Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Allen line: Finishing Thomas Knott's letter

We're finishing up the letter that Thomas J Knott wrote to the Sacramento Daily Union following the murder of his son and the prompt acquittal of the gunman.  Elzy Knott was murdered on March 8, 1859, and by March 24, 1859 the trial was held with the verdict given, Thomas Knott had collected himself enough to write this letter, it had made its way over the mountains to Sacramento, and it was published.  The letter is viewable in its entirety thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, Ca.  The URL is http://cdnc.ucr.edu.  Knott is continuing his list of reasons why the trial was not a fair one, and then ends his letter with a plea:

"4th. Again, one juror signified to some persons that he firmly believed my evidence to be true, and contrary to his belief, declared the murderer innocent.

5th. I had just reason to believe that the Vigilance party had exercised their influence in this case; because my son, Elzy, was strongly opposed to them, because some of their most influential men had expressed themselves in strong terms against him; because the criminal had asked to be tried by the Vigilance Committee, and the Court was composed principally of them; lastly, because, before the reading of the verdict in Court, some of the officers informed Hern's family that they would escort the boy to Eagle's Valley for his safety.

6th. When the people were called to vote on the motion of a new trial, the jurors were against all right permitted to vote, and even so, the votes in favor were 16, and those against, 17.

My petition, however, of a new trail was objected to on the ground that my reasons were not previously proposed, and the right tribunal not chosen at first. If the objection was good, a man should relinquish the pursuit of his rights every time that he does not take the right course at the first start.  If is thus that I, an aged father, and a poor desolate wife, are left to mourn the loss of one of our dearest inmates, without any alleviation of grief from human justice.  There is no doubt but that the rights of justice and humanity have ben this time sacrificed to the malignant spit of party.  As long as this small community is distracted by internal divisions, it is impossible to expect an impartial decision in any case whatsoever.  The Vigilance Committee was here organized for the purpose of protecting life and property, and now it proves itself detrimental to both. Two murders have already been committed in cool blood, and both criminals have escaped with impunity.  We hope that our Governor will soon put an end to our evils, by establishing law with energy and force.  When that will be accomplished, these beautiful valleys will become the favorite resort of our Californian neighbors. But for the present, I fervently request our California brethren not to assist in any way the murderer who may seek refuge in that illustrious State.  I have caused already to be printed, a notice of a reward of $500, which I will pay to any one who shall apprehend the murderer of my son, and keep him in custody until I obtain an order of trial from the Governor of this Territory. 

John Hern is about eighteen years of age, about five feet five inches high, spare built, very large and prominent eyes, brown hair and dark complexion. 

My obj(e)ct in all this is to prevent crime, to redress wrongs, and to exalt justice. 

Respectfully yours,
T. Knott"

One would have to learn a lot about Nevada history to understand the background of this story. At the time of this letter, Nevada was a part of the Utah territory, and was therefore governed, to the extent it was governed, by Mormons.  Thomas Knott was not a Mormon, but had gone to Nevada on several occasions to set up mills (a saw mill and a grist mill, at least). In the early 1850s, he had reported to Brigham Young as a sort of Indian scout, reporting that the Indians were peaceful and could be kept that way.  It sounds from this letter as though Thomas at this point had little interest in becoming an independent state, or in being governed by California, although there were proponents of both views in Nevada. 

I looked up the definition of "inmate", because I didn't understand it in the context of this letter.  When Thomas referred to Elzy as "one of our dearest inmates", he was apparently using it in the archaic definition of "occupants of a house".  Elzy was certainly not in a prison or poor house.  Also, the $500 reward was not insignificant. In today's dollars, that would have been about $13,900.

Thomas refused to have Elzy buried in the Mormon cemetery, but he was instead buried on his own land.  (I'm not clear as to whether this was Thomas's land, or Elzy's, but the two were neighbors so it makes little difference as far as locating the grave.  Elzy's grave is noted on Find-a-Grave.)

It was a sad story to read, but it brought home to me that some of those old TV westerns we watched as kids (or at least, our fathers, husbands, etc. did) were not so far from the truth of what actually happened.  It was truly a wild, wild West, made up of good people caught in desperate situations, some of their own making.