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Murder and Mayhem

Questions to Consider

How did the Gold Rush change the ethnic makeup of California's population and culture?

What impact did the influx of new inhabitants have on the daily life and politics of rapidly growing towns?

How did the general lack of law enforcement affect daily life?

About the Images

These images of crime, revenge, and drug dens show why California was often called part of the "Wild West." With few actual law officers or courts to enforce the law, many people took it upon themselves to impose their own varying ideas of justice.


The Gold Rush era was marked by lawlessness: duels, murders in broad daylight, public hangings, jail breakouts, and vigilantism were everyday occurrences. The images in this group are a vivid record of those times. Included here are photographs of convicted murderers like James Egan, who was sent to San Quentin for 35 years for killing a man in a saloon brawl; and John "Chicken" Devine, who beat a man to death with a rock. A newspaper article reports that former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California David. S. Terry killed US Senator David C. Broderick in a duel, and a half-page drawing depicts the crime. Men weren't the only criminals: pickpockets Jennie Hastings and Dolly Mickey are also represented here.

Law officers were in short supply, and laws were not uniformly enforced. Some men — such as those in the photograph "Sharpshooters of the Vigilante Committee" — took the law into their own hands, enforcing "justice" as they saw fit. They posted public notices like the "Warning!" sign, which threatens hanging as retribution for "pilfering, robbing, stealing, or any act of lawless violence." Several images portray individuals "rescued from the authorities" and hanged — before being tried or even given a hearing for the crimes of which they were accused.

Drugs were also part of Gold Rush communities. As several images show, people sometimes smoked opium in underground opium dens. And, as one photograph makes clear, opium smoking crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Eventually, law-abiding citizens grew weary of the uncontrolled murder and mayhem in their rapidly growing communities. As the Gold Rush era drew to an end, people felt that existing legal and judicial institutions had to be strengthened.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.3)

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems. (5.8.4)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)