PLACERVILLE, Calif. — No investigations. No trials. A hangman just cinches a scratchy rope around the unfortunate's neck--guilty or not--to the jeers of a drunken crowd.
Vigilantes of the 1849 Gold Rush lynched so many people in this Sierra Nevada town, 110 miles east of San Francisco, that it's still informally called Hangtown.
Tourists gawk at a lifelike dummy hanging by a noose along Main Street. Nooses and "Hangtown" are on everything from signs to the Placerville city seal.
But some residents have been murmuring their discomfort over the celebration of the violent legacy of this town of 9,000, which is attracting ever more politically correct refugees from big-city life.
Last year, critics again called--unsuccessfully--for removal of the hanging dummy.
The murmurs rose to a ruckus last month when the police chief of 19 years proposed putting a noose in place of the second "o" in "Old Hangtown" on the doors of new patrol cars.
"I never had any remote idea it would get to this point," says Police Chief Steve Brown.
Critics said it could be seen as a cruel symbol for vigilante justice. They brought up the mass murder of Jews during World War II and lynching of blacks in the South, Brown says.
Councilwoman Marian Washburn says the noose "projected a lawless image."
Over the objections of Washburn and another council member, the board backed the chief. But new council members chosen in an election will shift the board's makeup against Brown once they take office, and the chief has dropped his proposal.
"A vocal minority didn't see the historical significance of the noose. And it's not a battle I choose to fight at this time," Brown says.
But then Brown found himself in trouble with noose supporters.
"I cannot believe that something this tongue-in-cheek that brings tourists to our town is such a problem with some narrow-minded people," Doug Noble wrote the local newspaper. "Every year, someone decides that the noose, hangman or something else in town is 'politically incorrect.' "
Noose supporters cite Salem, Mass., as an example of a town capitalizing on its history of hanging witches with museums and tours.
About a year ago, noose supporters turned back critics' efforts to remove the dummy dangling along Main Street in worn-out boots, jeans, suspenders and red plaid shirt.
The dummy hangs from the second story of the 147-year-old Hangman's Tree saloon, built over the stump of the original hanging tree.
Inside, where a hangman's ghost supposedly lingers, a noose dangles from a fake tree. Songs on an old jukebox include "The Hanging Tree," in which Marty Robbins warbles, "They carried me to the hanging tree."
"We've got too many people trying to come up here and change history," says bartender Robin Elliott. "This town was built on the Gold Rush and vigilantes. It's big-city people who have never lived in a small town, and they want to change it."