The two hangings of Danforth Hartson
Danforth Hartson was surprisingly calm as he stood with a rope around his neck on the gallows trap door.
Over 3,000 silent residents of Yreka and the surrounding area had come to see Hartson hang for the murder of John Burke.
Hartson was a 27-year-old hellraiser drawn to Northern California by the mid-1850s gold strikes in Siskiyou County.
He claimed he ran away from home at 16 to sail the seas, and that’s how he got the nickname “Sailor Jim.” In 1849, he gave up sailing to seek gold in California — a move he would regret seven years later.
“I learned to drink soon after I came to this country,” he said. “My whole California life has been a most wretched and reckless one.”
Late in December 1856, while staggering along the small creek in Canal Gulch, three miles north of Yreka, Hartson and John Burke collided.
The next morning, they found Burke shot and lying on the ground with a bloody bullet hole in his chest. He was still alive and would linger until the end of March, when he made a statement charging Hartson with his impending death. Burke knew he was dying, and the Yreka newspaper said he “entertained no hope of recovery. He is aware of his condition, and has made a declaration, which will be important evidence in the trial of Sailor Jim.”
Hartson was arrested, yet continued to maintain he had shot Burke in self-defense. In a seven-day trial, the jury found Hartson guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to hang.
The night before his July 15, 1856, hanging, Hartson spoke to the pastor of the Yreka Methodist Episcopal Church. He confessed that he had shot Burke and that he also had murdered two Indians in cold blood within the past year.
In a final letter to his mother, he confessed his shame.
“In a state of intoxication I killed a man by the name of Burke. I have confessed my crimes and have tried to prepare to meet my God. Had I followed your kind instructions, dear mother, I would not have been here. I bid you a last farewell.”
The next afternoon, surrounded by the armed members of the Siskiyou Hook and Ladder Co., Hartson marched to his execution. After hymns and prayers, Sheriff Samuel Fair read the death warrant, and allowed Hartson to say, “Goodbye, everybody. I am going.”
The trap door opened, his body fell, but something was wrong with the knot. The rope slipped off his neck and he fell to the ground, dazed for a moment. “Am I dead and in eternity?” he asked.
Twenty-eight minutes later the rope was ready. Hartson looked at the sheriff and pleaded, “For God’s sake, don’t do that again.” Moments later, his body was swinging at the end of the rope. Five minutes after that, they pronounced him dead.
“The awakening from what Danforth Hartson no doubt imagined was death,” said the Yreka reporter, “to a realization that he must go through that torture again, must have been terrible for him.
“It was an unfortunate and unpleasant accident that might have occurred with anyone. We are pleased that the community looks upon it in that light.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com or WilliamMMiller.com.