One of the first sketches I did on my Highway 49 road trip was of the Mariposa County Courthouse. This stunning courthouse is the oldest seat of justice in California. The courthouse was completed in 1854 and has been in use ever since. In fact when I visited the courthouse on Tuesday, I went up to the courtroom chambers above the entrance and they were conducting jury selection for an upcoming trial. I was relieved at this time that I was not a resident of Mariposa County!
Many famous legal battles regarding miner’s rights and claims were fought in this very courtroom and here it was, still in use!
Solving disagreements in a court of law was a new thing in the wild west of the Gold Rush days. It was was more common in miner’s camps for disputes and crimes to be solved by miner’s “rough” justice. And sometimes on the branch of a oak tree in Hangtown, which now bears the name Placerville. The Hanging Tree is now long gone but further north on 49, 30 monies from Nevada City, I saw Downieville’s version of their hanging tree.
Downieville has the dubious distinction of lynching the only woman in the State of California and it is in Downievillie that it is the only place in California that they have their gallows on display.
The gallows was last used on November 27, 1885 when 20 year old James O’Neill was hung to death for the August 7, 1884 murder of his employer John Woodward. This execution was the last legal execution in Sierra County and it was they only time the gallows was used. At the time the gallows was constructed it was only set up temporarily for it’s sole purpose and then it was disassembled and placed in the courthouse attic for storage. In 1891, local executions ended, being moved to San Quentin and Folsom prisons and in 1941 the state banned hanging as a means of execution in favor of San Quentin’s gas chamber. Isn’t history great?!