A Terrible Case of Mistaken Identity - 1851


Seal of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee

by Michael Thomas Barry

On the late evening of February 19, 1851, two men entered the Jansen & Bond Company, on Montgomery Street in San Francisco, knocked manager J.C. Jansen unconscious, and fled with over two thousand dollars in gold coin.

The history of the Barbary Coast begins with the California Gold Rush of 1849. If gold had not been discovered in the sands of the Sacramento River Valley, San Francisco’s criminal underworld would have in all likelihood developed according to traditional patterns like other large American metropolises. Owning almost entirely to the influx of gold seekers and hordes of gamblers, thieves, harlots, and other felonious parasites, there arose a unique criminal district that for almost seventy years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and depravity in all of the North American continent.

The nucleus of which the Barbary Coast developed was the colony of harlots and thieves that clustered around the waterfront at Broadway and Pacific Streets and on the slopes of Telegraph Hill. Here gathered all types of ruffians, escaped convicts, and ticket-of leave men from British penal colonies in Sydney, Australia. This wave of undesirable immigration, which to all intents and purposes was 100 percent criminal, began to wash ashore in California about the middle of 1849. So numerous, these men thoroughly dominated the underworld of San Francisco, and the area became known as Sydney Town. The villains that inhabited Sydney Town were commonly known as the “Sydney Ducks.”

Perhaps one of the most infamous of these so called “Sydney Ducks” was a chap by the name of James Stewart, better known as “English Jim.” Stewart had been deported from England at the age of sixteen, following his conviction of forgery and served almost twelve years at the British penal colony at Sydney. He received his “ticket-of-leave” sometime during the late 1840’s and made his way to New York. There he met and associated with numerous shady characters and embarked on a life of crime. Eventually, like so many of his kind, he found himself in San Francisco. There he embarked on an extraordinary career of crime, not only in the city but in the gold fields. It is during this time that he is said to have committed or assisted in more murders and burglaries than any other man in California at the time. In December of 1850, Jim was arrested in Sacramento for killing Sheriff Moore of Marysville and stealing four thousand dollars from the Sheriff’s home, but was able to escape after a few days of incarceration.  It is at this point English Jim’s story grows to become one the most celebrated cases of mistaken identity in the annals of American crime.

On February 20, 1851 San Francisco police arrested Thomas Berdue, believing him to be James Stewart and transported him back to Marysville to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Moore. Berdue had mistakenly been identified by nearly half a dozen men as being English Jim, men who supposedly knew Stewart well. He was also identified by J.C. Jansen as one of the two men who had assaulted him the night before. Berdue vehemently protested his innocence, and attempted to no avail, to prove that he was not Stewart. These protestations were in vain and against overwhelming circumstantial evidence, which included striking physical similarity between him and the infamous Sydney Duck. English Jim was known to have a small scar above his left eye and ear, and his left forefinger had been amputated at the first joint, ironically, and most unfortunate for Berdue, he also suffered the exact same injuries. Berdue was quickly tried and convicted of assaulting and robbing Jansen and was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment. Soon after he was transferred to Marysville to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Moore, and was misidentified for a second time as being the infamous “English Jim.” This time the jury brought back a much more grim verdict of guilty and sentenced him to death. Fortunately for him the execution was postponed for several months.

Early in July 1851, the real James Stewart, for whose crimes Thomas Berdue awaited execution in Maryville, returned to San Francisco from the interior, and made a bold and unsuccessful attempt to rob a ship anchored in the harbor. The ship’s crew was able to capture and subdue Stewart, and on the morning of July 11, 1851, the trial of the real “English Jim” began. It was necessary to present very little evidence, for Stewart at once confessed to a long list of crimes, including murdering Sheriff Moore and assaulting storekeeper Jensen, thus by giving this confession, he exonerated Berdue. After his confession was read in court, it was unanimously agreed upon that Stewart was to be executed immediately. Less than two hours after being sentenced to death, the real “English Jim,” heavily manacled was led under heavy guard from the court house jail. He appeared to be nonchalant to his fate, and when asked if he wished to make a final statement, replied “This is a damned tiresome business. Get it over with.” A scaffold had been hastily erected at the Market Street wharf and at the sight of the gallows “English Jim” finally lost his nerve, collapsing into the arms of his guards. He was dragged the hundred or so feet to the scaffold, a rope was looped around his neck, and a score of men jerked him to the top. His lifeless body swung on the gallows for several minutes before being cut down. Thus the career of the most infamous Sydney Duck was at an end.

The real “English Jim” was scarcely dead, when members of the Vigilance Committee had taken steps, as far as possible, to right the injustice which had been done to Thomas Burdue. They briskly rode to Marysville, to inform the authorities that the real James Stewart had been hanged, and procured Burdue’s release. Thomas Berdue was at last a free man; the committee gave him a sum of two thousand dollars to ease the pain he had suffered. Several days later Berdue was seen boarding a small boat in the harbor and was never seen again. This ended one of the strangest and most celebrated cases of mistaken identity in the annals of American crime.


Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link:

Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Mayhem-Shocked-California-1849- 1949/dp/0764339680/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352214939&sr=8-1&keywords=michael+thomas+bar