Vengeance after midnight
It doesn’t happen often, but in August 1895, the town of Yreka suddenly became the focal point of nearly every newspaper in Oregon, California, and all the way across the country to New York and Massachusetts.
Even as late as 1935, Eagle Point merchant Royal Brown remembered the night he stood on the fringe of a crowd to watch a mob of at least 200 men lynch four prisoners in Yreka’s Courthouse Square.
It was just past 1 a.m., Aug. 26, when Deputy County Jailer Henry Braulacht woke up to hear voices outside the jail’s front door. Opening the door to investigate, a Winchester rifle was pushed into his face.
“Give us the keys!” demanded the man holding the rifle. Henry didn’t have time to answer as the man noticed the keys on Henry’s belt and ripped them away. He ordered Henry to stand in the corner and not make trouble.
Within a moment, another two dozen armed men burst through the door, some carrying rifles, others with sledge hammers, clubs, and other tools. Four cells were opened and prisoners ordered to get dressed, “and be quick about it.”
“I told you,” said a man in a still locked cell. His name was Red, and he laughed as he reminded the prisoners that just a few hours earlier, he had told them, “There’s going to be a hanging tonight.”
Each of the four prisoners had already been charged with murder and had been waiting for either a trial or an official hanging.
William Null killed his mining partner the previous April. Lawrence Johnson viciously killed his wife in July. Luis Moreno and Garland Stemler had only been arrested a few days earlier for killing two men during a robbery.
Many residents had been complaining that getting proper and quick punishment for murderers was taking too long. The avenging spirit had been fermenting for a very long time.
“This was the climax of a series of murders and other crimes in Siskiyou County,” Royal Brown said.
Not yet 19 years old, young Stemler begged for mercy and asked the men to tell his mother, “I am innocent of the charge.”
Null was frenzied, incoherent, and wanted to talk, but the men told him to “Shut up!” Johnson and Moreno were obviously shaken, but they said nothing.
The lynching was well planned. A couple of men woke Marshal Park and told him there was a fight in one of the mining camps and he was needed there. When he arrived, he heard hollering, but was unable to find anything. After a half-hour he returned to town. It was too late.
Sheriff Hobbs had given orders that in case of an attempt at lynching, to ring the fire bell and alert the town’s residents. When someone tried to ring that bell, they found its ropes had been pulled high up into a tree and tied off.
As the prisoners were pulled at a run to Courthouse Park, a large crowd was beginning to form, and some protests were shouted out. William Plymale, born in Central Point to some of Jackson County’s earliest pioneers, was just beginning his newspaper career in Yreka. He too was told to “halt!” in his tracks by the barrel of another Winchester.
More Winchester rifles held the crowd in check, while an iron rail, taken from near the railroad tracks, was placed 10 feet high across two locust trees.
In less than 20 minutes from the time Henry Braulacht surrendered his keys, the lynching was over, and the avenging vigilantes had ridden out of town.
There were gunshot celebrations all over the area. Pieces of the hangman’s ropes were cut in pieces and sold as souvenirs. A county grand jury was empaneled to investigate and bring charges. James Budd, the newly elected governor of California, offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of each person who took part in the Yreka lynching, and $500 for any other person participating in any of the other lynchings surging throughout the state.
“This is wrong, and good government demands it must be stopped,” wrote one Oregon editor.
A noble thought, of course; however, none of the vigilante mob was caught. Vengeance after midnight had won the night and the day.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.