The Trial of Colonel Harper

After being arrested for the theft of Mrs. Evoy’s gold, Col. John H. Harper of Trinity County languished in the Hamilton (Butte County) jail for the next six months. He was unable to raise the bail, which was set at $7000, an enormous amount. All along he insisted on his innocence and said that Cummings must have planted the gold on him. He was nearly lynched by a mob incensed that a man could so heartlessly rob an old lady.

While he awaited trial he desperately tried to get character witnesses to come forward to attest to his good reputation and to the fact that he had been traveling with his own money upon him, but no one came forward by the time the trial was held in December 1853. The judge was J.W. McCorkle.

On 31 December 1853, the Weekly Butte Record reported Mrs. Evoy’s testimony:

The principal witness, Mrs. Evoy, says that he paid such particular attention to her and her satchel in which the gold dust was deposited that her suspicions were aroused, and when at the Dry Creek House w[h]ere the money was first missed she fastened the guilt upon Harper, there being but one other passenger in the stage of whom she had no suspicion. On their return to Neal’s Ranch a search was proposed, to which Harper slightly objected. The other passenger whose name is Cummings was willing to be searched and when the search was made, the bags containing the gold dust was found on the person of Harper, or in the pocket of his cloak. This was so palpable that all were satisfied of his guilt, and when no hope was left him he sank back and exclaimed I am ruined!

Col. Harper’s lawyer had little to offer in his defense. He referred to his distinguished career and begged the mercy of the jury to save his client from “ignominy and shame.” Then Col. Harper stood up and delivered a lengthy and heartfelt speech in his own defense.

His appeals were most eloquent, and brought tears to the eyes of many who listened !o him He seemed perfectly free from embarrassment during the delivery of his speech. He remarked that he stood alone, without friends, money, or influence. It would be a heart of stone that would not deeply sympathise with the prisoner when he alluded to his aged father and pious mother, under whose holy precepts and examples he had been nurtured and prayerfully admonished against the commission of evil deeds. . . .

In conclusion he appealed to the God that made him, and swore by high Heaven, by the earth beneath that as he loved the mother that bore him, that he hoped that he and his might be racked by pain and torture, that Heaven might shut them out that the earth might deny him a resting place, if he was not innocent of the charge. Breathless silence prevailed as he made this last appeal, and his last struggle for liberty commending himself to the mercy of the Jury and to God the friend of the lonely.

Shasta Courier 7 January 1854

This eloquent appeal touched the hearts of many, including the editor of the Butte Record. Nevertheless, the jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty and Col. Harper was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary.

He serve two years of his sentence and then was pardoned by Governor Bigler. He wasted no time in boarding a steamship for Nicaragua. According to Mansfield’s History of Butte County, He there became “a commander of rebel forces in a Nicaraguan rebellion.” (Mansfield, p. 154) If so, he took part in William Walker’s Filibuster War in Central America.

Shasta Courier 29 December 1855

Next time: Did he do it?

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
This entry was posted in B.M. Evoy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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