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Thomas Berdue

In 1850, Sheriff Charles Moore was murdered near Foster Bar in Yuba County, California, and $4,000 was stolen from his home. In December 1850, James Stuart (a/k/a English Jim) was arrested for the murder of Moore. Stuart escaped from jail a few days later.

On the evening of February 19, 1851, Charles Jansen, the senior partner of the dry-goods firm of C.J. Jansen & Company, was working alone in his store. Two men entered the store at around 8 p.m. and attacked and beat Jansen. They also stole approximately $2,000.

After the attack, Jansen staggered to the door of his store and called for help. Jansen gave the authorities a description of the taller of his attackers, which corresponded with that of James Stuart.

Within a day of the attack on Jansen, the police arrested Thomas Berdue (also referenced as Thomas Burdue), who bore a striking resemblance to Stuart, and Robert Windred. Both men denied involvement in the Jansen attack; however, Jansen identified Berdue as his attacker.

Berdue was transferred under police guard to the police station. En route, a crowd of citizens tried to seize him in order to hang him, believing him to be the notorious English Jim. At that time in San Francisco, a condition of lawlessness existed. A great number of murders had been committed in a short period of time, the police were few in number and poorly paid, and the justice system was ineffective and corrupt. As a result, a group of citizens formed a Vigilance Committee to apprehend and punish those who committed violent crimes in the city.

On Saturday, February 21, Berdue was arraigned before Justice Shepherd at a courthouse in San Francisco, and attempted to establish an alibi for the time of the Jansen attack. The crowd outside the courthouse again attempted to wrest Berdue from custody in order to hang him, but was thwarted. The proceedings adjourned until the following day, and the crowd dispersed.

The next day, a large crowd gathered outside the courthouse, determined to see justice served. It was decided that a popular court would be organized to try the prisoners. The popular jury was, however, unable to agree on conviction. Several additional efforts to storm the jail and capture the prisoners were made but were unsuccessful.

Berdue remained in jail for a week, then was tried and convicted in the district court before Judge Parsons on March 14, 1851. The jury found Berdue and Windred guilty of the assault and sentenced both men to fourteen years in state prison. Windred quickly escaped from prison and was not heard from again.

Berdue was immediately transferred to Marysville, California, to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Moore. The trial was held from June 28 through July 4, 1851. It was not disputed that James Stuart killed Moore. The only issue at trial was whether the accused was James Stuart. Witnesses for the prosecution and defense gave testimony on Berdue’s resemblance to Stuart.

After deliberating for two days, on July 4, 1851, the jury found Berdue guilty of the murder and he was sentenced to be hanged.

Early in July 1851, the real James Stuart attempted to commit a robbery in San Francisco, but he was apprehended and delivered to the Vigilance Committee. On July 11, 1851, Stuart was tried before the full Vigilance Committee. Stuart confessed to the murder of Sheriff Moore and the attack on Charles Jansen, clearing Berdue’s name.

The Committee decided, by a unanimous vote, to hang Stuart, which they proceeded to do. Immediately after Stuart’s death, a special committee advised the authorities in Marysville that the real James Stuart had been hanged. Berdue was released and returned to San Francisco, where his sentence of imprisonment for the Jansen assault was officially annulled and Governor John McDougal pardoned him.

The Vigilance Committee collected a fund for Berdue due to the fact that Berdue had expended all his resources trying to demonstrate his innocence. However, in January 1853, the Senate of California refused Berdue’s petition for reimbursement of the $4,000, which he claimed to have spent to prove his innocence. The Committee on the Judiciary’s explanation for the rejection was that it would “establish a precedent which, if carried out in all cases of the kind, would more than exhaust the entire revenue of the State… In society it too often happens that the innocent are wrongfully accused of a crime. This is their misfortune, and the Government has no power to relieve them.”

 – Anne Pachciarek

Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1850
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID