You know how family stories go. They could be true. They could be embellished. They could be pure fiction.
There was a story passed down through the generations of my family that my grandfather’s Granny Newnham’s kin went to California for the Gold Rush and encountered tremendous tragedy. The story was that a girl named Vashti Newnham (Granny Newnham’s aunt) was killed by a jealous boyfriend and that her brothers then hunted down the boyfriend and killed him.
I never found any indication that Vashti even existed until I plugged the name Newnham into a California newspaper search engine. The search engine is completely free and can be found here.
What I found was an advertisment for a book on a murder that was the sensation of the time:
Intrigued, I dug further into the archives and uncovered a story that I thought had been lost to the passing of time. The family story was true, more or less.
Vashti wasn’t Vashti. She was Susan Newnham, the daughter of my grandfather’s great-great-grandfather Benjamin Newnham. Maybe Vashti was a family nickname since the rest of the story is true. Susan had the misfortune to meet a man named Jeremiah Crane who killed her as Susan’s mother tried to beat him away with a stick.
Jeremiah had no business romancing Susan. He had a wife and kids back East. But modern communication didn’t exist in those days so a man could move out West and pretend he was single.
Here’s the whole story from the “Sacramento Daily Union” in 1855:
We have made use of every exertion to obtain full and complete particulars, from the most reliable sources, concerning the horrible and astonishing tragedy near Ringgold, (and at a distance of two miles from this place) on Friday morning, Aug. 10th. The most intense excitement having pervaded the entire community for miles around during Friday and Saturday, (and which, Sunday afternoon, is not yet allayed) we have delayed the publication of the Advocate for the purpose of obtaining the information presented below, deeming that the same will be at least a matter of satisfaction to our readers here and elsewhere.
In the forenoon of Friday last, Jeremiah V. Craine, armed with a Colt’s revolver and bowie knife, proceeded to the residence of Mr. Benjamin Newnham, one half mile above Ringgold. Stopping at the gate opening into the yard around the house, he sent for Mr. N.’s daughter, Miss Susan M. Newnham, to come out and see him. She did so; whereupon Craine asked her if she intended to “go and live with him.” She replied: “No, I will die first.” He responded, “then die you must,” seized hold of her, and a scuffle ensued, during which one of her eyes was considerably injured. (It is believed, but we are not certain of it, that during this scuffle Craine endeavored to stab her with the knife.) She having freed herself, her brutish assailant immediately drew his revolver and fired, the muzzle of the pistol being but a few inches from her person. The ball book (stet) effect above her right breast, and passing through, lodged under her right shoulder blade. (This wound, though painful, would not be likely to produce death.) It seems that a further scuffle here ensued, during which the pistol was again fired, but the ball did not take effect, the young lady knocking the weapon upwards as the trigger was pulled. She then fled into the house. Craine following, and just as she stepped into the door, a third shot was fired. The ball took effect in the back of her head, penetrated the brain to an extent unascertained, and caused the lady to fall senseless to the floor. During a part of the time consumed in the enactment of the tragedy, Mrs. Newnham, (then the only third person in the house — a young man having fled when the first shot was fired) assailed Craine with a stick, but he kept her off by presenting the pistol to her breast. Mrs. N. then hastened to the nearest neighbor.
Mr. Stainer, that gentleman, arrived in about fifteen minutes, and found Craine standing over the lady (still lying on the floor) bathing her head with water, the two then lifted Miss N. up and placed her on the bed, after which Craine continued to bathe her head, speaking to her and of her in the most endearing manner. (Stainer was in bad health, and unable to either punish or detain the murderer.) Craine informed Stainer that he was going away to do some writing, and would return in about half an hour.
While in the house, it is stated that Craine made a demonstration either to kill himself or finish the work of murder with the knife, and that the lady, (having recovered her senses,) told him not to kill her and not to kill himself, and that she would yet live to be his companion in this world and the world to come. But we have not had sufficient evidence of this to publish it as a fact. About fifteen minutes after the arrival of Mr. Stainer, Mr. Brock, (son-in-law of Newnham) appeared at the gate with a loaded rifle, which he had provided himself with, on hearing of the tragedy, for the purpose of shooting Craine. The latter however presented hid pistol, and declared to Brock he would shoot him if he did not put down his gun, or if he attempted to enter. Craine having a bowie knife and revolver, and Mr. Brock only one shot for him, the latter declined going into the home.
Craine then made his escape through a back door, and fled to the hills. (Craine maintains that he went out at the front door.) A general alarm was immediately given, and in a short time several hundred men had collected and started in different directions in pursuit of the murderer. Ringgold, Weberville, Gold Hill, Coon Hill, and Placerville furnished a large number, and the mining community for miles around, turned out en masse. The hills and ravines were thoroughly scoured in every direction, and no fear was felt but that the murderer would be captured without difficulty and in a short time. It was thought impossible for him to elude the vigilance of so many pursuers for even a single hour.
But he had the start of them all, and kept out of harm’s way. (His capture on Friday would have resulted in his speedy execution, without judge or jury — the privilege of shooting him would have been considered an honor.) Many of the pursuers did not return until late at night, and a watch was kept up all night in the neighborhood of the scene of the tragedy, it being supposed that the murderer might return to see if his deed had resulted fatally, or for the purpose of committing further butchery. Early on Saturday morning the search was resumed; and it being thought very likely that he had escaped to Carson Valley, two gentlemen — Messrs. Stevenson and Jewett — started across the mountains, and had the murderer, taken that direction, would have followed him to Salt Lake, if necessary, in order to capture him.
It appeared also that Meesrs. Springer and — had started the evening previous in the same direction, and reaching Iron Mountain without discovering any trace of him, concluded they were on the wrong track and returned. The search, however, (on Saturday, at least,) was unnecessary; for it appeared that Craine had been traveling about the neighborhood all night, and about daylight concealed himself in some brush only a few rods from the house of Mr. Newnham. During the forenoon he deliberately walked under the shade of a pine tree, in an open lot and mill nearer to the house, and laid himself down on a blanket Being discovered, Mr. Newnham took a loaded rifle and was about to shoot him; Craine rising on his knees, presented his bared breast and exclaimed — “Shoot, for we both want to go together.” Mr. N. was, however, prevented from shooting by the cries of his wife and daughter, and the murderer was taken charge of by a few gentlemen who happened to be present. Craine says that during the night he passed very near to some of those on watch.
The news that the murderer had been captured — or, rather, that he had surrendered himself— spread like wildfire, and by 12-1/2 or 1 P. M., a large and excited crowd had collected. Not to be wondered at that they were excited, and ready for any act of violence having the least semblance of propriety. Only a few rods distant was the house of Mr. Newnham, and in it lay the wounded young lady, ill a condition of intense suffering, and but a bare possibility of recovery. Such was the opinion of Dr. Cooke, the attending physician, agreed to by several other medical men who had been called in. A considerable quantity of brain had oozed from the bullet-hole in her head, and any attempt to extract the ball, which must be near the center of the head, would be certain death. Under such circumstances nothing short of a seeming miracle can save her life.
At about one o’clock the murderer was removed out of view of the house, and a vote was taken, Mr. Geo. Shaffer putting the question, whether he should be delivered over to the authorities, or tried and dealt with at once by the people on the ground. Tho latter proposition prevailed by a large majority. A sheriff and assistant were immediately appointed, and a committee of three named, to act with one person chosen by the prisoner, to confer with him and receive and prepare any defense he might have to make, or any request or confessions he might desire to make at a time when his speedy execution seemed inevitable. Meantime a rope was duly prepared and brought to the ground by the time the committee had got through with him. As an evidence that there did not appear to be any doubt as to his speedy execution, we may state that the first resolution passed after the election of a sheriff, was that the prisoner should have a fair trial, followed by … that the jury should be selected from those voted in favor of the people taking the law into their own hands. It is proper to remark, however, that no notice was taken of this last resolution in the selection of a jury. We believe Sheriff did not even know of its existence; moreover, the prisoner was allowed all the challenges to the jury he desired. But we digress. As given to the Committee, the following in substance was:
J. V. CRAINE’S CONFESSION: Two weeks ago he conceived the idea of killing , Susan. Disgraceful reports that had been circulated was the cause. Did not know who had started them; heard it was Susan’s father, but found out afterwards it was not. Susan first formed an attachment for him fifteen or eighteen months ago, and then it became reciprocal. He always thought a great deal of her. About a year ago they had been married; there was no ceremony, but they had signed a marriage contract, and God Almighty had married them. Another person was a suitor for her hand, and her parents favored him. This was the cause of all the difficulty. He had a wife (or had had) in the Atlantic States, and this was the reason why he could not marry Susan according to law. More than a year ago he had anonymous letter, which he believed, and still believes, are true, stating that his wife in the Atlantic States had deserted him and married another person. But he had not yet obtained a divorce. He had told her previously that he would kill her and himself, and that they would live together in the next world; but she did not know that he was going to kill her there. He had provided himself with a pistol and knife to commit the deed. After wounding Susan, the pistol would not revolve, and he could not kill himself. After leaving the house he threw it away. The knife was rusty, and he did not like to cut himself with it on that account. He had nothing left but a rope, and not liking to apply that himself, he concluded to come back, expecting to meet the fate that awaited him. Nobody knew that he intended to commit the crime. . Susan and him will yet live together and be happy in the next world. He is over thirty years of age, and has four children near Lexington, Fayette Couutv, Kentucky. The eldest is Melissa, assistant teacher in a school, though not yet quite grown; the others are Campbell, Jeremiah and Frank ; John, a fifth one is dead. He has read and studied Andrew Jackson Davis’ work, and thinks it by far the greatest work in existence.” Immaterial portions of this statement or confession, are omitted. It will be seen that his story is the offspring of a diseased mind, or of a most barbarously wicked and deceitful heart. One or other of these conclusions must be arrived at; and while charity would lead one to hope for the former, indignation at the most outrageous crime he has committed is well calculated to obscure all other considerations.
The crowd continued to increase, and the selection of a jury commenced amid the most intense excitement Hang him! Hang him !” “Swing him up!” “Put the rope around his neck” and similar exclamations rent the air.
Craine said he would ” prefer to be shot, rather than hung if they would furnish him with a pistol he would save them all further trouble with him in two seconds.” Some time afterwards, in answer to some expression from the crowd, he exclaimed : “Come on with the rope, and I will show you how a Kentuckian can die.” It was proposed for the jury to try him in the midst of the crowd. Two motions to remove him to a cabin at some distance, for trial, were voted down uproariously, bat a third prevailed unanimously. [What a comment on the character of excited assemblies.]
At the cabin, the following officers took their places, and the following jury was agreed upon:
Judge: John Lamb
Sheriff— Sim. I. Smith.
Jury: E. Ramsey, R. C. Barnes, K. Burress, W. Selby, A. D. Still, E. M. Haskins, J. Rogers, C. G. Barry, H. P. Deskins, S. R. Compton, J. O. Stand- ish, J.O. Shafer.
The excitement grew more and more intense, and about the time the trial commenced, David E. Buel, Esq.. Sheriff of the county, arrived on the ground, having been telegraphed at Coloma; and being only one hour and ten minutes on the way. He immediately made his way to the door and demanded admittance, when a scene commenced that lasted half an hour, and utterly beggars all description. Screaming and yelling, pulling and hauling, &c, with every indication of serious conflict, were the order of the time. Buel kept, his place at the door, quietly assisted by some who were willing to maintain law and order, not withstanding they were as deeply incensed against the prisoner as those who favored his execution without law. The door was firmly barricaded inside, the same being supported by six or eight strong men ; nevertheless, it was finally forced — literally torn to pieces — and the Sheriff, with the apparent strength of a giant, and utterly regardless of all danger, crowded into the room. The rope was seized, and an attempt to put it about the nock of the prisoner was almost successful. The Sheriff, whose person had been seized by as many as could get around him. with one almost superhuman effort freed himself from their grasp, and seized the prisoner.
He literally dragged him through the crowd until he reached a spot where a horse was prepared, then drawing a revolver, the crowd immediately about him involuntarily made an open space, when in “less than no time” the prisoner was assisted to mount, and before the multitude had half time to think, the prisoner and Deputy Sheriff Larkin were many rods distant galloping up the hill, at full speed. An involuntary shout from the law and order men went up for Buel.
So ended the whole transaction, and Craine is now in jail, awaiting his trial for the most dastardly crime that has ever been committed in El Dorado county. The expressions of admiration at the conduct of the Sheriff were universal and unbounded. He was doing his duty and well did be do it. For intrepid daring and calm determination — eliciting the admiration of all even in the midst of the highest pitch of excitement at which a mob is capable of arriving — his conduct was worthy of all praise. We could not mention the names of any of those prominent in assisting him without appearing invidious; and have only to say that they were certainly in the line of their duty to the government from which they (and all others may have occasion to claim protection.
Some complaint has been uttered against those who were active in endeavoring to have the prisoner turned ever to the authorities; but the “sober second thought” will bring a verdict in their favor. When excitement dies away then it is a matter of rejoicing that law has been sustained. If our laws cannot be enforced, then we would be better without any. To our minds, those who remained calm and did what they could, without violence, and without questioning the motives of those who acted otherwise, may fully console themselves with the reflection that they had the moral courage to stand by the laws of the land without regard for a little ephemeral popularity. The fact that the law was permitted to take its course, under the circumstances we regard as a credit to the neighborhood and the county, and even to the fair fame of California abroad.
The story that the Sheriff appointed by the people snapped a pistol at an officer of the law is not true. That gentleman snapped his pistol three times at the head of the prisoner as he was carried away, and had it been discharged, it is probable the county would have been saved some expense.
We present the documents that will be found below because they will be interesting to the public. Of course every man will put his own construction upon them.
Craine was born in Kentucky. He has been in California since ’49, and from all we can learn has always heretofore borne an irreproachable character. This is one reason why the community has been so shocked, for the crime he has committed is of a character so outrageous and entirely inexcusable, that it finds few equals in criminal records. He had a brother in this country, who, we understand, died a madman near Ringgold in 1850.
Miss Newnham is a young lady against whom not a whimper of slander has been heard, and no remarks that have been made by Crane since the tragedy will in the slightest degree tarnish her reputation. The hope of the community is that she may recover, but there is not much hope. No reaction has yet taken place, and it is almost a moral certainty that as soon as this transpires, inflammation and death will follow.
The following statement was received on Saturday, by a Justice of the Peace and Attorney, from Miss Newnham. Our readers can come as near understanding it as we can :
STATEMENT OF MISS SUSAN M. NEWNHAM. August 11th, 1858. About one year ago, Mr. J. V. Craine commenced paying attention to me. There was no engagement between us except the oath, here filed as follows, marked
(A) “I now declare before high heaven and call God to witness that I never will marry any one but you, not if all the world is against you. I am yours in life and death, and it shall be the business of my life to obey you in all things, and to do all in my power to make you happy; (so help me God.) Susan M. Newnham. This is from the bottom of my heart.
She stated further that she had a paper of a similar character from him, (Craine) and that about eight months ago Craine snatched the paper binding him from her and tore it all to pieces in her presence. She then asked him for her’s (which is above mentioned) and he refused to give it up at that time, but did give it to her about two or three months ago.
She also stated that Craine did not force her to sign the oath, but just worried her out of it.
About one week ago, Craine threatened to kill her, William and himself. No one was connected with Craine in the crime, to her knowledge. Her mother know of the engagement, but did not know any thing of the oath, as she termed the paper marked (A.)
The following letters, as would appear from the dates, were written by Craine three days before the tragedy. They were found in a valise, in his cabin:
August 7th, 1855. Mr. Newnham: ] wish you to bury me and ‘Susan together. She has been my wife for almost a year. I could not live to hear her disgraced. She is too dear to me for that. We both go together where we can be happy, and all can see our motives. The ring I gave her, leave it on her finger; it is her bridal ring. Pull all the rest off. Let our coffin hold us both; none have loved as we have. Oh, pardon us for not letting you know we was husband and wife. Do not weep for us; we are forever happy and will watch over you and yours. You will shortly be with us, and then you will know how fondly we have loved. I love you all for her sake, and pardon all you have said and done against me and mine. We both hare suffered ten thousand deaths on account of our situation. Let none blame us too harshly, for they cannot tell our feelings. ‘God only knows how we have loved. I know according to the doctrine of the world we have acted wrong; but the world cannot judge correctly in mutters of the heart. I have some letters that would throw some light on this subject, but I will burn them; they would injure others, and I do not wish to injure any one. I should have told you long ago, but it was contrary to Susan’s wish. She thought it would make you unhappy, and she preferred suffering herself, rather than her father and mother should be unhappy on her account. She told me all, nothing that passed was hid from me. for she knew that I could never prove unfaithful. Our union was no common one; our very souls were united and are still, and will be so throughout eternity. We were made for each other. Had you have known this you would have acted different; but you could not know it, so do not blame yourself for it We pardon you fully, and we ask your forgiveness, and also the foregiveness of our mother and all the rest. Do not I pray you separate our bodies, but let my virgin bride rest in my arms, and we both will bless you and watch over you in this and the spirit world. I die coolly and deliberately and without fear, for I have lived a life that I am not ashamed of, and I die with a firm hope of a better country. And again I say do not weep for me or Susan, for we are happy — more happy than mortal tongue can express. Brock and Sarah I wish them a long and happy life, and freely forgive them for what they have done to bring about a marriage between in own darling wife and a man that I will not here mention. Let this be a lesson to all in regard to matches. Where two are united in heart and soul, let not any one try to separate, for God sanctions such unions. Read this to all that none may slander our memories. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell. Jeremiah V. Craine.
To Benjamin Newnham. August 7th, 1855. Dear Friend: I bid you farewell; our friendship has been warm on earth; I trust that it will continue so in our spirit-home. You know some of the causes that prompt me to this act; but you do not know half, nor will I trouble you with a recital; but rest assured that I hare never wilfully and maliciously injured any human being. No man, I believes, loves his race better than I have, but I have been misunderstood by some. I forgive them all, for I now go where there can be no misunderstanding. Give Brax and lady my best wishes. Tell Mrs. Eaton that I cherish her memory to the last, for her sisterly kindness while I boarded with her; and tell her also that I never done her an intentional wrong; I know she thinks so, but she is mistaken. Give Eaton, Irish and Mrs. Irish my best wishes. And yourself; our friendship is or has been like Jonathan’s and David’s; but I must leave you for a while; I promise if I can do you any good I shall certainly do so. Do not think me insane; this act is cool and deliberate. I am tired of the world, for life to me is a burden. When you get this I shall be at rest. Yours truly, Jeremiah V. Craine. P. S.: I wish you to get my breast-pin and ring and send them to my daughter. Direct to Melissa D. Craine, Midway, Woodford county, Ky. Write her a few lines and tell her all. I will write her a few lines and let her know that I intend to shorten my earthly existence. J. V. C.
Addressed on the envelope: “Brazz’ll Davenport, Jackson, Amador County, California.” August 7th, 1855. Dear Friend: I leave you the “Great Harmonica” — read it and study it, for it will make you wise and happy. You have been my constant friend in all this trouble, and you have my best wishes. See that me and Susan are put in each others arms in death. We have been married almost a year, but it has been kept secret from the world for reasons that I shall not name. Now, John, do not let them separate our bodies but bury us in one coffin, in one grave. Let her rest in my arms, where she has often pillowed her head in life, and whispered eternal love and constancy to my willing soul. We could not live separate, und we have concluded to die and live again in heaven, where none can slander us. Good-bye, John. Remember me to all the boys— Ike, Jim, Donahoe, Beek, und all that were friends to me while here ; and Bill Evans toll him I have not forgotten him. Farewell for ever, your friend, even in death. Jeremiah V. Craine.
To John R. Newham. August 7th, 1855. Dear Daughter: — Farewell; when this reaches you I shall have quitted the earth forever. I could not live any longer, my troubles were too much for me. I send you a breast-pin and finger-ring — pure gold; wear them for my sake, and pardon all my seeming neglect. Tell all the children farewell. You will get a letter from Mr. Davenport explaining all, and he will send you the breast-pin and ring. I have been offered fifty dollars for the pin often, but I kept it for my girl. Farewell, dear Melissa, a long farewell. I am going to the world of spirits, where I can watch over my child. Your father, even in death, Jeremiah V. Craine
Melissa D. Craine. [Addressed on the envelope : ” Miss Melissa D. Craine, Midway, Woodford county, Ky.” August 7, 1855. Mr. J. W. Barron: l wish you and Jas. Donahoe to make our coffin and see that we are buried decently. I have lived long enough; my sorrows have overwhelmed me. I go to a better country. I have no explanations to make to you, but rest assured I have lived honestly and uprightly and die without fear. Send for Plummer and Brazzill Davenport if you possibly can, and let them once more see the wreck of a true friend. I leave the world cheerfully and coolly ; my mind is sound — perfectly so. Tell Tom Bothwell to cheer up and get well. Tell Eliza there is one thing I wish her to do for me, and that is to have something clean to put me. Good by, good by, my good friend. Yours, truly, Jeremiah V. Craine
August 7, 1855. Mr. J. L. Sargeant: — The unsettled account between us I hope will be forgiven on your part, for it will appear a very small item when you are as near another state of existence as I am ; and the twenty dollars that I owe Juke, I hope he, too, will forgive. I owe nothing more that I am aware of, except a little debt to Mr. Plummer. I have enough coming to me from others to pay all, if you can come at it; if not, I hope you will not think the less of me. I should like to sleep on the hill at the graveyard, close to Susan. Farewell forever, Jerimiah V. Craine.
August 7th, 1855. Farewell Doc.— Do not judge me harshly. I leave you and owe you something, but I hope when you come to consider my situation, you will pardon me. I should like to have lived to paid up all my debts, but it is impossible, I cannot live any longer. I trust to your generosity for a pardon. I hope you will have every success in life, although it has been denied to me. Tell Henry farewell. And to you, I once more say farewell, a long farewell. Jeremiah V. Craine.