The Hanging of Juanita: The Only Woman to Be Lynched in California
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.
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.
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© 2012 Sherry Hewins