The Fourth of July celebrations in Downieville were extra raucous in 1851. California had just gained statehood on Sept. 9, 1850, so the small mining town at the north fork of the Yuba River pulled out all the stops. What began with parades and a speech from the state’s first governor ended with the lynching of Josefa Segovia, the only hanging of a woman in California state history.
After a full day of guzzling mining camp swill, Joe Cannon and a few other drunks were out banging on doors around Downieville. Cannon— sometimes referred to as Fred or Jack— was well liked in the mining town, and was described as “a Scotchman of magnificent physical strength and herculean proportions.” At some point in the night, Cannon and his pals burst through the door of Josefa Segovia, a proud Mexican woman around 25-years-old who lived in her adobe home with her partner or common-law husband, Jose.
Even though Jose was out dealing monte at a local gambling house, Segovia managed to fend off Cannon and his gang before they could rape her. Cannon returned early in the morning. Some accounts say he wanted to apologize, but others say he came back to finish what he started. Either way, Segovia was having none of it. She pulled a Bowie knife out from under her blouse and drove the blade clear through his sternum bone, killing him instantly.
With many miners still celebrating out in the streets, the news of the stabbing went out almost instantly. Segovia took refuge a Craycroft’s gambling house. The gamblers who knew her tried to protect her, but the gold diggers threatened to tear down the saloon if they didn’t give her up. Segovia was soon dragged out into the street.
A show trial was held right there on the spot. A San Francisco lawyer offered a defense of the woman and stood on a barrel to be heard over the mob. “The crowd kicked the barrel from under him, threw him about and ordered him out of town,” William McDonald told the Oakland Tribune in 1922. McDonald – then 92 – was then the last surviving witness to the incident.
A doctor who examined Segovia told the crowd that she was three-months pregnant but the drunk miners didn’t care. “The doctor was given just two hours to get out of town,” McDonald recalled. “When the time was up, he was nowhere to be found.”
Segovia was sentenced to death by hanging. She had two hours to live while the townspeople built a scaffold on the Jersey Bridge over the Yuba River. When Segovia returned to be hung, “she did not exhibit the least fear,” according to the Daily Alta California.
After she climbed the steps of her gallows, Segovia handed her Panama hat to a large miner known as Oregon. When asked if she had anything to say, she said, “Nothing, but I would do the same thing again if so provoked.” She also asked that her remains be “decently taken care of.”
She then placed the rope around her own neck, and reportedly said, “Adiós Señores” before a pistol was fired to signal the men to cut the lashings. Segovia’s body dropped four feet, but McDonald recalled rumors that her neck didn’t snap from the fall.
“Her friends might have saved her had they taken her down immediately,” McDonald said.
The execution of Segovia without anything even close to due process was condemned almost immediately. The Daily Alta California called it “a blot upon the history of the State” on July 14, 1851. In more recent years, the killing has been placed within a wave of anti-Mexican violence during the Gold Rush. It is doubtful if Segovia would have been hung if she were white.
A plaque dedicated to Segovia’s memory near the bridge where she was hung refers to her only as Juanita even though records of the time give her full and real name. Adding further desecration, her skull was later stolen from her grave and used in initiation ceremonies by a Sierra City men’s club. Segovia’s ghost reportedly still haunts the southeast corner of the Jersey Bridge, beckoning to the living on foggy nights.