Roughing It by Mark Twain
These murder and jury statistics remind me of a certain very extraordinary trial and execution of twenty years ago; it is a scrap of history familiar to all old Californians, and worthy to be known by other peoples of the earth that love simple, straightforward justice unencumbered with nonsense. I would apologize for this digression but for the fact that the information I am about to offer is apology enough in itself. And since I digress constantly anyhow, perhaps it is as well to eschew apologies altogether and thus prevent their growing irksome.
Capt. Ned Blakely--that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous)--sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years. He was a stalwart, warm-hearted, eagle-eyed veteran, who had been a sailor nearly fifty years--a sailor from early boyhood. He was a rough, honest creature, full of pluck, and just as full of hard-headed simplicity, too. He hated trifling conventionalities--"business" was the word, with him. He had all a sailor's vindictiveness against the quips and quirks of the law, and steadfastly believed that the first and last aim and object of the law and lawyers was to defeat justice.
He sailed for the Chincha Islands in command of a guano ship. He had a fine crew, but his negro mate was his pet--on him he had for years lavished his admiration and esteem. It was Capt. Ned's first voyage to the Chinchas, but his fame had gone before him--the fame of being a man who would fight at the dropping of a handkerchief, when imposed upon, and would stand no nonsense. It was a fame well earned. Arrived in the islands, he found that the staple of conversation was the exploits of one Bill Noakes, a bully, the mate of a trading ship. This man had created a small reign of terror there. At nine o'clock at night, Capt. Ned, all alone, was pacing his deck in the starlight. A form ascended the side, and approached him. Capt. Ned said:
"Who goes there?"
"I'm Bill Noakes, the best man in the islands."
"What do you want aboard this ship?"
"I've heard of Capt. Ned Blakely, and one of us is a better man than 'tother--I'll know which, before I go ashore."
"You've come to the right shop--I'm your man. I'll learn you to come aboard this ship without an invite."
He seized Noakes, backed him against the mainmast, pounded his face to a pulp, and then threw him overboard.
Noakes was not convinced. He returned the next night, got the pulp renewed, and went overboard head first, as before.
He was satisfied.
A week after this, while Noakes was carousing with a sailor crowd on shore, at noonday, Capt. Ned's colored mate came along, and Noakes tried to pick a quarrel with him. The negro evaded the trap, and tried to get away. Noakes followed him up; the negro began to run; Noakes fired on him with a revolver and killed him. Half a dozen sea-captains witnessed the whole affair. Noakes retreated to the small after-cabin of his ship, with two other bullies, and gave out that death would be the portion of any man that intruded there. There was no attempt made to follow the villains; there was no disposition to do it, and indeed very little thought of such an enterprise. There were no courts and no officers; there was no government; the islands belonged to Peru, and Peru was far away; she had no official representative on the ground; and neither had any other nation.
However, Capt. Ned was not perplexing his head about such things. They concerned him not. He was boiling with rage and furious for justice. At nine o'clock at night he loaded a double-barreled gun with slugs, fished out a pair of handcuffs, got a ship's lantern, summoned his quartermaster, and went ashore. He said:
"Do you see that ship there at the dock?"
"It's the Venus."
"You--you know me."
"Very well, then. Take the lantern. Carry it just under your chin. I'll walk behind you and rest this gun-barrel on your shoulder, p'inting forward--so. Keep your lantern well up so's I can see things ahead of you good. I'm going to march in on Noakes--and take him--and jug the other chaps. If you flinch--well, you know me."
In this order they filed aboard softly, arrived at Noakes's den, the quartermaster pushed the door open, and the lantern revealed the three desperadoes sitting on the floor. Capt. Ned said:
"I'm Ned Blakely. I've got you under fire. Don't you move without orders--any of you. You two kneel down in the corner; faces to the wall --now. Bill Noakes, put these handcuffs on; now come up close. Quartermaster, fasten 'em. All right. Don't stir, sir. Quartermaster, put the key in the outside of the door. Now, men, I'm going to lock you two in; and if you try to burst through this door--well, you've heard of me. Bill Noakes, fall in ahead, and march. All set. Quartermaster, lock the door."
Noakes spent the night on board Blakely's ship, a prisoner under strict guard. Early in the morning Capt. Ned called in all the sea-captains in the harbor and invited them, with nautical ceremony, to be present on board his ship at nine o'clock to witness the hanging of Noakes at the yard-arm!
"What! The man has not been tried."
"Of course he hasn't. But didn't he kill the nigger?"
"Certainly he did; but you are not thinking of hanging him without a trial?"
"Trial! What do I want to try him for, if he killed the nigger?"
"Oh, Capt. Ned, this will never do. Think how it will sound."
"Sound be hanged! Didn't he kill the nigger?"
"Certainly, certainly, Capt. Ned,--nobody denies that,--but--"
"Then I'm going to hang him, that's all. Everybody I've talked to talks just the same way you do. Everybody says he killed the nigger, everybody knows he killed the nigger, and yet every lubber of you wants him tried for it. I don't understand such bloody foolishness as that. Tried! Mind you, I don't object to trying him, if it's got to be done to give satisfaction; and I'll be there, and chip in and help, too; but put it off till afternoon--put it off till afternoon, for I'll have my hands middling full till after the burying--"
"Why, what do you mean? Are you going to hang him any how--and try him afterward?"
"Didn't I say I was going to hang him? I never saw such people as you. What's the difference? You ask a favor, and then you ain't satisfied when you get it. Before or after's all one--you know how the trial will go. He killed the nigger. Say--I must be going. If your mate would like to come to the hanging, fetch him along. I like him."
There was a stir in the camp. The captains came in a body and pleaded with Capt. Ned not to do this rash thing. They promised that they would create a court composed of captains of the best character; they would empanel a jury; they would conduct everything in a way becoming the serious nature of the business in hand, and give the case an impartial hearing and the accused a fair trial. And they said it would be murder, and punishable by the American courts if he persisted and hung the accused on his ship. They pleaded hard. Capt. Ned said:
"Gentlemen, I'm not stubborn and I'm not unreasonable. I'm always willing to do just as near right as I can. How long will it take?"
"Probably only a little while."
"And can I take him up the shore and hang him as soon as you are done?"
"If he is proven guilty he shall be hanged without unnecessary delay."
"If he's proven guilty. Great Neptune, ain't he guilty? This beats my time. Why you all know he's guilty."
But at last they satisfied him that they were projecting nothing underhanded. Then he said:
"Well, all right. You go on and try him and I'll go down and overhaul his conscience and prepare him to go--like enough he needs it, and I don't want to send him off without a show for hereafter."
This was another obstacle. They finally convinced him that it was necessary to have the accused in court. Then they said they would send a guard to bring him.
"No, sir, I prefer to fetch him myself--he don't get out of my hands. Besides, I've got to go to the ship to get a rope, anyway."
The court assembled with due ceremony, empaneled a jury, and presently Capt. Ned entered, leading the prisoner with one hand and carrying a Bible and a rope in the other. He seated himself by the side of his captive and told the court to "up anchor and make sail." Then he turned a searching eye on the jury, and detected Noakes's friends, the two bullies.
He strode over and said to them confidentially:
"You're here to interfere, you see. Now you vote right, do you hear?--or else there'll be a double-barreled inquest here when this trial's off, and your remainders will go home in a couple of baskets."
The caution was not without fruit. The jury was a unit--the verdict. "Guilty."
Capt. Ned sprung to his feet and said:
"Come along--you're my meat now, my lad, anyway. Gentlemen you've done yourselves proud. I invite you all to come and see that I do it all straight. Follow me to the canyon, a mile above here."
The court informed him that a sheriff had been appointed to do the hanging, and--
Capt. Ned's patience was at an end. His wrath was boundless. The subject of a sheriff was judiciously dropped.
When the crowd arrived at the canyon, Capt. Ned climbed a tree and arranged the halter, then came down and noosed his man. He opened his Bible, and laid aside his hat. Selecting a chapter at random, he read it through, in a deep bass voice and with sincere solemnity. Then he said:
"Lad, you are about to go aloft and give an account of yourself; and the lighter a man's manifest is, as far as sin's concerned, the better for him. Make a clean breast, man, and carry a log with you that'll bear inspection. You killed the nigger?"
No reply. A long pause.
The captain read another chapter, pausing, from time to time, to impress the effect. Then he talked an earnest, persuasive sermon to him, and ended by repeating the question:
"Did you kill the nigger?"
No reply--other than a malignant scowl. The captain now read the first and second chapters of Genesis, with deep feeling--paused a moment, closed the book reverently, and said with a perceptible savor of satisfaction:
"There. Four chapters. There's few that would have took the pains with you that I have."
Then he swung up the condemned, and made the rope fast; stood by and timed him half an hour with his watch, and then delivered the body to the court. A little after, as he stood contemplating the motionless figure, a doubt came into his face; evidently he felt a twinge of conscience--a misgiving--and he said with a sigh:
"Well, p'raps I ought to burnt him, maybe. But I was trying to do for the best."
When the history of this affair reached California (it was in the "early days") it made a deal of talk, but did not diminish the captain's popularity in any degree. It increased it, indeed. California had a population then that "inflicted" justice after a fashion that was simplicity and primitiveness itself, and could therefore admire appreciatively when the same fashion was followed elsewhere.