There have been five executions of women in California since 1851 and, in my opinion, only in this next case was the punishment undeserved.
The first woman to suffer the ultimate penalty was named Juanita — her surname is lost to history.
Gold miners could be a rough and tumble lot, but most of them were decent men chasing a dream. Sadly, Juanita encountered one who meant to do her harm. Juanita was living on her own in a cabin in the small town of Downieville in the Mother Lode country. On the night of July 4,1851, Juanita was awakened by the sound of someone breaking into her home. She only had a few moments in which to decide what to do — so she grabbed a knife and held her breath. The intruder was a man, an Americano, and he intended to rape Juanita. As soon the man had come close enough for Juanita to feel his breath on her, and his hands reach for her, she plunged the knife as far as it would go into his chest. He died on the spot.
Justice was as swift as it was unfair. Juanita was a Mexican and it was illegal for her to raise her hand against an Americano, no matter what the circumstances.
A hastily assembled group of citizens made up the jury and they found Juanita guilty as charged. She was escorted by the jurors, a group of miners and a crowd of curious loafers to a bridge on the outskirts of town. It was determined that the murderess should be hanged from one of the top girders.
One of the crowd assumed the duties of hangman and placed a noose around the doomed woman’s neck. The girl stood on a cross beam at least six feet above the floor of the bridge. She had preserved her honor at the cost of her life. She stared defiantly at her judge and jury. A man stood next to her ready to shove her off the beam.
With unimaginable dignity Juanita turned to her executioner — then she faced the audience. She was smiling.
“Adios, senores” she said, and hurled herself into eternity.
NEXT TIME: Another dead woman walking.