We stumbled across the grave of Robert Marshall Briggs the other day in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Jackson. It was a familiar name from Alpine’s early days. And that led to a story about a bandit, a hanging, how Mono County got its beautiful courthouse — and Alpine County’s very first D.A..
Robert M. Briggs was born in Morganfield, Kentucky in 1816, and trained as a lawyer. By the time he was in his twenties Robert had moved to Hannibal, Missouri, and son Nash C. Briggs was born there in 1838. About 1848, Briggs and his family moved to Wisconsin and four years later they came west — settling first at Olita, and then in Jackson, California.
In Jackson, Robert Briggs built a large Greek Revival-style house beside the creek in 1856 and opened a law practice, which his son Nash would join in 1859.
Robert Briggs was short in stature. But despite what one writer called his “petite form,” he was always eager to give a speech. In one particularly funny tale, Robert was asked to speak to a gathering at a union meeting in San Francisco in 1861. Other speakers droned on and on and, deciding that the moderators had overlooked him, Robert retired to a nearby bar to “drown his disappointment.” Much later in the evening he was tapped on the shoulder and told “they’re calling for you.” Despite being too tipsy to deliver his oration safely from a balcony, Briggs rallied to the occasion and delivering a rousing speech — none of which he was able to remember the following day, except for the enthusiastic applause.
By 1864, R.M. Briggs had become the district attorney for Amador County, a lucrative post that allowed him to hire his son, Nash, as his deputy D.A. But in 1865, Robert Briggs was sued by competitor John A. Eagan over the title of District Attorney, and went on to other pursuits. That year he acquired the printing press of the former Amador Dispatch and began publishing a newspaper he called the Union Advocate, conveniently headquartered next door to the Constitution Saloon in Jackson.
Perhaps looking for greener pastures, R.M. Briggs followed the throngs of eager miners in 1878 to the new boomtown of Bodie, opening a law practice and serving as registrar of the U.S. Land Office. The following year he ran for judge of the Superior Court in Mono County as a member of the “Know Nothing” party, and was elected.
Once on the bench, Briggs had a few choice words for the Mono County Supervisors about Mono County’s original ramshackle wooden court building, calling it a “disgrace to the county.”
It seems the supervisors listened; a beautiful new Mono County courthouse was erected in 1880. R.M. Briggs continued to serve as a judge at Bridgeport until his death in December, 1886, although his family remained on the western side of the mountains. His body was returned to Jackson for burial at the St. Patrick Catholic Cemetery in Jackson.
Robert’s son, Nash, grew up working in his father’s law practice and when Alpine County was formed, ran for District Attorney at the county’s inaugural election in 1864. Just 26 years old at the time, Nash won the post with 980 votes compared to 623 for his competitor, a lawyer named Armstrong. Nash moved up to the remote new mining community of Silver Mountain City, Alpine’s early county seat, and two years later, married the former Annie Barton.
Young Briggs’ first term of office wasn’t without waves, however. In 1867, the local Chronicle newspaper questioned the “economy” of paying the brand new D.A. $445 “to go to San Francisco and live at the Occidental Hotel on the fat of the land, when he is paid $125 per month to live in Silver Mountain and partake of the same fare as the overburdened taxpayer.” Despite this brush with controversy, N.C. Briggs was re-elected to his post on the Union ticket in 1867.
In 1869, Nash and his wife Annie moved to a part of Monterey County (which became San Benito County in 1874), where he helped form the town of Hollister and served another two terms as the San Benito District Attorney.
In perhaps his most notable criminal case, Nash Briggs delivered the opening statement for the prosecution at the 1875 San Jose murder trial of notorious outlaw and ladies’ man Tiburcio Vasquez.
Vasquez had robbed Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos, San Benito County and during the robbery three people had been killed. Although Vasquez himself may not have pulled the trigger, Nash Briggs argued heartily for the death penalty. After deliberating just two hours, the jury agreed. Vasquez was hanged on March 19, 1875 — to the “entire satisfaction” of a reporter from the Los Angeles Weekly Star, and the great disappointment of the dashing Vasquez’s numerous female admirers.
As for N.C. Briggs, he acquired a large and lovely home in Hollister, California and lived out his days there, passing away at the age of 75 in September, 1913.
N.C. Briggs and his wife Annie are both buried at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Hollister.
But a mystery remains: prominent though he was, we have been unable to locate any photo of Briggs himself!