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.