Sierra County Sheriff's Gallows
Photo © Lee Adams
The Sierra County Sheriff's Gallows, California Historic Landmark No. 971, stands adjacent to the Sierra County Courthouse in Downieville, the Sierra County Seat. On November 27, 1885, 20-year old James O'Neill was hanged from this gallows for the August 7, 1884 murder of Webber Lake dairyman John Woodward. That execution, conducted by Sheriff Samuel C. Stewart, was the last legal execution in Sierra County and the only time this gallows was used. The structure stands today, in its original appearance, as a reminder of California's colorful criminal justice past.
History of the Sierra County Sheriff’s Gallows
On Friday, November 27, 1885, at 2:00 PM, twenty year old James O’Neill was hanged from a gallows adjacent to the Sierra County Courthouse in Downieville. With that event, so ended within Sierra County the administration of capital punishment - the very subject that is said to have been a driving force in the creation of the County some thirty years earlier. One hundred and twelve years later, that gallows continues to stand adjacent the county’s present courthouse, a perpetual reminder of an era that has passed.
In 1884, nineteen year old James O’Neill, a native of Ireland, shot and killed his former employer, John Woodward, at Webber Lake, on the afternoon of August 7th. Woodward’s death occurred during an argument between the two men, and during an attempted escape from the scene, O’Neill was arrested near Bowman Lake in Nevada County and turned over to the Sierra County Sheriff. O’Neill was tried in the Sierra County Superior Court and found guilty of murder by a jury of that court on November 11, 1884. The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment and sentence on August 26, 1885. On October 15, 1885, Superior Court Judge J.M. Walling signed an execution order setting the date and time of execution for November 27, 1885 at 2:00 p.m. On Thursday, November 26, 1885, at the request of Sheriff Sam Stewart, a wooden gallows was built by local carpenters and erected a yard adjacent to the original Sierra County Courthouse, a site one hundred feet west of the gallows present location. The following afternoon, at the time affixed by the court, Sierra County Sheriff Samuel Stewart conducted from the gallows the execution of James O'Neill, the last within Sierra County.
Following James O’Neill’s execution, the gallows was dismantled and placed in storage in the attic of the original county courthouse. Designed to be portable, the structure was held together through the use of wooden pegs and was easily dismantled into pieces by the removed of those pegs. With such executions becoming a periodic occurrence, it was the sheriff’s intent to store the structure until its use was again warranted. In 1891, however, the California state legislature amended the state’s death penalty statutes and mandated that executions be conducted at the state level by the wardens of two California State Prisons, those at San Quentin in Marin County and Folsom in Sacramento County. Further changes in state law in 1941 ended hanging as a means of execution altogether, and the gas chamber at San Quentin became the sole method for inflicting the sentence of death within California. With such changes, this gallows was destined to become a historic relic.From 1885 until 1927, long forgotten, the gallows remained hidden in the attic of the county courthouse. Surprisingly discovered by county employees in 1927, it was re-erected adjacent the courthouse by Sheriff George C. Bynon. In 1931, the gallows was removed at the request of Sheriff Charles Winstead, citing his belief that the structure was "not conducive to happy thoughts." After his untimely death of a heart attack after only 11 months as Sheriff, the structure was again re-erected on the courthouse grounds by Sheriff W. Dewey Johnson. In 1947, the structure stood adjacent to that courthouse (built in 1854 and the gallows place of storage for 42 years) while that courthouse was consumed by fire. It was in the shadow of that courthouse that the gallows served its original purpose, the courthouse in which James O’Neill was convicted of murder.
Over the years since, the structure became increasingly deteriorated as its age increased and many modifications were made by the addition of cross bracing and structural steel to assist in keeping the structure standing. By its centennial in 1985, it became apparent that action must be taken to save the structure. In August 1986, the Sierra County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution acknowledging the structure’s importance as a historic artifact and ambassador of California’s criminal justice past. In doing so, the Board initiated a course of action that culminated in the structure undergoing a complete restoration to its 1885 appearance with funding made available through the California Park and Recreational Facilities Bond Act of 1984. During the summer of 1988, the structure’s restoration became a reality when plans conceived by preservationists and architects were undertaken by contemporary carpenters and craftsmen.
On February 6, 1987, the gallows gained further recognition when the California State Historic Resources Commission designated the structure as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 971, as well as recommending its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. On October 15, 1988, the structure and site was so dedicated before a crowd that included Sheriff Stewart’s daughter and granddaughter, as well as John Woodward’s descendants.
Time Period Represented: 1880s
Hours Open: Structure on public display 24 hours a day
Visitor Fees: None
Seasons Open: Year round
Price Style for this Establishment: None
Paved county road adjacent to the site