The discovery of gold in California 150 years ago in 1848 generated the greatest volunteer human migration in history, but the population explosion occurred in a virtual vacuum with few established government or legal institutions to keep things under control. A significant percentage of the scores of thousands who rushed into this chaos were down-and-out convicts and thugs, petty thieves, drug and alcohol addicts, as well as murderers and other violent criminals. Lawlessness, a sketchy justice system and unreliable police enforcement during the second half of the 19th Century spawned a home-grown vigilante culture that sprouted in communities across the West.
Leading businessmen and California residents of San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, and Nevada residents of Reno and Virginia City all formed vigilante movements that advocated lynching or shooting suspected violent criminals without benefit of a legitimate court trial. Towns and territories west of the Rocky Mountains organized Vigilance Committees that often took the name 601, meaning 6 feet under, zero trial, one bullet or one rope. Supporters considered the intimidation and violence a purifying process that benefitted their town.
Some of these extrajudicial actions were quite effective and focused strictly on violent criminals, such as the hangings in San Francisco in 1851 and 1856 for example. But racism later became a dominant factor in many of these reprehensible activities, particularly against Mexican nationals and Chinese immigrants. The rough-and-tumble town of Truckee had its share of street crime due to its location along the transcontinental railroad line. Train tickets cost money and weren’t cheap, but many transients and toughs on the run easily managed to ride the rails without paying. At times, Truckee was literally overrun by vicious gangs.
In an 1874 column commenting on the town’s serious crime problem, the Truckee Republican newspaper stated: “Truckee seems to have a periodical inundation of lawless, desperate men, who set at defiance the constituted authorities and outrage decency. It will be remembered that last year a number of dangerous characters infested the place until finally society was relieved of their presence by the violent deaths of two gang members.”
The newspaper pointed out several factors that put Truckee at a disadvantage for solving its high crime rate. For one, the mountain hamlet was located 75 miles from the county seat and main jail in Nevada City, a gold-rush town without easy access and it was expensive to transport prisoners there. County supervisors refused to allocate sufficient resources to Truckee’s constable for the trip down and back while escorting a prisoner. County taxpayers also balked at paying the expense of jailing miscreants for misdeeds that occurred in Truckee. Another obstacle was that gangs frequently numbered 10 or more and if one or two of their members were arrested, the others were only too happy to perjure themselves in court to provide alibis for their cohorts. So, the judge or jury was forced to release the lawbreakers.
Truckee’s first Safety Committee sprang into action in 1871 after the wife of a bartender working at a Front Street Saloon started a fire downtown that destroyed many buildings. She and her husband had had a domestic quarrel and in her blind rage she wiped out much of the business district. A unique signature of Truckee’s 601 was its practice of hanging red silk ribbons around town as the final chance for bad actors to vamoose. The fire alarm bell was then rung as enforcement operations were about to commence. Two days after the fire, red silk ribbons dangled from nearby trees and on structures still standing. The woman quickly came to her senses and quietly boarded the next train out of town.
Those who failed to heed threats from the 601 were beaten and sometimes tarred and feathered near Hooligan Rock (located in the Gateway Shopping Center on Donner Pass Road). Any victim who survived Truckee’s extrajudicial enforcement effort was ultimately railroaded out after being dealt his or her punishment. In one instance, a defiant undesirable, known as a longtime pimp and ne’er-do-well from Truckee’s notorious red-light district on Jibboom Street had been arrested for aggressively panhandling train passengers during the stop in Truckee. Earlier that day, the young, clean-shaven man had passed a hat to collect money for a female missionary preaching on Front Street but kept the cash for himself instead.
At 10 o’clock that night 20 armed and masked vigilantes barged into the Truckee jail seeking their prey. The prisoner was liberated and marched 6 miles up Donner Pass Road, where he was roughed up and tarred and feathered. Following that he was put aboard the 2:30 a.m. westbound train to Colfax and warned to never return to Truckee again.
Supporters considered the 601’s policy of intimidation and violence a purifying process that benefitted their community and, in some cases, they were right. The Truckee Republican admitted that despite the “romantic fiction” that the 601 was working alongside legal law enforcement, due to their harsh punishment, “He will probably not inflict his presence upon Truckee again and it is a good warning to others of his ilk to keep away from our town.”
Tarring and feathering was frequently used in America’s frontier mob violence, employed to simultaneously humiliate and torture a victim. A bucket of coal tar was heated over a blazing fire and then poured or applied to the victim’s head and body, followed by a liberal dose of poultry feathers that stuck to the tar. It was an extremely painful experience, often accompanied by a beating, yet the removal of tar afterwards was even worse.
Most of Truckee’s townspeople and businessmen initially backed the unauthorized policing provided by the 601, but the vigilantes still kept their identities secret to protect themselves from local law enforcement or revenge by friends and acquaintances of those beaten or killed. The public emergence of Truckee’s vigilance movement occurred in late 1874 in an approving editorial published on Nov. 17 in the Truckee Republican: “There are reports that a Committee of Safety, styled the “601,” has been organized in Truckee to look after the welfare of the town. Two notorious characters claim to have received a notice of “leave of absence” today from some high and mysterious source. If such a notification has been given, it means action and business on the part of our citizens. There is no doubt but that such a warning will be heeded by those notified and it will have a purifying, salutary influence.”
Stay tuned for Part IV in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.