Lawrence H. Johnson was a Scottish emigrant who worked hard at various jobs around Etna, a mining town west of Yreka. His work often took him away from home overnight, leaving his wife alone. The fifty-nine year old Johnson had a feeling that his wife was unfaithful while he was away, so on the night of July 28, 1895, Johnson kissed his wife goodbye and then hid out near his home to see if his worst fears were true. They were.
Johnson saw a young man enter his home. After waiting a short time, Johnson entered his home and found his wife with her young lover in bed. Johnson pulled out his revolver and started firing at the young man, who jumped out the window. The only thing that saved the young Romeo is that Johnson’s gun misfired all three times he pulled the trigger.
Feeling remorse for the death of his wife, Johnson turned himself in to the Sheriff I. A. Moxley of Etna. Johnson’s only regret was that his pistol misfired. Sheriff Moxley took Johnson to Yreka for the murderer’s safety, as the people of Etna were in a lynching mood and Johnson was just the latest in a line of murderers to try the patience of the community.
Garland Stemler was on summer break from his studies at a Southern California college. The nineteen-year-old Arkansas native was looking for adventure during his time off, so he rode the rails traveling throughout the state like a hobo. Through his travels, he met up with forty-year-old Louis Moreno.
Moreno was no college boy slumming the rails for a summer adventure. He was a full-time criminal hobo, ready to break the law to suit his immediate needs. On August 19th, the mismatched pair was short on money, so they entered Sears Saloon in Bailey Hill, fifteen miles north of Yreka with the intentions of robbing it.
Saloon owner George Sears and his elderly German bartender, Casper Meierhaus, had no intentions of letting the hooligans make off with the day’s receipts. A fight transpired that surprised the younger men. In the ensuing fight, Sears was shot in the head and died before he hit the floor. Meierhaus was shot in the stomach, but lived long enough to give a full description of the assailants.
The hobos spilt up and ran in different directions. Moreno was quickly captured, as he was the only Mexican running around Bailey Hill with a bullet wound in his hand. Stemler was arrested in the Pokegama railyard. He had a recently fired pistol in his possession that matched the shell casings left at the saloon. Stemler also had the bad luck of having made acquaintances with Meierhaus in the past. Meierhaus identified Stemler by name.
Ohio-born William Null was one of the thousands who came to California to try their hand at finding gold. The forty-five year old Null shot his partner, Henry Hayten, in the back on April 21st over a dispute about their claim near Callahan. He pleaded insanity and was cooling out in the Siskiyou County Jail, awaiting trial for the murder on August 25th.
The citizens of Siskiyou County and Yreka were enraged that their community suddenly found four murderers in their county jail. Disgusted at the fact that their tax money was being used to feed and house the murderers while the wheels of justice slowly turned, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
The men of the county started leaving their jobs early on August 25th. Their employers wondered why everyone was suddenly feeling ill, and wives around the county looked in vain for their husbands who left their farm chores undone. The men hid out in the forest around Yreka, staging themselves as set out in the timetable that was organized beforehand. A jug of rotgut whiskey was passed around to instill courage in the normally upright and sober family men.
The men captured anyone who discovered them and didn’t know the password, which was “mud.” The captured men had the choice to either join them or be a hostage held under armed guard. By nine in the evening, two hundred and fifty men drifted into the outskirts of Yreka without being noticed. One squad of men went to a blacksmith shop and acquired the necessary equipment for a lynching, rope and sledgehammers. They also procured a stash of dynamite. What their plans were for the explosives is unknown. Another squad went to the railroad yard and lugged off a rail.
A squad went to the fire station and tied the bell ropes too high to be reached without a ladder, so nobody would be able to raise an alarm. Other squads swept the streets of Yreka for any unfortunates who were out walking and were either pressed into joining the lynch mob or taken prisoner.
The masked men woke Deputy Sheriff Radford at his courthouse office and demanded the keys to the jail. Deputy Radford told the mob that he would blow the brains out of anyone who came through the door. The mob knew that Radford meant what he said. The mob left a squad of men to keep Radford at bay and searched for a new way into the jail.
The younger men among the mob climbed over the stone wall that enclosed the jail yard, waking up the night guard, Deputy Henry Brautlacht. Brautlacht thought that some prisoners were escaping and stepped out of the jail, where he was promptly captured and disarmed by a squad of masked men. They took his keys and unlocked the cellblock. Not having access to the keys for the cells, the mob used sledgehammers to break the locks on the murderer’s cells.
Around eleven in the evening, some men pounded on City Marshal Erskine Parks’s door, telling him that there was a huge fight down on Miner Street. The Marshal left his home in his nightshirt and ran down to Miner Street, where some men informed him that the fight had moved over to Main Street. When Marshal Parks arrived at Main Street and found not a soul in sight, he realized that he had fallen hook, line and sinker for a diversion. Out of breath, Marshal Parks ran for the fire bell to raise the alarm, only to find the ropes beyond his reach. Parks ran to the jail, firing his pistol into the air, only to find the jail overrun by the lynch mob. He was outnumbered and powerless to stop the lynching.
By one in the morning of August 26, 1895, the jail cell doors were smashed open and a mysterious middle-aged man wearing a long duster and a white mask appeared. He calmly ordered the mob to start their business.
Gesturing for wife killer, Lawrence Johnson, to go first, the mob dragged the pleading man to the railroad rail that had been tucked between the limbs of two locust trees. A noose was put around his neck and he was yanked up into the air in mid-sentence.
Next, the captain of the mob went to Null’s cell. Null tried to make a statement before he was executed. His statement was cut short by the rope.
Moreno walked silently to the makeshift gallows. He showed no signs of fear and made no sounds as he joined Null and Johnson on the rail.
There was some talk between the Captain and the other leaders of the mob on whether or not young Garland Stemler should join the others. It was decided that he was just as bad as the others and, because of his advanced education, should have known better. Stemler was so frightened he could hardly speak. He asked the mob to remove his boots because he promised his mother that he would die with his boots off. He also said, “Tell my brother to tell my mother that I am innocent.”
Stemler joined Johnson, Moreno and Null in the locust trees, hanging like some kind of sick Christmas tree ornaments. Witnesses said that the executions were all botched. The ropes stretched and the men twisted as they strangled to death.
The mob left as quickly and quietly as they appeared. Marshal Parks and Coroner Scofield cut the bodies down. Around the neck of Lawrence Johnson was a note that read:
“Caution – let this be a warning and it is hoped that all cold-blooded murderers in this county will suffer likewise.
Tax Paying Citizens.
P.S. Officers, ask no questions, be wise and keep mum.”
No one was ever prosecuted for the lynching and not a single person was ever identified as a member of the lynch mob. Legend has it that the two locust trees in which the men were hung died a little more than a year after the lynchings. They supposedly withered away as if they were strangled.