Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The murder of B.R.C. Johnson -Calaveras County History

Several years ago, as I was searching through archived records for one of my blogs, I stumbled across another story. This story was about the murder of a man known as Mr. Johnson.  I was so taken aback by the brutality of this crime, and the details behind the killing that I saved all the information I could find on it and set it aside so I could put all my attention on investigating it thoroughly in the future. Well, time passed by, and after working on other stories and projects, including publishing two new books in the last two years, I finally decided to dig through my files and cover Mr. Johnson's story so that he will no longer be forgotten from the annals of history.

B.R.C. Johnson, also known as Baptistine Roche Charles Johnson was born around 1821. It is unknown when he arrived in Calaveras County, but what is known is that he was the proprietor of his store/saloon along the Calaveras River somewhere between Valley Springs and San Andreas. I have been able to pinpoint a closer idea of where the store was located, since it is mentioned that it was west of Greasertown, and Greasertown was 4 miles west of San Andreas. I am thinking that his store was probably closer to Double Springs, but I have not been able to tie down an exact spot.

The Crime

On September 27, 1866, 45-year-old  B.R.C. Johnson was brutally murdered inside his store. Just after dusk, three men (one Mexican male- Jesus Miranda; one African-American male- John B. Ferguson; and one Chinese male- Ah Ching) entered his store acting like normal patrons. They ordered drinks at the bar and all seemed okay. Then during a short conversation with Mr. Johnson, Jesus Miranda suddenly drew his pistol and shot Johnson at point blank range.  In all Johnson was shot three times and then, as if that wasn't enough, the Chinese assailant took an axe and used it to penetrate Johnson's skull. There was not much taken from the store, only $30 and a few guns. Johnson's clerk survived out of pure luck when Ah Ching's revolver got jammed, giving the clerk ample time to run away.  By the time he had alerted someone for help, the murderers were long gone.

(Drawing is purely for example; Credit: Book: The Old West-The Gunfighters)

The Arrest

After the murder was committed, Miranda and Ferguson headed up to West Point to meet up with someone named Manuel Manoa. Ah Ching had parted ways with the two men at San Andreas and was never seen or heard from again.  After getting paid, Miranda eventually left for Southern California, while Ferguson remained in West Point, where he was captured only a few days after the killing. For Miranda, it was almost a year later when Deputy Sheriff Lee Matthews apprehended him in Los Angeles and brought him back up to Mokelumne Hill to stand trial.  In February of 1868, both men were convicted of the murder of Johnson and sentenced, by the Hon. S.W. Brockway of the District Court, to be hanged until dead on February 28, 1868.

The Great Escape

On a dark and stormy night in Mokelumne Hill, Ferguson and Miranda along with another African-American prisoner named Brian Fallon, who was in jail for the murder of Mr. McKisson at Rich Gulch, made their escape under the cover of darkness. The three prisoners successfully cut their way out of their cells from the ceiling which was composed of boards without covering. The men managed to break free from their shackles, pile buckets on top of one another along with an old chair and Ferguson reached the ceiling and cut his way out with a sharp pointed instrument  which the newspapers assumed was a three-cornered file.

While he was cutting away, the other inmates were singing, clanking chains, dancing and making noise to distract the jailer from hearing Ferguson breaking the boards apart.  Joe Douglass, who worked at the jail in the front room was totally unaware of what was going on in the back. When Douglass finally took a break to get dinner, the prisoners escaped.  At one point it looked as though the men might have contemplated committing another murder, as they would have had to climb over a partition into the front room where Douglass worked, and had he returned during the escape, he might have been attacked from above. But since there was a ventilation system, the inmates decided to crawl out of the building through there, and jumped to the ground. They eventually climbed their way over the jail-yard fencing area and ran down the hill to the river.

A witness saw the men running in the dark and alerted Douglass, who had returned from dinner. Sheriff James Oliphant and Deputies Matthews, Bates and Colton took off on the hunt for the three men but the weather was so bad, they had to return early and wait until the storm cleared in the morning to continue the manhunt.  Ferguson made it all the way to Clinton in Amador County before he was captured, and Miranda was caught shortly thereafter.

The Motive

Records I found via indicate that B.R.C. Johnson married Cisira Nandino on January 8, 1863 in Calaveras County.  According to information obtained by Maureen Elliot, she states that Mr. Johnson's wife deserted him around 1866, and would not allow him to see their daughter, Victorina A. Johnson, whom the couple had parented during their short  marriage.

As it turned out although she had left Mr. Johnson, his estranged wife still had plans for her husband, and the dying confession of John B. Ferguson let the cat out of the bag.  The web of deception grew larger and larger when the facts were revealed that although Miranda had conspired with Ferguson and Ah Ching at Garry's Saloon to commit a murder, Miranda had been propositioned earlier by someone representing Mrs. Johnson herself. It appears all fingers inevitably pointed to Cisira Nandino Johnson, as the one who wanted the dastardly deed done. 

John B. Ferguson, 20 years old and from Beardstown, Illinois, had been residing in Calaveras County with his parents for several  years prior to his involvement in Johnson's  murder. When he gave his full confession, he requested Reverend Cassidy and Walsh to visit him and asked forgiveness of his sins prior to his execution.

"On the Saturday prior to the murder of Johnson, I  met Jesus Miranda on China Street, in San Andreas, near Garry's Saloon. (Corner of Main and St. Charles Streets). He asked me if I would go with him and a Chinaman on Sunday evening to Johnson's store. I asked him why he wanted me to go and he answered, "to kill Johnson.." I told him I would go with him, but would not help kill Johnson. He said there is money in it and Manuel Manoa, Mrs. Johnson and a Mexican, who peddled fruit for Manoa, would pay him $500 or $600 to kill Johnson and he knew Johnson had in his store $800 or $1000, which we could get. I then consented to go with him.

On Sunday about noon, I met Miranda at the same place as before and told him I would not go with him on Sunday, but would go on Monday.  On Monday, a little after noon, I met Miranda at his cabin, back of China Street, in San Andreas; he put on his knife and pistol and we started for Johnson's store. I had no weapon with me. On the hill near Latimer's store, we met the Chinaman, who was armed with a revolver. We traveled together through Greasertown. We sat down on the road for some time, and I refused to go any further with him, but after a good deal of persuasion I consented to go along. We arrived at Johnsons's store just at dusk. He was standing on the porch in front of the store. We went in and Miranda asked us up to the bar to take a drink. We drank together and sat down. Miranda entered into conversation with Johnson, but I do not know what they were talking about. Shortly Miranda asked us up to drink again. About that time Johnson's clerk, Sturgnickle, who had been present since our arrival, left the store and went to the back room or kitchen.

While Johnson was in the act of passing the bottle of liquor on the bar, Miranda shot him. I then ran out of the door toward the barn. Miranda called to me to come back. Johnson was not dead when I got back, and was lying behind the counter, where he fell when first shot. Miranda then shot him twice more, and then cut his throat with his knife, and the Chinaman struck him on the head with an axe or hatchet. The understanding was that the Chinaman was to kill Sturgnickle, the clerk, and the reason he did not kill him when he come into the store from the kitchen, when the pistol was discharged by Miranda, was because his pistol would not go off. I then ran out to the corral, near the house; Miranda came after me and gave me Johnson's shotgun, returned to the store and brought me a revolver, after which he went back to the store, and with the Chinaman, search it for money and other valuables. The found only $30 in coin.

We then all went to San Andreas together. Miranda complained of the Chinaman for not killing Sturgnickle. Miranda and myself then started for West Point, leaving the Chinaman at San Andreas, and I have never seen him since; do not know where he is. Miranda told me he had made 3 or 4 efforts to kill Johnson within the month previous to the murder, but could not on account of the presence of too many persons at the store.The evidence as given by Sturgnickle, Johnson's clerk, in court was all true. I was the person he met as he came out of the kitchen, when the Chinaman was in pursuit of him. There was no agreement between Miranda and myself as to the amount I was to receive, but it was understood between us that I was to receive a part of the sum paid him.

After we arrived at West Point, Miranda met with Manoa's fruit peddler, who I think is a brother-in-law of Mrs. Johnson, and had a conversation with him, the purport of which I do not know, as I did not listen to it. I wish my parents, sisters and brother to be informed of the statement I have made and that my brother may take warning by  my fate and profit by it."--- Confession of John B. Ferguson.

The Outcome

On March 4, 1868, John B. Ferguson and Jesus Miranda were hanged on the old  hangman's tree in Mokelumne Hill, which was once located behind the courthouse (now behind the Hotel Leger). The first try for Ferguson failed when the rope was not properly adjusted and the knot slipped, causing him to fall to the ground. He then stated, "May God take care my soul," as he mounted the scaffold for the second time. At 12:45 the drop fell and Ferguson passed on. The newspapers seemed somewhat sympathetic to Ferguson probably because of his claim that he did not actually physically take part in the murder, but neither the County nor the press had any interest in Miranda's backstory. Besides the short mention that both men were hanged, there was not one detail about Miranda's execution either.

Although the newspapers indicate that Cisira was implicated, as well as Manuel Manoa and his "fruit peddler," I could not find any further record whether or not the authorities followed through to hold anyone else accountable for the crimes. In the end it was only Miranda and Ferguson who hanged for the murder, as Ah Ching was never apprehended.

This entire story bothered me to my core. From Miranda's complete disregard for a human beings life just for an easy payday, to Ah Ching's brutal over-kill by using an axe to finish off an already dead man. And don't let me get started on Johnson's estranged wife! She was another sick and twisted part of this story, and the fact she was able to manipulate men to do her dirty work just disgusted me. I see that Ferguson said he was repentant of his involvement but so many criminals say they are sorry after they are caught and facing serious consequences. Perhaps he was just a young man who got involved with the wrong people and made bad choices, but he knew the plan was to kill someone-- a perfect stranger, for money.  Unfortunately the punishment fit the crime for both Jesus Miranda and John Ferguson. I have often wondered about the other murderer, Ah Ching and how he conveniently disappeared. Did he take off and live his life free from the consequences of his actions, or did Miranda kill him too? Who knows really....perhaps a 50/50 cut between Miranda and Ferguson seemed like a better choice than cutting their money three ways. That is always a thought to ponder....remember there is no honor among thieves, so I wouldn't have put it past Miranda, and I doubt Ferguson would have been willing to admit another murder on his hands.

The whereabouts of Mr. Johnson's grave is unknown at the present time, but I am hoping maybe one day someone out there might have a missing piece of this story, so I can visit his grave and pay him my respects. He was the real victim in this story, a story that for far too long has been lost. 

Rest In Peace, Mr. Johnson -- You are not forgotten.

(Visit his Find-a-Grave memorial here.)

(J'aime Rubio - Copyright 2017,


Sacramento Daily Union, 3/2/1868
Daily Alta California, 1/27/1868, 9/15/1867
Sonoma Democrat, 2/1/1868
Stockton Daily Independent, 3/4/1868
Calaveras Chronicle 2/29/1868

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