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Mark Twain > Roughing It > Chapter L

Roughing It

Chapter L

These murder and jury statistics remind me of a certain very
extraordinary trial and execution of twenty years ago; it is a scrap of
history familiar to all old Californians, and worthy to be known by other
peoples of the earth that love simple, straightforward justice
unencumbered with nonsense. I would apologize for this digression but
for the fact that the information I am about to offer is apology enough
in itself. And since I digress constantly anyhow, perhaps it is as well
to eschew apologies altogether and thus prevent their growing irksome.

Capt. Ned Blakely--that name will answer as well as any other fictitious
one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not
desire to be famous)--sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for
many years. He was a stalwart, warm-hearted, eagle-eyed veteran, who had
been a sailor nearly fifty years--a sailor from early boyhood. He was a
rough, honest creature, full of pluck, and just as full of hard-headed
simplicity, too. He hated trifling conventionalities--"business" was the
word, with him. He had all a sailor's vindictiveness against the quips
and quirks of the law, and steadfastly believed that the first and last
aim and object of the law and lawyers was to defeat justice.

He sailed for the Chincha Islands in command of a guano ship. He had a
fine crew, but his negro mate was his pet--on him he had for years
lavished his admiration and esteem. It was Capt. Ned's first voyage to
the Chinchas, but his fame had gone before him--the fame of being a man
who would fight at the dropping of a handkerchief, when imposed upon, and
would stand no nonsense. It was a fame well earned. Arrived in the
islands, he found that the staple of conversation was the exploits of one
Bill Noakes, a bully, the mate of a trading ship. This man had created a
small reign of terror there. At nine o'clock at night, Capt. Ned, all
alone, was pacing his deck in the starlight. A form ascended the side,
and approached him. Capt. Ned said:

"Who goes there?"

"I'm Bill Noakes, the best man in the islands."

"What do you want aboard this ship?"

"I've heard of Capt. Ned Blakely, and one of us is a better man than
'tother--I'll know which, before I go ashore."

"You've come to the right shop--I'm your man. I'll learn you to come
aboard this ship without an invite."

He seized Noakes, backed him against the mainmast, pounded his face to a
pulp, and then threw him overboard.

Noakes was not convinced. He returned the next night, got the pulp
renewed, and went overboard head first, as before.

He was satisfied.

A week after this, while Noakes was carousing with a sailor crowd on
shore, at noonday, Capt. Ned's colored mate came along, and Noakes tried
to pick a quarrel with him. The negro evaded the trap, and tried to get
away. Noakes followed him up; the negro began to run; Noakes fired on
him with a revolver and killed him. Half a dozen sea-captains witnessed
the whole affair. Noakes retreated to the small after-cabin of his ship,
with two other bullies, and gave out that death would be the portion of
any man that intruded there. There was no attempt made to follow the
villains; there was no disposition to do it, and indeed very little
thought of such an enterprise. There were no courts and no officers;
there was no government; the islands belonged to Peru, and Peru was far
away; she had no official representative on the ground; and neither had
any other nation.

However, Capt. Ned was not perplexing his head about such things. They
concerned him not. He was boiling with rage and furious for justice.
At nine o'clock at night he loaded a double-barreled gun with slugs,
fished out a pair of handcuffs, got a ship's lantern, summoned his
quartermaster, and went ashore. He said:

"Do you see that ship there at the dock?"

"Ay-ay, sir."

"It's the Venus."

"Ay-ay, sir."

"You--you know me."

"Ay-ay, sir."

"Very well, then. Take the lantern. Carry it just under your chin.
I'll walk behind you and rest this gun-barrel on your shoulder, p'inting
forward--so. Keep your lantern well up so's I can see things ahead of
you good. I'm going to march in on Noakes--and take him--and jug the
other chaps. If you flinch--well, you know me."

"Ay-ay, sir."

In this order they filed aboard softly, arrived at Noakes's den, the
quartermaster pushed the door open, and the lantern revealed the three
desperadoes sitting on the floor. Capt. Ned said:

"I'm Ned Blakely. I've got you under fire. Don't you move without
orders--any of you. You two kneel down in the corner; faces to the wall
--now. Bill Noakes, put these handcuffs on; now come up close.
Quartermaster, fasten 'em. All right. Don't stir, sir. Quartermaster,
put the key in the outside of the door. Now, men, I'm going to lock you
two in; and if you try to burst through this door--well, you've heard of
me. Bill Noakes, fall in ahead, and march. All set. Quartermaster,
lock the door."

Noakes spent the night on board Blakely's ship, a prisoner under strict
guard. Early in the morning Capt. Ned called in all the sea-captains in
the harbor and invited them, with nautical ceremony, to be present on
board his ship at nine o'clock to witness the hanging of Noakes at the

"What! The man has not been tried."

"Of course he hasn't. But didn't he kill the nigger?"

"Certainly he did; but you are not thinking of hanging him without a

"Trial! What do I want to try him for, if he killed the nigger?"

"Oh, Capt. Ned, this will never do. Think how it will sound."

"Sound be hanged! Didn't he kill the nigger?"

"Certainly, certainly, Capt. Ned,--nobody denies that,--but--"

"Then I'm going to hang him, that's all. Everybody I've talked to talks
just the same way you do. Everybody says he killed the nigger, everybody
knows he killed the nigger, and yet every lubber of you wants him tried
for it. I don't understand such bloody foolishness as that. Tried!
Mind you, I don't object to trying him, if it's got to be done to give
satisfaction; and I'll be there, and chip in and help, too; but put it
off till afternoon--put it off till afternoon, for I'll have my hands
middling full till after the burying--"

"Why, what do you mean? Are you going to hang him any how--and try him

"Didn't I say I was going to hang him? I never saw such people as you.
What's the difference? You ask a favor, and then you ain't satisfied
when you get it. Before or after's all one--you know how the trial will
go. He killed the nigger. Say--I must be going. If your mate would
like to come to the hanging, fetch him along. I like him."

There was a stir in the camp. The captains came in a body and pleaded
with Capt. Ned not to do this rash thing. They promised that they would
create a court composed of captains of the best character; they would
empanel a jury; they would conduct everything in a way becoming the
serious nature of the business in hand, and give the case an impartial
hearing and the accused a fair trial. And they said it would be murder,
and punishable by the American courts if he persisted and hung the
accused on his ship. They pleaded hard. Capt. Ned said:

"Gentlemen, I'm not stubborn and I'm not unreasonable. I'm always
willing to do just as near right as I can. How long will it take?"

"Probably only a little while."

"And can I take him up the shore and hang him as soon as you are done?"

"If he is proven guilty he shall be hanged without unnecessary delay."

"If he's proven guilty. Great Neptune, ain't he guilty? This beats my
time. Why you all know he's guilty."

But at last they satisfied him that they were projecting nothing
underhanded. Then he said:

"Well, all right. You go on and try him and I'll go down and overhaul
his conscience and prepare him to go--like enough he needs it, and I
don't want to send him off without a show for hereafter."

This was another obstacle. They finally convinced him that it was
necessary to have the accused in court. Then they said they would send a
guard to bring him.

"No, sir, I prefer to fetch him myself--he don't get out of my hands.
Besides, I've got to go to the ship to get a rope, anyway."

The court assembled with due ceremony, empaneled a jury, and presently
Capt. Ned entered, leading the prisoner with one hand and carrying a
Bible and a rope in the other. He seated himself by the side of his
captive and told the court to "up anchor and make sail." Then he turned
a searching eye on the jury, and detected Noakes's friends, the two

He strode over and said to them confidentially:

"You're here to interfere, you see. Now you vote right, do you hear?--or
else there'll be a double-barreled inquest here when this trial's off,
and your remainders will go home in a couple of baskets."

The caution was not without fruit. The jury was a unit--the verdict.

Capt. Ned sprung to his feet and said:

"Come along--you're my meat now, my lad, anyway. Gentlemen you've done
yourselves proud. I invite you all to come and see that I do it all
straight. Follow me to the canyon, a mile above here."

The court informed him that a sheriff had been appointed to do the
hanging, and--

Capt. Ned's patience was at an end. His wrath was boundless. The
subject of a sheriff was judiciously dropped.

When the crowd arrived at the canyon, Capt. Ned climbed a tree and
arranged the halter, then came down and noosed his man. He opened his
Bible, and laid aside his hat. Selecting a chapter at random, he read it
through, in a deep bass voice and with sincere solemnity. Then he said:

"Lad, you are about to go aloft and give an account of yourself; and the
lighter a man's manifest is, as far as sin's concerned, the better for
him. Make a clean breast, man, and carry a log with you that'll bear
inspection. You killed the nigger?"

No reply. A long pause.

The captain read another chapter, pausing, from time to time, to impress
the effect. Then he talked an earnest, persuasive sermon to him, and
ended by repeating the question:

"Did you kill the nigger?"

No reply--other than a malignant scowl. The captain now read the first
and second chapters of Genesis, with deep feeling--paused a moment,
closed the book reverently, and said with a perceptible savor of

"There. Four chapters. There's few that would have took the pains with
you that I have."

Then he swung up the condemned, and made the rope fast; stood by and
timed him half an hour with his watch, and then delivered the body to the
court. A little after, as he stood contemplating the motionless figure,
a doubt came into his face; evidently he felt a twinge of conscience--a
misgiving--and he said with a sigh:

"Well, p'raps I ought to burnt him, maybe. But I was trying to do for
the best."

When the history of this affair reached California (it was in the "early
days") it made a deal of talk, but did not diminish the captain's
popularity in any degree. It increased it, indeed. California had a
population then that "inflicted" justice after a fashion that was
simplicity and primitiveness itself, and could therefore admire
appreciatively when the same fashion was followed elsewhere.

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Index Index

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
Chapter XVII
Chapter XVIII
Chapter XIX
Chapter XX
Chapter XXI
Chapter XXII
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIV
Chapter XXV
Chapter XXVI
Chapter XXVII
Chapter XXVIII
Chapter XXIX
Chapter XXX
Chapter XXXI
Chapter XXXII
Chapter XXXIII
Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXV
Chapter XXXVI
Chapter XXXVII
Chapter XXXIX
Chapter XL
Chapter XLI
Chapter XLII
Chapter XLIII
Chapter XLIV
Chapter XLV
Chapter XLVI
Chapter XLVII
Chapter XLVIII
Chapter XLIX
Chapter L
Chapter LI
Chapter LII
Chapter LIII
Chapter LIV
Chapter LV
Chapter LVI
Chapter LVII
Chapter LVIII
Chapter LIX
Chapter LX
Chapter LXI
Chapter LXII
Chapter LXIII
Chapter LXIV
Chapter LXV
Chapter LXVI
Chapter LXVII
Chapter LXVIII
Chapter LXIX
Chapter LXX
Chapter LXXI
Chapter LXXII
Chapter LXXIII
Chapter LXXIV
Chapter LXXV
Chapter LXXVI
Chapter LXXVII
Chapter LXXIX

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