Downieville in Sierra County, seen in 1914, was once replete with gambling halls and saloons. California State Library

The murky case of Josefa Segovia

In 1851 Josefa Segovia was lynched — the only hanging of a woman in California history.

The story began with July Fourth celebrations in the northern Sierra mining town of Downieville. After a day of hard drinking, things got rowdy. At some point, a Scotsman named Fred Cannon and his companions were out carousing when they burst into the adobe home of Segovia, a Mexican woman about 25 years of age. She fended off the men, and in the morning, Cannon returned to apologize — or finish what he started. The history is murky.

Either way, Segovia drew a Bowie knife and plunged it into Cannon’s chest, killing him. A clamor arose for vengeance. When a San Francisco lawyer stood atop a barrel and urged restraint, the bloodthirsty crowd kicked the barrel out from under him.

A depiction of Josefa Segovia’s lynching in 1851.
William Downie

A hastily assembled jury found Segovia guilty of murder and a scaffold was erected on a bridge over the Yuba River. According to one account, she placed the noose around her own neck, said “Adios Señores,” and stepped into eternity.

Historians later placed Segovia’s killing within the broader wave of anti-Mexican lynchings across the American West. But few details of her experience have survived. As such, she has remained largely a ghost story haunting the old gold country. SF Weekly | The British Library

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