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Legends of our lawmen

Christina Proctor

In 1850, at the time the original 27 California counties were being organized, the sheriff’s department of El Dorado County was the first to be officially recognized by the new state. It’s understandable that the need for an official law force was immediately recognized considering the gold rush, beginning a scant two years before, swelled Placerville’s population to around 50,000.

The burgeoning mining community earned the name “Hangtown” from stories of the townspeople’s swift but somewhat questionable means of justice.

In 1849, a gold miner was robbed of his gold dust at his home in the middle of the night. Three men were caught, tried and hung in the middle of town after what could be called a sketchy court trial at best.

Deputy Phil Chovanec didn’t want the sesquicentennial anniversary of his department to pass without remark. It wasn’t an easy task, but with a little research, help from the Internet, and perseverance Chovanec found some interesting El Dorado County historical figures and memorabilia.

On a Website titled Black Bart’s nemesis, Chovanec discovered the 1864 undersheriff and 1870 sheriff badges of James B. Hume, the man responsible for the eventual capture of notorious stagecoach robber Black Bart.

The original 14-carat badges were in the possession of a retired El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy living in Sacramento. Chovanec said the deputy found the badges at a collector’s show and took out a second mortgage on his house to purchase them for around $20,000.

Chovanec had the undersheriff’s badge, called a “circle star” badge, re-created for the department in honor of the sesquicentennial.

Due to his fame as a pioneer in scientific detective work, tidbits of Hume’s life can be found in several historical references. Born in New York, Hume made his way west to California in 1850 at the age of 23. In 1860, he became deputy tax collector of El Dorado County, an occupation filled by many future sheriffs. Two years later he served as deputy marshal and Placerville’s chief of police, then in 1864 became undersheriff of the county.

Hume served under the second term of Sheriff William Rogers – El Dorado County’s first sheriff. Rogers served from 1850-51 and then again from 1864-65. During that time he was responsible for the eventual capture of the last remaining outlaws responsible for the “Bullion Bend Robbery,” one of the boldest stage robberies in the history of California.

In June of 1864, about 15 miles east of Placerville, near what is now Pollock Pines, a group of armed men, led by Thomas B. Pool held up the Washoe stage and confiscated eight sacks of bullion for the benefit of the Confederate states. The men escaped and were hiding at the Somerset House when Deputy Staples and George Ranney, a member of the posse, came upon them on July 1.

According to an early newspaper account, “Ranney entered and was immediately covered by the outlaws. He retained his presence of mind and allayed suspicion by inquiring the route to Grizzly Flat. Outside the door he informed Staples and suggested retreating to the main posse. It seemed that Staples at one time in his life had been accused of cowardice, and to redeem himself he sought single-handed to capture the five men. Entering the house he ordered them to hold up their hands. His reply was in the nature of a fusillade of bullets and he fell with his body literally riddled.”

Deputy Staples is the only officer to be shot and killed in the performance of his duties in the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department’s history.

Three of the robbers were captured that day, and the others escaped to Santa Clara County. With information from that sheriff, Undersheriff Hume captured a number of the remaining outlaws in that area. A confession from one of the criminals resulted in Hume finding their temporary camp in Calaveras County and recovering the bullion.

After serving a year as sheriff of El Dorado County in 1873 Hume was hired as chief special detective by Wells, Fargo & Company, where he worked for more than 28 years. It was during that tenure that he captured Charles “Black Bart” Boles. Hume died at the age of 77 in his home in Berkeley, Calif.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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