Russian Hill & the Story of San Francisco’s First Legal Hanging: Was it Bogus?

On Sept. 13, 1852, John Burke watched as a man named José Atari came running and screaming over the hill and down into Pleasant Valley.* In pursuit of Atari was José Forni (or Forner) who was brandishing a foot-long bowie knife. “[I] saw [Forni] running from the top of the hill by the coffee mill, into the hollow,” Burke recalled later. “He was pursuing [Atari], and had a large knife in his right hand; when [Atari] got to the foot of the hill he was tripped by a bush, and fell on his face; in about a second or two [Forni] fell also; [Forni] got up, and overtook [Atari] before he could rise, and struck him in the back with a knife some three or four times . . . I shouted, ‘You villain, do you mean to kill the man?’ and ran towards him with a stick of wood; he never ceased stabbing him until I got within ten feet of him; I directed a blow at him, and he ran towards the hill again, and then turned around on me with the knife in his hand; he bent his knee down and thrust the knife two or three times into the sand; two men came to my assistance and [Forni] was taken into custody; [Atari] died immediately; he had ten or eleven wounds; [it was] about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, where there were not many houses about; the deceased had a knife, but it was in its scabbard in his belt; he had no weapon in his hand.” The two men that helped Burke apprehend Forni were J. J. Pensam and Edward Corbett. Corbett corroborated Burke’s story: “[I] heard the shrieking; ran to the spot and arrived there as [Forni], with the knife in his hand, was keeping off Mr. Burke, who had a stick in his hand; [Forni] fell on his knees and gave up the knife. . . . [Forni] was searched, and upon his person was found a purse containing about $309. [His] right leg had a cut about two inches in length on the calf.” (Daily Alta, Oct. 15, 1852, p. 2, c. 3)

At Forni’s trial in October 1852, per a number of witnesses for the deceased, it was told that the victim, José Atari, was a native of Mexico, who had been working as a charcoal burner for Buenaventura Sago in the vicinity of Mission Dolores. He had been last seen leaving the Nuevo Mondo on Kearny Street, headed to the coal-pit. It was therefore assumed that as Atari reached the south of town, José Forni laid in wait for him, apparently in the know that Atari was carrying a substantial amount of cash on his person. (Daily Alta, Sept. 15, 1852, p. 2, c. 1)

Looking north from Pleasant Valley toward the heart of the city in 1851.
Looking north from Pleasant Valley toward the heart of the city in 1851.

Forni, a native of Valencia, Spain who was working as a pie baker at Jackson Restaurant on Montgomery Street, had a different story however: “I went to the place where they had been digging sand. While there, I was joined by the servant of Don Ventura Miro, a manufacturer of charcoal. The servant touched me behind and said, what are you doing here? to which I remarked, and so you too bring coal to these places around here. He then invited me to drink with him, which I did not accept. He then left to take his drink, while I repaired to a bye place for the purpose of nature. I took off my sash and my knife; my sash had three hundred and twenty-five or thirty dollars in it. I took the money out, and removed about four yards from the sash and knife. While thus engaged, I was surprised to see this man suddenly rise up from behind a little hillock. The first thing he did was to take up my knife, and observe, what a beautiful knife this is, countryman! He then advanced to me and demanded my money. I replied that I had but four or five dollars, and started to run from him; but my foot slipped in the sand, and I fell on my face; at the same moment he made a blow at me, but did not reach higher than the calf of my leg, which was perforated. . . . As soon as he perceived . . . that he had stabbed me, he seemed to become frightened, so much so that he dropped the knife and ran. I instantly recovered the knife and pursued, but he, being sound and unhurt, outran me. It was about a quarter of five in the afternoon; he ran towards the houses, but as he approached them, slipped and fell. Before he could recover himself, I stabbed him repeatedly with the knife, which I then held in my hand. The money was mine; he attempted to rob me of it and tried to assassinate me.” Furthermore, Forni testified that he’d won the money gambling at the El Dorado. (Daily Alta, Sept. 14, 1852, p. 2, c. 1; Dec. 11, 1852, p. 2, c. 2)

Despite his testimony, the problem for Forni was threefold:1) only his knife was used and bloody, 2) the brutality of the murder was rather disturbing (the coroner noted 11 stab wounds all about the upper-half of Atari’s body, from head to back), and 3) Atari’s employer, Ventura Sago “testified to the amount and description of the money found on the body of the deceased, alleging that he had paid it to [Atari].” In fact, following Sago’s testimony, the S. F. Journal noted: “[Forni] looked exceedingly pale and was evidently much agitated. It is said that he endeavored last night to persuade a Mexican boy, who was permitted to visit him, to procure some poison for him that he might destroy himself.” (Sacramento Union, Sept. 17, 1852, p. 2, c. 4)

Ultimately on Oct. 15, 1852 Forni was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death by Judge Delos Lake of the District Court. While just the second murder conviction since the establishment of San Francisco’s courts,^ Forni was to become San Francisco’s first legal hanging. Of Forni’s arraignment, the Alta reported “the prisoner seemed resigned to his fate, and received his sentence without betraying the least momentary emotion, though his pallid and care worn countenance evinced most painfully the effects of the agony that he had heretofore suffered in the consciousness of the doom that awaited him. We understand that he makes daily use of his bible, and manifests an anxiety to make that preparation for his death to which he is exhorted by the Judge.” (Daily Alta, Oct. 19, 1852, p. 2, c. 3) As Forni’s execution neared, the Alta reported additional attempts at suicide: “At one time, he endeavored to sever an artery in his leg with a bone saved from his victuals, and at other times he has attempted to butt his brains out against the walls of his cell. Precautions have been taken to render all attempts fruitless. He is heavily ironed to the floor and awaits his sentence with patience and resignation.”

Post-gold rush San Francisco circa 1854: note Pleasant Valley at bottom left, west of Rincon Point, around Harrison and 2nd streets.
Post-gold rush San Francisco circa 1854: note Pleasant Valley at bottom left, west of Rincon Point, around Harrison and 2nd streets.

A week before the execution, the rumor was that the hanging would “probably” take place on Washington Square. (Daily Alta, Dec. 3, 1852, p. 2, c. 4) On Thursday, Dec. 9th however, the Alta reported that on the previous day, workmen had been engaged in building the scaffold in the jail yard, and that the hanging would take place there (the County Jail was on Broadway Street, between Kearny and Grant, where the Beat Museum is today) the following day between 10:00 a.m. and 2 p.m. “The military and police will doubtless be called out to protect the building from the great crowd that are sure to be present to witness the barbarous spectacle. That portion of the building constructed of wood cannot resist much pressure. An effort, we understand, has been made to induce the Executive to exercise his clemency and allow a respite; but the appeal is in vain; the law will have to take its course.” (Daily Alta, Dec. 9, 1852, p. 2, c. 3) Later that afternoon, the venue for the execution was changed once more. It was to take place in the old cemetery atop Russian Hill, at the northwestern edge of town. This did not sit well with some residents however, like one L. P. H. (quite possibly L. P. Hardeland, who worked as an accountant on California Street — see A. W. Morgan & Co.’s City Directory of 1852, p. 30) who thought it not only a horrible location for such, but a “desecration of holy ground.” L. P. H. wrote to the editor of the Alta: “upon its first promulgation, [the announcement of the new location was] viewed with utter incredulity. . . . the erection of the dread paraphernalia of doom, has, however, settled the point. Is the exhibition one of such general public interest that the most conspicuous site in the city has been selected for its performance; or has the general disbelief in the immunity which crime enjoys from the infliction of capital punishment required a proof so obvious to overcome it? Have not our cemeteries been violated enough, where the head-boards are hewn down or carried away for fuel—where, as at North Beach, the graves are rifled of their contents, which lie strewn carelessly around in every direction, but that the oldest burying-ground of Yerba Buena, the spot in which Don Vicente Nunez, one of the discoverers of the bay, lies interred, must be desecrated by being chosen as the only appropriate place for a public execution?” (Daily Alta, Dec. 10, 1852, p. 2, c. 3)

Indeed, Russian Hill was Yerba Buena’s oldest mass cemetery — keep in mind that Mission Dolores was not in Yerba Buena — going back to the 1840s, at least, when a number of Russians were buried near its southeast summit, around where Vallejo and Florence streets meet today. Today it stands as the oldest surviving hill name in San Francisco. Here’s the recollection of a man that wandered over Russian Hill in 1847: “When we reached the summit of ‘Russian Hill,’ where three crosses marked the grave of the buried Russians, who gave the hill its name, the broad and placid bay broke upon our view. . . . In looking down upon Yerba Buena, the most prominent buildings were the old adobe Custom House standing on the plaza . . . [and a] collection of some twenty houses. . . . as far as where Dupont [Grant] street now runs, a thick growth of the brilliantly green-leaved scrub oak grew.” (Daily Alta, March 22, 1857, p. 2, c. 1)

From article on Russian Hill, December 1912, S. F. Call, showing the three crosses mentioned in the 1857 Daily Alta article. [Cropped from original]
From article on Russian Hill, December 1912, S. F. Call, illustrating the three crosses mentioned in the 1857 Daily Alta article. [Cropped from original]
In regard to San Francisco’s “pioneer cemeteries,” the Alta reported that “prior to the discovery of gold in California, in 1848, a Russian man-of-war put into the harbor of San Francisco, and whilst here a number of her men died. The bodies were buried on what has been since that period known as Russian Hill. The graves, some dozen or more, have, we believe, never been disturbed.” (Daily Alta, June 25, 1861, p. 1, c. 1) A plaque placed at the Vallejo Street Balustrade in 2005 states the buried seamen were employees of the Russian-American Company, and that they were interred in the early-1840s, versus say, 1848. In January 1847, the California Star noted the Russian brig Constantine‘s arrival at Yerba Buena Cove. Later that year, in October, the arrival of the Russian bark Naslednich was reported in the Californian. The Naslednich remained in the port of San Francisco for almost two months, sailing Dec. 17th for Alaska. While in port, one of its crew was found dead in a well, last seen a week previously, drunk. If the “early-1840s” date isn’t in fact true, it’s of course possible that on landing at San Francisco, three or more dead from disease were unloaded from the Naslednich and buried up hill, instituting Russian Hill. Perhaps the man from the well was added to the cemetery later, and as others in the town died, Russian or not, they were added as well. But what of this Don Vicente Nuñez^^ (“one of the discoverers of the bay”) mentioned by L. P. H. above? It seems likely that people were already being buried on Russian Hill, but the name stuck when the Russians were buried there with the three crosses, &c. (California Star, Jan. 23, 1847, p. 2, c. 1; Californian, Oct. 20, 1847, p. 3, c. 3; Nov. 10, 1847, p. 3, c. 3; Dec. 22, 1847, p. 3, c. 3)

As for Forni’s hanging atop the hill on Dec. 10, 1852, it is best to simply let the Alta tell the story (likewise, I will be interjecting a number of quotes in parenthesis from the later-in-life recollections of a man that was present at the hanging): “at an early hour in the day, the gallows which had been erected on Russian Hill was surrounded by a large crowd of men, women and children, who remained there for hours for fear of losing sight of the horrible spectacle. (‘When friends or acquaintances met on the morning of . . . the first question asked was, Going to see Joe hang?) A continuous line of human beings were pressing up the hill all the morning, until a crowd numbering three thousand at least had gathered together. About eleven o’clock the gallows was removed from the top of the hill [head of Vallejo] about one hundred yards west [Vallejo and Jones], which hid it from the view of the city. (‘From which point the murderer had an opportunity to see for the last time the wonderful Golden Gate.’) The assemblage was indeed a singular one — there being at least one-fourth of the number composed of youths, women and children. Women elbowed their way as near as possible to have a full view of the gallows, whilst others were on horseback and in carriages, riding around with as much gaiety as if on a pleasure drive. (‘Many who had gone early, in order to secure a good place, took their lunch with them . . . Had it not been for the somber gallows, with the cross beam from which hung the dangling noose, one might have supposed that the people had assembled for a picnic.’)

“But what was most shocking was to see respectable looking parents taking their little sons and daughters into such a heterogeneous crowd, to witness such a terrible spectacle. Despite the slight rain, they stood it out with heroical fortitude and patience worthy of a better occasion. Before the prisoner had arrived, the small boys amused themselves with playing marbles, the bigger ones with dog fights, whilst others whiled away the time by recounting their experience in such matters. Between 12 and 1 o’clock, the Marion Rifles, Capt. Schaeffer, arrived on the spot and cleared the crowd, leaving a large open square, of which the gallows was the centre. Sentinels were posted along the line, and the crowd refused admittance within the lines. (‘I should judge that at that time there were not less than 10,000 people on the hill.’) At 1 P. M. the tap of the muffled drum was heard, and soon the California Guard appeared, having in charge the prisoner (‘who was seated on his coffin in a wagon . . . He appeared to be the most unconcerned man in that procession, for he was smoking a pipe and talking with those who were nearest to him’). A large crowd followed the fatal car, and hung around it from the jail to the scene of execution with the perseverance of African vultures after carrion. The wagon which contained the prisoner was drawn by four black horses, and also contained the officers of the law and one or two others. Arriving at the foot of the gallows, the prisoner got out of the wagon with a firm step, exhibiting not the least fear or trepidation. He mounted the scaffold with a bold step and without any assistance. Some little time was expended in the adjustment of the rope, when the usual form of reading the death warrant by [Sheriff John C. “Jack” Hays] was gone through. The prisoner was then called upon to make any remarks he chose, when he spoke for three or four minutes in an unusually loud, bold and clear voice, which could easily be heard on the neighboring hill. . . .

Execution of Jose Forner - Russian Hill - 1852

“‘My friends!,” spoke Forni, “you have come to see an innocent man die. I die for having killed an assassin. He attempted to rob me; I resisted; he stabbed me, and fled. Maddened and smarting from my wounds, I pursued, overtook and killed him. I am a native of Valencia, in Spain. I have but few friends in San Francisco. I have resided in Cuba, where I have many friends. I was tried by a Judge and Jury who were utter strangers to me. I could produce no witnesses in my favor. What led to my killing my assailant, is known only to God and myself. What I have said is true. After I have done these few words, I shall never speak more. No doubt those that tried me acted justly, according to the testimony. They could not have known the truth. The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly feeling for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco! World, farewell!’

“As soon as [Forner] concluded, his legs were tied together and his arms pinioned. The noose was well adjusted round his neck, the black cap drawn over his face, and at a blow from the hatchet, the drop fell and Josi [sic] Forni paid the last debt of nature. He fell about four feet, with not sufficient force to break his neck, and struggled but little. Two or three convulsive twitchings of the body were all that was perceptible. The drop fell exactly at half-past 1 P. M., and he was allowed to hang until life was fully extinct. . . . The sentence was carried out in an orderly and quiet manner, and with nothing to trouble or interrupt the proceedings. (‘Many of the crowd remained until the body was cut down. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the hill was deserted; the people had returned to their respective places of business and homes and before supper time the great lesson of the day had been forgotten. In the evening the gambling halls were crowded with those who usually patronized them, the places of amusement were filled to their utmost, and no one seemed to think that but a few hours before outraged justice had visited awful punishment on one who had taken the life of a fellow-man.’) The military and the officers of the law deserve credit for the manner in which they did their duty on this solemn occasion. May our criminal records never be stained again with the history of such a dark and bloody transaction.” (Daily Alta, Dec. 16, 1852, p. 1., c. 6; Daily Alta, Dec. 11, 1852, p. 2, c. 2 (S. F. Call, Aug. 25, 1895, p. 22, c. 1-3))

Jose Forner Forni Russian Hill Hanged

While by all early accounts, the story of José Forni and San Francisco’s first legal hanging ended on Dec. 10, 1852, 32 years later, almost a year after Sheriff Jack Hays had died, a letter was received in the Examiner editorial offices by one of the city’s pioneer residents — an anonymous prominent businessman — which told a different story in regard to Sheriff Hays’s handling of Forni, the hanging on Russian Hill, &c. First off, recall the above account of the building of the scaffold in the jail yard. Keep in mind the bit included about efforts being made by folks to obtain respite for Forni from the Executive. “After the most strenuous efforts on the part of the citizens to get [Forni] pardoned,” wrote said pioneer to the Examiner in January 1884, “the Sheriff personally [went] to Sacramento to induce the Governor [John Bigler] to issue his pardon. By arrangement, Forni was hanged, but he attended mass at the Mission Church the following Sunday, and, as far as I know, is alive and well to-day. If you wish particulars, I will give them.”

The following day, a reporter called on the informant to discuss said “particulars,” and this is what the reporter was told: “There was a good deal of sympathy expressed for [Forni] as the day drew near. A good many people thought he was pretty near right in killing a man who had first stabbed him. It appeared, however, that the jury considered he ought to be strung up because he showed venom and malice in stabbing the man so many times. . . . Colonel Jack Hays was Sheriff then . . . and he, with a number of others, tried to get a reprieve. Hays went personally to Governor Bigler and asked for a commutation of sentence, but Bigler would not budge an inch. He said that Forni was convicted and would have to hang. The Colonel was too much of a law-abiding citizen to do anything wrong, so he made up his mind to hang Forni but not to kill him. Of course he could not carry out the plan he had formed alone, so he broached it to some dozen people, and it was agreed that the letter of the law should be carried out, but not the spirit. Forni was to hang, but not to die. The gallows was erected first on the brow of Russian Hill, in full sight of the city, but afterward, for some reason, it was removed about 100 yards to the westward, down the slope. Early in the afternoon of Friday, December 10, 1852, Forni was brought to the scaffold, the trap was sprung, and for fourteen minutes he hung by the neck in the sight of nearly all the people in the city. He was then cut down and taken away in a coffin, but he still lived, and this was how the work was done.

Col. John C. Hays
Col. John Coffee Hays, who according to an informant to the Examiner in 1884, orchestrated the bogus hanging of Jose Forni atop Russian Hill in 1852.

“The carpenters who erected the gallows had fixed a scantling underneath, so that when the trap-door fell, instead of flying away back, it would strike the log, giving quite an incline. The hinges were also arranged so that the weight of the man after the bolt was drawn would not force it violently, but allow for a gradually rapid decline. The noose was also arranged, being soaped and the strands loosened, to allow a gentle pressure about the neck. The object was to prevent death from a fracture of the spinal cord. Instead of placing Forni at the front or center of the trap-door, he was stood as far back as possible; so that when the trap fell he slid down the board, and thus his neck was saved from being broken. The drop, or slide I might call it, was only four feet. The physician, after he had hung fourteen minutes, pronounced life extinct. The body was placed in a coffin with breathing holes, put in a wagon and driven rapidly to the old Mission Church. One of the priests was ready with a galvanic battery and other appliances for restoring life, and after a couple of hours of hard work Jose Forni was able to walk about. He was then given to understand that he must leave the country, and he faithfully promised to do so. A safe place was found for him in a countryman’s home, but what was the astonishment of the Holy Father to see the man he had brought to life walk into church on the next Sunday morning and attend mass! . . . it is true . . . I saw the man there myself and there is no one living who is more fully informed of the whole circumstance I have been telling you than I am. . . . On the night before the execution a young fellow was hanged twice to try the apparatus, and a brave fellow he was . . . it was found to work all right. . . . A few of the other participants in the affair are still alive and are among our prominent business men. I will not give you their names, because I do not think they would desire to be known in the matter, although in my opinion they did what was right.”

Following a number of questions by the reporter, the informant concluded: “Well, I see you do not quite believe my tale. You have been looking up the records. Don’t it strike you that there was good reason for keeping the curious ones as far away as possible. If they had been allowed to gather around the gallows the scheme might not have worked. The drop, you have probably learned, was only four feet, and in fact it was a little less than that. Did you ever hear of an execution where the drop was as small as that by two feet? What I have told you is true, and it cannot bear contradiction. Truth is stranger than fiction.” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, Feb. 9, 1884, p. 1, c. 5-7)

———————————————————————————————

* While in 1849 the heart of San Francisco was Portsmouth Square, the undeveloped fringes of the gold-rush city saw various colonies within temporary structures (tents, ramshackle lean-to’s, &c.), mainly situated in the low grounds between hills and dunes. One such area was on the southern edge of town, west of Rincon Hill, known as Pleasant Valley into the mid-1850s, which was located in today’s South of Market District, around Tehama and 2nd streets. (Daily Alta, Dec. 9, 1854, p. 2, c. 6) By 1850, prefab homes shipped from Boston were being put up there and sold: “20×20, 1 story high, containing 4 rooms . . . double floors, green blinds, single roofs, &c. . . . Two of them have been erected in Pleasant Valley, and can be seen at any time on application.” (Daily Alta, Oct. 31, 1850, p. 3, c. 3) This was also back when Mission Bay still existed, and the valley ran into the beach at the north side of Mission Bay: “Mechanics and Laborers Wanted . . . Apply on the beach, at the Iron Boat, in Pleasant Valley.” (Daily Alta, May. 9, 1851, p. 3, c. 1) Pleasant Valley was also home to the Folsom Street Coffee Mills, a dairy farm run by Jeremiah Fowler, and was also the location of Joseph L. Folsom’s home: “The house has a parlor, dining room, pantry, kitchen, store rooms with closets, five bed rooms for the family and three for servants, a bath room, with a furnace for heating water; a fine well of water in the kitchen, &c. There is also a carriage house and stables, with piggery, cow and foul houses. Also, a fine flower and vegetable garden, with a large number of fruit trees and grape vines.” (Daily Alta, May 11, 1851, p. 2, c. 7; June 18, 1851, p. 3, c. 5; Sept. 7, 1851, p. 2, c. 6)

^ “The former case was that of Richard Hall, charged with poisoning the Indian, Frank Brewer. He was granted a new trial, and certain disclosures that were subsequently made, tending to prove his innocence, a nolle prosequi was entered in his case. A previous conviction took place in the Fall of 1849, before Alcalde Geary, and the prisoner, a Frenchman, was sentenced to be hung. An appeal was taken, however, and about a year afterward, the Supreme Court set aside the whole proceedings as irregular.” (Daily Alta, Oct. 16, 1852, p. 7, c. 4)

^^ While I haven’t yet located any direct information on Don Vicente Nuñez, my assumption is that perhaps he was part of Portola’s expedition as a young man, then among those that eventually settled at the Presidio, perhaps in old age, moved to and died in Yerba Buena.

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