"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Old West Trials Were Liquid Affairs

by Don Baumgart

As law and order replaced the fast draw as the ultimate method of justice in the Gold Rush mining towns, John Barleycorn was often a participant in courtroom proceedings.

In Nevada City two church factions were in court fighting over possession of the church building. A journal of the day reported that one lawyer was “excessively inebriated” and the other attorneys were “not far behind.”

Whiskey no doubt precipitated this exchange between the presiding judge and one tipsy attorney who slammed a book down on the table behind which the judge sat.

“Do not pound my table, Mr. Dunn,” the judge warned.

“May it please your honor,” Dunn replied, “I will pound your table.” He again slammed his book down. Who won the case? The outcome is not recorded, but the local bartender probably came out of it at a profit.

A drunken row at a railroad camp resulted in the death of one John Hennessy. John Brannan and Mary Gallagher were arrested for the crime, but subsequently acquitted by a local court. A month after his release Brannan and two other men burst into a cabin a few miles above the town of Cisco to rob the cabin’s five Chinese residents. The desperadoes were offered $50 to leave, but they demanded everything. The indignant Chinese set upon them with shovels, killing one robber and badly wounding the others. Brannan was turned over to authorities. At the following trial he was not as lucky as before, and was sent to jail.

Mining claim disputes filled the courts of the early West and one of the most colorful took place in Brown’s Saloon at Rough and Ready. It was agreed early on that all liquor imbibed by the members of the court during trial would be considered court costs.

The Nevada City Nugget reported that when it was time for the defendant’s main witness to testify “...it appeared obvious that his staggeringly drunken condition would probably prevent his testifying within a week’s time.”

After a supposedly sobering recess the jury returned to court thoroughly snockered. The judge refused to call another recess, prompting some members of the jury to tell one attorney to “dry up!” Sunrise found the jury members scattered around town in various stages of drunkenness with no agreement on a verdict.

Costs of the trial were $1,400, of which $1,200 was for liquor at Brown’s bar.

Mark Twin’s description of a jury at a trial he covered as a Nevada newspaperman says a lot about justice in the silver mining territory.

“A jury of twelve men was impaneled – a jury who swore they had neither heard, read, talked about nor expressed an opinion concerning a murder which the very cattle in corrals, the Indians in the sage brush and the stones in the streets were cognizant of! It was a jury composed of two desperadoes, two low beer-house politicians, three bar-keepers, two ranchmen who could not read, and three dull, stupid human donkeys!”

So, let’s lift one to the days when “order in the court” often meant, “order another round!”

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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