Born in Indiana in 1827, John Pitcher came to California during the Gold Rush. He earned his informal, legal education while living and working in the shanty-town atmosphere of the Yuba mines. There was no sense of permanence here–and in this harsh environment where few women ventured– “popular justice” (think of HBO’s “Deadwood” series)–was meted out by the miners themselves.
There were no courts or judges as we know them today. Most of the time the system of “popular justice” worked, Pitcher later explained.
“Laws have loopholes,” he said. “Justice has none. Tell a man he must do right or pay the price and he’ll do right.”
But John Pitcher also learned that “popular justice” harbored a dark side. On one occasion Pitcher defended a “foreigner” accused of stealing gold which was held communally. The man was convicted although no evidence had been presented to prove that he was indeed the thief.
“A jury composted of miners,” Pitcher recalled, “sentenced the frightened man to hang. They strung him up and kept him up there encouraging the poor man to confess…Finally they cut him down and he was more dead than alive.”
The convicted man was ordered to leave at once and Pitcher said he followed his former client to the outskirts of the mining camp to make certain he was okay. Several weeks later the same men who had been the man’s jurors discovered the missing gold–and when they sent someone to search for him all “they found was his skeleton.”
…To Be Continued…