Monday, July 8, 2013

First Recorded Hanging Of A Woman In California History

Yesterday I read an article online regarding a very atrocious event that took place recently in Brazil. From what I read, during a soccer game (or football as they call it) a fight between a referee and a player ensued after an argument. For whatever reasons, the referee pulled out a knife and stabbed the player. The player was removed from the field and taken to the hospital where he died in transport.

It gets worse! Meanwhile, as the player was being transported to the hospital, friends, family and spectators watching the game came down to the field, attacked the referee, stoned him to death, quartered his body, severed his head and placed it on a pole of some sort and stuck it in the middle of the field.

As I read this, my stomach began to feel ill. We are human beings with a brain and the capability to know right from wrong, and yet so many times when in a fit of rage people can so easily resort to being no different than wild animals. It sickens me to no end. Well, as I was doing some research on another story that I am working on, I stumbled upon the story of the very first recorded lynching and murder of a female in California history. The small mining town of Downieville, is the backdrop for this story I am about to tell you. First off, let me tell you a little bit about the history of the town before we begin.

Downieville, CA-

Downieville was established in 1849 during the Gold Rush days of California, but had been earlier known as "The Forks" due to its geographical location between the North Fork of the Yuba River and the "Downie" River as they named it. The town took on the name "Downieville" after Major William Downie, who led the expedition up to the town and became the first mayor there.  During it's peak (which was around 1851) Downieville had about 5,000 residents. At one point Downieville had even applied to be the State Capitol, although Benicia won that vote and later on Sacramento came to be the permanent Capitol of the State.


The Lynching of Josefa (or Juanita)
Downieville Map (http://www.fohbc.org)

So, I have been doing research on this story, and I am going to tell you the various versions of the story I have discovered. Then I am going to let you decide what you think really happened and if you think this lynching was a heinous act or quite possibly justified after all.

In the book "Days of 49" by Gordon Young, he mentions this incident and quotes Popular Tribunals, Volume I, page 557 and Royce's California, page 368, when he states that on July 5, 1851 the young Mexican girl, he calls "Juanita" was "put on a pavilion in the center of the town and twelve men responded eagerly to the call for a jury." It states that  she was put on trial for the murder of a man known as "Joe Cannon," a respected miner who, while drunk, broke into the her house and Josefa stabbed him.

It goes on to state that a "humane physician," Dr. Cyrus D. Aiken,  took the stand and testified that the girl was in no condition to be hanged. Of course he was booted out of town. Another witness, a Mr. Thayer of Nevada allegedly attempted to make a speech on her behalf and he was also kicked (literally) out of town. Some claimed she said "Adios Senores" just before they hung her. Before dying she did remark that if given the chance she would not hesitate to do it again.

I started looking around and finding other websites and  recent books by authors that offer their take on "Juanita's" story. I also searched as many archived newspaper articles and recorded documentation that would shed light on this story further.

As far as the majority of all stories goes, all claim that Cannon, (whose name is recorded as Joe and also as Frederick Alexander Augustus Cannon, aka "Jock"), was a miner in the town. Archived records show him as being either Scottish, English or some even mention him being Australian. He was over 6'4 and nearly 240 lbs.  The 1850 Census reports a J.H. Cannon of Ohio, living in Yuba County, (which Downieville was a part of at that time prior to becoming part of Sierra County in April of 1852). It is quite possible his name was actually Joe Cannon as the earlier recorded documents stated from the beginning. He was described as a "cheerful, easy-going giant" of a man.

The woman in the story who is often referred to as Juanita, is also written as being called Josefa. She was stated to stand at barely 5 feet tall with a petite frame. Many records state that people in the town didn't think too highly of her, although all records state her as being beautiful or pretty. Almost every account mentions her being hot-tempered and easily angered.

Some recent books mention Juanita (or Josefa) as being the wife of Jose, although no newspapers I have located as of yet, from that time show her as being his wife at all. Townspeople of Downieville claimed she only lived with a man named Jose. Both she and Jose worked at the Craycrofts Saloon in town.

I find it quite interesting that in so many recently written books, the authors portray Juanita (or Josefa) as this innocent woman who was just defending herself from a vicious miner who attacked her. That seems a bit one sided if you ask me. The townspeople regarded Juanita as a very hot-tempered and ill-mannered woman, who worked in the Saloon. Some spoke of her as a bar maid or dancer while other miner's accounts were that she was a prostitute. Some people try to claim Cannon was racist and hated Mexicans and Chinese, however his friends claimed he was a happy guy who was always singing and laughing. He even sang songs in Chinese and even prior to him being stabbed, the townsfolk heard him trying to speak Spanish to Jose. Someone who hates a certain race more than likely isn't going to be willing to speak (or sing) the language of the people he hates, now would he? Think about that for a second. I am sure he was not an angel and perhaps after being screamed at by Josefa it had got on his last nerve and maybe that was why he started saying disrespectful things to Josefa.

He Called Her a "Whore"

Now you have to stop and also think about this for a minute, to call a woman a whore back then was not the same as calling a woman a whore nowadays. Prostitution was a very popular profession back then, especially in areas like that.   Let's face it, back then a woman couldn't move out to a rowdy area, surrounded by rugged, tough men and expect that life was going to be romance and roses, especially if that same woman was employed in that mining town at the local Saloon.

The Gold Rush mining towns of that time period were not often a place for self respecting women. In fact, women were scarce in those types of places. Yes, occasionally a wife came out west but it was mostly the wives of store owners who came to work with their husbands to run a family business but that was rare. Most women of that time kept towards the bigger cities and communities and not so much in the "one-horse towns."  During that time period, most of the women in those towns were saloon girls or prostitutes. That is a fact.  It was a known fact Josefa worked in the local Saloon in town, Craycrofts Gambling Palace, not a place for a self respecting lady. Do you think the men of that mining town in 1851 even knew about or gave a damn what was "politically correct" back then? I truly doubt it.


Who Was Josefa?

Why don't we know Josefa's surname? One genealogy site I found said her name was Josefa Segovia, although the 1850 Census doesn't show her name in the database at all.  As far as her boyfriend, some stories say Jose was a gambler, while others specify that he was a professional Monte Card Dealer. Whatever the profession or hobby of gambling, he was Josefa's boyfriend.

Historian, Rodolfo F. Acuña claimed to have established her name to actually be Juana Loaiza, and that it was documented in the 1877 Schedule of Mexican Claims against the United States when Jose Maria Loaiza filed a suit against the U.S. requesting damages for “the lynching of his wife and the banishment of himself by a mob.” Jose Loaiza's claim for damages was denied.

What I find interesting is the fact that the 1850 Census does not show any listing for Jose or Josefa Loaiza, Juana Loaiza or Josefa Segovia in Yuba County or any part of California at all. Also, it is quite possible Jose claimed Josefa was his wife for legal purposes in order to file the lawsuit from Mexico. Perhaps they were married, but to date I have found no documented record establishing them as being man and wife while in California.

How It All Started

One of the many accounts I found claims that the beginning of the trouble between Josefa and Cannon started when Cannon allegedly disrespected Josefa at Jack Craycroft's Gambling Palace. That was when Cannon, being overly giddy from drinking attempted to touch Josefa's shoulder while she was in the saloon at a card table. According to reports, in anger Josefa lifted her skirt up to pull a knife from her garter belt and threatened Cannon, and that was the start of their animosity. Did this actually happen? Well, if it did, it certainly makes you think twice about Josefa's temper now doesn't it?

Another account states that Cannon had made sexual advances at Josefa in the past and she refused. That in anger for being turned down before, he came to her home in the night, broke in and in fear of her life she stabbed him, making his death justified. But that isn't how it happened.


What Really Happened vs What People Claim

According to reports, the story was that Cannon, Charley Getzler and another man named Lawson were enjoying the festivities of the first actual Fourth of July Celebration well into the early morning hours of July 5th. They were singing and laughing and walking down the streets making fools of themselves, in a drunken stupor. As newspaper reports stated the men were "drunk and jovial."

As they strolled (or stumbled) through town, they began knocking on various doors of homes on the street, obnoxiously loud and unruly, when they came upon Josefa's door. Cannon leaned on it and the leather hinges holding the door up broke. This caused Cannon and the door to literally fall down inside the house. Cannon found his drunk self on the ground laughing. His friends helped him get up, picked up the door and tried to put it back on and then continued on down the street with his friends. Other witness accounts confirm this story. Even by Josefa's own account, the men left and Cannon did not attack her.

Later that day Josefa forced Jose to confront Cannon to ask about being reimbursed for the broken door.  It was then that Josefa became involved in the conversation between Jose and Cannon.
Now, ask yourself this question, if Josefa was really being physically threatened or attacked by Cannon during this time as she later claimed, why didn't Jose defend her honor and stand up to Cannon? Probably because she wasn't being physically attacked at all. More than likely Cannon may have said rude things to her, maybe he even did call her a "whore" as many accounts claim, but did that mean he deserved being stabbed to death? I think not.

Yes, Cannon probably wasn't an angel by any means, but in no account do I find evidence of  him coming into the home to rape her, nor did I find any evidence of him physically assaulting her either. According to witness accounts, Jose approached Cannon to speak about the door that he had broken the night prior. Cannon had gone to purchase medicine, (more than likely for a hangover from partying the night before), from the doctor who lived literally next door to Jose and Josefa. That was when Jose confronted Cannon. Some accounts say Cannon offered an apology and even shook hands with Jose, while Josefa was still angry and literally got in between the two men to yell at Cannon herself.

Some other accounts claim Cannon apologized but offered no reimbursement for the door. One book I found claimed that he laughed at the absurdity of even being asked since the door would have fallen if anyone "coughed" near it (meaning their home was dilapidated to begin with). Other stories say that Cannon argued with Jose about the door and that he didn't have time to be bothered with their request and was actually leaving when Josefa got in his face, but never did he threaten or strike anyone in the household.

It was when Josefa began yelling and getting in Cannon's face that Cannon told Jose to basically get control of his woman, (some accounts say he said "bitch" or "whore") and it was then that Josefa went and retrieved the knife from either a table or under her pillow on her bed and stabbed Cannon in the chest. I read a few accounts that said it pierced his heart, another that says it sheered through his clavicle and into his lung.  (note: if she did stab him in that manner, either way, she had to have lunged at him with her arm in the air and stabbed him with her arm moving from above in a downwards motion. That is not the norm for an act of self defense.)

Now remember this, she was a small, petite woman. She probably weighed no more than 100-120 lbs the most. Then you take Cannon, who was 6'4 and about 240 lbs. Newspapers claimed that the bowie knife had been used with such force that it must have taken a strong fit of rage for someone her size to really pound the knife that deep in his well built chest in order to kill him.  After the murder, she ran off for awhile until the people of the town found her hiding in Craycroft's Saloon and ordered that she be tried for the murder of Cannon.


"There was a stoical, almost a cynical calm in the manner she faced the situation, that added a touch of horror to the grisly performance."-  (the event mentioned in a 1909 Newspaper Archive.)

Newspapers over time, reported that during the trial that Josefa was seen smiling at the Judge and Jury, unaffected by the event that had just taken place, while some books (recently written) claim she was distraught, crying and emotional. People who were present at the trial claimed that she didn't seem remorseful of the act, and we will never truly know if she felt any sense of guilt at all. Josefa was about to finally face the last consequences of her actions. The make-shift trial was arranged within hours of the incident and a Jury was formed by 12 men of the town. Judge Rose appointed William Spear as prosecutor, while for Josefa's defense, Attorney's Pickett and Brocklebank were called.

Two witnesses came forward in Josefa's defense besides Dr. Aiken who as I stated above, claimed Josefa was pregnant in order to stall her execution. (Although three other doctors were called to verify her pregnancy who upon examining Josefa, claimed there were no such signs of pregnancy).

Josefa claimed that because a boy had told her some "men" in the town wanted to break into her house and sleep with her, out of fear she defended herself from Cannon. That was her justification for stabbing Cannon in broad daylight in front of her boyfriend and Cannon's friend. By her own admission she stated that she stabbed him after telling him he had no right to call her bad names.

"I told the deceased that was no place to call me bad names, come in and call me so and as he was coming in I stabbed him."-

Another witness said they heard Cannon say a foul word in Spanish but they had no idea if it was meant for Jose or Josefa just before the stabbing. Mr. McMurray heard Cannon call Josefa a "whore," while other reports claim McMurray admitted to seeing Josefa attack Cannon with the bowie knife in a fit of rage.

No matter how you slice it, all accounts point to the fact that Josefa committed murder. Even if Cannon was going to step one foot in her door and call her a bad name doesn't mean he intended to hurt her physically. There is no way for us to know.  In nearly every account I have found it shows that Cannon was either already inside the house or in the doorway to begin with.  No matter what the case, Josefa had to have walked up to him because she walked away to get the knife and walked back up to Cannon in order to stab him in his chest.

I didn't see any evidence of Jose claiming that Cannon attempted to physically assault either him or Josefa. No matter what names or awful things Cannon may have said or not said to Josefa, she had no right whatsoever stabbing him to death, period.  Now if he had physically hit her or attempted to rape or assault her I would say that she would have had every right to defend herself. But, sorry folks, evidence is lacking in her favor here.

And remember, she wasn't alone there at the house. Her boyfriend Jose was there, and he was the one who initially started the conversation with Cannon. If Cannon was being so dangerous and abusive to Josefa then why didn't Jose step in and defend her? Why hadn't there been a physical altercation between the two men prior to the stabbing?

Most people aren't even aware that Josefa had reportedly stabbed and injured two men prior to this incident and that may have been the 'straw that broke the camels back' when it came to the town's view on her. Well, the story didn't end well. As you can imagine, Josefa was found guilty of murder and ordered to be hanged until dead. Jose was found innocent but ordered to leave town. From the many witnesses who watched the trial and her hanging, all said that she calmly and without trepidation, accepted her fate and willingly took her sentence when the time came.  All accounts state that Josefa admitted that if she had to do it over again, she would if provoked.

Let's analyze that statement shall we? The definition of the word "provoke" means to :
 Downieville Hanging (Milwaukee Sentinel 1939)
  1. Stimulate or give rise to (a reaction or emotion, typically a strong or unwelcome one) in someone.
  2. Stimulate or incite (someone) to do or feel something, esp. by arousing anger in them.
Now by her own admission, Cannon "provoked" her. When you are acting in self defense you aren't provoked, you are the victim who acts in "defense." The fact she said that Cannon provoked her, proves that he pissed her off to the point she acted out. To date there are no records of her saying he raped her, assaulted her, nothing. But almost all reports mention that he "insulted her."  Her ego was bruised because he may have used some foul language about her, calling her a "whore" or whatever words he may have used...but her bruised ego and fiery temper was what more than likely made her walk over and pick up that knife and stab him with such force into his chest.


The townspeople were quoted saying that "woman or no woman, someone is hanging" for what happened to Cannon.  Prior to her hanging, she objected to her arms being tied to her body but willingly put the cover over her eyes and adjusted the rope around her neck. She asked to be given a proper burial as a final request, and then she was hung on the Jersey Bridge.

The Blame Game

Many people have screamed "racism" because she was Hispanic, or the fact she was a woman, and that it wasn't fair what happened to her. You have to step back from all that for a minute and think about that logically.

  • So does it mean it's okay for anyone non-white to commit a crime? 

No. A crime is a crime, whether you are Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native-American, Middle Eastern, etc.  When you start looking at things by color things get messed up.

Let's pretend that Josefa wasn't a woman for a minute, let's pretend she wasn't even Hispanic either. Let's say she was a white male.

  •  Do you think that in a different scenario the outcome would have been the same?

You can bet your bottom dollar that whoever it was would have been strung up for walking up to Cannon and stabbing him in the chest, too. I can tell you based on the research and stories I have written about history, that men have been strung up for less things than that, including the attempted stealing of another mans horse or even cattle.

When we get down to brass tacks here the fact of the matter is murder is murder. Stabbing a man during an argument when there haven't been any blows thrown by either side is not justified.  The fact she was a woman and Hispanic has no relevance. It has only wrongfully made Josefa as an innocent martyr based on the classic idea that all whites were racist and that she was only hanged for the color of her skin. No, that is not why, it was because she murdered someone. Let us not forget the crime committed.

  • Do you really think Josefa had a right to stab a man who called her a whore but did not physically attack her? 
  • Do you really think that her life was truly in danger, when even her own boyfriend did not get in a physical altercation with Cannon?


When looking into history, one should look at the story from all sides before making a judgment call. When I first looked into this story I believed that this was more than likely a story of an innocent woman being wrongfully hanged and it bothered me. I wanted to tell her story, but I wanted to tell the truth- no matter what "truth" it was that I found. The more I researched the more my gut started telling me that she was probably not the innocent woman that people have made her out to be.

You see, the job of a historian is not to tell history in order to fit into a certain agenda. When you start doing that you ruin history and re-write it. No one can ever say there have never been any women criminals in history. No one can sit here and say that there have never been any Hispanic murderers in history. Just like we cannot say that there has never been any White murderers in history or male criminals for that matter. It's just not possible. Josefa was hanged for a crime she committed, but so many want to blame it on racism or chauvinism when that is illogical thinking.  Just because Josefa was a woman who happened to be Hispanic didn't mean she didn't commit a crime. She did, and the evidence proves it.

Even years later the townspeople of Downieville still wrote the newspapers and tried to explain that her death was justified based on what she did to Cannon.  Yes, there have been many accounts of innocent people being killed or hanged based on their race and not by facts, I agree. But that doesn't mean everytime someone was strung up and killed that they were innocent either. Again, common sense has to come into play here. Why not look at the facts in this story too?

Just like that story I mentioned in the beginning about the man in Brazil who was stoned to death and his head severed and placed on a pole, I mentioned it to remind you that the world is brutal. History proves that it has always been brutal, from all races. Josefa stabbed a man over an argument. She killed him without a second thought. Now that is brutal, too. One may imagine the lynching of her as being inhumane, but remember back then anyone who was caught even stealing horses were hanged back then, no matter who you were. That was the "Wild West" and that was justice back then.

Just think, all these 162 years Cannon has been made out to be the "bad guy" while Josefa was put on the pedestal as the innocent lady hanged. What if he wasn't the bad guy at all? How do we know for a fact that Josefa was the innocent one?

If that is the case, that means Cannon's memory has been tarnished all these years because the story wasn't told correctly. And that my friends, is not okay.  Look at the evidence, look at the facts. You have to think about all of the information before making your judgment. There are always two sides to every story.

J'aime Rubio (Copyright 2013)


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