The Hornitos Jail

The Hornitos Jail rests on solid bedrock, it isn’t going anywhere and neither did its occupants; there was only one recorded escape. Chinese coolies were employed to quarry native granite in the nearby hills, cart the blocks to High Street and begin construction of the town jail. Erected flush against a guardhouse, the stone jail was built solidly, the walls measure fourteen by fourteen feet square and are over two feet thick, as visible around the massive iron door which was imported from England. The two tiny windows, each one foot square, were located on opposite walls to allow a nice cross breeze. In order to better secure the prisoners, a huge iron ring was embedded in the center of the floor to which they could be chained “low down.” And for those more dangerous felons, iron rings were located in each corner for securing the leg irons of the shackled miscreants. The jail may seem small, but it was only used to hold prisoners, generally overnight, until the local Justice of the Peace heard the case. If the prisoner was to be held for trial, he would then be transferred to the jail in Mariposa.

The only recorded escape from the Hornitos Jail took place during the early 1860’s. A member of a local gang of horse thieves was caught, thrown into the jail and attached to the iron ring in the center of the floor. That night, the outlaw’s compadres overpowered the two guards and concealed themselves in the old guardhouse. Working through the night, with the aid of crowbars, picks, hammers, rope, and a horse, they succeeded in removing one of the granite blocks of the jail. Crawling through the hole, one of the gang chiseled the prisoner loose and they rode off into the night, to return to their sordid life of crime.

There is one story that is often remembered of the old stone jail and it is a tragic tale. During the 1860’s Hornitos was home to a large Chinese population, many of whom were engaged in reworking the abandoned claims in the area. Tradition has it that one such miner was known as China John. While working on his claim one morning, a group of young boys gathered about him, teasing him and making a nuisance of themselves as young boys will do. This annoying bedevilment continued for several days until China John finally snapped. Reaching into his pocket, he drew a battered pistol and fired into the side of a hill to frighten the boys away. Unfortunately, the shot struck a stone in the hill, ricocheted and hit one of the boys in the leg. The boys scattered, screaming, and China John was glued to the spot, horrified by what he had done. Nearby miners raced to the scene, grabbed China John and dragged him back towards the plaza. An angry mob, infuriated by the news that a Chinaman had shot a white boy, quickly gathered and men began looking for a rope. The boy was little more than scratched by the bullet, but no one bothered to find this out. Just as the unruly crowd was about to string China John up, several town officials appeared and were able to quiet down the vocal mob. Assured that there would be a trail the following day (and that a hanging would certainly follow), the mob began to break up and the prisoner was taken to the stone jail to await the coming morrow. As he was not considered dangerous, China John was not shackled to the floor. Late that night, a quiet group of men stealthily approached the jail. Drawing their guns, several men entered the guardhouse, surprising and tying up the guard; but the keys were nowhere to be found. Even though there was no way into the jail, they had their hangman’s noose ready and it would be used that night.

      The next morning they found China John, lying broken on the floor in a pool of blood, beneath the small, barred window, the hangman’s noose knotted around his neck. Somehow the men had lured him to the window, perhaps with the offer of drugs or tobacco. Once there, he was grabbed and held as the noose was slipped over his head and pulled tight against his throat. Then with repeated jerks and pulls on the rope, China John’s brains were bashed out against the rock wall. Even for Hornitos, this was a wanton, brutal murder which shocked the citizens upon its discovery. Those responsible were never brought to justice. The evidence of this vicious crime remained visible for many years in the form of bloodstains on the wall of the jail. But in 1902 a coating of lime was applied to the inside walls and the tell-tale marks were covered from view.

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