An Old Roman of Mariposa
by Florence Finch Kelly
"I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul."
--WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY.
Mariposa, in the days when I first knew it, was still a wreck of the
gold fever. The merest skeleton of its former self, it lay there in
the gulch between the chaparral-covered foothills and hugged its
memories of the days when it was young and lusty and had a murder every
morning for breakfast. All around it the gashed and seamed and scarred
and furrowed earth bore testimony to the labors of those stirring
times, when men dug a fortune out of the ground in a day—and spent it
in the town at night.
It was my first visit to the town, but I soon found that the people
still lived in the past. The first man with whom I talked made vivid
for my eyes the placer mines down the bed of the creek, in his young
days as thronged as a city street, but now deserted and blistering in
the sun; made me hear the sounds of bar-room frolicking and fighting,
and the rolling chorus of "Forty-nine"; made me see, as he had seen,
the piles of gold-dust and nuggets upon the gaming tables, and the
hundreds of gold-weighted miners trooping into town on Saturday night.
And every man and woman with whom I talked did the same thing for me,
with new incidents and characters, until the hours became a fast-moving
panorama of the "days of gold," and I began to feel as if I myself were
living through their excitements and had drawn their delirium into my
My hostess, herself an old-timer, began the entertainment anew as we
sat on her porch in the early forenoon of the next day, breathing deep
draughts of the honey-scented air blowing down the hills from thousands
of pink-flowered manzanita bushes. She told me how she and her sister
had alighted from the stage in Mariposa one evening, so many years
before, when they were both "just slips of girls." They were the very
first white women there, and the men, hundreds of them, who had not
seen the form of woman, save Indian squaws, for many months, came to
their shanty, called their father outside and begged to be allowed just
to look at them. So the two came shyly out, hand in hand, and the men
crowded around them with looks of respectful adoration, and then passed
on to make way for others. One fell on his knees and kissed the hem of
her dress. And presently a voice rose out of the throng, and the whole
great crowd quickly joined in the hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee."
As we talked, one or another old-timer stopped to greet us and to add
for my entertainment still more recollections of the days when they and
hope and Mariposa were young. My pulses beat fast with the excitement
of that dead life which their stories called into being again and I
forgot that they and the century too had grown old since the times of
which they spoke—until the Newspaper Man came along, and the sight of
him brought me back to the present with a sudden jerk. I had seen him
last in San Francisco, only a week previous, but he had been in
out-of-the-way, ghost-of-the-past Mariposa, he told me, for several
days, reporting a murder trial for his paper.
"Better come to this afternoon's session of the case," he said. "The
prisoner is n't much, but his father 's the most interesting old chap I
've run across since I 've been on the Coast. I 'll tell you about him
as we walk over."
So we sauntered up the hot, dusty street to the court-house, between
the rows of straggling, forlorn little houses, each one with its own
thrilling memory of the "days of Forty-nine"; and the Newspaper Man's
tale, like everything else in Mariposa, took its being and its
beginning from that same boisterous time.
"It's a brutal, ghastly case," he said, "and to my mind the only
mystery about it is the prisoner's father. He is a fine-looking man,
with the manner and the head of an old Roman. He has the reputation of
being the straightest and squarest man in the county; and how he ever
came to be the father of such a good-for-nothing scum-of-the-earth as
the prisoner I can explain only on the supposition that he is n't.
"The old man is one of the pioneers in Mariposa, and they tell me that
he was one of the nerviest men that ever drew a gun in this town. He
killed his man in those days, just as lots of other good men did, but
it was in self-defence; and everybody was glad that the town was rid of
the man he dropped, and so nothing was said about it. There was a
coroner's jury, which gave a verdict of suicide, and explained their
finding on the ground that it was suicidal for any man to draw on Dan
Hopkins and then give Dan the chance to shoot first.
"Along in the latter years of the gold excitement a woman came to the
town, who seems to have been part Portuguese, part Mexican, and all
bad. She followed some man here from San Francisco, and lived as hard
a life as the times and place made possible. And after a while she
went to Dan Hopkins and told him that he must marry her. At first he
would n't consider seriously either her story or her proposition. But
she kept at him, swore by all the saints in the calendar that the child
was his, and then swore them all over again that if he did not marry
her she would kill the child and herself too as soon as it was born,
and their blood would be on his head. And finally he did marry her,
and made a home for her.
"Time and again during this trial I 've watched that man's fine, stern
old face and wondered what his motives and his feelings were when he
took that poor beast of a woman to be his wife—whether he really
believed her and thought it was his duty; or whether he feared that if
he did not, the blood of a woman and a child would haunt him all the
rest of his life; or whether the underside of his nature, under her
influence, rose up and dominated all that was best in him and made him
love her and be willing to marry her.
"Whatever it was, the deed was done, and the woman of the town became
Mrs. Hopkins, with Dan Hopkins's gun at her service, ready to take
revenge upon anybody who might offer her the least insult or whisper a
slighting word about the past.
"He did not try to crowd her down people's throats—they might let her
alone if they wished, and they mostly did, I believe—but they were
made to understand that they had to treat her and speak of her with
"He bought a big ranch a little way out of town, and there they lived
from that time on. As far as I can find out, the woman lived a
straight, respectable kind of life for a dozen years or more, and then
"But all her badness seems to have descended to the boy. It's one of
the oddest studies in heredity I ever came across. The people here all
tell me that until he was thirteen or fourteen years old he was a manly
sort of a lad, and gave promise of being something like his father as
he grew up. But about that time the evil in him began to show itself,
and the older he grew the less moral principle he seemed to possess.
He was courageous, they say, and that was the only good quality he had.
It was a sort of dare-devil bravery, and along with it he was cruel,
thieving, untruthful, and—well, about as near thoroughly bad as they
make 'em. At least, that's the sum of the account of him the people
here have given me.
"The old man was universally known to be so honest and square in all
his dealings, and so upright and honorable in every way, that the son's
depravity seemed all the blacker by contrast. He has stood by the
young fellow from the first of his wickedness, so everybody says, and
has always shown toward him not only steadfast affection, but just the
same sort of spirit that he did toward the boy's mother.
"He has never intimated even to his best friend that the young man was
anything but the best and most dutiful son that ever lived. He has
kept him supplied with money, so that the fellow's only reason for the
petty thievery he did was pure love of stealing. He has paid his fines
when he has been arrested, and shielded him from public contempt, and
done everything possible to make it easy for him to be honest and
"But the boy has steadily gone on, they say, from bad to worse; and now
he has capped it all with this crime, which, in wilful and unprovoked
brutality, was worthy of a criminal hardened by twice his years and
"He and another young blade about as bad as he is (though this one
seems to have been the one who planned it and led in its execution),
went to the house of an old man, who lived alone a little farther up in
the foothills toward the Yosemite Valley, and asked to be allowed to
stay all night. The old man took them in, got supper for them, and
made them as comfortable as he could. In the night they got up and
murdered him, stole all his money—he had just sold some horses and
cattle to the prisoner's father—and were preparing to skip the country
and go to Australia, when they were arrested.
"The thing 's not been absolutely proved on young Hopkins yet, but the
circumstantial evidence is so plain that, even if there is nothing
else, I don't see how he 's going to escape the rope. I 've just heard
a rumor, though, that there 's to be some new evidence this afternoon
that will settle the matter without a doubt."
The room rapidly filled up, and as we waited for court to open, the
Newspaper Man pointed out one and another hale old man whose clear eyes
and fresh skin belied his years, and told tales of his daring forty
years before, of the wealth he had dug from the earth, and of the
reckless ways in which he had lost it. And at last came the prisoner
and his father. The old man's figure was tall, erect, broad-chested,
and muscular, and his bearing proud and reserved.
"I 'm always half expecting to see that old man get up," the Newspaper
Man whispered to me, "fold his arms across that great chest of his, and
say 'Romanus sum,' and then proudly lead his son away."
He must have been sixty-five years old or more, though he looked twenty
years younger. His dark hair and beard were only sifted with gray, and
he held himself so erect and with such dignity, and all the lines of
his countenance expressed such force and nobleness of character, that
the suggestion of his appearance was of the strength of middle age.
But the boy was a painful contrast. His eye was shifty, his expression
weak and sensual, and the hard lines of his face and the indifference
of his manner told the story of a man old in criminal thoughts if not
in years and deeds. For he looked no more than twenty-five, and may
have been even younger.
The father sat near him, and although they seldom spoke together he
frequently by some small act or apparently unconscious movement showed
a tenderness and affection for the wayward son that seemed all the
greater by contrast with his own proud reserve and the boy's hardened
The new testimony was brought in. The sheriff had set a go-between at
work with the two prisoners, and with his aid had secured copies of all
the notes they had at once begun writing to each other. In these
letters, which were all produced in court, they had freely discussed
their crime and argued about the points wherein they had made mistakes.
Young Hopkins had boasted to the other that they need not fear
conviction, because his father would certainly get them clear; and they
had planned what they would do after the trial was over, wallowing in
anticipations of a course of crime and debauchery.
When the sheriff began to give this testimony the old man's hand was
resting affectionately on his son's shoulder. As it went on, laying
bare the depravity of the boy's soul, the muscles of his face quivered
a little, and presently, with just the suggestion of a flinching
shudder in face and figure, he took his hand away and shrank back a
little from the young man. I wondered as I watched him whether he was
admitting to himself for the first time that this was the evil child of
an evil woman, for whom there was no hope, or whether it was a
revelation to him of a depth of depravity in his son's heart of which
he had not guessed.
Then the prosecution asked for a few minutes' recess, announcing that
it had a new witness to bring forward. After much hurrying to and fro,
and whispering and consulting among lawyers and court and prison
officials, young Hopkins's accomplice appeared on the witness-stand and
turned State's evidence. He had learned of the intercepted letters,
and, frightened by their probable result for himself, told the whole
story of the crime, from the time Hopkins had first broached it to him
until they were arrested in San Francisco. And during the entire
narration of the cold-blooded, brutal, and cowardly deed, old Dan
Hopkins sat with his eyes on the witness, as steady and unflinching in
color and nerve and muscle as if he had been listening to a lecture or
I think he had decided, even then, what he would do, no matter what the
finding of the jury might be.
At last it was all over; the jury listened to the judge's charge, and
filed out. "It's hanging, sure," said the Newspaper Man. "After that
evidence and that charge there's only one verdict they can bring in.
It's a good thing as far as the boy's concerned, but I do feel sorry
for his governor."
Every one felt so sure that the jury would soon return that none left
their places, and a buzz of conversation soon filled the room. Old Dan
Hopkins sat with his arms folded, his head erect, and his eyes, steady
and clear, upon the empty witness chair. There were many sympathizing
glances sent toward him, though no one approached or spoke to him; for
it was evident from his compressed lips and frowning brow that he
preferred to be left alone. He had moved a little away from his son,
and sat scarcely ten feet distant on my left. When the jury returned,
in less than half an hour, he bent upon them the same abstracted gaze
and unmoved countenance.
The foreman stood up and glanced sadly toward the man who had been his
friend and neighbor for many years. There were tears in his eyes, and
his voice broke and trembled as he gave their verdict, "Guilty of
murder in the first degree."
Not a sound broke the death-like stillness of the room as he sat down,
and I noticed that every face within my view was turned away from the
prisoner's chair and the old man who sat near it. The tense strain of
the moment was broken by the prisoner's counsel, who arose and began a
motion for a new trial.
But the click of a revolver sharply halted his first sentence, as Dan
Hopkins jumped to his feet with a sudden, swift movement of his right
arm. A dozen men leaped forward with outstretched arms crying, "Stop!
But even before they could reach him the report rang through the room,
and just as they seized the father's arms the son dropped to the floor,
dead. He waved back the men who were pressing around him.
"Stop!" he cried. "Stand back a minute!" And they fell back
He walked calmly to the judge's desk and laid down his smoking pistol.
Then he folded his arms and faced about, with head thrown back,
flashing eyes, and colorless face. He looked at the sheriff, who, with
the sense of official duty strong upon him, had stepped out from the
huddled crowd and was coming toward him.
"Wait one minute, let me speak," he said. "I believe you are all my
friends, for I have lived most of my life here, among you, and I hope I
have the respect and confidence and friendship of you all. But that,"
and his flashing eyes rested for a moment upon the sheriff, the
lawyers, and then upon the judge, "must have no influence upon the
penalty I shall pay for what I have just done. The knowledge has been
bitter enough to me this afternoon that that poor boy there deserved
death. For the first time I have been convinced that he was bad from
the bottom of his heart, and that there was no hope for him. But with
my own hand I have killed him, that he might be saved the last horror
and disgrace. Let them, and the law's justice, be my portion, for I
deserve them for having given him life in the first place. Mine was
the first sin, and it is right that I should suffer the disgrace and
He turned to the sheriff, holding out his arms for the handcuffs.
"Now, I am ready. Arrest me."