Echoes From The Past: The origins of Truckee’s "601"
It was an unusually warm August night in Truckee.A dog barked frantically as the mob of 40 masked men marched rapidly down Church Street. Most of the men wore long black dusters. Others wore coats that had been turned inside out. Shotguns and rifle barrels gleamed in the bright moonlight. One big fellow carried a pick handle while another carried a double-bladed ax.They passed the Methodist Church and proceeded west as residents peeked from behind curtains but nobody opened their door. Their pace accelerated as they turned the corner onto Bridge Street and headed toward Commercial Row. At the rear of the Sherritt House, six members went up the alley and entered the rear door of McDougald’s Saloon. Another contingent rounded the corner to the front door, moved into the establishment and ordered all bystanders to move away.The startled young man, sitting alone at the bar, fell completely out of his chair as he was approached from two sides by five large men, their eyes flashing from behind their black masks. The night before the man was said to have boasted that he was not afraid of the 601. He had beaten a woman cruelly, chasing her around with a drawn pistol and making things generally lively along Jibboom Street. It was reported that he had openly boasted that no set of men would run him out of town.Before he could utter a word, one of the men placed his large hand over the young man’s mouth and while the others held him, he was disarmed and hurried out of the saloon. He was quickly walked across the plaza and up the road, to a place about three-quarters of a mile west of town, where another group of men stood waiting next to a bonfire behind a group of large boulders. Over the fire was a pot of boiling coal tar.The man pleaded to no avail as he was dragged toward the fire and stripped down to his long-johns. His hands were tied behind him and a gag tied over his mouth. His muffled screams could still be heard as two men began pouring ladles of hot tar onto his head and over his body. Another man stood ready with a bag of white pillow feathers.The man was then taken back to town and put on the 11 p.m. train where he had the entire passenger car to himself. Although he didn’t seem to enjoy his ride, he felt lucky that he hadn’t been hanged.When he arrived a newspaper reporter observed that “the tar had been freely applied and the skin on his breast and legs was almost literally peeled off, caused by rubbing off the black stuff.” The feathered man gathered his bags that had been placed on the train and headed over the bridge to Yolo. He never again returned to Truckee.This scenario was typical of many similar incidents that were attributed the vigilante organization that thrived in Truckee through the 19th century, as they did in scores of frontier towns. They often functioned to fill a law enforcement vacuum or breakdown but more often they were in conflict with constables and the courts.The word “vigilante” is a Spanish word meaning a watchman or guard. The first “Committee of Vigilance” in California was described in a manuscript called “Vigilantes de Los Angeles, 1836.” These “committees” did not hold their “trials” in open court. They did not consider motions for change of venue and witnesses for the defendants did not appear. They often resorted to hanging since there was no way of enforcing a long-term imprisonment.During the 1850s, a series of incendiary fires in San Francisco led to the formation of a volunteer night patrol known as a “Committee of safety.” This group grew into a larger vigilance committee which collected arms to form a 2,500 man military unit. In 1856, this organization seized two men from the jail and hanged them in public. These actions were highly publicized and inspired other towns to form their own local vigilance committees.The term “601” originated in Virginia City in 1869 when a mob, presumably numbering 601, broke into the jail to seize a man who had killed a popular townsman. The prisoner was led away and hanged him from an old hoisting from an abandoned mine shaft. The vigilantes became famous for announcing their hangings by the ringing of a fire bell, a ritual that closely followed their San Francisco predecessors. The execution was usually followed by the shooting of a cannon on the outskirts of town.According to Thompson & West’s “History of Nevada County, California,” Truckee’s “601” was formed during the years 1873 and 1874. However, there is some evidence that Truckee’s earliest vigilante activity took place in 1871 following a disastrous fire which razed most of the town. It was determined that the fire had been set by the wife of a bartender of a Front Street saloon during a domestic quarrel. After not heeding the first warning to leave town, she woke up the next morning to see red silk ribbons fluttering from what remained of the buildings in town. The woman left on the next train out of town, never to be heard from again. The placement of red ribbons and posted signs on doors became the unique signature of Truckee’s “601.”(To be continued Oct. 18)”Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at email@example.com.
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