“Hang ‘em High” – Sudden Death in Old Contra Costa

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wanted_poster_webDuring most of the 19th century, it was the responsibility of the Contra Costa sheriff to carry out court ordered executions. Without television or Monday night football, public hangings were looked upon as a great excuse for the largely rural population of Contra Costa to gather in Martinez for a pleasant social outing.

Eventually tastes changed as civilization swept California and the state prisons became the legal execution sites (much to the relief of our local sheriffs). The last local hanging was held in Napa in 1897. It has always been the proud boast of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department that no prisoner in their custody was ever seized and subjected to mob justice. Very few California counties can make that claim.

Particularly in the 1850’s, the law was weak and vigilante justice was common in California. Between 1849 and 1853 there were 200 cases of lynching. During the next four years the number decreased to 100 as courts and jails were gradually established. With the lack of jails, punishments (both legal and illegal) included hanging, whipping, ear-cropping, head shaving, branding and banishment.

During the first eight months of 1855 there were 370 homicides in California. The murder rate was estimated at 185 per 100,000 compared to today’s rate of 6.8 per 100,000 (1997). In this climate of lawlessness, there were 38 hangings in 1855. Newspapers recorded 36 lynchings and only 2 legal hangings. In a time of weak law enforcement, venal courts and corrupt politicians, most murderers went unpunished.

In Contra Costa the first recorded legal execution was the hanging of Jose Antonio, a Native American, who stabbed to death Aparicio Morales on May 29, 1852. Justice was pretty swift in those days. Of course it had to be since the local jail in Martinez was notorious for its swinging door policy when it came to the retention of evil doers.

Convicted in July, Antonio was hanged on August 20, 1852. The county seat, Martinez, was the site of his public hanging. By our standards nothing too formal was prepared for the entertainment of the locals on that far away afternoon. The sheriff simply selected a suitable limb of a nearby sycamore tree. A barrel on an old cart completed the informal gallows. Once the rope was adjusted, the cart was driven off and the poor [man] was left kicking his way into eternity.

The last court ordered execution in Martinez occurred on January 23, 1874. This was a much more formal affair than the first legal execution over 20 years before. However official incompetence turned the affair into a major PR disaster.

The prisoner had helped kill the husband of his lover. Standing on the gallows he loudly proclaimed his innocence. Once he dropped through the gallow gates, an improperly strung rope popped his head off, completely decapitating the unfortunate soul. Particularly horrifying to the crowd was the way the head rolled around on the ground following the sudden drop.

In fact the whole episode seemed a trifle unfair since it was the bloodthirsty wife who actually wielded the large and very sharp ax on her apparently disagreeable hubby. She was sent to the insane asylum in Stockton. Her ultimate fate is unknown.

John Marsh and his eastern Contra Costa neighbors were so plagued by cattle rustlers and horse thieves that they formed their own rough and ready justice system. During the late 1840’s and early 1850’s the law was far away in Martinez. Here in the dangerous frontier at the edge of the unsettled San Joaquin Valley, those caught stealing by the ranchers were given a taste of sudden justice by “judge rope” or shot on the spot.

Eventually the hard riding, fast shooting James Kirker and his band of fearsome renegade Delaware Indians were hired to defend the ranchos. The swarms of squatters and rustlers were only mildly deterred. As one was eliminated, others moved in to take his place.

Frontier justice administered by the rope is hinted at by the names of features or places found in Contra Costa County. Identification of at least two hangman’s trees in Contra Costa are a distant echo of this violent past. The “Hangman’s Tree” was famous in the Canyon area as a site where cattle thieves were strung up. It is believed that the tree was located near the old Canyon schoolhouse.

The other famous hangman’s tree is on Pleasant Hill Road in Pleasant Hill. Here is currently a large oak tree reputed to be over 200 years old. The story goes that a [Native American] was hung from this tree for horse stealing in the 1800’s. During the Mexican period horse stealing raids were an extremely common crime by Indian bands attacking coastal California from their Sierra and San Joaquin strongholds. Most of the stolen horses were sold to New Mexican horse traders for guns, powder, shot and other supplies. During the pursuit of stolen stock, several major battles were fought between Mexicans and Indian raiders on the northern flanks of Mount Diablo. No quarter was given or asked.

Murderous (aka Murderer’s) Creek is also located in Pleasant Hill. Murderous Creek was named when the surveyors found a victim hanging from a tree near the stream. Today the creek has practically disappeared but can be found below the hillside near Pleasant Hill Road and Withers Avenue.

Kellogg Creek is in eastern Contra Costa County near Byron. Kellogg Creek is a tributary of the Sacramento River and runs through the Point of Timbers and Byron area. Farmers straightened the stream and changed the water course after 1870. Once known as Arroyo de la Poso, the creek was renamed for a man who achieved his 15 minutes of fame by being hanged on the bank of the stream. The records are silent on his supposed crime.

This kind of frontier justice in old Contra Costa was not recorded or discussed in polite company. The events were only mentioned in whispers with one eye out for informers. It was when the lynching was prevented that local newspapers recorded the event.

One of the most famous case of a thwarted lynching occurred in Martinez. Tice Valley was named after Andrew J. and James M. Tice, owners of the Tice Ranch (also known as Rancho El Sobrante de San Ramon). In 1855 Contra Costa County was still plagued by robberies and rustling. James Lane and Milton Davy were being held in the Martinez jail for cattle rustling. Andrew Tice was suspected of hiding cattle stolen by Lane and Davy.

Two hundred armed men gathered in Martinez to prevent the rumored rescue of Lane and Davy by their hard riding, outlaw friends from the San Joaquin Valley. The Martinez mob now demanded that Andrew Tice also be tried and convicted by judge rope. In order to prevent bloodshed, a few leading citizens made the reasonable suggestion that instead of immediately stringing up Andrew Tice, Andrew should be held by the vigilantes while the facts were checked.

After a careful search, no stolen cattle were found on the Tice ranch. Andrew Tice was released. Now sensing the opportunity for big money, Andrew sued the mob’s leaders for $100,000 claiming false imprisonment. After a long and rancorous trial in San Francisco, the unimpressed jury awarded Andrew Tice $1.00 for his discomfort and violation of his civil rights.


This article was reprinted with permission from the Contra Costa County Historical Society. They are committed to protecting the County’s future by preserving the documents and relics of the County’s past. For more information, visit their website at www.cocohistory.org.

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  1. Christine Callahan says:

    My father was born in Martinez in 1915, as was his mother and grandfather before him. We are decedents of Elam Brown, the captain of a wagon train to California in 1846.

    My father would occasionally make a remark about the public hangings in Martinez. Though the last hanging was 41 years before he was born, it must have been a topic of conversation among the older generations in the family when my father was a boy. He spoke of the crowds that would come from all around to witness the spectacle of men hanged for horse thieving. Though the subject matter could be more pleasant, it’s interesting to read an actual account of what I had known only as an oral history and family lore.