of California. With beaches, mountains, deserts, and redwoods, California has it all!

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.

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

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

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are there any photos or paintings of Juanita?

Answer: I don't think so. The entire killing, trial, and hanging happened so fast, and cameras were not so commonplace back then. It seems nobody even knows Juanita's last name.

© 2012 Sherry Hewins

Comments

Robert Sacchi on January 26, 2019:

A good article recounting a historical event that is not well known. Great job,

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on October 20, 2018:

CB-Boss, If you have more information about that incident, I'd love to see it. I did a quick search and did see that a woman's body was found hanging at the location and date you mentioned, but could find no further details about who she was or how her death came about.

Often in these cases, rightly or wrongly, the official cause of death will be deemed suicide.

CB-Boss on October 19, 2018:

Haven't read the article yet, but/& am hoping the title was simply misleading & not plain wrong. There was an unnames Black woman lynched in Lafayette, California June 24th, 1986.

TP on June 25, 2018:

Wayne Winstead, the hanging of Juanita has been well known in Downieville for years (since it happened). If not now, there used to be a plaque posted on the bridge commemorating the hanging. This is not new and your comment is inappropriate and shows your ignorance.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on August 13, 2017:

Well, it is history Wayne Winstead. I'm glad the hanging is in the past. I wish I could say the same for racial tensions.

Wayne Winstead on August 12, 2017:

I have lived in the area much of my life. My great grandfather was the sheriff and he outlawed hanging in the county. He said if you wanna hanging take them to Sacramento but we aint hanging anyone in Sierra county. I never heard of the Juanita story. I only recently heard of the story, it just shows you how far back the liberals will go to start some race baiting.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on March 12, 2017:

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.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on March 12, 2017:

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... ;-)

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on March 12, 2017:

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 (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on November 29, 2016:

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 from Essex, UK on September 20, 2016:

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.

Mike Arnold on September 15, 2016:

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 (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on August 05, 2016:

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.

Maria D.Flores on July 31, 2016:

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

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on May 06, 2016:

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

Suzie from Carson City on May 05, 2016:

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 (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on May 04, 2016:

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

Heather on April 30, 2016:

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.

C E Clark from North Texas on May 11, 2015:

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.

Jane Winstead on February 15, 2015:

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

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on February 14, 2015:

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 from Hercules, California on February 14, 2015:

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 (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 31, 2015:

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.

Historian on January 31, 2015:

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

Historian on January 31, 2015:

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.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on January 04, 2013:

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.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 04, 2013:

Thanks to you, Denise, I've added a map to this hub. Downieville is actually not far from Tahoe and Reno. It's a tiny town accessed only by a very curvy mountain road.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on January 04, 2013:

Thanks for that info, Sherry. I do know where Yuba, AZ is so I can visualize where this took place. :)

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 04, 2013:

Thank you Denise. The town of Downieville is not too far from where I live. There is a plaque on the bridge there, it gives a brief account of the story.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on January 04, 2013:

Wow, what an interesting story, Sherry. How did you come across this story? Thanks for sharing...Rated UP/I and shared.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on January 03, 2013:

Thanks for reading and sharing ishwaryaa22. It is a sad story. I suppose, once she had realized the inevitable end, Juanita decided to face her fate with grace. She certainly left an impression behind as the story is often retold.

Ishwaryaa Dhandapani from Chennai, India on January 03, 2013:

A thought-provoking historical story, yet a sad one! Juanita was really a brave woman and boldly faced the drastic consequences. Well-done!

Thanks for SHARING. Interesting. Voted up & shared on Facebook

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 15, 2012:

I think the town came to be somewhat ashamed of its reputation of being the only town to lynch a woman in California. Apparently it was quite commonplace to lynch men, so no big deal.

Dexter Yarbrough from United States on July 13, 2012:

Some story, Sherry. I hope Juanita came back and haunted those who did her wrong. :-)

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 12, 2012:

Well he should have know because apparently, if the story about what happened in the gambling hall is true, she had already pulled a knife on him once before. It seems Jock was one dumb white guy.

Carl on July 12, 2012:

Jock should have known she had a knife. All Mexicans do.

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 11, 2012:

From the sound of it, it must have been pretty challenging to find 12 sober men in town that day.

perrya on July 11, 2012:

No women? that explains it!

Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on July 11, 2012:

I would expect the jury to be white, but the only information I could find on the jury was the assertion that they were "A jury of twelve sober, candid, intelligent, and honest men."

perrya on July 11, 2012:

Any info about the composition of the jury? all white? mixed? Probably had some racial bias, what else is new?