San Francisco History


A Record of Legal Executions in California.

The First Two Official Hangings in San Francisco.


A Record of Legal Executions in California,

And of the Convictions For Homicide in San Francisco since California was Admitted Into the Union.

“Hanging is played out.” Such was the expression of a prisoner in the Tombs in New York several years ago when allusion was made in his presence that he would probably swing from the gallows for having murdered a fellow being. In view of the many murders committed in this city, particularly of late years, and the few legal executions that have followed the unlawful taking of human life, the New York prisoner’s remark, “Hanging is played out,” will apply to San Francisco. How many homicides have been committed in this city since California was admitted into the Union in 1850 it is impossible to ascertain, as the records thereof are incomplete, but it is known that during the past decade they have averaged twenty-five a year. The following carefully prepared record, collated from official records, will show the number of legal executions and the number of convictions for homocide of various grades in San Francisco since the State became one of the Union.


The executions under authority of law were as follows: The first was the hanging of Jose Forrni on the 10th of December, 1852, for the murder of Jose Attari, on the 18th of September of the same year. He was hanged on the western slopes of Russian Hill in the presence of a large concourse of people.

The next was William B. Shippard, who was hanged at the Presidio, on the 28th of July, 1854, in the presence of at least 10,000 persons. His crime was having stabbed to death Henry C. Day, on the 5th of April of that year. These two were the only public executions that ever took place in this city in obedience to an order of a Court of Justice.

On the 2d of May, 1856, Nicholas Graham was hanged in the yard of the County Jail on Broadway, for having on the 18th of January of that year stabbed Joseph Brooks to death.

On the 10th of December, 1858, Henry F. N. Meuse alias Charles Douse, was hanged for the murder of Peter Becker, on the 4th of June preceding.

June 10, 1859, William Morris alias “Tipperary Bill,” was hanged for the murder of Richard H. Doak, on the 19th of November, 1858.

September 31, 1860, James Whitford was hanged for having shot and killed Edward Sheridan on the 1st of February, 1860.

Albert Lee, a mulatto, was hanged on the 1st of March, 1861, for having killed Madelaine Delphine Aggie Pullier Lee, his wife, on the 3d of July, 1859. After having killed her he attempted suicide.

John C. Clarkson killed Caroline F. Park by cutting her throat with a razor, on the 1st of December, 1860. He was hanged for this crime on the 12th of June, 1864.

Barney Olwell was hanged on the 22d of January, 1866, for having on the 13th of January, 1865, shot and killed James Irwin.

On the 22d of April, 1866, Antonio Sassovich was hanged for the murder of Edward Walter on the 3d of June, 1865.

September 6, 1866, Thomas Byrnes was hanged for having, in February, 1865, killed Charles P. Hill.

On the 6th of July, 1865, the first Chinaman paid the penalty for murder. This was Chu Wong, for the murder of his mistress, 15 March, 1865.

May 14, 1878, John Devine, alias “The Chicken,” was hanged for the murder of James Crotty.

Ah Sue, alias Chin Mook Sow, was hanged on the 4th of May, 1877, for having killed one of his countrymen.

The last one that has taken place was the hanging of John Runk on the 26th of April, 1878, for the murder of Police Officer Coots.

This makes in all sixteen legal executions that have taken place. One more would have been added to the list, but the night before the day set for execution the prisoner committed suicide. This prisoner was George W. Colmere, who strangled Bridget Colmere, his wife, to death in April, 1862. He killed himself February 5, 1864.


Besides these, there were eight executions by the Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856—four by each. Those executed were John Jenkins, hanged June 11, 1851; James Stuart, hanged July 11, 1851; Robert McKinsey, alias McKenzie, and Samuel Whittaker, hanged August 24, 1851.

Charles Cora, for the murder of General Richardson, and James P. Casey, for the murder of James King of Wm., were hanged May 22, 1856. Philander Brace, for the murder of Jos. B. West, and Joseph Hetherington, for the murder of Dr. Andrew Randall and Dr. Baldwin, were hanged July 29, 1856.

. . . [omitted is a section listing those who were found guilty of taking a life and sent to prison from 1851 to 1882.]

Source: San Francisco Morning Call. 31 March 1882. 3.

The First Two Official Hangings in San Francisco.

The first hanging authorized by law in San Francisco took place December 10, 1852. There had, during the previous lawless three years, been many cases of murder, but the plea of self-defense generally captured juries made up of pretty sympathetic elements, and it was not until October 19, 1852, that the first sentence of death was pronounced. A previous conviction had been had—that of Richard Hall, charged with poisoning an Indian—but before Alcalde Geary passed sentence an appeal was taken, and the case was eventually dismissed on nol pros.

The crime which inaugurated public executions was of a very commonplace character. A Spaniard named Jose Forin struck down an unknown Mexican in Pleasant Valley, stabbing him with a dagger, for as he claimed, attempting to rob him. The case was tried before Judge Lake, with H. H. Byrne, District Attorney, as prosecuting counsel, and Judge H. S. Brown and Colonel James for the defense; and after a very prompt trial, Forin was sentenced to be hanged two months later.

The execution took place on Russian Hill, much to the indignation of the cemetery wherein, among others, rested the bones of Don Vicente Nunez. It was the oldest burying-place for the city. That did not deter some three thousand people from attending, parents taking children to see the unusual sight, and women on foot and in carriages forcing their way to the front.

Between 12 and 1 o’clock the condemned man was taken to the scaffold in a wagon drawn by four black horses, escorted by the California Guard. The Marion Rifles under Captain Schaeffer kept the crowd back from the scaffold. The man died game, after a pathetic little farewell speech, in which he said:

“The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco. World, farewell!”

A black cap was used on the occasion; and a hatchet employed to cut the rope. His body was turned over to Coroner N. Gray.

The second execution took place Friday, July 28, 1854, and the incidents leading to it were of a more romantic character, apart from the circumstantial nature of the testimony upon which the sufferer was convicted.

An adventurer named William B. Shepard, after a life on the Coast typical of the vicissitudes of early days, was employed by a man named Henry C. Day to take charge of his ranch in Contra Costa county. Day had been a policeman under Marshal Fallon, but then kept a liquor store and barding-house on the corner of Clark and Davis streets. Davis wife and a daughter, named Almira, about 15 years of age, lived on the ranch, and in a measure he confided their care to Shepard.

“I first met Day in Stockton,” says Shepard in his defense. “When he engaged me he introduced me to his family as his most particular friend. I soon got on very good terms with them and we lived happily together.

“In the course of time I felt a desire to court Almira, a very interesting girl, and try to get her for a wife. The more I thought of it the happier I felt, and I soon conceived that I loved her and was loved in turn.

“I told her one day how I felt toward her. She laughed and ran away, but soon came back and I renewed the subject. She seemed disposed to listen. I asked her if, in case I got her father’s and mother’s consent she would become my wife. She answered me that she would when she got a little older.

“One day her mother and I took a walk and I told Almira I was going to ask her mother for her, and asked if I should tell her all. She replied, ‘Yes, William, tell mother that we love each other.’ I did so, and Mrs. Day said she was pleased. I asked her about her father. She said she would insure me his consent, for she had told him one day she thought Almira and I were courting, whereupon he laughed and said it was all right.”

Subsequently, however, the father seems to have objected to the marriage until the girl was 18. John Vandewater, Almira’s uncle, appears to have set Day against Shepard, by repeating some gossip about the girl and her lover, and one night asked the father to take a walk with him on the dock, which then ran along side.

Shortly after a scream was heard, Officer Edward I. Allen rushed to the dock, and met Day running, with a deep stab in the abdomen. He cried: ‘Shepard has stabbed me,’ and before he died, a few minutes later, said it was because he had refused his daughter to Shepard.

The violent wooer was found behind a pile of boxes, and repelled the accusation, declaring that an unknown man had knocked him down, and then struck Day, insinuating that it was a former lodger who was avenging upon Day an accusation the landlord had made against him of robbery.

Shepard was tried before Judges Freeling and Richardson of the old Court of Sessions, but an Act of the Legislature, taking effect during the trial, vitiated the whole proceedings, and a second trial was had in the District Court before Judge Lake, prisoner’s counsel being Colonel R. S. Whet, with District Attorney Byrne as a prosecutor. Both trials resulted in a verdict of guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged on July 28, 1854, the murder taking place on the preceding April 5th.

The scaffold was erected in a valley forming a sort of amphitheater, a few hundred yards from the Presidio. It was eighteen feet high, with a fall of eight feet, and was worked by a bolt and a pulley. The procession set out from the jail on Broadway, up Pacific street, and along what was then known as the plank road. The Light Dragoon Guards, under Captain Rowell, escorted the prisoner, who was seated in a carriage with Judge Barnett, then keeper of the County Jail, and City Marshall North.

At the ground the National Lancers formed a square about the gibbet, and the City Guards kept order among the mob of 10,000 that had gathered. Rev. Mr. Ingoldsby accompanied the condemned man, who never faltered. Mounting the scaffold he turned to the multitude and said:

“I have been tried and convicted of the murder of my friend, Henry C. Day. All I have to ask of you now is your prayers. I am innocent. As I expect forgiveness from God, which I truly expect and know I have. I am innocent.”

A white cap had replaced the black cap previously used, and was being placed on his head, when he exclaimed:

“Where’s Creighton?”

Creighton went up to him and received a written account of the crime, maintaining his original story. Sheriff Gorham then read the death warrant and the trap fell.

Coroner Whaling took charge of the body, which was buried in the Mission Dolores.

The newspapers of that day denounced the practice of public executions, but at the same time declared that a swift and certain infliction of criminal punishment for murder was the only way to clear San Francisco from the foul and bloody stain that rested upon the city.

Source: San Francisco Daily Examiner. 2 October 1887. 15.


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