Tonight, as this Sierra County hamlet in Northern California celebrates Halloween, a spotlight will shine eerily on the only gallows on public display that was actually used in a California hanging.
Glowing in the yellow light will be a noose formed with 13 wraps of a rope dangling from a cross beam, a sprung trap door, and the 13 steps leading to the platform of the gallows.
“It’s a piece of history, a slice of the Old West. Everybody has heard about a gallows but few have ever seen one,” said Lee Adams, 32, the youngest sheriff in the state.
It was here that convicted murderer James O’Neal, 20, met his death, Nov. 27, 1885. His name is spelled in historic documents in various ways--O’Neal, O’Neil, O’Neill. A newspaper of the day describing his execution carried the headline:
“He Didn’t Seem To Care. James O’Neal Faces Death With a Cigarette In His Mouth And Indifference In His Heart.”
The story told how O’Neal “mounted the gallows cool and unconcerned with a firm step. He bid goodby to spectators he recognized. He took his hat from his head and flung it into the crowd.
“Sheriff Samuel C. Stewart pulled the lever. The body shot downward six feet. The neck was broken by the fall.”
Dispute Over Pay
O’Neal was executed for killing his employer, John Woodward, a dairy farmer, with a pistol shot to his head in a dispute over $8 owed in wages.
The gallows, used only for the one hanging, stands next to the Sierra County sheriff’s headquarters in the courthouse in the center of Downieville, population 350. Sierra is the second least populated county in the state, with 3,200 residents.
It was two weeks ago that the restored gallows was officially dedicated as a California Registered Historical Landmark “as a reminder of California’s colorful criminal justice past.”
Sheriff Adams spearheaded the drive to restore the gallows, which was falling apart, and to have it set aside as a historical landmark.
The state Department of Parks and Recreation granted Sierra County $17,000 for the restoration project, the county provided an additional $1,000 and individuals donated $805.
In addition to repairing and replacing some of the timbers, steps and platform boards on the 103-year-old gallows, a bench for rest and meditation was placed next to the structure, a retaining wall was built, and a display was mounted for documents pertaining to the hanging.
“The gallows was disassembled and placed in storage in the attic of the old 1854 courthouse after the hanging of O’Neal,” said Sheriff Adams. “In 1927, Sheriff George Bynon re-erected the gallows as a public display on the courthouse square.
“Three years later Bynon’s successor, Sheriff Charles Winstead, dismantled the gallows, claiming he didn’t think it was conducive to happy thoughts. In 1933, the next sheriff, Dewey Johnson, put the gallows back up again next to the courthouse.”
The gallows was in bad shape, barely holding together and weathered and worn, when Adams generated interest in seeking a grant for the restoration.
“We have no fear of anyone getting on the platform--roped off from access--and accidentally hanging himself. The noose is engineered to fall free from the cross beam from as little as five pounds of weight,” explains the sheriff. “And the trap door is locked in an open position.”