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Monday, February 19, 2018


The Hornitos jail, or Calabozo, on High Road in the town of Hornitos, California, was probably built in 1851. It was constructed of heavy stone blocks quarried and transported from nearby hills by Chinese labor. The three-foot-thick walls rest on solid bedrock. A huge iron ring is embedded in center of floor and other iron rings are affixed to the walls for shackling prisoners. 

Chinese coolies were employed to quarry native granite in the nearby hills, cart the blocks to High Street and begin construction of the town jail. Erected flush against a guardhouse, the stone jail was built solidly, the walls measure fourteen by fourteen feet square and are over two feet thick, as visible around the massive iron door which was imported from England. The two tiny windows, each one foot square, were located on opposite walls to allow a nice cross breeze. 

In order to better secure the prisoners, a huge iron ring was embedded in the center of the floor to which they could be chained “low down.” And for those more dangerous felons, iron rings were located in each corner for securing the leg irons of the shackled miscreants. The jail may seem small, but it was only used to hold prisoners, generally overnight, until the local Justice of the Peace heard the case. If the prisoner was to be held for trial, he would then be transferred to the jail in Mariposa.

The only recorded escape from the Hornitos Jail took place during the early 1860’s. A member of a local gang of horse thieves was caught, thrown into the jail and attached to the iron ring in the center of the floor. That night, the outlaw’s compadres overpowered the two guards and concealed themselves in the old guardhouse. Working through the night, with the aid of crowbars, picks, hammers, rope, and a horse, they succeeded in removing one of the granite blocks of the jail. Crawling through the hole, one of the gang chiseled the prisoner loose and they rode off into the night, to return to their sordid life of crime.

Nothing in my research mentions the window that appears to have been filled in by matching rock blocks. However, in this 1922 photo, there is no evidence of there having originally been a window in front. 

The other story of note about the old stone jail reveals the rampant racism that persisted at that time. During the 1860’s, Hornitos was home to a large Chinese population, many of whom were engaged in reworking the abandoned claims in the area. One such miner was known as China John. While working on his claim each morning, a group of young boys gathered about him to harass him and throw rocks at him day after day. Finally, China John had reached the end of his patience. He drew a battered pistol from his pocket and fired into the side of a hill to frighten the boys away.

Unfortunately, the shot struck a stone in the hill, ricocheted and hit one of the boys in the leg. The boys scattered, screaming, and China John was glued to the spot, horrified by what he had done. Nearby miners raced to the scene, grabbed China John and dragged him back towards the plaza. Even though the graze was little more than a scratch, an angry mob, infuriated by the news that a Chinaman had shot a white boy, quickly gathered and men began looking for a rope.

About the time the men were about to hang China John, several town officials appeared and were able to quiet them down. They were assured there would be a trail the following day, followed by a hanging. The mob broke up and the prisoner was taken to the stone jail. He was not considered dangerous, so China John was not shackled to the floor.

Late that night, a group of men stealthily approached the jail. Drawing their guns, several men entered the guardhouse, surprising and tying up the guard; but the keys were nowhere to be found. Even though there was no way into the jail, they were determined to hang China John.

The next morning China John was found lying on the floor in a pool of blood, beneath the small, barred window, the hangman’s noose knotted around his neck. Somehow the men had lured him to the window where they grabbed him and the noose was slipped over his head and pulled tight against his throat. Then with repeated jerks and pulls on the rope, China John’s brains were bashed out against the rock wall. Even for Hornitos, this was a brutal murder which shocked the citizens upon its discovery. Those responsible were never brought to justice. The evidence of this vicious crime remained visible for many years in the form of bloodstains on the wall of the jail until in 1902 a coating of lime was applied to the inside walls covering the stains from view.

The plaque over the door of the jail reads:

To remember the Hornitos Calabozo's welcome to the 1854 brethren "Credo Quia Absurdum"

Dedicated by the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus
May 8, 1954

Oredo Quia Absurdum translates to “Since believes it is absurd.”

In 1961, a Historic American Buildings Survey reported the jail was being used as a museum with Frank Salazar, grandson of the one of the earliest Hornitos settlers as curator. Today, it empty and locked up. Only a sign shares its history with curious tourists.


Anyone who has not yet read my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series yet which takes place just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Hornitos, now would be a good time to start. You may find the first book in the series, Big Meadow Valentine, by CLICKING HERE.


  1. What a history. For years the old jails have been reminders of that 'wild' time. So sad that it's history may be lost. Doris

  2. What a terrible thing to have killed the Chinaman so brutally when he accidently injured a little bully.
    That jail does look mighty tiny. I can't imagine how more than one prisoner being in it at one time.
    How on Earth do you find these little jewels, Zina? Interesting information.

  3. Vigilantic justice. Mob mentality. It has many names and faces and, and they’re all scary.