These images of crime, revenge, and drug dens show why California was often called part of the "Wild West." With few actual law officers or courts to enforce the law, many people took it upon themselves to impose their own varying ideas of justice.
The Gold Rush era was marked by lawlessness: duels, murders in broad daylight, public hangings, jail breakouts, and vigilantism were everyday occurrences. The images in this group are a vivid record of those times. Included here are photographs of convicted murderers like James Egan, who was sent to San Quentin for 35 years for killing a man in a saloon brawl; and John "Chicken" Devine, who beat a man to death with a rock. A newspaper article reports that former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California David. S. Terry killed US Senator David C. Broderick in a duel, and a half-page drawing depicts the crime. Men weren't the only criminals: pickpockets Jennie Hastings and Dolly Mickey are also represented here.
Law officers were in short supply, and laws were not uniformly enforced. Some men — such as those in the photograph "Sharpshooters of the Vigilante Committee" — took the law into their own hands, enforcing "justice" as they saw fit. They posted public notices like the "Warning!" sign, which threatens hanging as retribution for "pilfering, robbing, stealing, or any act of lawless violence." Several images portray individuals "rescued from the authorities" and hanged — before being tried or even given a hearing for the crimes of which they were accused.
Drugs were also part of Gold Rush communities. As several images show, people sometimes smoked opium in underground opium dens. And, as one photograph makes clear, opium smoking crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Eventually, law-abiding citizens grew weary of the uncontrolled murder and mayhem in their rapidly growing communities. As the Gold Rush era drew to an end, people felt that existing legal and judicial institutions had to be strengthened.
The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:
Murder and Mayhem in the Gold Rush Era curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.